By Gethin Coolbaugh, Boston Sports Today
BOSTON - As any Celtics' fan will tell you, Rick Pitino's brief stint as the coach and president of the best hoops team on the planet wasn't very successful. He usurped Red Auerbach and drove his team into the ground, failing to post a .500 record -- or a playoff appearance -- in four miserable seasons.
For all of the bad -- and there was plenty of it -- Pitino did have a few positive marks on his permanent record, such as the decision to draft a certain 6-foot-6 forward out of Kansas in 1998. Strangely enough, though, one of Pitino's best decisions quickly morphed into one of his greatest failures.
Pitino struck gold the day he drafted a young guard from the University of Colorado named Chauncey Billups, but he didn't even know it, because he inexplicably traded away the future five-time All-Star and MVP of the 2004 NBA Finals just 238 days later after playing 51 games with the Boston Celtics.
Fifteen years later, it's "one hundred" percent fair to say that Pitino and the Celtics made a mistake.
"One hundred percent. One hundred percent," said Billups, now a member of the Pistons, after a six-point game in a 107-106 win over his old team Wednesday. "You just look at it. You know what I'm saying? And I'm not one to talk about myself, obviously, but they definitely pulled the trigger too early."
Billups barely had any time to get his feet wet in Boston before Pitino pulled the plug, sending him to the Toronto Raptors along with former team captain Dee Brown, Roy Rogers and John Thomas in exchange for Kenny Anderson, Popeye Jones and Zan Tabak in the middle of February in 1998.
Making the decision even more perplexing was the fact that Billups wasn't playing poorly for the Celtics. At the time of the trade, the 21-year-old guard was averaging 11.1 points, 4.3 assists and 1.5 steals. While his stay in Boston was very limited, but Billups still has fond memories of it.
"I enjoyed it, man. I really did," Billups said. "I really enjoyed my time here. The fans were great, unbelievable fan base. I really wish that I would have had the opportunity to show the fan base and the people in Boston what I was really capable of, but I just didn't get the opportunity."
Not everyone was as blind as Pitino when it came to assessing Billups' ability, though. In fact, one of Billups' teammates at the time -- longtime fan favorite and current assistant coach under first-year bench boss Brad Stevens, Walter McCarty -- knew there was something special about the kid.
"Chauncey was a gym rat," said McCarty. "Very talented, very upbeat. You know, he's a good guy. I think, you know, he was a typical young point guard coming into the league. Just really fast and kind of just a little too fast for the game. You need a veteran to come in and run a team and not take so many chances. ... He had talent. You just knew two or three years in he was going to be very good."
And he was. As expected, it took some time for Billups to develop, but he finally reached his full potential when he landed in Detroit. Billups saw an instant spike in scoring, jumping from 12.5 points per game in his final year with the Minnesota Timberwolves to 16.2 in his first year with the Pistons.
Billups reached the pinnacle of his career in the mid-2000's, guiding the Pistons to back-to-back appearances in the NBA Finals. In their title-winning campaign in 2003-04, Billups averaged 16.9 points and 5.7 assists in the regular season and averaged 16.4 and 5.9 in the playoffs, respectively.
Now in his 17th season, Billups has orchastrated a resume worth of Hall of Fame consideration. He's scored 15,780 points (15.3 PPG) and collected 5,625 assists (5.4 APG) and 1,048 steals (1.0 SPG) in 1,034 career games, and his knock-down clutch shooting earned him the moniker "Mr. Big Shot."
The way things turned out, it's only natural for Celtics fans to think about what could have been if Billups wasn't shipped out of town. Talent is a major factor for success on the court, but it's the environment that can ultimately determine if a player has a good career or one worthy of Springfield.
"You never know that with any player," said McCarty. "I think he goes to the right team in the right system, have the right kind of teammates, then anything can happen."
For that reason, McCarty doesn't believe that it was a mistake for the Celtics to trade away Billups. It's easy to pass judgement in the closing stages of Billups' terrific career, but there was no guarantee that Billups would become the game-changing player he was for the Pistons in the recent past.
"I don't know if they made a mistake," McCarty said. "There's a lot of things. That's the business. You've got to give up on some players [and] you know some players are going to be really good, but you try to help out the team now. The same with Joe Johnson. Joe Johnson's [one heck] of a player. He might be a Hall of Fame player. [The Celtics] let him go. It happens. It's a part of this game."
We'll never know for sure what could have been if Billups wasn't forced out the door, but that doesn't stop the mind from wondering if the potential pairing of Billups with Johnson, Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker could have tipped the scales in the Celtics' favor and turned them into serious title contenders.
"We could have had a good thing going," Billups said, "but they had some great years here, though."
Boston did ultimately end its lengthy championship drought in 2008 when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined forces with Pierce, but if Billups hadn't been traded, it's possible that the Celtics could be putting the finishing touches on a decade of dynasty instead of one that saw them win only one title.