Welcome to the final installment of my Memorable NBA Draft Nights in Boston Celtics History series. In the previous four installments I took a look back at:
In this post, I shine the spotlight on the 2004 NBA Draft and how that draft set the stage for Banner #17 four years later.
Heading into the summer of 2004, the Celtics were in some ways in a similar position as they are now; a franchise with some potential assets but a lot of work to do to rebuild the talent base of the team to the point where it could compete for titles. They entered that draft, as they do this week with multiple picks and a need to convert those picks into the talent necessary to propel their rebuilding effort.
The results of that 2004 Draft took four seasons to pay the ultimate dividend and Celtics fans, and management, are hoping for a return on their investment in a much shorter horizon this time around.
That draft is also worth some examination in that it was the current ownership and management team’s first effort at rebuilding an NBA franchise. The roots of the current rebuilding plan were set down during that first attempt and parallels can be drawn between what Danny Ainge and company did then and how they are approaching things now.
The Danny Ainge era in Boston Celtics history began a year earlier, in May of 2003 when he assumed the responsibilities of General Manager and Director of Basketball operations for the club. The team was coming off a disappointing season capped by an ugly four-game sweep at the hands of the then-rival New Jersey Nets in the playoffs.
The relationship between the franchise, its fans, and former star player Antoine Walker was rapidly deteriorating. Ainge recognized that the franchise had little hope of moving forward while Walker’s tempestuous relationship with the franchise and erratic game held such a singular focus. At the end of training camp, he dealt the former All-Star to the Dallas Mavericks and, in effect, wiped the slate clean.
It’s difficult to form a coherent narrative for that 2003-2004 season. A total of 19 players made their way onto the roster at various points that season and 47 games into the season, head coach Jim O’Brien was replaced by John Carroll – forgot about him did you? Also in February, the Vin Baker experiment that was precipitated by the awful 2001 Draft, was mercifully ended.
The team finished 36-46 but still managed to make the playoffs. Once there though, they were swept for a second consecutive year, this time by the Indiana Pacers. As difficult as it may have been for the fans, and probably even the folks inside the organization itself, Ainge and the Celtics were in the process of stabilizing and positioning themselves to become a model franchise.
A significant aspect of that stabilization happened immediately after the playoff exit when the team hired Doc Rivers as head coach. Rivers went on to coach the team for 9 seasons and was as much one of the ‘stars’ of the subsequent success as Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. The hiring of Doc and the impact it had on that rebuilding effort was echoed in the hiring of Brad Stevens and the prominence of his role in the current effort.
While the transactions that Ainge had executed during the first year of his tenure at least superficially cost the team some “proven” NBA talent, they also had the effect of creating flexibility and amassing assets in the form of draft picks. The Celtics had their own pick at #15 as well as picks acquired from Dallas in the Walker trade (#24) and from Detroit in multi-player trade deadline deal (#25). This pattern of sacrificing veteran talent in the short-term for long-term assets and flexibility is one that has been unfolding over the past couple of seasons.
The three picks in that 2004 NBA Draft presented both an opportunity and a challenge to Ainge. It was not a particularly robust crop of prospects.
The top pick, belonging to the Orlando Magic, was a toss-up between Atlanta High School big man Dwight Howard and University of Connecticut junior center Emeka Okafor. The debate pitted the raw athleticism and promise of Howard against the steady college production of Okafor. The former had a tantalizingly high ceiling while the latter seemed to have a reliable floor as an impact defender in the middle.
The Celtics, picking 15th, had no chance at either but were in desperate need of size to complement Pierce in the frontcourt. Another raw High School prospect, from rural Mississippi was high on everyone’s wish list; Al Jefferson. Jefferson played against negligible competition so it was difficult to get a read on how much of a project he would be, but the physical package, at 6-10 and 240 with a long wingspan and meat hooks for hands was intriguing.
There was enough doubt about his readiness that it was difficult to project where he might land in the draft, but most mock drafts had him falling somewhere in range of the Celtics pick just after the lottery.
Ainge was also intrigued by yet another high school center – this one from the west coast – Robert Swift. Swift shot up the draft boards as the draft neared thanks to individual workouts where he flashed great court vision, a soft touch, and good defensive instincts for a young big man.
The Celtics also needed help in the backcourt. They employed a seemingly endless revolving door of journeyman guards in the starting lineup that season; Chucky Atkins, Marcus Banks, Ricky Davis, Dana Barros.
On draft night, as expected, Howard and Okafor went 1-2 to the Magic and the Charlotte Bobcats. Another UConn tourney star, guard Ben Gordon went third to the Bulls and then Shaun Livingston, then a dynamic high school guard who evoked mention of Magic Johnson, went fourth overall to the Clippers.
Another couple of recognizable names; Devin Harris and Luol Deng went 5th and 7th and then the Phoenix Suns shocked everyone by essentially giving the 9th pick away to the Philadelphia Sixers who used it to select future NBA Finals MVP Andre Igoudala.
The Seattle Supersonics selected Swift at #12 and a couple of picks later, at #15, Ainge gladly selected Al Jefferson.
Josh Smith and JR Smith went back-to-back at #17 and #18. They were the 6th and 7th of 8 High Schoolers to go in that first round.
Saint Joseph’s senior point guard Jameer Nelson, a name linked to the Celtics leading up to the draft, was selected 20th by the Denver Nuggets and traded to Orlando. Then, quite improbably, three straight Russian prospects; 7-6 Pavel Podkolzin, Victor Khryapa, and Sergei Monia went at picks 21 through 23.
That left the Celtics up with back-to-back picks and with some huge holes in the backcourt to fill.
With the 24th pick, they selected guard Tony Allen who despite an impressive performance in the NCAA tournament for Oklahoma State, wasn’t receiving a lot of pre-draft attention as a first-round pick. Ainge was enamored with Allen’s physical and mental toughness and his potential for impacting the game on the defensive side of the ball.
The Celtics followed up that selection by taking another fringe first-round talent, Jameer Nelson’s backcourt mate at Saint Joseph’s, Delonte West. West was a combo guard with point guard instincts. He was a productive player at Saint Joseph’s, but draft analysts questioned his athleticism and whether his contributions at the college level were enhanced by his tight partnership with Nelson.
The selections of Allen and West revealed another hallmark trait of Danny Ainge as a personnel evaluator; his willingness and ability to recognize and value unique qualities and characteristics in prospects. Both of those picks were mild surprises on draft night and, coupled with the perception of Jefferson as a longer term project, left many fans and media underwhelmed by the Celtics draft haul that night.
The following season, the team enjoyed a temporary renaissance going 45-37 and once again squaring off with the Indiana Pacers in the first round. All three rookies played minor roles and the jury was still out on that draft at season’s end. The playoff run ended in ignominious fashion as the Celtics were bounced for the second straight year by the Pacers, this time in 7 games with Pierce absent in Game 7 thanks to a Game 6 ejection and bizarre postgame press conference meltdown.
That following offseason was also a pivotal moment in the rebuild leading up to the 2008 Championship. Ainge was pursuing a trade involving Pierce and the #4 overall pick that would have landed Chris Paul in Boston, but after a heart-to-heart conversation with his frustrated star, he made the decision to try and put the necessary complementary pieces around him.
As we all know, the 2004 Draft turned out to be the key to putting those pieces in place in the summer of 2007. After two seasons that saw the team bottom out from a Won-Loss perspective, winning only 24 games in 2006-2007, Ainge leveraged Jefferson, West, a high draft pick in 2006 (Gerald Green) and the #5 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft to bring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to Boston alongside Pierce.
This week, Celtics fans hope that Ainge is able to similarly leverage picks and young players into a quantum leap in talent for the roster. The rebuilding effort that began in 2003 and culminated with the 2008 title set the blueprint. That 2004 draft was the foundation for that plan. Perhaps the 2015 draft will play a similarly significant role in a title not too far down the road.