To say the Boston Celtics’ draft history is a storied one would be an enormous understatement. They have experienced agony and ecstasy, passed on future Hall of Famers and stolen others over five decades of selections.
With this Saturday’s draft looming, it’s only appropriate to cover the five most significant moments in Celtics draft history.
Honorable mention: Selecting Paul Pierce in 1998; Passing on Kobe Bryant along with 12 other teams in 1996; the sudden death of 1987 top pick Reggie Lewis
5. Larry Bird Falls to Celtics at No. 6 in 1978 Draft
Larry Bird’s draft class is proof of how pivotal top selections can be. Even the Pacers passed on the Indiana State University star and French Lick native, who turned out to be one of the NBA’s all-time great players.
Though this draft produced some other good players such as Maurice Cheeks and Reggie Theus, no 1978 draftee had nearly the career Bird had with the Celtics.
Thirty-one years later, the decision of the first five teams to pass on Bird still stands as one of the great draft mistakes in league history.
4. Celtics Select John Havlicek with Last Pick of First Round of 1962 Draft
While the 1962 Draft produced several good players who had solid pro careers, only one from that class would end up in the Hall of Fame. John Havlicek scored 26,395 points in his 16 NBA seasons—all with the Celtics, and first in franchise history—11th all-time.
Oh, did I mention the Celtics already had Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and Tommy Heinsohn? And they were coming off a fourth consecutive NBA championship? After adding Havlicek, they would go on to win six of the next eight titles.
Havlicek carried the torch from Russell admirably, leading the Celtics to two more championships in the 1970s. As the subject of one of the NBA’s most famous calls (“Havlicek stole the ball!”), he’s engraved himself permanently in Celtics lore.
3. Celtics Miss Out on Tim Duncan in 1997 Draft Lottery
To their fans’ dismay, the biggest story of the Celtics’ 1996-97 season was where they would end up in the draft. They finished 15-67, giving them the second-best chance to land Wake Forest stud Tim Duncan with the first overall pick. It was clear that Duncan was a transcendent talent, which made the 1997 lottery one of the most exciting in NBA history.
Celtics fans’ hearts dropped as soon as the San Antonio Spurs, who finished 20-62, were revealed as the lucky recipients of Duncan’s services. The Celtics landed the third pick, with which they selected a young point guard named Chauncey Billups.
Unfortunately, Billups lasted only 51 games in Boston, several years before reaching his full potential, as Rick Pitino traded him to Toronto for Kenny Anderson.
As for Duncan, he only went on to be one of the greatest power forwards to ever play the game, winning four titles in 12 seasons with the Spurs. And at 32, he may not yet be done winning. It certainly would have been great for New Englanders to see Duncan assert his greatness in Celtic green.
2. Celtics Lose Out on Top Picks in 2007 Draft, Trade for Garnett and Allen
From one rough year to another, the Celtics also stunk 10 years later, in 2007. The Celtics stumbled throughout the season to finish 24-58, again second in the draft lottery.
The imminence of the Celtics owning a top-two selection in the draft had the Boston media salivating over the likely prospect of landing Texas’ Kevin Durant with the second-overall pick. But the ping pong balls once again did not bounce Boston’s way, as the Celtics got saddled with pick No. 5, the lowest possible pick they could have had.
President Danny Ainge traded that pick, Jeff Green, to Seattle for Ray Allen and Glen “Big Baby” Davis, a move that would pale in comparison to the massive five-for-one deal weeks later that brought Kevin Garnett to Boston.
We all know what happened next. The Celtics completed the biggest single-season turn-around in NBA history, winning 66 games on the way to their 17th NBA title.
I still enjoy imagining what the Celtics could have been had they ended up where they should have at No. 2. They might not yet have a championship, but a starting five of Durant, Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Al Jefferson, and Kendrick Perkins looks great on paper.
1. The Death of Len Bias
In any sport, a first-round draft pick, especially one in the top three, is meant to turn around the fortunes of franchises. Len Bias did just that, just, unfortunately, in a severely tragic way. It seems disrespectful to label Bias a “bust,” but the 23-year-old Maryland star’s shocking death after the 1986 NBA Draft stunned the nation and left the Celtics reeling for nearly two decades.
In April 1984, then-President and GM Red Auerbach traded guard Gerald Henderson along with cash considerations to the Seattle Supersonics for their 1986 first-round pick. It turned out that it would become the second-overall pick for the Bird-led Celtics, who had just defeated the Houston Rockets for their 16th NBA championship.
The reigning NBA champions, in the midst of another mini-dynasty, selected Bias, the 1986 ACC Player of the Year, who had been compared favorably to fellow ACC star Michael Jordan. Had Bias lived up to his big-time expectations, the Celtics could have won several more championships after adding him to a team that included four future Hall of Famers.
Instead, Bias took his draft celebration down a dark path. He snorted an excessive amount of cocaine in his Maryland dorm, which led to his fatal heart attack less than 48 hours after being picked.
The Celtics floundered through much of the 1990s after the original Big Three declined, and they were left to wonder what Bias could have done for their franchise.