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Friday, June 28, 2013
Updated: June 29, 10:46 AM ET
Brace for Celtics' battle of futility

By Jackie MacMullan
ESPNBoston.com

This just in: Good seats available.

Lots and lots and lots of them.

In theory, a major rebuilding project for the Boston Celtics makes sense. They were going nowhere last season piggybacking on their two future Hall of Famers -- with or without Rajon Rondo.

Rondo played in only 38 games before he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, but the front office knew even if he had remained healthy, a legitimate shot at the NBA championship was a mirage. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rondo's plus/minus for his shortened season was minus-57. The team's plus/minus without him: plus-39.

Not exactly MVP numbers that calm the nerves.

Boston pulled the plug on the Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett era with a blockbuster trade to Brooklyn that will become official on July 10. It was a gut-wrenching farewell to two valiant veterans who raised Banner 17 for the Celtics in 2008 and cemented their legacies as all-time greats.

You think saying goodbye to your stars was painful, wait until you say hello to the team that remains.

The Celtics must endure the trials and tribulations of downgrading their talent pool so they can position themselves for a loaded 2014 draft headlined by the Next Big Thing, Kansas-bound guard Andrew Wiggins.

Angling for pingpong balls is a tricky business. It requires the delicate balance of putting a basketball team on the court that plays hard but has little chance of winning. It also puts you at the mercy of Lady Luck.

The last time the Celtics did that was in 1996-97. M.L. Carr was the coach and general manager, coaxed into the dual role one year earlier by owner Paul Gaston, who paid him $1 million to replace Chris Ford on the bench and, as Carr described, "take one for the team."

According to Carr, Gaston made his objective for the 1996-97 season clear: Land Tim Duncan in the draft.

Carr
"It's so difficult," M.L. Carr said of guiding a 15-67 season in 1996-97, "because it goes completely against your basketball DNA."

Thus, Carr's charge, with a roster that included Antoine Walker, David Wesley, Dana Barros, Dino Radja and Rick Fox, was to play hard -- and lose.

"It's so difficult," Carr said, "because it goes completely against your basketball DNA.

"Danny (Ainge) is absolutely doing the right thing for the Celtics franchise. But he's going to have a real tough road while they rebuild."

As GM, Carr made sure he didn't sign any expensive or overly talented free agents. Because he was his own coach, there was no backlash from the bench regarding his personnel decisions.

"I was bringing in guys like Nate Driggers and Brett Szabo," Carr said. "It was a joke. But the idea was not to make a move that would help us too much."

The hardest part, said Carr, was straddling the fine line between encouraging his team to play the game the right way but make sure they didn't win too much.

"I remember one game in particular, when David Wesley was hitting jump shots and 3-pointers all over the floor," Carr said. "I had to get him out of the game.

"He came over to me and said, 'Coach, what are you doing? I just hit four shots in a row.' I said, 'I know, David, but I'm experimenting.'

"I'll tell you, it was brutal. Those players were smart. They knew what we were doing.

"I told them, 'I won't be here a year from now. This is for your future. In the final analysis, you'll benefit from this.' But after a while, they didn't want to hear it."

Rick Fox, who captained that 1996-97 team, said slogging through that "incredibly painful" season was the most challenging time of his career.

"I knew right from the start it was going to be a different season," Fox said. "Our practices were like track meets. We just ran and ran and ran. After 6 years in the league I knew, 'We can't keep this up. We're going to get hurt.' I think we had 9 guys who had surgery that year."

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Fox led the team with 15.4 points a game and struggled through a plantar fascia injury that, he said, "left my foot purple." He wanted desperately to be a leader to stem the negativity that consistently cropped up, so he played on.

"There was one game where I had like 30 points through three quarters," Fox recalled. "We got a lead and I was thinking, 'Finally, we're getting a win.' But then I had to sit down for seven minutes of the fourth quarter and watch it all slip away.

"It defied logic."

As the losses mounted, Carr said, he began receiving death threats in the mail. Some of the vulgar and occasionally racist calls to his office reduced his assistant to tears.

"At one point Red Auerbach came to me and said, 'I'm worried about you. You are taking such a beating,"' Carr recalled. "I told him, 'Don't worry about me, Red. I'm the only one who can do this with a smile. I can take it.'

"I feel badly for the Celtics coach that will have to do it this time. I never wanted to be a coach. I didn't care what it did to my reputation. But I imagine whoever Danny hires wants to do this for a living."

Fox worries aloud for the young players on the current Celtics roster.

"Guys like Rondo, Jeff Green, they're established," he said. "The guys you get concerned about are the Jared Sullingers, or and the rookies, who need someone to shepherd them through the ups and downs of a difficult season. It's easy to develop bad habits, unless you have a core of veterans who stay on top of you.

"It puts the onus on the coach to find a way to have the players respect him, to convince them to play hard for 82 games, instead of playing hard for the first 40, then realizing it's a hopeless endeavor."

Green/Rondo
Will Jeff Green and Rajon Rondo be on board with a rebuilding mission that likely includes a lot of losing?

You wonder how all of this will sit with Rondo, the player who once proclaimed himself "the best point guard in the league." Perhaps now he won't be in such a hurry to break records in rushing back from that torn ACL. Why not heal fully while your team sinks into lottery oblivion?

If Boston truly wants to be bad, then Rondo should take his time. The worst thing that could happen to the Celtics is to be bad enough to be irrelevant, but just good enough not to land one of those coveted top five lottery picks.

And yet, as history has shown, even if you lose all the time, there are no guarantees.

The 1996-97 Celtics won 15 games, the second-worst record in the league behind the Vancouver Grizzlies, who won just 14.

As expected, Boston let Carr go and inked Rick Pitino to one of the richest coaching contracts in the league. Pitino took the job with the idea that Duncan would be the centerpiece of his team.

But Boston wasn't the only one maneuvering for Duncan. The San Antonio Spurs, with its star David Robinson battling a back injury, fired coach Bob Hill after a 3-15 start and replaced him with their executive director of basketball operations, Gregg Popovich.

Pop went 17-47 the rest of the way. As the losses piled up, Popovich told Robinson he would be shelved for the remainder of the season.

On the night of the draft lottery, the Spurs won the No. 1 pick, while the Philadelphia 76ers, who won 22 games, landed the No. 2 pick. They used it to grab Keith Van Horn, the other player Pitino coveted.

The Celtics wound up with the No. 3 pick, which they used to draft Chauncey Billups, and the No. 6 pick, which they used to draft Ron Mercer.

Within two seasons, Pitino had traded them both.

Fox, meanwhile, left Boston as a free agent and won multiple championships with the Lakers.

The 1997 draft, with the exception of Duncan, Billups and No. 9 pick Tracy McGrady, proved to be skimpy on talent.

Wiggins is the anointed big kahuna of the 2014 draft, but there are a number of excellent "consolation" prizes that could blossom into franchise cornerstones: forward Julius Randle, Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart, Duke's Jabari Parker and lefty James Young.

Maybe the Celtics' luck will change. Maybe this time they'll hit the lottery jackpot.

In the meantime, players like Rondo, Jeff Green, Avery Bradley and Sullinger will have to learn to balance futility and frustration with the team's larger goal of building for the future.

It won't be easy. Just ask Pierce. After his team won just 24 games and endured an 18-game losing streak during the 2006-07 season, Pierce uttered the now-famous quote, "I'm a classic great player on a bad team, and it stinks."

You bet it does.

It won't be a picnic for the new coach, either.

"Tell Danny I won't do it for $1 million," chuckled M.L. Carr. "But I am available for $5 (million)."