The Boston Celtics’ Worst Season: 1997

The Boston Celtics have only rarely in their history been bad. 17 championships, five other Finals appearances including the 2022 season, 13 60-win seasons (including two in 80-game seasons), a 59-win season in just 75 games in 1960…they’re a franchise with a long and illustrious history of success.

Except in the late 1990s. After Larry Bird and Kevin McHale retired and before Kevin Garnett showed up, the Celtics were an absolute joke.

Yeah, they made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2002, but that was after defeating Detroit in a semifinal that included a game (Game 3) the Celtics won 66-64. Nothing that happened in the NBA between 1999 and 2007 should count for anything. It was the Dark Ages.

But for Celtics fans over about 30, the trauma of Rick Pitino and the era he stewarded the team through between 1997 and when he finally had the decency to quit 34 games into the 2000-01 season with a 12-22 record will forever stain the franchise.

Boston was a legitimate garbage fire back then.

And the worst season of all was the tankfest in the 1996-97 season that included a 15-67 record (one of only two seasons in franchise history in which Boston failed to crack 20 wins, and the other was a 19-31 record in 1999) that also added insult to injury when they didn’t win the draft lottery and missed out on Tim Duncan.

If Boston had whiffed a year earlier, they’d have been picking in one of the greatest drafts in history.

But all of that was in the future in 1996-97. You have to hit rock bottom before you can…skid along the ground like a distressed cat dragging poop across the floor, like Boston did.

The On-Court Record

The Celtics opened the season by losing 107-98 to Michael Jordan and the eventual 69-13 and champion Chicago Bulls, the same Bulls team that had gone 72-10 the year before.

On November 27, they were 4-8 and almost respectable…well, except for the six double-digit losses.

Then they lost 15 of their next 17 and the tankfest was underway.

As with the 2005 Hawks we discussed yesterday, the real nadir came when the Celtics were within range of the best lottery odds.

On February 3, Boston was 11-33. They went 4-34 the rest of the way.

Curiously, the one team the Celtics couldn’t manage to lose to was the Toronto Raptors, a team that was in only its second year in the league.

Then again, Toronto went 30-52 in that 1997 season, twice as many wins as Boston managed…yet they lost to the Celtics three times.

Point of the matter is that the Celtics were bad. Then they saw a chance to get into the Tim Duncan Sweepstakes. After that, they were truly horrible.

The Featured Players

David Wesley and Rick Fox weren’t actually that bad. Wesley managed 1.9 VORP and .097 WS/48. Fox turned out a 2.5 VORP season, a borderline All-Star, with .094 WS/48.

The trouble was that the rest of the Celtics were putrid.

Rookie Antoine Walker managed just .027 WS/48. Eric Williams put up minus-0.6 VORP and .056 WS/48 on his way to becoming one of the worst players ever to wear Celtic green for more than a couple of seasons.

Plus, to steal a line from Bill Simmons, when you have Marty Conlon as your sixth man, that means your sixth man is Marty Conlon.

Their two best players would be decent role players on other teams (as Wesley would prove in Charlotte and Fox would prove on the Lakers.)

Everyone else would lose to a G-League team in 2022.

The Coach

As coaches go, M.L. Carr was legendarily awful. Chris Ford managed to drag a completely depleted Celtics team to a 35-47 record and sacrificial lamb status against Shaquille O’Neal and the Finals-bound Orlando Magic in the first round in 1995.

Carr coached Boston to a 33-49 record in 1996 with a roster that might well have been worse overall than the ’97 squad.

But every player he coached in both seasons regressed between the two. Carr was the anti-player-development coach, the worst possible guy to coach a team in the midst of an ostensible rebuild.

Carr was also the executive responsible for putting the roster together, Boston serving as an object lesson in the idea that your coach and your general manager should never, ever be the same person (to the extent that Pitino wouldn’t carry that to its logical conclusion between 1997 and 2000.)

He had never served as an assistant before being given the head job.

And after getting fired following the 1997 debacle, he never coached in the NBA again in any capacity.

His sole saving grace is that he was the perfect guy for a tank job, the Erwin Rommel or Heinz Guderian of sports tanking.

The Aftermath

Atlanta was back in the playoffs within three years of bottoming out in 2005.

The Celtics didn’t make the playoffs until 2001-02, that ECF appearance discussed in brief above, and they wouldn’t actually be good by any real measure until they won the title in 2008.

I tell an anecdote when people ask me how I, Boston born and raised, became a Pacers fan when I have no connection to the state of Indiana or anyone in it aside from a brief romantic interest in a girl from Elkhart about ten years ago that went nowhere.

The short answer is “Reggie Miller, eight points, nine seconds.”

The longer answer is that the Celtics stunk for so long that I needed to find a team to root for in the playoffs. Being a frontrunner and rooting for Michael Jordan seemed to me a lame way to go about it, so when Miller performed the above feat, I started rooting for the Pacers in the playoffs.

That led to, when the Celtics continually proved not to be contenders, me rooting for the Pacers in the regular season in hope of being able to watch them do well in the playoffs.

By the time the Celtics were good again, I’d watch them play against Indiana and realize I was cheering for the Pacers to win the game.

So it therefore follows that I’m a Pacers fan.

Thanks, M.L. Carr. Thanks, Rick Pitino. And thanks, Antoine Walker and your wholly undeserved reputation as being anything even remotely resembling good when you stunk on the court as badly as your financial decisions stunk off it.

The 1997 Celtics have a role to play in my cheering for the Pacers (even though Indiana stinks now and the Celtics just made the Finals) 25 years later.

NEXT: Brooklyn/New Jersey Nets.