History lesson: A revealing look inside the Celtics 1996-97 tank job
M.L. Carr circa 1996.
The word "tanking" has been thrown around many times this week by the media and fans alike in regards to the Boston Celtics 2013-14 season. I am of the opinion that it's a terrible idea. The team with the league's worst record hasn't even won the lottery since 2004. Becoming really bad does not in any way guarantee you will then become good again. Just ask the 1996-97 Celtics, who failed miserably in their quest for Tim Duncan while posting a pathetic 15-67 record along the way (although it might not look quite so bad historically if they hadn't dealt away #3 pick Chauncey Billups to Toronto for Kenny Anderson just 51 games into his career the following season).
Jackie MacMullan wrote a piece for ESPN Boston over the weekend in which she quoted Boston's '96-97 head coach and general manager M.L. Carr, as well as team captain Rick Fox. Carr reveals that as the GM he intentionally failed to sign any expensive/talented free agents, and by being the coach as well he was able to get away with it:
"I was bringing in guys like Nate Driggers and Brett Szabo. It was a joke. But the idea was not to make a move that would help us too much. I remember one game in particular, when David Wesley was hitting jump shots and 3-pointers all over the floor, 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."
"At one point Red Auerbach came to me and said, 'I'm worried about you. You are taking such a beating.' 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."
And from Fox:
"I knew right from the start it was going to be a different season. 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. There was one game where I had like 30 points through three quarters. 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."
What did all this lead to? Four more losing seasons with a combined record of 126-170 from 1997-2000, and zero playoff appearances.