The 2004 World Champion Boston Celtics: What could have been

Absurd artwork courtesy of EK

Guest post by the Sportshayes

Celtics fans rejoiced when the Celtics ended a 22 year drought and took home the 2008 NBA championship. The deaths of Len Bias and Reggie crippled the mighty Celtics and it took a generation to get back to the top. The names Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, PJ Brown and Rajon Rondo are etched into Celtics fans minds as the men who helped Paul Pierce win a championship. What if it didn’t take as long though? What if the Celtics got back to the top sooner with a different cast then people remember?  It could have been different, here’s how.

Everyone knows the Celtics hired the Evil Emperor to be the coach, general manager, president, ticket taker, owner, god, etc with his trusty Buffoon at his side. Together they drafted two stud rookies in Ron Mercer and Chauncey Billups, dubbed them the “backcourt of the future” and within 2 years both were traded away. What if Emperor showed more patience?
In this alternate scenario, Emperor drafts Billups and Mercer to team with Antoine Walker, Travis Knight and Eric Williams and does NOT trade Williams for missing off-season workouts. Billups is also NOT traded for Kenny Anderson and the 1998 Celtics stumble with a team of 2 rookies, 2 second year players and a 3rd year forward in Williams. Then comes the 99 draft….junior Kansas star Paul Pierce falls into their lap and things start to turn around. Travis Knight is dumped for hard-nosed Tony Battie as Pierce teams with Antoine to become a dynamic duo. Billups doesn’t show much improvement but the team is definitely on the rise. Unfortunately Emperor’s style wasn’t gelling with this group. The 2000 Celtics were a disaster and the 2001 edition didn’t seem much better after drafting the ineffective Jerome Moiso to give Pierce and Walker some depth. Emperor loses patience and benches his players and eventually trades Mercer at the deadline for a draft pick following a blowout in practice. With pressure mounting, it becomes too much for Emperor who resigns following the year. Red Auerbach could only shake his head as his presidency title is returned. Then it started to come together.

Jim O’Brien replaced Emperor as coach and Auerbach stepped in to assist the Buffoon in the draft. The Celtics chose Arkansas guard Joe Johnson with the draft pick they got for Mercer, high flying Kedrick Brown with their own pick and UNC guard Joe Forte with a 3rd pick got from a previous trade. This gave the Celtics a starting five of Tony Battie, Antoine Walker, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson and Chauncey Billups with a bench of Joe Forte, Eric Williams, Walter McCarty, Kedrick Brown and free agents Erick Strickland and Mark Blount. The 2002 Celtics show vast improvement over 2001 but still struggle in the middle of the season. Joe Forte was pissed off he wasn’t getting playing time over Billups, Strickland and “Miracle” Milt Palacio. One of the weaknesses of the Celtics was depth and Auerbach ordered Buffoon to do something about it. A potential trade developed as the Phoenix Suns were willing to ship Rodney Rogers and former Kentucky shooter Tony Delk to the Celtics for Miracle Milt, the corpse of Randy Brown and Kedrick Brown. Rumor has it that Buffoon was going to ship Johnson instead of Brown but Auerbach talked him out of it. Now the team took its final shape with Battie, Walker, Pierce, Johnson and Billups with Blount, Rogers, Williams, Delk, Strickland, McCarty and Forte. The Celtics went on a magical run to the Eastern Finals but were bounced by the New Jersey Nets.

The Celtics missed the NBA Finals by a few games but for some reason Buffoon forgot how a championship team was built. He foolishly let both Rodney Rogers and Erick Strickland walk in free agency and traded Forte to the Seattle Supersonics for Shammond Williams and Vin Baker. Baker proved so incompetent that he was later kicked off the team while Shammond was traded for Mark Bryant. Why Buffoon felt a washed-up Mark Bryant could replace Rodney Rogers is anyone’s guess. Also the team signed JR Bremer as an undrafted free agent to replace Forte but he proved ineffective. The good news was Chauncey Billups and Joe Johnson transformed into superstars pretty much overnight between 2002 and 2003. By 2003 Billups, Johnson, Walker and Pierce formed one of the most prolific offenses in NBA history. Their 3 point barrage was O’Brien’s style and they blitzed through the first round series against Strickland’s Indiana Pacers. A tough Pistons team were dispatched in the second round.  Up next was a rematch with a Nets who now featured Rodney Rogers. Still, the improvement of Blount, Billups and Johnson now turned the tide in favor of the Celtics. Pierce could match Richard Jefferson, Billups could go toe to toe with Jason Kidd, Antoine wasn’t afraid of Kenyon Martin and Tony Battie could match up with Jason Collins. The x-factor of the series was Joe Johnson who Kerry Kittles couldn’t guard to save his life. When all was said and done, the Celtics earned their first trip back to the NBA Finals in 16 years with a 6th game victory. That’s when the size of the San Antonio Spurs spelled the Celtics doom. David Robinson and Tim Duncan were too much for Blount and Battie and the Spurs won the series in 5 games. The Celtics were right there but were missing one more piece to the puzzle, the interior defense. It was time to complete the puzzle, but first they had to get rid of the Buffoon.

Here's an idea, lets keep Joe and trade Kedrick

With the rise of the Celtics taking shape, they still had one problem, The Buffoon. The Celtics whiffed in the 99 draft when they drafted Kris Clack over Spurs shooter Manu Ginobli and whiffed again by taking the immature Forte over Spurs rookie guard Tony Parker. He also let Bruce Bowen walk in free agency and failed to sign free agent Ben Wallace (who was in the Celtics' summer league camp) when Ben was available. All this combined with drafting Moiso led fans to believe Buffoon had no idea what he was doing.  With the Buffoon rightfully fired for his incompetence, new general manager Danny Ainge was on a mission. He saw how Duncan and Robinson had their way with Battie and Blount so he needed to replace one of them. A decision was made to ship Blount to Denver for a draft pick. In the draft, the Celtics added depth at center with high school phenom Kendrick Perkins and at point guard with Marcus Banks. It took a year but Rodney Rogers and Erick Strickland were finally replaced. The 2004 Celtics now had a team of all-stars in Billups, Johnson, Pierce and Walker with Perkins patrolling the interior with Battie. The bench was improved at the deadline when Ainge shipped the aging Eric Williams along with Tony Battie, JR Bremer and a future 2nd round pick to Cleveland for their malcontent star Ricky Davis and center Chris Mihm. Now you had Mihm, McCarty, Davis, Delk, Banks and the returning Vin Baker. Baker had shown up to camp sober and wanting one last chance, he got it. Mihm gave the rookie Perkins a breather or when Perk was in foul trouble. Baker spelled Antoine Walker while Ricky Davis performed 6th man duties well when Pierce needed a rest. Delk was their knock down shooter when Johnson was in foul trouble or resting, plus the rookie Banks kept Billups fresh when the playoffs arrived. The 2004 Celtics won 63 games, easily best in the NBA. They annihilated the hapless Chicago Bulls in the first round before dispatching the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat en route to the Finals.

Waiting for them was their ancient rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers. This team was built around Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Gary Payton, Karl Malone and Derek Fisher. Still, Billups could counter Payton; 5 years earlier Malone could have had his way with Walker but now they were about even; Pierce and Bryant cancelled each other out although the Lakers had the advantage with Shaq. The bench favored the Celtics with NBA 6th man of the year Ricky Davis. The Lakers were confident heading into Game 5 in LA with the series tied but the Celtics realized their best chance to take the title was winning this one. With Billups running circles around Payton, he turned in a monster game to propel the Celtics to victory. The hot shooting of Johnson and Pierce were too much for the Lakers in Game 6 as the Celtics brought home banner 17.

This could've been the 2004 Finals

A team of Billups, Johnson, Walker and Pierce with Ricky Davis, Kendrick Perkins and a sober Vin Baker may have been enough to topple the Lakers in 2004…but we’ll never know. Thanks to Buffoon and Emperor’s impatience, a potential next wave of Celtics stars were flushed down the toilet and it took until 2008 to get back to the top. Here’s to what might have been.