Rick Pitino failed as Celtics president-coach.
But maybe his tenure would have gone better if Boston’s 1998 draft went according to his plan.
At a time far less was known about European players, Pitino became infatuated with big sweet-shooting forward from Germany named Dirk Nowitzki.
Pitino told Nowitzki: Skip the draft combine. I’ll take you at No. 10. Nowitzki asked Pitino how he could trust him. Pitino got Red Auerbach, the Celtics’ vice chairman, on the phone, and, according to Pitino, Nowitzki was sold. “I went home,” says Pitino, “thinking we had our guy.”
Except the Mavericks – who had the No. 6 pick – also believed in Nowitzki. Dallas traded down with the Bucks to get Nowitzki with the No. 9 pick (sending No. 6 pick Robert Traylor to Milwaukee and gaining No. 19 pick Pat Garrity).
Thankfully for the Celtics, Kansas forward Paul Pierce – widely expected to go higher – was still on the board.
From there, says Pitino, “We were scurrying.” It wasn’t that they didn’t know much about Pierce. They didn’t know anything. Why would they? Every projection had Pierce off the board inside the first few picks. “I hadn’t done my homework on Paul at all,” says Pitino. In the room, Wallace was reassuring. “Rick got a little nervous,” says Wallace. “He wanted to know what everybody knew that we didn’t. And I just said, ‘Well, if he’s there, just don’t worry about what we know or don’t know. Let’s just take him.’ And we did.”
Pierce had a great career with Boston.
Nowitzki was even better in Dallas.
Nowitzki won an MVP, placed third twice and finished top 10 in voting nine times. Pierce peaked at seventh, his only top-10 finish.
Nowitzki led the otherwise starless Mavericks to a championship over the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Heat in 2011. Playing with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo, Pierce couldn’t top that Miami team.
Because Pierce had a Hall of Fame career and set up the Celtics’ next era with his trade to the Nets, nobody will second-guess Boston picking him No. 10. In fact, Pierce is correctly viewed as an all-time steal.
But it’s still a fun “what if” to consider Nowitzki with the Celtics.
Obviously, Boston couldn’t stop the higher-picking Mavericks from coveting Nowitzki, too. But it’s not impossible to imagine the Celtics getting wind of Dallas’ pre-draft plan to trade down from No. 6 to No. 9 and swooping in. After the Mavericks picked Traylor, Boston could have theoretically traded up with the Kings (who took Jason Williams No. 7) or 76ers (who took Larry Hughes No. 8).
Alas, Pitino got too few of those types of moves right.