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Celtics in a no-win situation

As losses mount, ownership is prepared to stay the course

Though fans are still coming out to the Garden to watch the Celtics, the frustration is written all over their faces. (ELSA/GETTY IMAGES)

The ball trickled away from the Celtics. As it bounced over the midcourt line, Ryan Gomes, aware that if he touched the ball his team would be whistled for a backcourt violation, lowered his head in frustration, then hesitated for a moment. In an instant, New Jersey guard Eddie House scooped up the ball and laid it in for an easy 2 points.

As the home crowd booed lustily, Celtics coach Doc Rivers quickly removed Gomes from the game. The second-year forward, an earnest, hard-working player, slumped into his seat and put his head in his hands.

The Celtics lost, 92-78. Two nights later, they would drop a game to Minnesota on a last-second shot by former Celtic Ricky Davis to extend their losing streak to 18 games.

Their misery temporarily ended last Wednesday night when they pummeled the injury-depleted Milwaukee Bucks, squashing any further discussion of the Celtics approaching the league record of 23 consecutive losses in a season.

The streak of futility has ended. But what about the other woes of the NBA's most decorated franchise? How can the Celtics reverse a horrific season in which the death of patriarch Red Auerbach cast a pall over the franchise before the first game? Did the last remnants of Celtic mystique die along with Red?

The Celtics dedicated the season to their late president, then submitted an unfathomable home record of 5-21 at the All-Star break.

Last month, when Kobe Bryant and the Lakers came to town, fans at the TD Banknorth Garden could be heard chanting "MVP" as Bryant dominated the once-sacred parquet and dropped 43 points on the home team. When the Celtics were beaten by the Nets Feb. 9, they were subjected to an indignity reserved for only the most hopeless of sports franchises: A fan 10 rows behind the team bench watched the game with a bag over his head.

"They wore bags over their heads in New Orleans, and their [NFL] team ended up [almost] going to the Super Bowl this year," said Celtics managing partner Steve Pagliuca.

There is one big difference. There are no guaranteed contracts in the NFL. If a player does not live up to expectations, he can be cut loose. No such luxury exists in the NBA, where contracts are ironclad, virtually impervious to exceptions regarding injury, even death (see: Reggie Lewis, and Boston's failed attempt to seek salary cap relief after his tragic passing).

The current ownership ambitiously coined their group "Banner Seventeen," but other than their first season in the pro basketball business, when the Celtics were swept by the Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the team has not made it out of the first round of the playoffs. With the playoffs but a pipe dream this season, the locals will be shut out of the postseason for the second year in a row.

"It has been a disappointing season, but not a disappointing situation," declared team owner and CEO Wyc Grousbeck.

In fact, despite the team's record, television ratings and attendance are up. The Celtics were recently honored by the league for generating the most new sponsors, and, according to Grousbeck, they will break even this season.

Lottery dreams
As the losing streak grew and the Celtics sank in the standings, their chances skyrocketed at securing a top pick in the June draft, which is generally regarded as one of the deepest ever. The two impact players are expected to be Greg Oden of Ohio State, an imposing defensive presence, and Kevin Durant, a spindly Texas freshman who has already drawn comparisons to Kevin Garnett.

It is dangerous to have your chances of building a team predicated on hope and luck (just ask Rick Pitino), but that did not stop Celtics personnel from showing highlights of Oden and Durant at their recent owners meeting. The Celtics have been sternly reminded by the league not to lust out loud after college underclassmen; any hint that a team is angling to lose is met with serious consequences.

Asked about showing the highlights, Grousbeck smiled and said, "Sorry. No comment." Danny Ainge, the team's executive director of basketball operations, who was not at the meeting, said it's common practice for the scouting staff to review all potential draft picks and show highlight clips to the owners.

Dreams of Oden could be fleeting. Both Paul Pierce, who missed 24 games with a foot injury, and Wally Szczerbiak, who missed 20, are back, and the Celtics could win just enough games the rest of the way to fall out of the lottery sweepstakes. That would be fine with Pierce, who is 29 and growing tired of overseeing a rebuilding process in the prime of his career.

There have been a number of questionable transactions since Ainge took the reins in 2003, among them the signing of free agent Brian Scalabrine to a contract that has three years and $9.7 million remaining, and taking on Szczerbiak's sizable salary (two years left at $16.6 million), which, in conjunction with his injury history, has made him virtually untradeable.

Yet the decision to deal for Raef LaFrentz in October 2003 may have been the most damaging. In doing so, the Celtics took on more than $66 million in salary for a soft 7-footer who was supposed to spread the defense but was simply not a consistent or dangerous perimeter threat.

In that trade, the Celtics moved Antoine Walker, who had two years and $28.125 million left on his contract. (They would later reacquire Walker from Atlanta.) The LaFrentz repercussions continued when Boston sent him, Dan Dickau, and the No. 7 pick in the 2006 draft, Randy Foye, to Portland for Theo Ratliff, Sebastian Telfair, and a second-round pick in 2008.

Grousbeck conceded the recent trade history has not been stellar, but said his experience has been that most NBA teams have tepid results.

"Most trades are sideways," he said. "I can take or leave them. They usually don't work out quite the way you hoped. I'm in favor of drafting and holding."

Tricks of the trade
Next year will be the most critical in Ainge's tenure. Although the Celtics are the third-youngest team in the league, their salary cap numbers do not reflect that. Young players make short money and usually provide a team with flexibility. Yet Boston's total salaries for next season already exceed the projected salary cap of $50 million.

The more onerous contracts include $11.66 million for Ratliff, who has played only two games this season and could very well never play again because of back trouble, and $12.8 million for Szczerbiak. The Celtics will recoup about $4.5 million in insurance money from Ratliff, but that money does not come off the cap.

Depending on the draft order, the Celtics will have either a franchise player (with the 1 or 2 pick) or a tradeable young commodity (in the 4-to-7 range) that, packaged with Ratliff's money, could land what the veteran Pierce is publicly pining for. Garnett is expected to be on the trade market, and Pau Gasol and Jermaine O'Neal also could be available.

But if the Celtics are forced to select 10th or lower, it will be difficult to get a high-profile veteran in trade. One thing is clear: The last thing this team needs is another youngster -- unless he is Oden.

Both Grousbeck and Pagliuca said they have remained patient with limited results because they believe their young talent will develop into championship material.

"You can't make a judgment on Danny right now," Pagliuca said. "It's only been four years. If Delonte [West] becomes [Mike] Bibby and Al Jefferson becomes Karl Malone, I'd say Danny has done pretty well."

Malone was one of the best power forwards in NBA history. Bibby was the starting point guard for a Sacramento team that nearly upended the Lakers in the 2002 Western Conference finals.

"I don't necessarily think our young guys have to be All-Stars," Ainge said. "They have to be good. They have to help us win. In spite of what people say, our guys do have value. We didn't want to make a decision too soon on them.

"If a veteran player was available for a couple of our young guys who could impact our franchise for more than one or two years, I would consider it. But it has to be the right deal."

League and team sources confirmed that the Celtics had discussions with Utah about acquiring All-Star forward Carlos Boozer in exchange for Jefferson, West, and Ratliff's contract. After considering Boozer's spotty health history (he missed 49 games with hamstring troubles last season, 31 the season before with foot issues), the Celtics passed. Boozer is currently out with a broken leg.

Bringing them in
One of the truly remarkable things about this lost season is that people continue to fill the Garden.

League and team personnel confirm that the Celtics rank only 28th of 30 teams in full-season-ticket revenue. (Even the Memphis Grizzlies, who have the second-worst record in the NBA, have more full-season-ticket-holders than the 5,100 Boston regulars.) But the Celtics have been creative in filling the arena with partial plans. They are second in the league in those packages and fifth in the league in group sales.

According to the team, paid attendance is up 8 percent, a number no doubt enhanced by the offering of half-price tickets to "insider" fans a few days before marquee opponents come to town.

The Celtics ranked 14th in team revenue last season, a decent number considering they do not own the Garden and had no playoff dollars. Both Pagliuca and Grousbeck emphasize that they are not in this venture for the money, and proudly tick off the upgrades to the sound system, scoreboard, locker rooms, and team plane.

Banner Seventeen has also injected new life into the Celtics' charitable ventures, raising more than $3 million since 2003.

Most fans don't care about any of that. All they want is a winning team, and they are tired of waiting.

The face of ownership doesn't share that urgency.

"How long am I willing to wait?" Grousbeck said. "The rest of my life. That's how long I plan to own this team. I'm not going anywhere."

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