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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Time for Celtics to hit the lottery

Do you believe in curses?

I don't. A certain baseball team cured me of such folly three summers ago when they defied seemingly insurmountable odds and won their first World Series title in 86 years.

There is a growing sentiment that the Boston Celtics are cursed. Ever since Len Bias celebrated his selection as the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft in 1986 by bingeing on cocaine, this franchise has been in a free fall of staggering proportions.

At the time of Bias's death, the Celtics were world champions. They made it to the NBA Finals again in 1987 with Kevin McHale playing on a broken foot and they haven't been close since.

You know what happened. Larry Bird's heels (1988), then back (1990) betrayed him. Reggie Lewis, the bridge to the next generation of Celtics stars, died of a heart ailment at the age of 27 in 1993.

Hope came in the form of Ping-Pong balls in 1997, and a franchise player named Tim Duncan.

The San Antonio Spurs won the lottery. The Celtics didn't.

Ten years later, Boston's hopes were again pinned on fate and chance, this time with two prized players at stake.

The Trail Blazers won Greg Oden. The Seattle (soon to be Oklahoma City) SuperSonics won Kevin Durant. The Celtics won . . . a smidgen of sympathy. That's about it.

Do I believe in bad luck?

I do. I will grant you Boston's shamrocks have wilted since the Curse of Len Bias descended on the hallowed parquet.

But here's a reality check: Bias died 21 years ago. Lewis died 14 years ago. And that Ping-Pong ball that sent Rick Pitino into an NBA funk from which he never recovered was a decade ago.

There has been ample time for the Celtics to recover from their calamities. The simple fact is they haven't.

There are various reasons for this. There have been draft snafus (Michael Smith in 1990, Acie Earl in 1993, Kedrick Brown in 2001, to name a few), and horrible trades of epic proportions (Vin Baker, anyone?). There has been the ongoing struggle to lure quality free agents to Boston. The bottom line on that: It's cold here and players prefer warm climates.

Funny, though, how that becomes inconsequential when your talent pool is loaded. If Oden had landed in Celtic green, there would have been a number of veterans who would have been intrigued with the idea of playing alongside the rookie big man, Paul Pierce, and Al Jefferson, and would have thrown the snow parka in the suitcase and signed on the dotted line.

Sorry, but neither Al Thornton, Jeff Green, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Mike Conley Jr., nor Yi Jianlian provides that cachet.

Celtics apologists say the reason Boston hasn't been able to rebuild its empire is because the team is always picking in the middle of the draft, preventing it from selecting impact players.

Tell that to the Phoenix Suns.

Boston used the ninth pick to take Eric Montross in 1994, and Phoenix, picking 14 spots after the Celtics, took Wesley Person. The next year, the Celtics, selecting 14th, took Eric Williams. The Suns, picking 21st, chose Michael Finley. In 1996, Boston grabbed Antoine Walker with the sixth pick. Phoenix, which picked 15th, snared point guard Steve Nash.

The Celtics ended up with Montross, Williams, and Walker. The Suns, choosing significantly later in each instance, wound up with Person, Finley, and Nash. Now, is Phoenix lucky, or was it just better at evaluating talent?

Note that in that 1996 draft, which produced Walker and Nash, the Los Angeles Lakers swung a deal with Charlotte to land a young high school kid named Kobe Bryant at No. 13. At the time, this was big news. High school players were just starting to become part of the landscape, and while reviews of Bryant were promising, few general managers were willing to risk a high pick on a backcourt player.

Jerry West did not hesitate. He gambled and won, cementing the cornerstone of his franchise for the next decade. It was a move that took guts, and it paid off in Auerbachian fashion.

Incidentally, Portland plucked high schooler Jermaine O'Neal with the 17th pick. But the Blazers were impatient with their young big man and dealt him to Indiana after four seasons for forward Dale Davis. O'Neal has blossomed into a perennial All-Star.

Which brings us to the next reason curses have nothing to do with Boston's prolonged championship drought. There were occasions when the right player was chosen, but was moved before he had a chance to shine. That was true with Chauncey Billups, who was traded just 51 games into his Celtics career in 1997-98, and with Joe Johnson in 2001-02.

General manager Chris Wallace, at the urging of then-coach Jim O'Brien, dealt Johnson, Milt Palacio, Randy Brown, and a first-round pick to the Suns for Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers.

That spring, the Celtics went to the Eastern Conference finals. Two months later, Rogers left town as a free agent, signing with the Nets. Johnson, now 25, averaged 25 points for Atlanta this season.

Boston is cursed, all right -- with bad decisions. The blame can be shared among many. Former CEO Dave Gavitt drafted Earl. M.L. Carr presided over the Montross years. Pitino hastily dumped Billups and a list of others. Wallace pulled the trigger on the Baker deal. Even the master, Red Auerbach, erred by insisting on drafting Smith in 1989 and Joseph Forte in 2001.

Every team makes mistakes. Yet Boston's peers have recovered much quicker.

The Lakers, dominant in the '80s alongside the Celtics, won three additional titles from 2000-02. The Detroit Pistons won back-to-back championships in '89 and '90, reloaded, and won again in 2004, thanks, in part, to the Celtics, who arranged a three-way deal that delivered Rasheed Wallace to the Pistons and netted Boston Chucky Atkins and a draft pick.

After Michael Jordan retired, the Bulls endured rocky moments, but made it to the Eastern Conference semifinals this season and are encouraged by a young nucleus that includes Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, Tyrus Thomas, and Kirk Hinrich.

The Celtics have a young nucleus, too. Danny Ainge's finest moment was in the 2004 draft, when he grabbed Jefferson, Delonte West, and Tony Allen, all in the first round.

But Ainge's questionable trades have hampered his team. The addition of Wally Szczerbiak left Boston with a high-salaried, injury-prone shooter whose game is incompatible with that of Pierce's and makes the Celtics dangerously deficient on the defensive end.

Ainge's fascination with Sebastian Telfair has been disastrous. He acquired him from Portland along with Theo Ratliff and traded Raef LaFrentz, Dan Dickau, and the No. 7 pick, which turned out to be Brandon Roy, who, in case you missed it, was Rookie of the Year this season.

Roy went to Secaucus this week to represent Portland in the draft lottery. His team had a 5.3 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick, and he brought it home.

You might say Roy is a very lucky young man.

You might believe the Celtics are cursed for passing on him, then watching him win the Oden sweepstakes for his team.

But good teams don't rely on luck. They make their own luck.

It's long past the time for the Boston Celtics to do just that.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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