There aren’t many what if scenarios around a team that’s won seventeen championships. But we’ve all heard the old adage: The Grass is Always Greener. From 1957 to 1986 the Celtics won 16 of the leagues 30 championships. Sure, there’s lull periods when the franchise sunk into mediocrity, but they did not reside there for long.
That all changed in 1986 when top pick Len Bias died using cocaine the night after Boston selected him number two. In 1987 they found a diamond in the rough with Reggie Lewis, but whiffed miserably in 1989 when they selected BYU forward Michael Smith over 20 point a game two-guard Tim Hardaway, and 19-year old Shawn Kemp. Kemp was on ice his lone collegiate season when he transferred from Kentucky to Trinity Valley Community College, having not played a single game. In those days, I can imagine this being a red flag.
In the prelude of the 1988-89 season, the Dallas Mavericks offered two staples of their core for the aging Kevin McHale. The players were Sam Perkins and Detlef Schrempf. The latter being a sixth man of the year candidate entering his prime. The former was a stretch four, while paling in comparison to the greatest post player of all time would boast long term benefits to the aging Celtics.
Danny Ainge wanted the Celtics to make the deal, cautioning Red Auerbach the setbacks the franchise would face holding on to the old guys for too long. Auerbach chose loyalty over all else, and Ainge found himself shipped off to Sacramento in the middle of the season for Joe Klein and Ed Pinckney. Safe to assume, these were the Perkins and Schrempf replacements.
From 1989 to 1993 the Celtics remained competitive despite their aging core, but never got past the Detroit Pistons or the second round for that matter. Outside of Lewis, the poor play of the backcourt always held them back. After Dennis Johnson hung it up, the Celtics couldn’t replace him no matter who they tried.
If Boston kept Ainge and made that deal with the Mavericks, they become a deeper team. The roster looks like this:
Danny Ainge / Charles Smith
Reggie Lewis / Tim Hardaway
Larry Bird / Kevin Gamble
Sam Perkins / Detlef Schrempf
Robert Parish / Elden Campbell
That’s a squad that can defeat Detroit and more than hang with Chicago. Boston found themselves at the mercy of the younger teams and the old guys never stood a chance. An injection of youth could have given Bird more than just three rings and the dark days of Celtics basketball wouldn’t have been so long.