At the turn of the century the Celtics were a team in with potential. They had missed the playoffs for six straight seasons, they had a developing star tandem in Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, and they had three first round picks in the 2001 NBA Draft. They made the the playoffs the next four seasons, making it as far as the Eastern Conference Finals, despite, somehow, completely fucking this up.
Let's get two things out of the way. The goal of a team is success, and the Celtics making the playoffs four straight years is definitely consistent with that goal, so clearly they didn't have a total meltdown. Alas, the Eastern Conference was awful during that period, with the Celtics earning the eighth seed in 2004 with just 36 wins, so they were not by any means a dominant team, or even good. That particular team started Mark Blount, Chucky Atkins, Walter McCarty (WALTER!), and Jiri Welsch in the playoffs and got blown out in four straight by Indiana. If it wasn't for their potential heading in to this era, they would have been a completely forgettable team, and to most people they are exactly that. This is their story.
Jim O'Brien had just earned the removal of the interim tag on his title of head coach when the 2001 Draft rolled around, and he and GM Chris Wallace were in charge of picks 10, 11, and 21 that night. This was the last draft with high school players involved (Kwame Brown was the first pick ahead of Tyson Chandler) and it featured such luminaries as DeSagna Diop(8), Rodney White(9), Zach Randolph(20), Tony Parker(28), and Gilbert Arenas(30). The Celtics were thrilled to have Joe Johnson fall to them at 10, and followed him up by taking a JUCO swingman named Kedrick Brown at 11. They would later take Joe Forte, a sophomore shooting guard from the University of North Carolina who had just won ACC Player of the Year, with the 21st pick. Three years later, they were all gone.
Joe Johnson was a legitimate star in the making. A tall shooting guard with range and athleticism, he was destined to be a perfect complement to Pierce by spreading the floor, acting as an occasional ball handler, and trading off defensive assignments at will. That they are currently doing this for the Brooklyn Nets is a good hint that things didn't go as planned. Johnson started 33 of his first 38 games as a 20 year old on a winning team, and he was inconsistently promising. Though his range hadn't yet shown itself, he was scoring well and learning defense quickly, and it was clear that he had a strong NBA future. With the Eastern Conference in shambles and the Celtics playing well, the front office started looking to strengthen the team for a playoff push. Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk were acquired from the Phoenix Suns for the price of a draft pick, Randy Brown, Milt Palacio, and of course Joe Johnson. For some reason, GM Chris Wallace looked at the roster, saw a 20 year old starting most games for a good team, and decided that he would rather have two old guys to come off the bench instead, and he gave up a first round pick for the privilege of trading away a future six time All-Star. It was almost defensible when the team made the Eastern Conference Finals, but once Johnson turned into one of the top 20 players in the league, it became patently absurd. The Celtics could have had Pierce and Johnson together for a decade, and they decided they wanted a chance to get blown out by the Lakers in the finals instead. Even worse, this was after the Chauncey Billups trade, which definitely taught the lesson that you don't give up on good first round picks in the middle of their rookie seasons! I could go on, but I can already feel my blood boiling. Chris Wallace was dumb.
Exacerbating the loss of a future star was the problem that their next first rounder was a catastrophe. Kedrick Brown parlayed a 45 inch vertical(!) and some Junior College dominance into seven million dollars over four years of NBA paychecks. This is his only highlight. His player comparison page on Basketball-Reference likens him to Duke Legend Trajan Langdon, a guy from the fifties nicknamed Bubbles, and a former shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds. Admittedly, he did show promise on defense and in transition, but he pretty clearly decided to never get better and currently plays in Turkey. He was one of the top ten busts of the decade, and he still ended up with a better career than the third Celtic drafted in 2001.
I knew a lot about Joe Forte heading into the draft, as I watched a lot of ACC basketball (Juan Dixon was my favorite player), and I was really happy with the pick. He was a confident slasher with a pinpoint midrange game and solid passing, and he was coming off a fantastic season at UNC. As far as I could tell, nothing could go wrong. The lesson here is that ten year old me was not very good at evaluating pro basketball players. Forte played the fewest games (25) and minutes (125) of any first round pick from that year, and those are career totals. He also finished his career with a cool 0.00% shooting from beyond the arc, and shot 1-for-12 for his entire rookie season. He wasn't actively bad, he just wasn't active. It's impossible to pinpoint why exactly he didn't work out, but it was definitely hard for him to earn playing time when he was fourth on the depth chart at shooting guard. His lack of size also caused O'Brien to try molding him into a backup point guard, which definitely toughened his transition to the pros. He found himself in Seattle the next year as a piece of the Vin Baker trade and played one full season before the Sonics gave up and waived him. He currently plays in Iran.
Boston is currently rebuilding. With Rondo injured, the core of the title team gone, and a new coach in Brad Stevens, the franchise is definitely looking toward the draft and the future. The Celtics also own multiple first round picks in each of the next three years, so there promises a lot of talent in the next decade. Here's to hoping they don't screw the whole thing up again, because a catastrophe now would probably not end with a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.