Looking Back at the 1997 NBA Draft

Chauncey Billups a miss? Maybe if the future Finals MVP hadn't come out so soon

June 16, 2007

By Steve Aschburner

Special to CSTV.com from The Sports Xchange

 

The pain of last month's NBA draft lottery is fresh in the hearts and the minds of Boston Celtics fans, many of whom still are reeling -- and likely will reel all over again when the scab gets torn off on draft night -- over the team's horrible luck in missing out on both Greg Oden and Kevin Durant.

 

This piece isn't likely to make them feel better, except possibly as a way of distracting them from that pain. In the way that we'll temporarily forget about a headache when we pound our thumb with a hammer.

 

Comforting, eh?

 

So let's turn it around and state unequivocally that whatever Celtics fans are about to endure over the next decade or so -- watching Oden boost an already talented Portland club to title contention or seeing Durant save the Seattle franchise from homelessness and relocation -- those hardy souls already have survived worse.


 

 

 

They've survived since 1997 without Tim Duncan.

 

Oden and Durant? Who knows how their careers will play out? Maybe each of them will bolt for a bigger market as soon as he can. Bruce Bowen might stick a foot under either or, more likely, both.

 

The point is, maybe the Celtics will miss out on a lot by not having Oden or Durant for the next 10 or 12 seasons. Or maybe they won't miss out on much at all. Not to jinx anyone or be flippant, but if any franchise should understand -- after Len Bias and Reggie Lewis -- that no career is guaranteed, it's Boston.

 

On the other hand, Duncan is certified and notarized as The One Who Got Away. Since San Antonio barged ahead of Boston in the '97 lottery, he has been nothing less than the NBA's player of the decade. You read that right -- even though Shaquille O'Neal has been active and won three rings in that time, even though Michael Jordan played his final year with the Bulls and two more forgettable ones with Washington since Duncan arrived, the Spurs' power forward has dominated the league's landscape in that quiet, fundamentally flawless way of his.

Even before the Celtics got bounced again by the Ping-Pong gods, Duncan had led the Spurs to three championships, headed toward a fourth. He'd won three MVP trophies and stood as the only player in NBA history to make the all-NBA team and the all-defensive teams in each of his first 10 seasons. He had done all this with a strong, not but stellar, supporting cast, and with a good, but not great, head coach.

 

With two glaring exceptions -- his notorious bug-eyed protests of every foul call against him and his utter lack of marketing sizzle -- Duncan has been everything his team and the league could have wanted. And neurosurgeons should be as consistent as this guy; his stats as a rookie (21.1 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 2.5 bpg, 54.9 FG%), his stats as a 10-year veteran (20.0, 10.6, 2.4, 54.6) and his lifetime stats (21.8, 11.9, 2.4, 50.9) are nearly indistinguishable.

 

Among the many reasons Duncan-to-the-Spurs hurts Celtics fans: Even as they were stitching his name on a shamrocked jersey, Gregg Popovich was working equally hard to keep the Spurs in lottery contention. With David Robinson shelved for all but six games, Popovich took over as coach from Bob Hill and made sure the club didn't do anything stupid like, well, win a lot. San Antonio wound up 20-62, with just five more victories than the Celtics.

 

Granted, the dropoff from Duncan to everybody else was breathtaking. Philadelphia, at No. 2, settled for Keith Van Horn. Boston, picking third, took Chauncey Billups but seemed so soured by missing out on the new Spurs rookie that it dumped Billups by February.

 

Too bad, in that trade with Toronto, the Celtics took back Kenny Anderson rather than the Raptors' own disappointing preps-to-pros rookie. Guy by the name of Tracy McGrady.

 

By the way, mentioning a Canadian team brings this thought: How come Boston is always the city that whines and moans about missing out on Duncan, when the Vancouver Grizzlies (14-68) had a record that was one game worse? By all rights, that hapless franchise should have had dibs on Mr. D. But the NBA had blocked the latest expansion clubs from getting the top pick as part of their "fee" for joining the league.

 

Nothing more fair about that than what happened to the Celtics.

 

Aside from Duncan, here are the 1997 draft's "hits" and "misses":

 

1997 DRAFT HITS

 

Tracy McGrady, F/G, Houston Rockets (No. 9, Toronto)

The whole "high school kid" trend still was in its infancy when the Raptors grabbed McGrady, and the 18-year-old had a rough go growing up in the NBA his first two seasons. By the time he got it, McGrady was ready to move on from Toronto. He hasn't figured out a way to move beyond the playoffs' first round, but in Houston he's got a dominant center, a deep roster and plenty of years left. 

 

Anthony Parker, G/F, Toronto Raptors (No. 21, New Jersey)

This one's a bit of a stretch and probably a direct contradiction of thinking that puts Billups among this draft's "misses." But Parker's ability to return from five seasons in Israel and one in Italy and become a key contributor this season (12.4 ppg, 44.1 percent from the arc) for the first Toronto team to win a division title earns him a little love. Guess the similar career path of his Raptors coach, Sam Mitchell, clicked for them.

 

Bobby Jackson, G, New Orleans Hornets (No. 23, Seattle)

Injuries have limited Jackson's impact as a defender and hustler, but his heart has made him a valuable piece everywhere (five teams) he's played. Timberwolves fans still haven't gotten over their club's failure to re-sign the University of Minnesota product in 2000. Jackson's best season earned him the 2003 Sixth Man Award.

  

Marc Jackson, F/C, New Orleans Hornets (No. 38, Golden State)

Another five-team vagabond, this big man never has matched the numbers he put up as an NBA rookie in 2000-01, finally joining the Warriors after a year in Turkey and two in Spain. Jackson held out the next season and wound up getting traded to Minnesota, starting his trek through the NBA as a generally helpful backup.

 

Anthony Johnson, G, Atlanta Hawks (No. 40, Sacramento)

Johnson has played 613 games in the league and started 185, not bad for a guy out of Charleston taken as late as he was. The 6-3 point guard has switched teams eight times and been with the Hawks on three separate occasions. He started last season with higher hopes, a spot on Dallas' roster, but was dealt to Atlanta in February for a second-round pick.

 

Alvin Williams, G, out of league (No. 48, Portland)

Injuries again, cutting short the career of a talented point guard from Villanova and one of the NBA's class acts while he was around. For three seasons, from 2000-03, Williams played 242 games and boosted his scoring average from 9.8 to 13.2, all the while averaging better than five assists. But he got hurt and, over the last three seasons, made only three appearances, the final two in a failed stint with the Clippers.

 

1997 DRAFT MISSES

 

Chauncey Billups, G, Detroit Pistons (No. 3, Boston)

Billups has been an All-Star and we'd take him on our team any day of the week. But he qualifies as a DRAFT miss because he wasn't ready, coming out of Colorado after just two seasons in college. That's why he couldn't handle what Rick Pitino threw at him in Boston, that's why he bounced through Toronto, Denver and Orlando. Billups did establish himself in two seasons with Minnesota and should have been re-signed, but the team had so much money tied up in gimpy Terrell Brandon, it didn't compete with the Pistons for him. Seriously, putting him in this group ought to be a compliment because Billups has been so good lately -- 2004 Finals MVP and a hot free agent this summer -- that previous employers shouldn't have had to wait for his payoff.

 

Antonio Daniels, G, Washington Wizards (No. 4, Vancouver)

Daniels has turned into a decent NBA role player, but the Grizzlies had much bigger things in mind when they grabbed him so high. He was miscast as a starting point guard, an admission that Vancouver made a year later when it went after Steve Francis.

 

Olivier Saint-Jean, F, out of league (No. 11. Sacramento)

Later changing his name to Tariq Abdul-Wahid, this 6-foot-6 swingman was the first player born and raised in France to play in the NBA. He averaged 7.8 points and 20 minutes in 236 NBA games but missed another 550 games because of injuries during his stay on four teams' rosters.

 

Johnny Taylor, F, out of league (No. 17, Orlando)

Not much to report here: Taylor played briefly with Orlando and Denver but was out of the league by 2000. Most recently, he was said to be playing in Belgium.

 

Chris Anstey, C, out of league (No. 18, Portland)

A late bloomer, basketball-wise, after coming to the sport late in his native Australia, Anstey has had most of his success in foreign leagues. A 7-foot finesse player, he really doesn't have to apologize for his failure to shine in the NBA. A bunch of guys drafted soon after him, such as Paul Grant, Ed Gray, Rodrick Rhodes and Keith Booth, turned out to be busts, too.

 

Steve Aschburner is a senior NBA reporter and columnist, covering the Minnesota Timberwolves for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for 13 seasons and serving as president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association from 2005-07.