Chauncey Billups gasped for air. A rookie point guard who has a
tattoo on his left arm that reads KING OF THE HILL, Billups was
trying to scale the mountain of conditioning demanded by Rick
Pitino. The climb was killing Billups--and this was only in the
preseason. "I thought I was in great shape," Billups said, "but
now I realize I have no idea what that means in this system."
The system Pitino will implement in his first year at the
Celtics' helm will be familiar to Knicks fans from 1987 to '89:
a blend of pressing, trapping and three-point shooting that
requires players to be in superb shape and to have infinite
patience. Pitino used this approach to coax 52 wins out of New
York in 1988-89, but there was one major difference between that
team and his new one: Pitino in New York had future Hall of
Famer Patrick Ewing in the pivot.
His center in Boston will be Travis Knight, a frisky second-year
pro who was lured away from the Lakers with a seven-year, $22
million contract. Pitino points to Knight's successful rookie
campaign with the Lakers as evidence that Knight has the tools
to thrive in a transition game. But in L.A., Knight played in
short spurts or, when he was at his best, alongside Shaquille
O'Neal. In Boston he'll often be shoulder-to-shoulder with
workman-like big bodies Andrew DeClercq, Walter McCarty and Roy
Rogers. This trio will provide Pitino with another commodity he
values: an abundance of fouls.
To rely on the unpolished Knight to score consistently from the
post would be pure folly. With Dino Radja hitting the road for
Europe after the Celtics bought out his contract, the closest
they can come to a bona fide inside threat is 30-year-old Pervis
Ellison, whose chronically sore knees have earned him the
nickname Out of Service Pervis. Still, Pitino regards him as the
key to his young team's success. "Pervis has big-time ability,"
Pitino says. "His defensive capabilities could shape our entire
team, if he's ready and willing to play. Time will tell if
Pervis is up to the challenge."
The same holds true of Billups, the third pick in the draft
after his sophomore year at Colorado, who faces a multitude of
demands in his role as Pitino's quarterback. He must, for
starters, push the ball up the floor hard. He must prove he can
hit the NBA three-pointer, as well as break down defenses off
the dribble. He must apply pressure in the trap. Oh, and by the
way, he must also find the open man in transition and he must
provide stability at a position he will probably be sharing with
"I know there's a lot of pressure on me to perform, but I'm not
going to run away from that," says the 6'3", 21-year-old
Billups. "Point guards represent some of the premier players in
the NBA right now, and I want to be one of them."
Pitino will probably limit Billups's offensive duties early in
the season and rely more on forward Antoine Walker. Rookie guard
Ron Mercer is the third of Pitino's former players at Kentucky
in the starting lineup, along with Walker and McCarty. Veteran
guard Dee Brown will be counted on almost as heavily for his
contributions in the locker room as for his three-point shooting.
Although Pitino told Billups before the draft that he fully
expected to take the Celtics to the playoffs this season, he
tempered that when his team continued to stumble along in
exhibition play. Another sign of his dropping expectations came
on Oct. 22, when Boston traded swingman Chris Mills to the
Knicks for point guard Scott Brooks (since waived) and forwards
Dontae' Jones, rookie John Thomas and McCarty. Only eight weeks
earlier the Celtics had signed Mills to a seven-year, $33.6
million deal. The swap was indicative of Mills's struggles with
Pitino's system and a desire to clear salary-cap room for
further rebuilding at the FleetCenter.
Boston will struggle mightily in the early months of the season
but may well reap some of the rewards of Pitino's frenzied style
in January and February, when other clubs become fatigued. The
playoffs? That's a dream for another season, when Billups is a
year older, a year wiser and a little closer to understanding
what a long climb it is to the top of the NBA.