Posted 2:30 p.m., ET, July 9
You remember the famous diner scene in "Heat." Of course you do. Best scene in the movie. When it suddenly came together midway through the film, I remember everyone in the theater holding their breath -- it was like seeing Magic and Larry playing on the Dream Team, only if both of them were healthy. These things just don't happen.
That scene was filmed in Beverly Hills at a fancy diner called Kate Mandolini's, which proudly displays a picture of DeNiro and Pacino sitting at the table between takes. I inadvertently went there for dinner about a year ago. Upon discovering where I was eating, it was 20 times more exciting then being in the Sistine Chapel. I'm not sure what that says about me.
Anyway, there's a reason I'm telling you this. During that scene, when Pacino tells DeNiro that he seems like a nice guy but he's taking him down if they cross paths again, DeNiro gives him the old, "There's a flip side to that coin" routine, then wonders, "What if I gotta take you down?" I always liked that phrase. There's a flip side to that coin. So when I realized that I needed to write about the Celtics in today's column, and that at least 95 percent of the readers would be disappointed about it, I realized that I had to pull out the DeNiro speech.
On the bright side, you're getting more columns from me. But folks, there's a flip side to that coin: You have to endure occasional Celtics rants. It's like a tax for the new Sports Guy's World page. I know more about the Celtics and the NBA than I know about anything else. So maybe that's my challenge -- I'm going to make you care. Every few weeks, I'm going to write about them. That's just the way it's going to be. If you skip it, no hard feelings.
Anyway, the Celtics re-signed Mark Blount to a $40 million, six-year extension yesterday. I knew it was coming. When one potential stiff (Mehmet Okur) went for $50 million and one proven stiff (Adonal Foyle) went for $41 million, Blount's market was pretty much set. He's better than both of those guys, which doesn't mean much. Two winters ago, the Celtics gave him away to Denver, then reacquired him for Shammond Williams a few months later. Straight-up.
(Yes, the Shammond Williams who went to UNC. The guy who's been on 25 different teams. The guy who Chris Wallace once said was "the key" to the Vin Baker trade, which was ironic because Baker was making $13 million a year. I miss Chris Wallace. He could have sold dog poop on two slices of french bread for $15 a sandwich. But that's a whole other story.)
When you're being swapped straight-up for a journeyman point guard, and you're a seven-footer . . . I mean, that's not a good sign. But that's where he was. Blount always worked hard -- he could block shots, he wasn't a bad rebounder, and he had the worst hands known to mankind. He was one of the few Celtic players in the last 25 years who actually made my Dad grunt out loud. Dad can't stand centers with bad hands. It's his all-time pet peeve. We never imagined that Blount would be anything more than a backup, like a more-athletic Greg Kite.
Then something weird happened. Something REALLY weird.
When the team fell apart after the Antoine/Eric Williams trades, once it became apparent that Danny Ainge was trying to tank the season -- which proved impossible because the Eastern Conference was so brutal, something Ainge should have known at the time -- Blount inexplicably turned into a poor man's Robert Parish. As a writer, I use the word "inexplicable" too much. I just like the way it sounds. Many times, it's even the right word for whatever point I'm trying to make. In this particular case, you can't come up with a better word for what happened to Mark Blount over the last 50 games of the 2003-2004 season. This was inexplicable. There was no answer.
Suddenly, Blount was controlling the boards and grabbing rebounds in traffic. When they ran plays for him -- which wasn't often because Ricky Davis and Paul Pierce didn't even realize he was on their team until April -- Blount was consistently making 10-foot turnarounds and those Duncan jump-hooks. He showed a knack for busting his butt downcourt off opposing misses, beating his guy and even occasionally catching passes for lay-ups. And it wasn't like he was trying harder or something -- he always tried hard. Things just fell into place for him. I can't explain it. Really, I can't explain it. It was like watching Brooke Burns turn into an Emmy Award-winning actress overnight.
In January and February, Blount played 28 games and averaged 11 points and eight rebounds. In March and April, he played 21 games and averaged 14 points and nearly 11 rebounds -- that's a legitimate double-double for nine straight weeks. Against teams without true centers, he dominated certain games -- like the improbable 28-21 he slapped on Orlando in March. Even against studs like Jermaine O'Neal and Ben Wallace, he was holding his own. In the playoffs against Indiana, he was the only guy on the team who seemed like he actually cared whether they won or lost.
There were two possibilities here: Either he is the proverbial late bloomer, or he was pulling a McIllvane, this year's stiff center making a contract run at the perfect time. There's one every year. The names read like a morgue report: the immortal Jim McIllvane (who started everything) ... Ike Austin ... Cal Booth ... Jerome James ... John Amaeche ... Shawn Bradley ... Chris Dudley ... Greg Ostertag. Some guys can even crap the bed and still get paid -- like Vitaly Potapenko or Michael Olowokandi. If you're big, and you're available, someone always wants you. Always. Even if it seems like you're wearing mittens.
So that was the dilemma. Late bloomer or McIllvane? Once the Foyle-Okur contracts were inflicted on the general public, Dad and I were resigned to the fact that Blount was leaving and we wouldn't have a center next season. I mean, after the Baker and LaFrentz debacles, surely this team had learned its lesson, right? You should only open your checkbooks for a sure thing. Right?
We learned this ... I mean, we LEARNED this. Right?
Word came down yesterday morning: Blount was in the fold. Six years, $41 million, with a 15-percent bump if they ever tried to trade him. Staggering numbers for a 28-year-old center who played well for exactly three and a half months in his entire career, a span that directly coincided with his imminent status as a free agent. This made three straight summers that the team rolled the dice on a big man with question marks. One of them had a drinking problem and a poisonous contract. One of them had knee problems and a poisonous contract. And one of them was Mark Blount, the leading contender for the 2004 Jim McIllvane Award. Now the Celtics have no salary cap flexibility whatsoever for at least the next three years. Beautiful.
I spent yesterday morning banging my head against the desk. We were going to suck again. Bird retired 12 years ago; it's been a comedy of errors ever since. VH1 could actually produce a "Top 25 Celtics Mistakes Of The Last 12 Years" show. I'm not kidding. You could come up with 25. In fact, I just may write that column some day.
Anyway, I sulked for about four hours. Then I started thinking about it rationally. This wasn't a terrible contract -- it was actually under market value for a starting center. A number of teams wooed Blount this summer who know what they're doing, including Indiana and Miami. Plus, we didn't have a center next season. And I watched all those games last year; Blount wasn't like Erick Dampier, a guy who didn't give a crap for four years, then suddenly got himself into shape and started playing hard because he was in a contract year. Blount always played hard. That was his best quality.
More importantly, the biggest misnomer about the NBA is cap space. Everyone craves it. Gotta have that cap space. So what happens when they actually have cap space? Dumb things happen. Mehmet Okur gets $50 million. Steve Nash gets $60 million-plus when his back could go out at any time. Rafer Alston gets $29 million even though he's never proven to be anything more than a change-of-pace point guard. And this isn't a recent thing. Remember the Shandon Anderson and Howard Eisley contracts? The Luc Longley deal? The Derek Anderson signing? Thirty-three million for Vitaly Freaking Potapenko????
Here's my point: When you're already paying LaFrentz and Pierce a combined $75-80 million over the next three years, cap space isn't really any option, anyway. And even if it was an option, given the recent history of the team, it's almost a mortal lock that they would screw up and sign the wrong guy. So what's the big deal about overpaying someone like Blount, rather than losing someone who had evolved into a possible asset? Why let someone leave for nothing? Why not roll the dice? You already have LaFrentz making something like 22 percent of your cap . . . what's the difference at this point?
Anyway, at 1:45 p.m. West Coast time, on July 8, 2004, I officially talked myself into the Mark Blount signing. The Eastern Conference couldn't be worse. It's not possible. You could see a 28-win team make the playoffs next year. With Boozer stabbing Cleveland in the back, with K-Mart potentially fleeing the Meadowlands, with all kinds of crazy rumors about Iverson floating around right now, you could see a conference with two very good teams (Detroit and Indiana), two good teams (Miami and Milwaukee), two decent teams (New York and New Jersey), two questions marks who could go either way (Philly and Cleveland), and then lottery teams galore.
(Note: Now we're getting into the "Ifs" portion of the column.)
If Blount keeps putting up those double-doubles . . .
If Pierce starts playing like a blue-chipper again . . .
If LaFrentz's knees are healthy . . .
If they lucked out with Delonte West like everyone says (including me) . . .
If Marcus Banks matures this season (which seems highly probable) . . .
If they can move Chucky Atkins and/or Ricky Davis for a low-post player (Juwan Howard???) . . .
If they can clear some playing time for Jiri Welsch and Tony Allen (who's already won over the entire coaching staff and is already being compared to Ron Artest) . . .
If they can sign a veteran power forward like Antonio McDyess or Marcus Fizer for short money to grab some rebounds and tutor Al Jefferson . . .I mean, that's not a bad team . . . especially with Doc Rivers coaching it. That's a 6th or 7th seed in the decrepit East. Maybe even better if some of the other teams suffer some bad luck with injuries.
(One potential landmine: Although it seems like Ainge actually knows talent, given his superb draft picks last month, he still suffers from a bad case of Pitino-itis. In other words, he can't stop tinkering. Even now, as he claims that the team isn't shopping Pierce, it's impossible to forget that he made those same promises about Antoine Walker last summer. He's one of those over-competitive dreamers who fervently believes that he's one phone call away from turning the entire franchise around. Pitino was the same way. That's why Ainge makes me nervous as hell. He's like one of those loose-cannon friends that everyone has, the guy you're afraid to get drunk with, the guy who ropes you into a mammoth bar brawl because somebody accidentally bumped his pool cue. You never feel totally safe with him.)
And then there's this: We have no evidence that free agents actually want to play in Boston. They want to play in Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, New York . . . they want to live in big cities or warm places. They don't want to deal with scraping ice off their windshield, or being heckled by Murph and Sully at the tail end of a 113-78 blowout. For instance, last summer the Celtics could have moved Antoine for Rasheed Wallace. That's a great trade. Unfortunately, even though Rasheed had no contractual rights whatsover to block the deal, he wanted no part of Boston. His agent even told the team something along the lines of "If this deal goes down, Rasheed is going to make everyone's life VERY difficult."
When Rasheed Wallace's agent tells you that, you listen. They didn't make the trade.
The bottom line is that the Celtics haven't lured a marquee free agent to Boston in 10 years, not since ML Carr signed Dominique Wilkins and the salad fork in his back to a multi-year contract. And sure, some of that has to do with a perpetual lack of cap space, as well as a "Consecutive Moron Streak" of guys running the team. But this isn't the old days. NBA players in the 21st century don't give a crap about those 16 banners, or the fact that Russell, Bird and Havlicek used to play there. To them, Boston is just another city, and it's not near anything, and it's only warm for four months a year. Some even mistakenly believe that Boston is a racist city, as Barry Bonds's idiotic comments proved last month.
And that, my friends, is why we needed to sign Mark Blount for $41 million dollars. He wanted to stay in Boston. He's an overachiever. You roll the dice with people like that. Even if there's a 40-percent chance they might win the Jim McIllvane Award.
Anyway, when I called my father last night and explained my change of heart, he listened patiently and waited until I had finished. There were three seconds of silence.
And then . . .
"It's Mark Blount!" he finally screamed. "He's got bad hands! He'll always have bad hands!"
But Dad, we didn't have a cent-.
"Stop! It's Mark Blount! They just paid $41 million for Mark Blount!"
All right . . . maybe some people still need to be convinced.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN The Magazine and Page 2. You can reach his Sports Guy's World site every day on ESPN.com.