The Celtics were the class of the NBA for thirty-years. Going to the NBA Finals nineteen times between 1956-1957 and 1986-1987, winning sixteen titles. To quote Michael Rappaport “They [the Celtics] were the NBA!”
In 1984, coming off their historic championship run in 1984, general manager Red Auerbach was offered a insane, outright damning trade from the middling Seattle SuperSonics. Bench scoring guard Gerald Henderson for an unprotected first round pick in the 1986 draft. Seattle believed they’d be a good team by then, so the consequences would be minor. Needless to say, they were mistaken.
The Sonics finished 31-51. Fifth worse in the NBA for the ‘85-86 season. Typically, this would mean the lottery pick would land somewhere near the end. Perhaps outside of the top-10. Except in this era, the lottery odds were more egalitarian and showed little favoritism to teams who lost more games. If you just missed making the playoffs, you’re chances of landing the number one choice was almost as good as a team who didn’t even come close.
Good fortune smiled upon the Celtics as they landed the second pick in a stacked draft class featuring Brad Daughtery, Chuck Persons and Ron Harper. But another star ripe for the picking. Len Bias was a superstar forward from the University of Maryland. Upon his selection, Larry Bird was so excited he expressed a desire to attend rookie camp to work with Bias. A day after his ascension to the pros, Bias died of a cocaine overdose and the Celtics franchise was forever altered.
The battered and bruised 1986-87 Celtics heroically defended their crown until the bitter end. Falling to the Los Angeles Lakers in six-games that could have easily gone seven if either Bill Walton, Jerry Sitching were healthy, or if Kevin McHale hadn’t broken his left foot earlier in the season. A healthy McHale is blocking Magic Johnson’s baby skyhook and winning game four for the Celts.
Back to the drawing board, the Celtics found a diamond in the rough. Stuck with the 23rd pick, perhaps as a way to make it up for the tragedy of losing Bias, Reggie Lewis fell in Boston’s lap and while veteran reliant head coach K.C Jones played Lewis under five-minutes per game, the guard-forward hybrid would grow into a stable of the last few Bird seasons in the early-nineties. When “The Legend” retired Lewis was expected to take the reins and carry Boston into the next generation.
Coming off his first all-star season in ‘92, the Celtics still had McHale and Robert Parish together for one more season. Athletic dunker Dee Brown, and young Rick Fox rounding out the bench, the Celts balancing youth and experience won 48-games. And while his points, rebounds and assist per game numbers were nearly identical to his all-star campaign, he was snubbed probably due to the high expectations fans and media placed on him prior to the season.
Perhaps Lewis wasn’t a leading man and couldn’t be expected to act as the savior. You never find players like that picking 23rd in the draft. But underneath Lewis’ soft-spoken composure was a vicious dog waiting to be unleashed. Thirteen-minutes into game one versus the Charlotte Hornets, Lewis came out with his hair on fire. Hitting seven of his eleven shots, notching 17 points before collapsing to the floor and having to leave the game. The energy was unnaturally high for a middling Celtics team entering the first round of the playoffs. But Lewis looked like the worthy successor to Bird in that brief stint.
Lewis died on July 27, 1993. His premature death attributed to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a structural heart defect that is most common cause of death in young athletes.
Lewis’ death was sudden and confusing to many. Far be it for me to play armchair doctor to diagnose what the hell really happened. Growing up, far removed from the tragedies of Bias and Lewis, they came across to me as characters out of Greek mythology. Destined for greatness, only for the cruel nature of the world to strike them down before they can achieve it. The Kingdom of the Celtics crumbled soon after Lewis was put to rest. Red was getting old and losing his fastball. The Celtics were no longer a prime destination for veterans looking for a ring; because there were no stars to suggest they had a chance of winning anything. By 1997, the franchise and its fans are clinging on to rattling ping pong balls like a high school dropout would a lottery ticket.
So what-if Lewis didn’t die in the summer of 1993? I ran a simulation to watch his career unfold. On the website I used, however, I had to start at 1992-93 because that’s the last season Lewis was alive and still active. The 1993 campaign was a disastrous one for the C’s. Going 29-53 and kicking out with the forth pick on the draft. Picking Kentucky big forward Jamal Mashburn.
In 1994, the Celtics say goodbye to either the second of third greatest power forward ever in Kevin McHale, and cling on to Parish for one more run. Newcomers Mashburn and Allan Houston stroll into town. Mashburn instantly becoming the next big thing, and Houston fitting in as the seventh man on a loaded C’s team.
Reggie Lewis – Jamal Mashburn (R) – Kevin Gamble – Robert Parish – Rick Fox – Xavier McDaniel – Sherman Douglas – Allan Houston (R) – Ed Pinckney (42-40)
Beat Chicago (3-2)
Beat Atlanta (4-3)
Lost Indiana (4-1)
‘94-95 Lewis: 37.1 mpg – 21.6 pts – 4.9 trb – 2.4 ast – 22.4 per (All-Star – 3rd)
Playoffs: 21-5-2 (3rd Team All-League)
Mashburn takes home Rookie of the year. Lewis improves and helps the Celtics squeak into the playoffs and upset Michael Jordan and the Bulls (for some reason), then ‘Nique and the Hawks before falling to Reggie Miller and the Pacers. Indiana would then go on to beat Vlade Divac and Nick Van Exel of the Lakers in seven-games.
The simulator is quite random, if you can’t tell.
Lewis is able to notch his first All-NBA birth, beating out Gary Payton and Mark Price – who were the guards on the third team in our timeline.
Payton: 16.5 pts – 3.3 trb – 6.0 ast – 2.3 stl – 14.1 FGA – 50.4 fg% – 3.4 FTA – 59.5 ft% – 9.3 wins shares – 17.8 per
Price: 17.3 pts – 3 trb – 7.8 ast – 1.4 stl – 13.2 FGA – 47.8 fg% – 3.5 FTA – 88.8 ft% – 10 WS , 22.7 per
Lewis: 21.6 pts – 4.9 trb – 2.4 ast – 1.7 stl – 15.6 FGA – 52 fg% – 5.2 FTA – 89.3 ft% – 11 WS – 22.4 per
Lewis’ sixty-percent true shooting is also a noticeable mark. And with free agency looming, and the Celtics have money to spend the franchise is ready to capitalize on a surprise deep playoff run.
Same exact roster, except I drafted guards Tony Dumas and Howard Eisley (45-37)
Lost 1st round to Washington (3-1)
Lewis: 35 mpg – 22.1 pts – 5.7 trb – 2.2 ast – 25.3 per (All-Star 4th) 2nd Team All-Defensive and first team All-League
Playoffs: 23.8 pts – 5.3 trb – 2 ast
Transactions: Traded forward Xavier McDaniels for guard Scott Skiles; traded Kevin Gamble and Ed Pinckney for Sam Perkins
A career year for Reginald! Sadly, they didn’t fare better in the playoffs falling to Chris Webber and Juwan Howard and the Wizards in five-games.
It’s weird Lewis made first team here, as his statistical output matches Reggie Miller, who made the third team. Penny Hardaway made the first team averaging 21 points, 4 rebounds and 7 assists for a Magic team that ended up conference champions. So take this with a grain of salt.
Also, the Lakers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers for some reason.
Off-Season: drafted Arvydas Sabonis (31) and Travis Best
Signed Hakeem Olajuwon and Dana Baros in free agency
Lewis – Hakeem – Dee – Mashburn – Baros —- S. Perkins – Sabonis – Fox – Douglas – Parish – T. Best (49-33)
Beat Orlando (3-0)
Beat Milwaukee (4-3)
Beat Philadelphia (4-1)
Beat Minnesota (4-2)
WOLRD CHAMPIONS (Mashburn FMVP: 27.8 pts – 7.3 trb – 4.5 ast
Transaction: Traded Dee Brown to Philly for Derrick McKey and a ‘96 1st from Milwaukee
Lewis: 36.8 mpg – 19.8 pts – 4.5 trb – 4 ast -24.7 per (All-Star 5th) 2nd Team All-League; 3rd team all defensive
Playoffs: 20 pts – 4 trb – 3.8 ast
Mashburn: 25.8 pts/7.4 trb/5.2 ast/30.1 per
Lewis: 19.8 pts/4.5 trb/ 4 ast/24.7 per
McKey: 11.9 pts/3.9 trb/1.8 ast/18.9 per
Olajuwon: 13 pts/3.9 trb/1.8 ast/18.9 per
Baros: 11 pts/1.6 trb/4 ast/14.5 per
Fox: 6.0 pts/2.7 trb/1.2 ast/10.1 per
Sabonis: 9.9 pts/8.1 trb/0.8 ast/15.3 per
Perkins: 4.2 pts/2.5 trb/0.6 ast/9.4 per
Dumas: 6.2 pts/1.8 trb/0.7 ast/4.3 per
Lewis is showing some signs of age, as his points per game dips a shade below 20. The C’s land Hakeem in free agency. In this reality, Houston never gets over the hump and “The Dream” grows dissatisfied in Houston and teams up with Lewis in Beantown. Ironically, in 1992 a rumor swirled around of a swap between the two.
The season started off slow. I was fortunate to be able to swing Brown for McKey and a pick that (which became Steve Nash). I took the thirty-one year old Arvydas Sabonis who helped probably would have been the best backup big in the league despite his advanced age. Hell, he killed in OTL. Becoming the best player on the Trail Blazers from the jump. For some reason, the simulator doesn’t like him very much. He’s barely averaging 10 points and eight rebounds.
Draft: Steve Nash, Ben Wallace, Bruce Bowen
Mashburn – Hakeem – Lewis – McKey – Baros (Fox, Nash, Sabonis, Wallace, Perkins, Best, Bowen) (59-23)
Beat PHI (3-0)
Beat ORL (4-1)
Lost to MIL (4-3)
Milwaukee beat Utah for the championship
Lewis: 31.7 mpg – 14.8 ppg – 3.6 trb – 2.2 ast – 19.3 per
Reggie Lewis tore his ACL, will miss 153 games
The defending champions were poised to repeat, but in the last game of the season Lewis tore his ACL and would miss the following season. Boston’s valiant bunch would fall to the eventual champion Bucks in seven in the East Finals. Lewis would never be the same again. Calling it a career in 1999. Just for fun, I simulated two more seasons to see if he could have recovered from his traumatic injury.
Drafted Austin Croshere, Kevin Ollie; Signed Jalen Rose in free agency
Mashburn – Hakeem- Nash – Fox – Baros (same team minus Perk, Douglas and Best) 37-45)
Sabonis retired after the season (7-6-1) best season, rookie was a 10 and 8
Drafted Dirk Nowitzki 10th; signed KG in free agency (48-34)
Lose to New Orleans (3-1)
Kind of sad to leave this team behind. Dirk and Garnett on the same team! How?
Anyways, here’s Lewis’ career summary:
- Eleven seasons
- Six All-Star appearances (1991 thru 1996)
- Third Team All-NBA (1994)
- First Team All-NBA (1995)
- Second Team All-NBA (1996)
- Two 2nd All-Team Defense (‘95 & ‘96)
- NBA Champion (1996)
16.9 points – 4.3 rebounds – 2.3 assists – 3.8 fta – 81.3 ft% – 13.9 FGA – 49.3 ft% – 0.2 3PA – 17.3 3P% – 23.2 USG% – 30.6 WS – 112 ORtg –
19.8 points – 4.7 rebounds – 2.6 assists – 4.4 FTA – 91.1 ft% – 14.7 FGA – 50.7 fg% – 2.7 3PA – 37.5 3P% – 22.7 USG% – 63.8 WS – 118.8 ORtg – 20.8 per
1987-88 to 1998-99
879 Games (80 per season) – 18.3 points – 4.5 rebounds – 2.4 assists – 94.4 WS
Trying to find a career comp for Lewis, I looked no further than the ghosts of Celtics past and brought up Sam Jones. Played the same position. Went to one fewer All-Star games than Lewis. Made the same amount of All-NBA teams. Only logged one more season than Lewis and averaged nearly 18 points, 5 rebounds and almost 3 assists a a game. He averaged 15.8 attempts to Lewis 14.3. His wins shares mark of 87.4 pales to Lewis’ 94.4.
In this reality, Lewis took the torch from Bird, proceeded to carry his team to deep playoff runs and ultimately had his career cut short before he was about to lead them to becoming a dynasty.
So yes, he’s probably a Hall of Famer.
Lewis and Bias are two people who have never met and are forever linked for their connections to the Celtics, what they represented and what their deaths meant to the franchise and basketball in general.
At least Bias served as a cautionary tale and potentially scared off many impressionable people from trying cocaine. But what did Lewis’ passing do? What’s his silver lining? There isn’t one. Life is unfair. The people you love the most are likely to die young and the people you despise are likelier to outlive you and your loved ones. That’s how it is.