Celtics Circuit: Revisiting Larry Bird & Kevin McHale Trade Proposals
The Boston Celtics made an unprecedented move in the history of their franchise this summer – they traded active legendary players. When President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge pulled the trigger on a deal to send Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets, it signaled the end of a glorious era. While Garnett and Pierce won less titles than Celtics icons like Bill Russell (11 championships) and Larry Bird (three rings), they helped turn around a team’s fortunes.
Bird and Russell were never traded and they were allowed to retire as Celtics. Russell finished his career as a player-coach in the 1968-’69 season. Bird and Kevin McHale were involved in trade rumors in the late 1980s, but Red Auerbach gave into nostalgia and kept the original Big Three (Bird, McHale, and Robert Parish) together until their bodies broke down.
The current players ending their careers playing for just one team are very rare due to free agency and players’ careers are being extended into their late 30’s.
Even though Bird and McHale were never traded, let’s take a look at if Auerbach decided to form a younger nucleus of players. In 1988, the Indiana Pacers offered Chuck Person, Herb Williams, and Steve Stipanovich for Bird. The Dallas Mavericks wanted to acquire McHale for Detlef Schrempf and Sam Perkins. Bird and McHale were both coming off injuries. Bird had surgeries on both of his Achillies and back. McHale had a screw placed inside his foot. They were both shells of themselves from earlier in the decade.
Here is a look at the players that were involved in packages to land the two Celtics’ stars.
Person enjoyed a 13-year career and he played for five teams (Pacers, Minnesota Timberwolves, San Antonio Spurs, Charlotte Hornets, and the then-Seattle SuperSonics). He was known as “The Rifleman” for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. The 6-foot-8-inch forward averaged 14.7 points per game in his career. He shot 36.2% from beyond the 3-point line and he was a solid rebounder (5.1 per game). The 4th overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft was Rookie of the Year in 1986-’87 and he was the first Pacers rookie to record a triple double (34 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists) in a game against the New York Knicks on December 20th, 1986. Person was never a franchise player capable of carrying a team to multiple championships because he was a part of some bad Pacers teams early in his career. The Celtics could have added a young scorer in his prime.
Williams was among the top shot blockers in the league. The 6-foot-10-inch center became the leading shot blocker in Pacers history with 1,094. He could score too. The 14th overall pick in the 1981 NBA Draft averaged double figures in points in over seven years with the Pacers. He averaged just 10.8 points in his career because he became a backup center to Patrick Ewing when he was traded to the Knicks on February 21, 1989 for Schrempf and a future draft choice. He spent 18 years as a player in the NBA before he became an assistant coach with the Knicks. While Williams was never a star player, he had his most productive years with the Pacers and he was a veteran leader.
Stipanovich’s career was cut short by knee issues and he was forced to retire in 1988. The second overall pick in the 1983 NBA Draft spent only five seasons in the NBA. He also accidentally shot himself in the shoulder on December 27, 1980. The 6-foot-11-inch center posted double figures in his five seasons with the Pacers. He was an efficient scorer who shot 48.2% from the field and he averaged 7.8 boards in his career. The Celtics would have gained cap relief from Stipanovich being forced into early retirement.
The 6-foot-9-inch player could play multiple positions. Schrempf was a scorer who could shoot from the perimeter and the free throw line. He played 16 years in the league and he was a member of the 1996 Sonics team that lost in the NBA Finals to the Chicago Bulls. After sitting on the bench with the Mavericks, Schrempf was sent to the Pacers where he won consecutive NBA Sixth Man of the Year Awards in 1991 and 1992. Also, Schrempf was a three-time All-Star. He shot 38.4% on three-pointers and 80.3% from the free throw line. The 8th overall selection in the 1985 NBA Draft was also solid in collecting rebounds. While it is difficult to project whether the Celtics would have inserted Schrempf or Person into the starting lineup, they could have had two very good scorers as their swingmen for several years.
The 6-foot-9-inch forward came into the league as a post player who was tough inside. Late in his career, he became a three-point shooter and he could pass out of the high post. Perkins was known as “The Big Smooth.” The 17-year forward-center scored in double figures for most of his career and he was the fourth pick in the 1984 NBA Draft. The Celtics could have received a very talented scorer at the forward-center position who would become a “stretch 4.”
There is no way to determine how good the Celtics would have been. They did lose two first-round draft choices in consecutive years (Len Bias in 1986 and Reggie Lewis in 1987) to tragic deaths. The league required the Celtics to pay Lewis’ family all of the money from his contract after Lewis died when he collapsed on a basketball court in 1993. With all of these players, the Celtics could have sold them in trades to acquire superstar talent or they could have built a team with incredible depth. The Bulls were dominant in the 1990’s with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin. It would have been difficult for the Celtics to beat the Bulls, but they would have been contenders well into the 1990’s if they had been able to land these younger players for Bird and McHale. There was a brief window when Jordan left the NBA to play Minor League Baseball. Instead, the Celtics became a consistent lottery team and they made a series of poor decisions until 1998 when they drafted Pierce. The organization even managed difficult seasons until they traded for Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007.