Ah, Bob McAdoo. Very few players have managed to hurt the Boston Celtics both as a member of the team and as an opponent the way ol’ Bob managed to. While most people probably remember him as either an explosive scoring force for the Buffalo Braves in the early ’70s or the sixth man on two LA Laker title teams in the ’80s, I want to take a look at his brief – but surprisingly contentious – 20 game stopover in Boston at the end of the 1978-79 season, which had a significant impact (albeit indirectly) on the franchise that would last into the ’90s.
The Celtics in 1978-79 were a lousy team. Tom Sanders, who had replaced the legendary Tom Heinsohn midway through the previous season, was replaced by Dave Cowens after a disastrous 2-12 start. Their first round pick, Larry Bird, was still wearing Indiana State Sycamore blue rather than Celtic green, and characters like Curtis Rowe and Marvin Barnes patrolled the floor instead.
The ownership situation wasn’t much better than the product on the court. Kentucky Fried Chicken magnate John Y. Brown had acquired the team in 1978, swapping his Buffalo Braves franchise with Irv Levin, who wanted to move the team to his native California. Brown had previously owned the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA, and had earned a reputation as a hands-on owner. This was not a positive thing – his two most notable moves as Colonels owner were trading his best player (Dan Issel) to Baltimore to save money, and to fold the team rather than pay $3 million to move it to the NBA.
Auerbach had a plan. The team held Bird’s rights for a full year, and would make a hard push to sign him before he returned to the draft pool. Besides that, he had hoarded three first round picks in the 1979 NBA Draft – their own, the Golden State Warriors’ (acquired for Jo Jo White), and the Seattle Supersonics’ (acquired for Dennis Awtrey) – which would ensure an infusion of young talent that could carry the franchise into the next decade.
John Y. Brown, however, wanted to win now. He viewed those picks as trade chips rather than building blocks, and needed to make a big splash. On February 12, 1979, he sent the three picks that Auerbach had so carefully acquired to the New York Knicks for Robert Allen McAdoo, Jr., who was averaging 26.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game at the time.
Auerbach, predictably, was furious. Not only had Brown undone all the work he’d done, he’d done so by acquiring a player that had a game antithetical to Auerbach’s philosophy. He was a great talent, to be sure, but he was a me-first player, and Auerbach hated that. Red was within a hair’s breadth of leaving the Celtics for the Knicks, but Brown sold his interest in the team to Harry Mangurian before he could pull the trigger, and Red stayed.
In his 20 games in Boston, McAdoo averaged 20.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, and fit in about as well as Auerbach had expected, which is to say not at all. The team finished a dismal 29-53, a record that earned the Knicks the third overall pick in the 1979 draft. Brown may have been gone, but the specter of his ownership still loomed large.
Free from Brown’s meddling, however, Red was free to get back to his plan to reload the franchise. He found a team that wanted McAdoo, and while the haul wasn’t quite as impressive as what they gave up for him, it ended up working out very well.
The Celtics had signed M.L. Carr away from the Detroit Pistons as a free agent, and because of the arcane free agent rules of the day, compensation had to be worked out. The Celtics used the opportunity to send McAdoo to Detroit for two first round picks in the 1980 NBA Draft.
The Pistons won 16 games in 1979-80, earning the Celtics the #1 overall selection in the draft. They traded that pick, along with the other pick they acquired from the Pistons for McAdoo (Washington’s #13 overall pick) to the Golden State Warriors for the #3 overall pick, which they used on Minnesota center Kevin McHale and talented (but underachieving) center Robert Parish. The rest, as they say, is history.
In the end, the Celtics turned Jo Jo White and Dennis Awtrey into McHale and Parish, while the Knicks got Bill Cartwright, Larry Demic, and Sly Williams with the picks they poached from Brown for McAdoo. For all the consternation that the trade caused at the time, it certainly came up roses for the Celtics.