The Incredible Longevity of John Havlicek

John Havlicek played for 16 NBA seasons, entering the league in 1962-63 in time to win six championships with Bill Russell, then adding two more titles in 1974 and 1976 as the sidekick to Dave Cowens for which he’s remembered by Celtics fans younger than about 60.

He made his first All-Star team in his fourth pro season in 1966, then never missed another until he retired.

What’s more, “Hondo” wasn’t coasting on reputation in the mid-to-late ’70s; he averaged 16.1 points per game and still managed 5.1 Win Shares in 1977-78, a year after he was still effective enough to place 15th in the NBA in asssists in 1976-77…at age 36.

Of course, he also held the NBA career record for missed shots before Kobe Bryant broke it in his final season, but much like Kobe, when you are the primary outside scorer in an NBA offense and play in a ton of NBA games in your career, you’re going to miss a lot of shots. The three guys who rank behind Havlicek in the top five are Elvin Hayes, Karl Malone, and Dirk Nowitzki. Michael Jordan ranks seventh; LeBron James is eighth. In other words, missing a lot of shots is almost, in a twisted way, a mark of honor when you make the all-time career list.

Side note, but the same could be said for turnovers; the top five in that stat for an NBA career, bearing in mind individual turnovers have only been counted since 1977-78, belongs to the Mailman, LeBron, John Stockton, Kobe, and Jason Kidd.

Havlicek is 30th in NBA history in games played but 14th in minutes; the guy was a workhorse.

And, even when it was a lot harder to stat-chase than it is today, Havlicek managed eight triple-doubles in each of three consecutive seasons between 1970 and 1972; after Russell retired and before the Celtics got good again, it was Havlicek who shouldered the load, like Russell Westbrook in 2017 or Kobe in 2006, and in that 1972 season, Havlicek’s work got the Celtics back to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost to a Knicks team that made three Finals and won two titles in the first four years post-Russell.

But what truly is amazing about Hondo is just how consistent he was even as he got older.

From 1970 to 1978, Havlicek never shot worse than 44.9 percent from the field or better than 46.4. The league had evolved, and Havlicek evolved with it, considering he’d never shot better than 44.5 percent before 1970 and ended up at 43.9 percent for his career.

A guy who averaged 20.8 points per game in his tenure took until he was 34 years old and no longer playing 40 minutes or more a game (Havlicek led the league in minutes per game at over 45 in 1971 and ’72 when he pretty much was the Celtics) to drop below 20, and as mentioned, even in his very last year in the league, he still averaged 16.1 a game.

He played in all 82 games in the 1977-78 season and averaged 34.1 minutes, a workload that would have ranked eighth in the NBA for total minutes played (2,797) in 2018-19.

Bradley Beal led the league in minutes at 3,028 the last time the NBA played an 82-game season. Havlicek topped that figure seven times, including at age 34, in an age when basketball players didn’t have the same access to world-class sports medicine and nutrition that they do today. Havlicek played in an era when guys lit stogies in the locker room and ate a fatty ribeye steak as a postgame meal!

You look at a guy who played until age 37, scored 26,395 points, pulled down over 8,000 rebounds and dished 6,000 assists, all before there was such a thing as a three-point arc (a largely outside shooter like Havlicek would probably have scored at least 2,500 more points in his career if he played in an era where he could take a third of his shots from 3-point land and make even 35 percent of them), and you start to wonder things like “how much longer could he have continued to play?”

He was an All-Star in his final season. Played all 82 games, missing none to injury. Placed in the top 15 in assists the year before he retired.

You can’t tell me Havlicek, if he played today, wouldn’t have been able to sign one last extension then played until he was 41, topped 30,000 points for history’s sake, mentored Larry Bird as the sixth man on those 1980 and ’81 Celtics teams, and even for his trouble added a ninth ring to his already unbreakable record of eight Finals appearances without a loss (six with Russell, two on his own, as mentioned earlier.)

The mere fact that it’s not only plausible but actually inspires a “yeah, no doubt, he probably could have!” speaks to just how special John Havlicek was.

Outside of Boston, he’s a deserving candidate for the list of most underrated players the league has ever known. Everyone knows he was great. But when you look closer, he’s even better than you’ve heard.

Oh, and he was All-Defensive eight times. Just…y’know…throwing that out there because even that gets lost in his offensive prowess and contributions at that end of the floor.

Havlicek died in 2019. May his ghost always have next on Heaven’s playground.