The Boston Celtics have, as a franchise, won 17 NBA championships, won at least 60 games 13 times, seen their franchise legends not just make the Hall of Fame but make a case for inclusion on the All-Time All-NBA list—Bill Russell at center and Larry Bird at small forward are at minimum Third Team and at best Second Team guys at their respective positions (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James are the best center and small forward ever, and you could make the case for Shaquille O’Neal and Scottie Pippen as second-best.)
So it’s hard to choose just which season was the very best out of all of them. The best regular-season team Boston ever put on the floor, the 68-14 1973 squad, lost the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual champion New York Knicks, even though those Celtics, led by John Havlicek and coached by Tommy Heinsohn, would win titles in 1974 and ’76.
The 2008 team was one of the most astonishing defenses ever to take an NBA floor relative to league average, on par with the Tim Duncan-led Spurs and Patrick Ewing‘s stingy mid-’90s Knicks teams, but they lost 10 games in the playoffs and needed 26 out of the maximum 28 games to win four playoff series. They didn’t win a playoff game on the road until the conference finals, needing 7 games to eliminate the 8 seed Hawks in the first round and the defending East champ Cavaliers in the second round.
The ’84 Celtics had arguably the most impressive playoff run, since it’s the only time the Celtics beat the Lakers head-to-head in a seven-game series in the ’80s. Their other two titles came at the expense of the Houston Rockets, the only team besides the Lakers to make the Finals in the entire decade of the ’80s. Portland broke that run of dominance by making the Finals in 1990 and ’92, which still leaves just three teams to come out of the West in 13 years and just five in 20 years when you consider the Sonics and Suns and go from 1976 to 1996. The NBA is top-heavy; parity is an illusion.
What sets the ’86 Celtics apart is…well, let’s start at the top, shall we?
The On-Court Record
The ’86 squad’s 67-15 record stands as the most wins by a Celtics team that actually won it all. If you’re a franchise with a championship, any year you didn’t win the title is automatically disqualified from being the “best year ever.” Fans don’t celebrate gaudy regular-season records if they’re licking their wounds in June—just ask the 2016 Warriors.
Plus, unlike the 2008 team, the ’86 Celtics were actually good in the playoffs, not just “make their fans nervous every series.” They lost just one game in the first three rounds, going 11-1 (remember, the first round was best-of-five back then) before handling Houston in 6 in a not-at-all-uncommon scenario for a six-game Finals back when that format was still 2-3-2 and the favorite got both Game 6 and Game 7 at home. Boston won the first two at the Garden; Houston took two out of three at home but dropped Game 4 to go down 3-1, and the Celtics took care of business as soon as they got back to Boston, winning on their home floor.
In the 2-2-1-1-1 format, the Celtics probably win that series in 5.
Point is, in the W column, no Celtics team in history took care of business both in the regular season and the playoffs like that masterpiece ’86 team.
The Featured Players
Yesterday, I remarked about how incredible it is that the 2015 Atlanta Hawks had four All-Stars on the same roster.
Well, I’ll see your All-Stars and raise you Hall of Famers with the Celtics.
And Danny Ainge, the starting shooting guard, while he probably won’t go into the Hall as a player, might just end up there anyway as an executive.
Bill Walton was their sixth man. That’s five Hall of Famers on the same team in the same year.
Oh, and speaking of guys who won’t be Hall of Famers as players but might be as coaches or front-office guys, Rick Carlisle, the longtime Dallas Mavericks coach and new coach of the Indiana Pacers, was also on the ’86 Celtics team.
Elsewhere on the Celtics bench, they had former two-time All-Star Scott Wedman in his last productive season—he played just six games the following year and then retired. And their backup point guard, Jerry Sichting, was never an All-Star but had a couple of solid years as the starter in Indiana before making his way to Boston during the 1985 offseason.
The Celtics were, from top to bottom, stacked. Only the Lakers came close, and they had a hiccup in the playoffs when they lost to the Rockets in 5 in the conference finals. Interestingly, that hiccup stopped LA from being the only team that didn’t have Bill Russell on it ever to go to eight straight NBA Finals; they went four straight years from 1982 to ’85 and then three straight from ’87 to ’89. Only the 2015-’19 Warriors have even gone to five straight Finals without Russell on their team; the Lakers almost went to eight, which while still short of Russell’s 10 in a row from 1957 to ’66 would still have been seriously impressive.
You could argue that any fan in the Boston Garden could’ve coached Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish to a title, but to say that is to severely undervalue K.C. Jones, who had coached the Washington Bullets to a 60-win season in 1975 that ended at the hands of the Warriors in the Finals that year.
In five years coaching in Boston, Jones posted a 308-102 record, went to four NBA Finals, and won two titles. Other than Red Auerbach, who coached those 10 straight Finals teams and won nine titles including eight in a row, it can be argued that no coach in Celtics franchise history achieved Jones’ level of success on the sideline. Heinsohn has a case in the ’70s and Bill Fitch got a title in ’81, but Jones’ five-year run was rivaled only by those ultimate glory days from the age of the Beatles.
A good argument can be made that the ’84 Celtics had a more significant season thanks to their title coming at the expense of the hated Lakers; beating the Rockets instead in ’81 and ’86 almost feels like an asterisk, like *did not beat Magic Johnson.
But you play the teams they put up against you. And besides, the Rockets were coached by Bill Fitch in ’86. There’s something poetic about a team beating their old coach, especially when most of the ’86 Celtics were on the team when Fitch coached them; his last year was ’83 and players didn’t move around the league then like they do now.
You could also, of course, make an argument for any of the Russell teams as having had the greatest season in Celtics history, but as good as the ’65 squad was in particular, they went 62-18 in the regular season and lost more playoff games (4) in just two rounds than the ’86 team lost (3) in four rounds.
And there’s an honorable mention in place for the 2008 Celtics, a team that had the greatest defensive season relative to league average in franchise history and one of the top five such seasons in the entire history of the NBA, a team that had the third-best regular-season record in franchise history, and a team that has given Boston its only NBA title in the past 35 years, which makes it the only championship within the lifetime of anyone between the ages of 13 and 35 in the city.
Granted, I’m Gen-X. I grew up in Boston. Of course I’m going to overrate anything related to Larry Bird.
But the stats back me up on this one. The ’86 Celtics were not just the greatest Celtics team ever, but have a case for one of the greatest teams of all time. Sure, they probably lose that argument to the ’96 Bulls and maybe even the 2017 Warriors, but they have a case.
NEXT: Brooklyn/New Jersey Nets. Crossing a river doesn’t count as “moving the team”, so I’m digging all the way back to 1977. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!