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The Greatest in Green: Breaking down the greatest Celtics of all time

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The Boston Celtics remain one of the two most important and successful franchises in NBA history (with the Los Angeles Lakers being the other). With so many standouts–including numerous Hall of Famers–it’s tough (but fun) sledding whenever one delves into ranking Celtics greats, much less determining who, ultimately, is the greatest player in the team’s history.

Winning seventeen titles (the most of any NBA franchise) makes this even more difficult, creating multiple eras of dominance during the franchise’s storied history, in turn giving one more choices than ever in pursuit of this question. Just getting the final short list of choices is a relatively deep dive, but let’s just cut to the chase with the following four: Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Larry Bird and Paul Pierce.

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As seemingly difficult getting such an outstanding historic roster down to just four might appear, there are only a handful of candidates for a list of this magnitude. Many of the 1960s and 1970s greats were excellent parts to an already winning machine; important but not prolific enough on their own to transcend their respective era.

Sam Jones, Tommy Heinsohn and Don Nelson all turned in great careers but remained important parts of a larger championship puzzle, not transformative players in their own right or for their era. The same goes for Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, and Cedric Maxwell (even though Cornbread was a Finals MVP once). Robert Parish and Kevin McHale belong on a list of greatest frontcourt players of all time, but came to Boston for a specific purpose prior to their respective Boston heydays.

Kevin Garnett is an all-time great, no question. But he’ll have to decide between Minnesota and Boston jerseys for his Hall of Fame display (I have a feeling his choice will lean toward where he won his lone title). Ray Allen was great, but his legacy in Boston is complicated and will take time to earn proper perspective. Like Garnett, Allen came to Boston for a specific reason and wasn’t a Celtic lifer. Antoine Walker had a notable run, but was inconsistent and never led the team to a title.

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Now for some tough calls: Bob Cousy and Dave Cowens. Very difficult omissions, greats in their own time but inches short of Russell, Havlicek, Bird or Pierce over the long haul for a variety of reasons. It’s a difficult cut, but someone has to go, and it isn’t going to be my aforementioned Top Four.

Now the criteria:

  • First, outstanding and consistent statistical performance is a requirement for any consideration of greatness.
  • Second, some consideration is reserved for length of playing career and level of play during this time period (and the era during which one played, as well).
  • Third, while individual accolades and recognition are not the only measure of a career, they cannot be discounted and deserve to be part of any “greatest ever” set of data.
  • Finally, winning is a measure both important and appropriate when wrestling over the greatest player of the franchise with the most championships in league history. If you’re going to be considered one of the greats from this franchise, you better have won a title. If not, you’re out. Moreover, any candidate has to have been an invaluable player on at least one of these championship teams. All four satisfy these categories in some measure and thus get into the final pool. 

All four candidates are clearly “winners” of the highest order, as each was a key player on at least one Celtics championship team. Obviously, any talk of the Celtics and a winning tradition begins and ends with Russell, who won an unfathomable eleven titles in thirteen seasons of play (two as player-coach), a run that will almost certainly never be duplicated in the NBA–or in any major sport–again.

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Russell dominated NBA playoff games like no other player, establishing Boston as one of the premier professional sports franchises of all time during a time when it was difficult to generate any attention away from college athletics, let alone for professional basketball. It is worth noting that Russell’s role in breaking down racial barriers in American sport remains vastly underrated and one could argue that for all of Jackie Robinson’s importance, Russell was equally important in his own era and sport and did so in a much more racially divided city when he played.

A strong argument could be made that Russell is the most important player in Celtics history, but that is different from greatest. His career statistics aren’t overwhelming (just over 15 ppg for his career, slightly higher for his career playoff average) but those numbers do not fully encompass just how dominating Russell was during his time. He was virtually the same size as Bird (6’9″) but with the athletic prowess of a puma, able to control both ends of the floor (his ability to rebound and block shots may still be unmatched when taken in tandem) and start the famous “fast break” style of play Boston trademarked in those glory days. 

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The Celtics’ style of play almost certainly reduced Russell’s overall statistical dominance given the “whole team” approach employed by Red Auerbach. Wilt Chamberlain, Russell’s close friend and on court rival, was only able to garner one title during Russell’s time in the NBA. Russell was the Roadrunner to Chamberlain’s Coyote, always able to come out on top while the bigger, larger competitor was left holding the anvil over the gaping canyon below. And those damn titles. So many of them. Russell literally “out won” his own two hands, earning more rings than his digits could physically bear. Russell is, and always will be, the most important Celtic of all time–and its greatest winner by a mile. But that’s not the whole debate.

Havlicek was deemed by Russell as the “greatest all-around player” he had seen–ever. No small praise. It seems bizarre to consider Havlicek underrated, but the word seems appropriate today, especially given the scant attention his career appears to get outside of Boston.

Bill Russell, Jim Barnes, John Havlicek

“Hondo” represents an interesting bridge in the Celtics pantheon, since he played during the first Celtics run of greatness (the 1960s) yet hung around long enough for the mid-1970s revival powered by Cowens under coach Tommy Heinsohn. Havlicek also retired a year before Bird came into the league, completing a career spanning 16 seasons and filled with individual accolades and team accomplishments. 

In terms of winning, Havlicek was key part of no less than eight championship teams, six of which came during the Russell era. Aside from Russell’s winning rampage, Hondo’s penchant for titles is legendary in its own right. His steal during Game 7 of the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals is considered by many the best moment of longtime Celtics announcer Johnny Most’s career (“It’s all over! Havlicek stole the ball!”). He was also critical in what many older basketball fans consider The Greatest Game Ever–Game 6 of the 1976 NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns, a triple overtime Celtics win. 

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Havlicek was a 13-time All Star and a frequent member of the league’s All Defensive Team, proving year in and year out his ability to control the game at both ends of the floor, either by grabbing a key rebound or making a crucial defensive stop. He very well could be the most versatile player in franchise history. He was, along with Russell and Bird, named one of the top 50 Greatest Players of All Time by the NBA in 1997 and is the top scorer in Celtics history.

Statistically, he averaged just over 20 points per game (with 4.8 apg and 6.3 rpg), making his numbers look very similar to those of Pierce, who may well be the closest match to Havlicek of all the Celtics’ greats in both game skills and versatility. The case for Havlicek as the best in franchise history is very, very strong, so much so that it may appear strange and disingenuous to not grant him the title of Greatest Celtic Ever. But we are not done yet.

Bird was critical to the franchise in his own way, coming to the team a full year after he was drafted out of Indiana State and joining a legendary franchise–but one down on its luck during the latter part of the 1970s. Bird was great from the start, winning Rookie of the Year honors and later earning three straight league MVPs (‘84-’86) along with three championships (two Finals MVPs) and a dozen All-Star game selections. 

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Statistically, Bird was as dominant as any player in league history during the mid-1980s (just over 24 ppg and 10 rpg to go along with 6.3 apg for his career) and along with Magic Johnson lifted the moribund NBA out of its malaise and into its Golden Era. From 1984 until 1986, Bird was the absolute best in the business, anchoring the best front line (along with Parish and McHale) in league history. Bird was exactly the type of player Boston loved–and more importantly, the one they desperately needed. In many ways, he was actually greater than the hype surrounding him.

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In later years, when Isiah Thomas made ill-conceived comments about Bird being considered great in large part because he was white, it had no effect on Bird but pushed Thomas down the gradual path to becoming one of the biggest jerks in league history. Bird was greater than any color distinction, and everyone not named Thomas knew it at the time. He played for 13 seasons–equal to Russell–and for most of them, he played at an extremely high level. Sidelined in 1988–89 with a back injury and problems with his feet, Bird came back to have two very good seasons before calling it quits in 1992, just a few weeks before serving a limited but necessary part of the Olympic Dream Team. Pierce was Truth, but Bird was every bit Legend.

And now for Pierce. Drafted out of Kansas in 1998, Pierce did not come with any of the hoopla that surrounded Bird (and Russell to a far lesser degree), and the team had been mired in post-1980s mediocrity for a long time, with Antoine Walker as its only main draw. Pierce spent more time in a Celtics uniform than any franchise player. In a quiet, less heralded way, Pierce served as a keystone player in franchise history, coming along at a time when the team was in desperate need for a complete player (every bit as gifted a player as Walker was, Pierce’s all-around game far surpasses that of his one-time teammate). 

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Pierce quietly logged great season after great season, largely absent of any controversy or overblown preening to the media (he was stabbed in an off the court incident early in his career, a story which seemed to disappear as soon as it arose). Pierce never demanded to be traded even though the Celtics muddled around as a low seed playoff team year after year (the team made one inspired run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2002, losing to the New Jersey Nets). 

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Pierce made the All-Star team ten times, becoming quite possibly the most underrated All Star player of his generation (I would be willing to bet in a national poll he would not make most fans’ top five players during any of his All Star seasons). Statistically, Pierce is lock. He’s averaged 21.9 ppg, 6 rpg and just under four assists per game, all while shooting just under fifty percent from the floor and averaging a workman-like 36 minutes a game. He holds the Celtics’ record for most three-point field goals made, ranking third in team history in games played, second in points scored, seventh in total rebounds, fifth in total assists, and first in total steals. 

In 2007, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Pierce and won the 2008 NBA title and made another trip to the Finals two years later (losing to the Lakers in seven games). From ’07 through ’10, the Celtics were arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference. This era was much more competitive and laced with league parity than the eras of Russell, Havlicek or even Bird (besides the Lakers and occasional Sixers run, who was there? Detroit wasn’t there yet, and Chicago was a 1990s thing).

Without Pierce, none of this happens. It’s tempting for old timers to bellyache about “how great” the league was pre-2000, but in all reality, the most competitive and balanced level of highly skilled play has come during Pierce’s era. While this doesn’t negate the accomplishments of Russell, Havlicek or Bird whatsoever, it cannot be ignored.

So, there we have it–four players who each could fit the definition of Greatest Celtic Ever. Now we have to parse the details, get beyond the numbers and titles and dig for the context and intangibles.

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Russell is the greatest winner in Celtics history, hands down. That is not even worth the debate. But he played during a time where teams stayed the same for season after season. That kind of franchise stability is unthinkable today. There was no question of trying to keep teams intact year after year, which in the Celtics’ case, was a wonderful thing to behold.

Russell had the luxury of playing with the same group for his entire career, something none of the other three experienced. Plus, Russell played during a time where the league was dominated by a very select group of teams that were head and shoulders above the competition. It was the Celtics, the Lakers, the Hawks and the Sixers–and that was it. Russell was also six-foot-nine, the same height as Magic Johnson, a POINT GUARD during the 1980s and very early 1990s.

Statistically speaking, Havlicek is impressive in every respect. His numbers are slightly below Bird’s but above Russell’s and Pierce’s and he was a key ingredient for a boatload of championship teams. A very big part. But he wasn’t THE MAN on any of those teams. He had Russell and Cousy. He had Cowens. He had Sam Jones. He had all those Celtic greats–in two different eras. He was never given the task of being the lone gunslinger, not in the way Bird or Pierce had to be during various times during their respective careers. He was a big, big component, but never THE component. And, once again, Havlicek played during an era largely untouched by free agency and trades. His Celtic teams were solid and consistent.

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Bird is one of the greatest legends in league history, a veritable parquet Clint Eastwood of the NBA history books. His exploits are so mythological, his stature so large in Boston sports that it often defies logic. Kids today have a hard time understanding just how great Bird was in his prime. He was truly unstoppable. Nobody could touch him. Nobody. If you think this is hyperbole, ask the other Greatest Player of His Generation, Magic Johnson. He would, I presume, tell you the same thing.

Celtics vs Rockets NBA Playoffs 1986

From 1983 to around 1986 (and even bits and pieces of ’88), Bird was simply the best player on the planet. Magic was still engineering the Lakers to make Kareem Abdul-Jabbar happy and Michael Jordan was in his formative stages, a simmering inferno ready to be unleashed in full capacity by the early 1990s. Charles Barkley was a force, but his teams could not get past Boston. Olajuwon got to the Finals in ’86, but ran into the Greatest Single Season Team of All Time. The ’86 Celtics were that good (comparisons to the ’96 Bulls or ’17 Warriors is fodder for another piece).

Yes, they had an amazing lineup, one filled with great players. But without Bird, none of the amazing stuff happens. I am still amazed they lost a single game during those playoffs. And barring injuries, they very well could have won it again the next year, in 1987, when they made the Finals and lost in six games against a potent and recharged Lakers team. Did I mention the team’s top draft pick Len Bias died before the 1986–87 season started? Anyway, you get the point. Bird is greatness personified, some of it in ways which are difficult to articulate or quantify.

Now for Pierce. This is a tough one. He is an all time great. There is no question. He played on the second greatest Celtics championship team ever. You read that correctly–the 2008 Celtics championship team was second only to the ’86 team for best Celtic title team ever. They were just awesome. They hardly lost and ran through a very good and healthy Lakers team in a Game 6 rout. Pierce was the MVP of that series and arguably the best player in the world at that point. He went toe to toe against Kobe Bryant and came out on top–in a big way. Barring injuries, that Celtics team could have won one or two more titles, including the 2010 Game 7 nail-biter against the Lakers in Los Angeles. 

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It bears mentioning that Pierce played during a more prolific era of free agency in league history than the other three players under discussion. This is no small factor. There is no way Russell’s teams would have stayed intact today, or Havlicek’s teams, for that matter. One wonders if Bird’s Celtics would have stood idle in today’s NBA. We don’t know (but I am willing to say emphatically no, they would not). What we do know, however, is that Pierce’s Celtics were highly competitive–dominant at times–during a five-year stretch where he was the mainstay. During an era where teams do not stand pat very often, content to reboot every other season and start over in the pursuit of a one-year championship destined to never be defended successfully.

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Pierce was great, albeit with fewer rings. But his era didn’t allow him to win as much as Russell or Havlicek. Bird? Now that’s a conversation with some context. Bird was as close to Pierce’s era as you can get without actually being there, and even that isn’t the same. Pierce was a Celtic living in an entirely different era, and it matters.

Pierce was great, of that there is no question. Shaquille O’Neal didn’t give him the nickname “Truth” for nothing. But we have to judge players on what we can measure, what we can quantify, and this is where Pierce can blame his environment and birth timing for falling short of being the Greatest Celtic Ever. But boy, is he close. But not close enough. So, based on the criteria outlined here, here’s the final list of The Greatest Celtics of All Time:

1. Bill Russell

2. Larry Bird

3. John Havlicek

4. Paul Pierce

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