Top 5 All-Time Boston Celtics
There’s not going to be a harder one of these to do. Here’s the reality: Boston has retired 21 numbers (22 if you count Jim Loscutoff’s #18, which was kept active so Dave Cowens could wear it and eventually have it retired for the both of them).. That doesn’t even include Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo, and here I am, trying to narrow this list down to five guys with only five or six honorable mentions.
Let’s be real about this: there’s no way everybody is going to be completely happy with this list. It’s just not going to happen.
That said, we’re looking to narrow this down to the top five players in Boston Celtics history, and that means finding the players who did the most with their careers while playing for the Boston Celtics. Just because Shaquille O’Neal retired a Celtic, for example, doesn’t mean he’s anywhere near the greatest Celtic of all time.
Bill Russell and Larry Bird, though? Those guys are up for the top spot, for sure. Here’s the rest:
#5 – Dave Cowens
What he did for the Celtics: There aren’t a lot of times when a player is so good that a franchise says, “You know what? We’d like to retire one of our former players’ jersey numbers, but you’re so ridiculously good that we’re going to go ahead and not retire it just so you can continue wearing it.” But that’s what happened with Cowens, who wore earlier Celtic great Jim Loscutoff’s #18 (as mentioned above).
Cowens was named Rookie of the Year in 1971, won the MVP in 1973 (and the All-Star Game MVP that same year), and was a member of two Boston championship teams. He was named to the All-Star team seven times, the All-NBA team three times, and the All-Defensive team three teams while a member of the Celtics. It was his defense that helped his Celtics teams of the ‘70s solidify two more championships to add to the trophy case, and for all of this he’s now a member of the Hall of the Fame.
Worth Mentioning: Cowens is one of only four players in NBA history to lead his team in all five major statistical categories in a season. The other three are Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett, and LeBron James.
#4 – John Havlicek
What he did for the Celtics: Two Celtics players have more rings than Hondo—Bill Russell and Sam Jones—and four of Havlicek’s eight rings came in his first four seasons playing in the league. There aren’t a lot of players in the history of the game that have won championships as a rookie, let alone in their first two or three years, let alone in each of their first four. This guy was in his fifth season in the league before he knew what it was like not to go home without a championship. That, folks, is the definition a winner.
He built his legacy on defense but is considered one of the best all-around players in the history of the game. He earned 11 All-NBA selections, 8 All-Defensive team selections, and 13 All-Star team selections before retiring in 1978. He’s the franchise leader in games played, minutes played, field goals made and attempted, and points. He’s eighth among all NBA players for career minutes played, ninth in field goals made, and fifth in field goals attempted. And, like so many other guys on this list, he’s in the Hall of Fame, but with a resume like that, how could he not be?
Worth Mentioning: One of Havlicek’s best friends growing up was Baseball Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. Both are from the same part of Ohio and attended the same high school.
#3 – Bob Cousy
What he did for the Celtics: Cousy helped take basketball from mild entertainment to the exciting game it is today, due largely to his unparalleled ability to handle the ball. They didn’t call him “The Houdini of the Halfcourt” for nothin’; at one point he lead the league in assists eight years in a row. In a lot of ways, you could pretty easily call him the league’s first great point guard.
As for numbers and accolades, Cousy was no slouch. He was a 13-time All-Star, was named to 12 All-NBA teams, was named the league MVP in 1957, and is the franchise leader in career assists. He’s also got enough rings to fill up one full hand plus a finger on the other one, and of course he’s a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. As far as his impact on the game and on the franchise is concerned, there weren’t a lot of guys who accomplished more than he did.
Worth Mentioning: Cousy was actually drafted fourth overall in 1950 by the Tri-Cities Blackhawks (who would eventually become the Atlanta Hawks), but he pulled a Steve Francis and refused to report, so they sold his rights to the Chicago Stags, who allowed him to get picked up by the Celtics in the 1950 dispersal draft.
Even more interesting, though, is the fact that Cousy came out of retirement six years after calling it quits so the team he was currently coaching, the Cincinnati Royals, could boost ticket sales. The return was short-lived, but like Michael Jordan’s soiree with the Washington Wizards, we like to pretend this unnecessary comeback never happened.
#2 – Larry Bird
Pretty easily the best small forward in the history of the game, Bird was one of the toughest competitors the NBA has ever seen. Clutch shooting, unconscious scoring, and an uncanny ability to show up biggest when the stakes where highest are the qualities that got Bird into the Hall of Fame, and if it weren’t for one other player he’d be the best Celtic ever.
Let’s not take this second place ranking too lightly, though. Bird has three rings, three MVP trophies, two Finals MVP trophies, and a Rookie of the Year award. He made the All-NBA First Team nine times and the All-Defensive team three times. He’s 10th all-time in free-throw percentage and is the Celtics’ franchise leader in steals. Toss in his three 3-point shootout titles, and you’ve got yourself a real-life legend. No wonder it’s the man’s nickname.
Worth Mentioning: As a coach for the Indiana Pacers, Bird actually won the Coach of the Year award in 1998. He’s the only player in league history to win that award and an NBA MVP award, like his resume needed any more padding.
#1 – Bill Russell
What he did for the Celtics: Only one player in the history of the league has more rings than he does fingers on which to wear them—Bill Russell. When Kevin Garnett came to Boston, Russell told him he’d pass off one of those eleven rings if KG didn’t end up winning a title. He did of course, but who has enough championship rings lying around to just give one away?
When you talk about competitors, there haven’t been many players in the history of the game that have taken basketball more seriously than Russell. He was a paragon of defense and rebounding, and his career numbers show it; he’s second place all-time in both career rebounds and rebounds-per-game average. He’s a five-time MVP, a 12-time All-Star, and an 11-time All-NBA teamer. Of those, only three were first team awards, but Wilt Chamberlain made it hard to snag away the center spot on those things. That’s why, if you do the math, there were actually years in which he won MVP, but was not named to the All-NBA First Team. The really telling number to keep in mind, though, is Wilt’s two championships to Russell’s eleven.
And it’s those eleven championships that earned Russell the top spot on this list. Nothing speaks more loudly than rings.
Worth Mentioning: Russell was the first black coach in the NBA in 1966, but what makes that really amazing is the fact that he was also still a player for the Celtics and would remain in that dual role for three seasons. Two of his rings came over the course of those three years.
What he did for the Celtics: For starters, “The Chief” is one of the cooler nicknames in league history, but that’s not even a fraction of a percent as to why he’s mentioned among the top Celtics ever. Parish was a nine-time All-Star, a two-time All-NBA selection, and a key member on three Boston championship teams. Only eight players in league history have played more minutes than him, and only six have hauled in more rebounds. He’s ninth in career blocks, but the top shot-blocker in Boston franchise history. All that, and he’s a Hall-of-Famer. Bill Walton once called him “the greatest shooting big man of all time,” due largely to the fact that he was such an accurate shooter at seven-feet tall. That, ladies, and gentlemen, is a resume.
Worth Mentioning: Parish won his final championship with the 1996-1997 Chicago Bulls, where at age 43 he became the second oldest player to ever play in an NBA game. He was pushed to third place a decade later when Kevin Willis overtook him and Nat Hickey for the top spot.
What he did for the Celtics: Nobody embodies “The Modern Celtic” (if there is such a thing) better than Pierce, who has spent every season of his 13-year career in Boston. When paired with Antoine Walker he ushered what was previously a pretty sad team to the Eastern Conference Finals, but it’s his championship in 2008 with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen that finally put him in the same company as the rest of the great Celtics in franchise history.
He’s an eight-time All-Star, a four-time All-NBA Team selection, and nobody in the history of the team has shot and made more free throws or three-pointers. He was the 2008 NBA Finals MVP, too, which certainly adds a certain level of credibility to his list of achievements. He’s an excellent player and an excellent Celtic, but he’s not among the top five. Top ten, sure, but not the top five. Only one ring and the failure to ever get named to an All-NBA First Team is what’s holding him back.
Worth Mentioning: In September of 2000, while trying to separate two people fighting at a dance club in Boston, Pierce was stabbed eleven times in the face, neck, and back and had a bottle smashed over his head. Despite the fact that he had to undergo lung surgery to repair the damage that had been done, he was still the only player on the team the following year to start every single game. You don’t get basketball points for that, but you sure as heck get some warrior points. Nobody has ever accused Pierce of being soft.
What he did for the Celtics: Of all those players that have had their jersey numbers retired in Boston, Kevin Garnett is not one of them, and all told he’s only been a member of the team for three years. So why is he anywhere near this list when so many other Celtic players have been involved in more championship teams? Because Kevin Garnett was the best player on a Boston Celtics championship team, and had I left him out of the discussion completely he’d be the only “best player on a Celtics championship team” not to at least make honorable mention.
And anyway, since coming to Boston he’s got the ring, three All-Star appearances, an All-NBA Team selection, two All-Defensive team selections, and one Defensive Player of the Year award. Yes, he squandered his best years in Minnesota, but luckily he got to Boston with enough career left to make something of himself as a Celtic. He’s not the best ever, but he gets a nod here for what he’s gotten done in such a short amount of time so late in his career.
Worth Mentioning: If Garnett’s #5 ever gets retired by the Celtics, that will leave only four single-digit jersey options left for incoming Celtics: #4, #7, #8, and #9.
What he did for the Celtics: It’s easy to wonder where D.J. would be on this list had he played his entire career in Boston, but alas, he did not. Only one of his five All-Star appearances came as a member of the C’s, and both of his All-NBA honors and one of his three championships came as a member of the Seattle SuperSonics.
That said, he did help the Celtics win two championships in the ‘80s, he did make one All-Star team, and while he was with the C’s he was named to four All-Defensive teams. He made the Hall of Fame posthumously, largely because of his efforts while in Boston, and there’s no question that he’s one of the better defenders the franchise has ever seen. He’s definitely worth mentioning here, but just didn’t have the Beantown longevity to crack the top five.
Worth Mentioning: Larry Bird called him the best teammate he ever had. Take a look a look at a list of all the teammates Bird had over the course of his career and you’ll realize what a significant statement that is.
What he did for the Celtics: Along with Robert Parish and Larry Bird, McHale was a member of the scariest frontcourt of all time, and his vast array of post moves and high field goal percentage are still the foundation for what young post players hope to be in today’s NBA.
That frontcourt won three championships together, and in that time McHale earned a spot on six All-Defensive teams and seven All-Star teams. He was named the Sixth Man of the Year twice and is easily one of the best all-around power forwards in the history of the game. Taking all of that into consideration, he may be the best bench player the NBA has ever seen.
Worth Mentioning: Boston originally had the #1 overall pick in the 1980 draft, but the ever-shrewd Red Auerbach traded it to Golden State for the #3 pick and Robert Parish. McHale, of course, was that pick, meaning Auerbach acquired two of the ten best players in the history of the most storied franchise in basketball in the same trade.
In case you were wondering (and you are) Golden State used the top pick to select Joe Barry Carroll, who made one NBA All-Star team in 1987, and that was pretty much it. Career numbers for JBC: 17.7ppg and 7.7rpg. Not bad, but certainly not worth Parish and McHale.
Narrowing down all the great Celtics to a list of five is no easy task, but it’s certainly a lot easier than building such a storied franchise from the ground up over the course of several decades. As a franchise, Boston has just always managed to do things the right way, and as a result they’ve got a franchise full of unbelievable names and plenty of Hall-of-Famers. Just know that even the five I’ve named are probably the top guys, there are a whole slew of C’s that have paid their dues.
Some tasks just aren’t meant to be easy, I suppose.