FOR BOSTON SPORTS DESK
April 12, 2014
THE BEST CELTICS OF ALL TIME
by BERT A. RAMIREZ
With talk going around that Paul Pierce might come back to Boston when his contract expires after this season, we thought of coming up with an evaluation of his worth in Celtics history, and how he ranks among the hallowed franchise’s greatest players of all time.
Yes, even Larry Bird expressed a reflected wish by Celtics fans that Pierce, who spent his first 15 years in Celtic green before being traded with Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets last summer, would have the opportunity to retire as a Celtic, but where does Pierce really rank in the Celtic totem pole?
At this point, I’ll rank him at about sixth, just behind Kevin McHale who takes my No. 5 position. I’ll give you the justifications once I’ve rattled off the top 10 Celtics in history. Here they are, in order of greatness and importance:
1. Bill Russell
2. Larry Bird
3. John Havlicek
4. Bob Cousy
5. Kevin McHale
6. Paul Pierce
7. Sam Jones
8. Dave Cowens
9. Robert Parish
10. Tom Heinsohn
Russell being No. 1 is a no-brainer. Just one phrase is enough to summarize his greatness in the history of the game: 11-of-13, which means he won 11 NBA championships in the 13 years he played as the Celtics’ undisputed alpha dog and leader from 1956-1969. And it could have been 12, giving his two big toes a ring of their own with his two hands running out of fingers.
Russell simply revolutionized THE GAME when he arrived. He changed the way the game is played with his defensive dominance and he set standards in defensive play that have not been duplicated to this day. You’ve seen Hakeem Olajuwon, the top shot-blocker in NBA history? He can’t even be compared to Russ, whose exploits in this department were never recorded as the league started keeping stats of blocked shots and steals only in the 1973-74 season. But Russell could have led the league in that stat majority of his career along with another great big man, arch-rival Wilt Chamberlain. Russ and Wilt, who died of a heart ailment in 1999, are regarded by many as the greatest big men in the history of the game.
BLEACHER REPORT, back in August 2010, described how dominant Russell and Chamberlain were on the defensive end: “While blocks were not an official stat, newspaper accounts of games involving Wilt and Russell would often mention how many shots they blocked – it was not unusual for them to block six to eight shots in a typical game. Referees who officiated a lot of Chamberlain’s and Russell’s games said that both of them probably averaged at least six to eight blocks per game over their careers, which would put both of them ahead of the ‘official’ all-time leaders by a comfortable margin.
“Russell perfected the art of shot-blocking in such a way as to avoid all three possible pitfalls of shot-blocking, i.e., fouling the shooter, knocking the ball out of bounds so the other team retains possession, and goaltending. Wilt tended to go after everything... Russ, however, often beats Wilt in the QUALITY of his blocks. Wilt has the habit of sending the ball out of bounds when blocking a shot. Crowd pleasing, sure, but it’s not smart to give your opponent another go at the basket.
“In contrast, Russell applies a light touch to his blocked shots – tapping it towards a teammate or tapping it upwards to transform the block into a rebounding opportunity. It’s no exaggeration to say that when Russell blocks a shot, it virtually becomes a four-point swing in favor of his Celtic team.”
Of course, Russell may arguably also be the greatest rebounder of all time. Despite easily giving away three inches to Chamberlain at 6-10 and about 60 pounds to The Stilt at 215, Russ, a five-time MVP winner and 12-time All-Star, averaged 22.5 rebounds for his ENTIRE career to Chamberlain’s 22.9. He was also an efficient contributor to the Celtics’ offense with career averages of 15.1 points and 4.3 assists, and he raised those averages to 16.2 points, an incredible 24.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists in the playoffs, embellishing his legend with the fact that he was undefeated in 11 “win or go home” situations in the postseason (10-0 in Game 7s, 1-0 in Game 5s) as he averaged 18 points and 29 rebounds in those do-or-die contests.
Bird, of course, is quite possibly the most popular Celtic in history with the way he came to become the Celtics’ savior in 1979 right after the Celtics fell on hard times with 32- and 29-win seasons in 1978 and 1979. The 6-foot-9 Bird, along with his arch-rival who later became a good friend, Magic Johnson, is widely regarded to have saved the NBA, too, by bringing back the concept of team play to a league that had become a symbol of selfish play, drug use and bad behavior among athletes. This he did with his spectacular passing and unparalleled court vision while displaying one of the greatest shooting touches in history.
One of only five players to rank among the top 10 Celtics in career points, rebounds and assists – the others being Russell, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens and Pierce – Bird led the Celtics to three NBA titles in 1981, 1984 and 1986. He had career averages of 24.3 points (the highest in Celtic history), 10.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.7 steals in 13 years, and these numbers could have been even better had he not been hounded by injuries, which were in part an offshoot of his all-out style of play. Bird was selected to 12 All-Star Games, was an All-NBA Team selection 10 times, nine as a First Teamer, had three All-Defensive Team nods, three MVP trophies and two Finals MVP honors, and is generally believed as the greatest forward ever to play the sport, although LeBron James is trying to nip at his heels.
Havlicek, meanwhile, was the Celtics’ chief offensive weapon along with Sam Jones during their dynasty years in the ‘60s, being part of six of the 11 titles Boston won during Russell’s reign as he led the team in scoring in four of his first seven pro years. But the 6-5 Hondo was more than a proficient scorer as he also played excellent defense while being equally capable of playing at an All-Star level in ALL the wing positions of not only small forward and big guard but also point guard. Havlicek’s value, however, really came to the fore when Russ and Jones retired in 1969 as he led the Celts in practically all categories even as they broke in future All-Stars Jo Jo White and, later, Dave Cowens, ranking consistently in the league’s top 10 in scoring, assists and free-throw percentage and once placing second just behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in scoring with a career-high 28.9 points. It was Havlicek who was the team’s leader when it won its first two post-Russell titles in 1974 and 1976.
In many ways, Havlicek, a 13-time All-Star and an 11-time All-NBA Team selection and eight-time All-Defensive Team pick, was the pocket Larry Bird as he brandished a great all-around game, posting career norms of 20.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists while becoming the Celtics’ all-time leading scorer with 26,395 points in 16 years. His toughness and durability that were both a product of his eerily low pulse rate of 50 and an ability to play through pain are legendary. Remember those famed Celtic moments? The “Havlicek stole the ball!” call by Johnny Most in 1965 and the time when Hondo played with just one arm (the non-shooting arm) because of a dislocated shoulder in that 1973 East final series Boston lost to New York in seven games and he still scored 17 points? That was the year injury deprived Boston of a surefire championship (since the Knicks dismantled the Lakers in five games in the finals that season) as much as it did the Celtics in 2010, when an ACL tear to Kendrick Perkins enabled LA to rally and beat Boston in seven heartbreaking contests.
Bob Cousy earns No. 4 in our book as much for setting the standards for point-guard play as it is for helping the Celtics to six NBA championships. In a way, the 6-1 Cousy also revolutionized the sport in the ‘50s with his ballhandling and passing wizardry as he originated the razzle-dazzle play among point guards. On the way to posting career norms of 18.5 points, 7.6 assists and 5.2 rebounds, Cooz won the league’s assists title a record eight straight years from 1953-1960 while winning league MVP honors in 1957. The Houdini of the Hardwood topped these off with 13 All-Star Game appearances, the most by any Celtic, as well as 12 All-NBA Team selections, 10 of them on the First Team which is also the most for any Celtic.
McHale makes it at No. 5 as the greatest low-post player in history whose “thousand and one moves” have not been duplicated by any post operator to this day. The 6-10 McHale, one-third of what many dub the greatest frontline in NBA history along with Bird and Robert Parish, could have been the top forward in the game had he not played alongside Larry Legend or in his era for many years. Remember, the forward spot in that era was teeming with so many great players, including Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Dominique Wilkins, Alex English, James Worthy, Bernard King and Adrian Dantley, all certified Hall of Famers. A seven-time All-Star who normed 17.9 points, 7.3 boards, 1.7 assists and 1.7 blocks in his career, McHale’s impact on the game can’t be quantified by numbers, as attested to by Barkley himself who called Kevin the toughest defensive assignment in basketball in those years. One just has to look at the 56 points McHale dropped on Detroit in 1985 to see how tough an assignment he really was.
Pierce to our mind comes as No. 6 for being the top go-to guy of the Celtics for 15 years, enabling him to become the club’s second all-time leading scorer next only to Havlicek with 22,591 points. The Truth is also second only to Bird in career scoring average with 22.2 points per game and has gotten to the free-throw line more times and made more free shots than anybody in Celtics history. This is one of the reasons why another Celtic great, Tommy Heinsohn, once declared that the 6-6 Pierce may be the greatest scorer in Celtics history as he has found so many ways to manufacture points to goad defenders into fouling him rather than allow him to score easily. “Havlicek might be a better player because of his defense, or Bird because of his passing, but Paul Pierce is the best scorer the Celtics have ever had,” said Heinsohn, who has seen them all as a Celtics broadcaster for the past 33 years.
Regardless of whether or not Pierce is a better scorer than any of his great Celtic comrades, however, Pierce has secured his place in Celtic lore for helping end a 22-year title drought and for rightfully becoming the biggest face of the Celtics post-Bird. His singular feat that tops off 10 All-Star Game berths and four All-NBA Team selections may be the fact that among the four Celtics who’ve been the best player on a championship team, which include Russell (11 times), Bird (thrice) and Havlicek (twice), he is the only one who never played alongside a future Hall of Famer for as long as nine years, getting such help only when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen came in Pierce’s 10th year in the league in 2007-08. Russell and Havlicek, meanwhile, each played with 11 separate HOFers and Bird played with seven.
Ranking seventh on our list is Sam Jones, one of the great clutch players in history who personally handed Boston two of the 11 championships it won in the Russell years. In 1962, the 6-4 Jones, one of the first prototype big guards in the game, hit the game winner against Philadelphia that sent the Celtics to the finals, where he again sparked a Game 7 win over the Lakers by scoring five of the Celtics’ 10 points in the extra period. But Jones’ most famous clutch shot came during Game 4 of the 1969 finals versus the Lakers, firing a fadeaway jumper off the wrong foot to win it at the buzzer and prevent LA from taking an almost insurmountable 3-1 lead. Boston won it in seven of course for its last title in the Russell era. Jones, who has the second-most number of championship rings in history next only to Russell with 10, has career averages of 17.7 points, 4.9 boards and 2.1 feeds and also has five All-Star Game selections and three All-NBA Team berths.
Cowens makes it to our list at No. 8. A 6-9, 230-pound bruiser, Cowens is one of the most exciting players to ever set foot on the court with his terrific spring (he’s probably the highest-jumping white player ever), rambunctious style and all-court hustle. Those attributes enabled him to be on equal footing with the best big man in the game then, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whom he personally beat in the 1974 finals to hand Boston its first NBA title since Russell and Jones retired. He helped Boston to another title in 1976, and could have secured a third in 1973 when he won league MVP honors for sparking the Celts to their best-ever record of 68-14 had Havlicek not been injured in the playoffs as the favored Celtics fell to New York. A seven-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA Team pick and three-time All-Defensive Team choice, Big Red has career norms of 18.2 points, 14.0 caroms (the second-best Celtic average behind only Russ) and 3.9 dishoffs.
Parish, the stoic seven-footer who played for Boston for 14 years, was the third-best player on the greatest frontline in basketball history and is also the third-best center in Celtic annals. Discounting his seven years with Golden State and with Charlotte and Chicago post-Celtics, Parish averaged 16.5 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 blocks in Boston and acted as the Bird Celtics’ anchor on defense, intimidating intruders into the shaded lane while providing the third option on offense. It was Parish who finally neutralized Philadelphia’s frontcourt edge when the great Red Auerbach pulled off what many say is the most lopsided trade in history in 1980 by prying Parish out of the West Coast to pair him off with McHale and Bird, with the Celtics culminating that heist with their first title in the ‘80s. Parish is a nine-time All-Star and a two-time All-NBA Team selection.
Rounding out our top 10 is Heinsohn, who has been associated with the Celtics longer than anybody with his years of experience as a player, coach and broadcaster spanning six decades. He coached the Celtics to their two titles in the ‘70s and is the only person with the distinction of having been involved in an official capacity in all their 17 championships and 21 finals appearances, but Heinsohn earned his Hall of Fame status as a player who never flinched particularly as a scorer who led Boston in that department for three straight years from 1960-1962 and finished among the top three in five others. The 6-7, 218-pound Heinsohn, who has career averages of 18.6 scores, 8.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists, made the All-Star Game six times and the All-NBA Team four times while winning eight titles in his nine-year career with the Green, a total surpassed by only Russell, with whom he joined Boston in 1956 before becoming that season’s Rookie of the Year, and Sam Jones.
Ten Celtic legends. Ten all-time greats. A handful more have had the honor of donning the Celtic green-and-white and distinguishing themselves on that famous parquet – although perhaps not in the way the above 10 did – but it remains to be seen whether like Pierce, these players and those who’ll come after them to become part of the most renowned brand in basketball can rise to become transcendent stars and shake up the aforementioned rankings. Can Rajon Rondo, for example, do it? Or can Joel Embiid or Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins perhaps be next? This promises exciting times ahead, if nothing else.