This article is in response to Tom Smith’s article about the Top 10 Lakers. Tom, one of the better writers on Bleacher Report in my opinion, is a passionate Celtics fan who bleeds green. So naturally, he hates anything to do with purple and gold.
The Lakers and Celtics rivalry is perhaps the best rivalry in sports. Unlike the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, these two teams have won more than half of their league’s championships. They also have met 12 times in the championship round, something that the Red Sox and Yankees can never do.
The passions run deep between the two teams, with a whole slew of names and taunts thrown between the sides. When the Lakers come to play in Boston, fans are quick to shout out the “Beat LA” chants. Not to be outdone, Lakers fans reciprocate with “Boston sucks” chants when the Celtics are in town.
Although I am a Lakers fan, I have the utmost respect for the Boston Celtics, as the team is one of the best franchises in professional sports. The team is rich in history as fans have witnessed some of the greatest hoops players to ever grace the hardwood.
So in the sport of having a bit of fun in response to Tom’s article, I wanted to give Celtics fans an outsider’s perspective of the top 10 Celtics players in franchise history.
Criteria I normally use in ranking players are overall offensive game (shooting, scoring, playmaking), overall defensive game (help defense, man-to-man defense, rebounds), clutch ability, leadership ability, and the ability to play well across different NBA eras. And of course, winning titles is a must, especially for Celtics players.
In addition, in this particular ranking, I highly considered players who either were Celtics for their whole careers or had their most dominant seasons wearing the green and white.
Please let me know in your comments if you agree with the rankings or where I went wrong.
Without further ado, I present the 10 greatest Celtics players.
Bill Sharman was one of the first dominant shooting guards in the NBA. He teamed with Bob Cousy to form a potent backcourt and won 4 championships in 1957, 1959, 1960, and 1961. The 8-time all-star was one of the best shooters during the 1950s, as he was one of the first guards to shoot greater than 40% from the field.
He made the All-NBA team 7 times, including 4 selections to the 1st Team. Add to that an All-Star MVP award in 1955 and leading the NBA in free throws 7 times, and one can begin to see the impact Sharman brought to the early dominant years of the Celtics.
During an era when big men dominated the league, Sharman and his 6’1” frame provided a unique element for the Celtics, helping to spread out the opposing defenses with his outside shooting touch and allowing Bill Russell to be even more effective on the glass.
Not surprisingly, Sharman’s number 21 jersey was retired by the Celtics.
Sharman would go on to coach the Utah Stars in the ABA and the dreaded Los Angeles Lakers, leading LA to a 69-13 record and a professional sports winning streak of 33 games en route to a championship. Perhaps much of his coaching success came from his time studying under Celtics legend Red Auerbach.
Bill Sharman currently ranks 10th all-time in scoring average and 11th in total points scored in Celtics history.
Robert Parish, nicknamed “The Chief,” helped team with Kevin McHale and Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics to form arguably the best frontline ever. Parish was an all-star 9 times and ultimately became the NBA’s all-time leader in games played at 1,611.
Despite playing mostly as the third option behind Bird and McHale, Parish was a force to be reckoned with. He played well enough in his role to still be named once to both the All-NBA 2nd and 3rd teams.
Instrumental at providing tough interior defense for the Celtics, he was known offensively for finishing fast breaks and his signature awkward, high-arching jumper. Opponents often remarked that this shot was almost as difficult to block as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook shot.
So how about the effect Parish had on his team?
The Celtics won the championship the first year he joined the team from the Golden State Warriors. After that, Parish would go on to win two more titles in the 1980s.
He currently ranks 4th all-time in points, 2nd in rebounds, 3rd in field goals made, 4th in field goal percentage, and 1st in blocks in franchise history (though blocks were not recorded in Bill Russell’s era). As a result, Boston retired Parish’s 00 number jersey.
Sam Jones ranks second as a player in NBA titles won with ten. Jones was known for taking bank shots, struggling earlier in his career in making layups. Jones replaced Bill Sharman quite effectively as the Celtics’ main shooting guard. Over his career with Boston, he led the team in scoring three times and held the team’s single-game scoring record (51 points) until Larry Bird broke it.
He teamed with K.C. Jones to form another dominant Celtics backcourt. Known among teammates as “Mr. Clutch,” his heroics shined in Game 7 of the 1962 Eastern Division finals. With the score tied at 107 with two seconds left, he hit a jumper over the outstretched arms of Wilt Chamberlain to win the series.
Jones was also known as “The Shooter” as he had a seemingly perfected jump shot.
Among his career achievements were earning three selections to the All-NBA 2nd team and being named to 5 all-star teams.
Overall, Sam Jones ranks 13th in scoring average, 7th in points, 13th in rebounds, 6th in field goals made, and 9th in free throws made in Celtics history. As one of the greatest winners, his number 24 is hanging from the Garden’s rafters.
Bob Cousy was the first great point guard in the NBA. Throughout his illustrious career, the “Houdini of the Hardwood” was a spectacular showman. People often described his game by saying Cousy made the game of basketball as close to an art form as possible.
Cousy led the NBA in assists for eight consecutive seasons from 1953 to 1960, made the all-NBA 1st Team ten consecutive seasons from 1952 to 1961, and made thirteen consecutive all-star appearances. Bob Cousy was also the 1957 NBA MVP and won the All-Star Game MVP twice.
Teammate Tommy Heinsohn once said, “What Russell was on defense, that’s what Cousy was on offense—a magician.” Simply put, Cousy was the engine that made the Celtics’ fluid offense run.
During his career, Cousy went on to win 6 NBA championships in 1957 and 1959-1963.
As the pioneer who set the standard of a dominating pure point guard in the NBA, the Celtics retired his number 14 jersey. He leaves a storied legacy with the Celtics, placing 6th in points, 7th in scoring average, 1st in both total assists and assists per game, and 7th in field goals made in franchise history.
Paul Pierce, nicknamed “The Truth,” has slowly built up an impressive career as one of the all-time Celtics greats. What makes Pierce stand out from other players is his all-around game of excelling in scoring, shooting, defense, and clutch ability.
Along with his signature step-back jumper, he has a career scoring average of 22.5 ppg, which is the second highest scoring average of any Celtics player. He has averaged a respectable 37% from 3-point range, has been named to 8 all-star teams, and led the team to an NBA title in 2008 by earning a Finals MVP Award.
Further honors include being named to the All-NBA 2nd Team once and the 3rd team three times.
Even more amazing is the dominant career Pierce has achieved after barely surviving a stabbing incident, where he was inflicted 11 times in the face, neck, and back on September 25, 2000.
Pierce gets a few extra points for having a special place in the hearts of Lakers fans, as he is well-known for the “wheelchair incident,” where he faked being seriously hurt during the 2008 Finals and had to be wheeled off the court in apparent agonizing pain, only to return 3 minutes later.
Nevertheless, Pierce has been one of the all-time Celtics greats, ranking 3rd in points, 9th in rebounds, 7th in assists, 2nd in steals, 5th in blocks, 1st in free throws made, and 1st in 3-pointers made in franchise history.
No doubt, his number 34 jersey will be retired in the future.
Dave Cowens, known as “Big Red,” was one of the most active and talented centers of all-time. The7-time all-star was an integral part of the two title teams of the 1970s. Cowens was an ultimate team player as he was a great passer and would chase guards down the floor and block their layups.
One of the crowning achievements of Cowens’ career was outplaying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1974 NBA Finals.
Dave Cowens proved to have an excellent all-around game both on offense and defense. He was named three times each to the NBA All-Defensive Team and all-NBA 2nd Team. In addition, Cowens won both the NBA MVP and All-Star Game MVP in 1973.
Overall, Cowens ranks 9th in points, 9th in scoring average, 3rd in rebounds, 2nd in rebounds per game, 6th in blocks, and 10th in field goals made in franchise history. Regarding career blocks, one should note that they were only recorded during part of Dave Cowen’s career.
Of course, his number 18 jersey was retired by the Celtics.
Kevin McHale was one of the best power forwards of all-time, nearly unstoppable in the low post. He led the league in field goal percentage twice in 1987 and 1988. In 1987, he became the first player in NBA history to shoot over 60% from the field and 80% from the free-throw line in the same season.
McHale started his career by dominating other teams as one of the NBA’s best 6th men, winning the Sixth Man of the Year award twice.
McHale boasted a wide array of moves, including jump hooks, up and under scoop moves, and fade-away jumpers. Many of his back to the basket moves are legendary and should be mandatory training for young NBA centers.
The 7-time all-star teamed with Larry Bird and Robert Parish to win 3 NBA championships in the 1980s. Making the All-NBA 1st Team once, his prowess on the other end of the court led to him being selected 6 times to the All-Defensive Team, including 3 times on the 1st Team.
Like Pierce, McHale holds a special place in the cockles of Lakers fans’ hearts with his villain-like clothesline of Kurt Rambis in the 1984 NBA Finals. In today’s league, a likely ensuing suspension might have led to LA winning that series.
Nevertheless, McHale hails as one of the all-time greatest Celtics, ranking 5th in points, 12th in scoring average, 6th in rebounds, 2nd in blocks, 1st in blocks per game, 4th in field goals made, and 3rd in field goal percentage.
Needless to say, McHale’s number 32 was an easy retirement decision by Boston.
John Havlicek, otherwise known as “Hondo,” may be one of the most underrated players in NBA history. As one of the first great swing men in the league, Havlicek had a great all-around game as a premier scorer, rebounder, playmaker, and defender.
The 13-time all-star was a member of 8 NBA championship teams. During the dynasty years of the 1960s, Havlicek was the super sub off of the bench. During the 1970s, he became the leader of the dominant Celtics teams, having won the 1974 NBA Finals MVP.
Havlicek made the All-NBA Team 11 times, including 4 selections to the 1st Team. In addition, Hondo made the All-Defensive Team 8 times, including 5 selections on the 1st Team.
But perhaps Havlicek is most known for his clutch plays. During the closing moments of the deciding game of the 1965 Finals, he deflected a pass. Legendary Celtics announcer Johnny Most declared, “Havlicek stole the ball! Havlicek stole the ball!” This may be the most classic moment in Celtics history.
Following that up, in Game 5 of the 1976 Finals (often called the greatest game ever played), Havlicek hit one of his signature running jumpers in the closing moments of the second overtime.
No doubt a Celtics legend, his number 17 jersey hangs in the rafters. Overall, Havlicek ranks 1st in points, 3rd in scoring average, 5th in rebounds, 2nd in assists, 1st in games played, 1st in field goals made, and 2nd in free throws made in franchise history.
Having won 11 NBA championships, Bill Russell is the greatest team winner in professional sports history. No player in the history of the game was able to control the paint like Russell, with his defensive backboard domination.
Defensive stats were not kept well during Russell’s career, but he was named to the All-Defensive 1st Team the first time it was announced. He ranks second behind Wilt Chamberlain in NBA history in both total rebounds and rebounds per game. If statisticians kept track of blocks, Russell might be the all-time leader in that category as well.
Russell was a master at intimidating opposing players and blocking their shots in a way so that either he or a Celtics teammate could grab the rebound and start a fast break offense, leading to easy baskets.
Bill Russell truly had a legendary career, winning the MVP award 5 times and earning 12 all-star selections including the All-Star MVP award in 1963. He was also named 11 times to the All-NBA Team, including 3 times on the 1st Team.
Considered by many to be the greatest center of all-time and perhaps the best player ever, I don’t consider Russell to be even the best player in Celtics history. Russell ranks second because despite his defensive dominance and winning, he had a mediocre offensive game and would have a lesser effect on game play today.
He is also hated by many Lakers fans for keeping the balloons up in the rafters of the Forum in Game 7 of the 1969 Finals.
Overall, Bill Russell ranks 8th in points, 4th in assists, 4th in games played, and 8th in field goals made in franchise history. It goes without saying that this all-time legend has his number 6 jersey retired by Boston.
Larry Bird is the greatest small forward in NBA history. There are many who might argue that Lebron James is bound to take his place, but I highly doubt it. “Larry Legend” had one of the most complete games and often led the Celtics in scoring, rebounds, and assists.
What sets Larry Bird apart from James and other small forwards was his shooting and clutch abilities. Few players in the history of the league have been as successful in the clutch as Bird. He would even tell opponents at the end of games where he was going to hit the game-winning shot, and then go on to nail it.
One of my favorite Larry Bird moments was when he said to his competitors during the 1986 3-point contest that he was going to win it and then asked who was coming in second place. Needless to say, Bird won the contest that year as well as the next two years.
Another favorite moment was when he told his teammates in the 1984 Finals that they were “playing like sissies.”
Larry Bird is the only player in history to average at least 20 ppg, 10 rpg, and 5 apg. He also made the 50-40-90 club three times, second only to Steve Nash, and showing how incredibly efficient he was on the offensive end.
Overall, the 12-time all-star won the MVP award 3 times, the Finals MVP award 2 times, and was selected to the All-NBA Team 10 times (including 9 times on the 1st Team).
While Bird was never the most athletic player on the floor, he was usually the smartest and used his wits and savvy tricks to play tough defense as well, earning 3 selections to the All-Defensive 2nd Team.
In short, Bird’s all-around dominating game is what sets him apart from other Celtics legends. When I think of candidates for the greatest of all-time, Larry Bird fits nearly every criteria piece.
Bird’s number 33 jersey is of course retired by the Celtics, as he ranks 2nd in points, 1st in scoring average, 4th in rebounds, 4th in rebounds per game, 3rd in assists, 1st in steals, 2nd in steals average, 3rd in blocks, 2nd in field goals made, and 1st in triple doubles in franchise history.