I’m generally not one for comparing teams of different generations in the NBA to one another. About every 10 years, the game goes through a shift in play, which makes it rather difficult to properly qualify how one team would fare against another.
Yet, this year’s Boston Celtics team is drawing comparisons to the 1985-86 team that provided the Celtics with a 16th championship while compiling the fifth-best record of all time (67-15).
Cosmetically, the 86 Celtics resemble this year’s team in a variety of ways that adds merit towards making a comparison. Both teams had big threes, acquired a former superstar center to play 20 minutes a game and had a player’s head coach who was perceived as a nice-guy type that demonstrated a high level of leadership.
With the groundwork for a comparison laid, it’s time to break down the teams and their makeup to see just how the 2011 Celtics stack up against one of the greatest teams of all time.
Let’s work our way up the ladder and start with how the reserves compare to one another.
Both sub squads match up fairly evenly in the battle of the benches. The 2011 team could be considered a bit deeper, employing a 10-man rotation while 1986 only used a nine-man lineup. Still, it’s not much of a difference to declare one immediately better than the other.
Looking at the players on the benches, Bill Walton and Glen Davis are the standout contributors. Walton won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award in 1986 despite putting up pedestrian numbers (7.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG) by today’s standards, but he played big, much like Glen Davis, who is in the running for the current Sixth Man of the Year award.
Both men had outgoing personalities and used them to their advantages: Walton was the defensive-minded Deadhead and basis for the movie Teen Wolf (I don’t know if that is true) and Big Baby is the drooling, charge-taking Shrek clone (this is true) who literally carries his teammates to victory.
So they’re nearly even, though Walton’s legacy has him getting the edge, but does anyone else who came off the bench help tilt things towards their favor?
The answer is no. Scott Wedman, Jerry Sichting, Rick Carlisle, Sam Vincent and Greg Kite don’t surpass the talents of Nate Robinson, Marquis Daniels, Semih Erden, Jermaine O’Neal and Luke Harangody. In fact, the current Celtics bench gets the nod because they rely on their bench more.
Walton may have won the Sixth Man of the Year award, but that doesn’t put his Celtics team above Big Baby’s. We’ll consider this a tie.
The center spot is an easy call when comparing the 1986 Celtics versus the 2011 Celtics. The nod goes to the team with the shorter shorts.
Robert Parish was a premier big man in the 80’s and had the luxury of playing with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, which usually makes people forget just how good he was. He is a Hall of Famer after all and was able to put up 16.5 PPG and 10 RPG throughout his career as the third man on the Celtics.
While Shaquille O’Neal is going to be a Hall of Famer, he’s on the very tail end of his career. Think of Parish’s Bulls years (not quite Charlotte). So while Parish was in green during his prime, Shaq’s on the last leg of his farewell tour, which is why Parish gets the nod.
While the '86 Celtics featured a Hall of Famer in Dennis Johnson, the 2011 Celtics have at least one future Hall of Famer and one heading in the right direction. Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo make up a formidable backcourt that outshines the likes of Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge.
Now don’t get me wrong. DJ and Ainge were both terrific players (and were successful after their playing days were over as well), but Allen is one of the best pure shooters of all time and Rondo is the guy who ties together all of the loose ends, making the 2011 Celtics as great as they are.
It’s mostly Ainge’s fault that the '86 team doesn’t take the guards category. Ainge was the low man on the Celtics' starting lineup totem pole despite compiling 10.9 PPG and an impressive 5.1 APG, third on the team. He didn’t take off until the next year, where he continued to flourish over the next four seasons between Boston and Sacramento.
Both DJ and Rondo are amazing defensive stoppers. DJ made six first teams and Rondo made his first appearance on the NBA’s all-defensive team last year. But, it’s Rondo flare for passing that helps give the modern guards the edge. DJ was more of a glorified role player, while Rondo plays today’s NBA game on a whole ‘nother level.
You could make the case that DJ and Ainge are comparable to Allen and Rondo, but the 1986 guards weren’t relied upon like the 2011 Celtics guards. Without their current backcourt, the Boston Celtics of 2011 would not be one of the elite teams in the NBA.
The forwards matchup between the 1986 team and the current squad is the true showcase of talent when comparing the two crews. On one side you have Hall of Famers Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. On the other you have two projected Hall of Farmers in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
Before anyone writes off this matchup in favor of Bird’s team, let me remind you that the new Big Three has one championship and were two minutes away from a second in their three years together. Bird and McHale did pick up three championships in the 12 years they played together, but Pierce and Garnett are ahead of that pace now that I think about it.
In all seriousness, rather than ranking the two teams (Bird and McHale win), it’s the parallels that can be drawn from each team that adds credibility to today’s Celtics.
Bird and McHale were the faces of the 1986 Boston Celtics. They were at the peaks of their careers and were as revered as any forward combination in the history of the game. Yet when thinking about modern lineups, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett also garner that same praise.
While they might not be at the peaks of their careers, is there another combination in the league right now that adds so much on and off the court than these two, like McHale and Bird did?
Nope. Sure, there are better individual forwards in the league, but you can’t tell me that Tim Duncan and Richard Jefferson or Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom bring better chemistry or are a more dynamic duo (though my Laker counterpart surely would if he was to write an article about the 1987 Lakers) than what the Celtics have.
What it comes down to is that, like the 1986 team, the current Celtics’ tandem of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are the heart and soul of a very good basketball unit. They rise to the occasion, want the ball in their hands and know what it takes to win games, with the right personnel on the floor. And that’s why the 2011 Celtics can stand next to the legendary duo of 1986.
The whole argument for comparing who is better than whom when analyzing teams or players from different generations is going to be 100 percent subjective, 90 percent of the time. This is why there isn’t a need to pore over stats or base everything off championships. One team is only halfway through its season as well.
The 1986 Boston Celtics are one of the best teams of all time. They boasted four Hall of Famers, three All-Stars, two former MVPs and one David Thirdkill. This is the best Celtics team of all time. They’re from a generation where basketball was a 24/7 way of life. They weren’t smoking cigarettes at halftime and getting wasted after the games. The team also wasn't composed of 12-15 egos tossed together in a haphazard fashion to create a “team.” The 1986 Celtics were a well-built organization that fired on all cylinders.
The same is true of the 2011 team. The Celtics aren’t at the level of the 1986 team, but they are following in their predecessors’ footsteps. They are capable enough to do this. The Celtics are not too old, and they're not conflicting with one another over who gets to shoot the ball. They can still play.
When all is said and done, the 2011 Celtics will have to win a championship to further this debate, but they are in a position to do so and keep the debate going.