Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics' Greatest Player from Each Decade
The Boston Celtics are one of the most storied franchises in NBA history. During the team’s 64 years in existence, the Green have amassed a staggering 17 championships, while seeing over 20 players and coaches garner induction into the NBA Hall of Fame.
But while the Celtics compete against the other teams in the league for supremacy, how do the individual players stack up against one another? As opposed to ranking the best overall players throughout the team’s history, let’s look at it by decade this time around.
Some choices will be obvious, but the 40’s, for example, occurred well before the Celtics were the dominant championship machine they were in the 1960’s. The 1990’s were largely forgettable, so no one really deserves to be known as the best player of that decade, but we’ll find a way to hand it out to someone.
Here are the greatest players from each decade in Celtics’ history.
1940’s: Ed Sadowski
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Before Red Auerbach, before Bob Cousy and even before the NBA, there were the Boston Celtics of the 1940’s.
In the three years before the BAA merged with the NBL to form the NBA, the Boston Celtics put up an unimpressive 67-101 (.398) record, making the playoffs once with an ugly 20-28 mark. The greatest number to marvel at was that in their inaugural season the Celtics shot 27 percent for the year—as a team.
Basically no one was worthy of being the greatest player of the 40’s for Boston, but Ed Sadkowski put up fairly gaudy numbers (19.4 PPG, fifth in the league in total assists) during the 1947-48 season.
Sadowski also made the All-BAA team, and led the Celtics to their first playoff appearance. While he won’t go down as one of the greatest Celtics of all time, he was tops on a slim list of great players from the “peach bucket” era.
Sadowski was traded to the Philadelphia Warriors the following season, lasting only one season in Boston.
1950’s: Bob Cousy
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A couple of funny things happened to the Boston Celtics before the 1950-51 season began. One, the team brought Red Auerbach in to coach the squad, and two, the team drafted Bob Cousy.
Cousy is widely regarded as one of the earliest superstar point guards in the NBA. He was an All-Star every year of his career (minus his stint with Cincinnati at age 41 after a seven year layoff), and Cousy was voted the NBA’s MVP during the 1956-57 season.
He was instrumental in leading the Celts to their first championship and was a key component to what made the Celtics the legends they are today.
1960’s: Bill Russell
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Luckily for Bob Cousy, Bill Russell didn’t make his debut in the NBA until 1956-57 season. Also luckily for Cousy and the fans of Boston, Bill Russell would go on to become one of the greatest NBA players of all time.
This one is a no-brainer, but just in case you need convincing: Russell won nine championships in the 60’s, won four MVP awards and was an All-Star every year during the decade of free love.
Like the great teams of the 80’s, Russell had plenty of help around him. Cousy ran point and Tom Heinsohn played up front with Satch Sanders, while Sam and K.C. Jones were the key backcourt components along with Frank Ramsey. The 1962 roster, for example, featured seven future hall-of-famers on it.
Russell was still the driving force behind all of the Celtics success and his place at the top of the greatest players of his generation is unquestionable.
1970’s: John Havlicek
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The Bill Russell era quickly ended for the Boston Celtics as the 1970’s began. Russell hung up his hi-tops after the 1969 season, leaving the Celtics with a new-look rotation.
John Havlicek had been on the roster for many years already, but the legacy of the Celtics firmly rested on his shoulders moving forward. Hondo was able to succeed when pushed with the task of keeping the Celtics name among the best. While the team “only” managed to win two championships during the 70’s, it was largely because of his play.
Havlicek was an All-Star for every year he was in the league throughout the 70’s, was named the NBA Finals MVP in 1974 and made three All-NBA and All-Defensive teams in the same season.
Havlicek could score, shoot, pass, rebound and steal the ball. He was a five-tool player that is one of the NBA’s 50 greatest.
1980’s: Larry Bird
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The end of John Havlicek’s career coincided with the Celtics failing to make the playoffs in his final year as well as the following year. The team was good on paper, but not good enough to make the playoffs.
Of course, the Celtics of the late 70’s were nothing compared to the Celtics of the 80’s. Enter the Big 3 of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish. The Big 3, led by Bird, kept basketball relevant in Boston when it looked like the team may go through a prolonged slump.
With Bird, you had a guy who was said to be un-athletic (why he slipped to No. 6 in the draft), but people were foolish to overlook what Bird brought to the game.
Larry Legend could do it all, and then there was his competitive spirit to back it all up. The Celtics of the 1980’s won three championships under Bird. The 1986 team is generally regarded as one of the best teams of all time and rightfully so.
1990’s: Reggie Lewis
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The Boston Celtics of the 1990’s are the forgotten decade. No championships were won, the Big 3 retired or moved on in the early part of the decade and the team suffered from tragedy on and off the court.
The question of who was the best player of the decade really comes down to two players. One is Reggie Lewis, who led the team in the early part of the decade. The other is Antoine Walker, who led the team at the end.
With Reggie, you got a basketball player—no flash, all skill. Walker was quite the opposite. While he had plenty of skill, he relied on his flash to win games. This is why Reggie gets the nod as the best player of the decade. Consistency is an undervalued attribute in the NBA.
Reggie Lewis’ death derailed the career of a talented player who had the potential to be among the greatest Celtics of all time. Where he would have ended up we will never know, but Reggie was still a highly-talented player during his day.
2000’s: Paul Pierce
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If it weren’t for Paul Pierce the Boston Celtics wouldn’t be back among the best teams in the NBA today. Pierce was the driving success behind the Celtics rise back from obscurity, culminating in the team’s first NBA championship since the 1986 season.
Pierce is a throwback to the days of Reggie Lewis and Larry Bird. He’s not a flashy player, but he’s a great player. He makes smart decisions on the court, and it’s his clutch factor that has him standout as the best Celtic of the 2000’s.
In hindsight there just really isn’t any competition that would be a worthy opponent for Pierce as the best Celtics player of the decade.
2010’s: Rajon Rondo
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Here’s one that will most likely be a little controversial, but Rajon Rondo is/will be the player of the current decade for the Boston Celtics. I know we can only predict what will happen in the future, but health permitting, Rondo has the talent to lead the Celtics as they enter their next generation.
Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett won’t be around much longer, so that leaves Rondo as the lone star in Boston. Of course, a Dwight Howard may land in Boston via free agency, but stars will come to Boston because Rondo is there.
Rondo won’t ever be a high-level scorer, but he’s one of the best passers in the game, stands out on defense and can control a game as good as anyone else. It’ll be very interesting to see how much things have changed in the next three years.