Boston Celtics: 10 Greatest Moves During Red Auerbach's Tenure
Red Auerbach will always be remembered as a man loved by his players and fans of the Boston Celtics, and despised by his opponents. Whether it was his cockiness, his savvy or simply his ability to guide the Celtics to so many winning seasons and championships spanning several decades, Red Auerbach was a man who was revered and reviled, nearly always at the same time.
His lasting contributions to the NBA cannot be overstated: He not only created the league's first dynasty and give rise to the famous "Celtics Mystique" of winning, but he broke the NBA's color barrier when he drafted Duquesne's Chuck Cooper in 1950 and helped to redefine basketball as a defense-oriented team sport rather than a sport of offensive feats and high scoring.
One of the brightest minds in the history of the game, Auerbach will be remembered by Celtics fans as the man who pulled off of the greatest steals for players in NBA history. His uncanny ability to attract talent and build perennial powerhouses gave rise to some of the best teams to ever grace the hardwood.
Here, we'll take a look at some of the best moves made during Red Auerbach's time in Boston.
1950: The Drafting of Chuck Cooper
The Celtics had four picks in the 1950 NBA Draft, including the first overall pick. The Celtics were widely rumored to draft local phenom Bob Cousy out of Holy Cross, but Red Auerbach had other plans, dismissing Cousy as a "local yokel" and drafting Chuck Share out of Bowling Green instead. Don't worry, we'll get back to Bob Cousy a little later.
The 1950 draft would prove to be far more significant for the Celtics and the league as a whole thanks to the Celtics' choice of Duquesne's Chuck Cooper with their second-round pick. Red Auerbach made the Boston Celtics the first NBA team to draft an African-American player, paving the way for the league's other teams to follow suit.
Although Chuck Cooper never had the All-Star career of his Major League Baseball counterpart Jackie Robinson, the breaking of professional basketball's color barrier allowed others to follow in Cooper's footsteps, and helped to create the NBA as we now know it.
1950: The Accidental Drafting of Bob Cousy
I told you we'd get back to Bob Cousy and the unusual circumstances under which he came to Boston.
After the Celtics passed over Cousy with the No. 1 overall pick, the Tri-Cities Blackhawks took Cousy with the third pick in the draft. For those unfamiliar with the Blackhawks, the team represented the cities of Rock Island and Moline, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa, and is now the Atlanta Hawks.
Cousy, who was attempting to open up a driving school back home in Worcester, Massachusetts, was unwilling to close up shop and head to the Midwest, and demanded a $10,000 salary from the Blackhawks. After the team's front office only offered him $6,000, Cousy refused to report and stayed put in Worcester while his rights were traded to the Chicago Stags.
The Stags would soon fold, however: The NBA called for a dispersal draft, and it just so happens that Walter Brown was invited to the draft to represent the Celtics. In a draft determined by a random draw, Brown was hoping for Stags star Max Zaslofski, but as luck would have it, the Celtics drew Bob Cousy at random. Brown would later confess that he was extremely surprised by the development.
Bob Cousy would go on to earn the nickname "Houdini of the Hardwood" during his 13-year career with the Celtics, averaging 18.4 points per game and 7.5 assists over the course of his career. He would earn an induction into the Hall of Fame and have his jersey number 14 retired by the Celtics.
Although this can't really be attributed to Auerbach's brilliance, it still goes down in history as one of the best draft "choices" in history. And hey, the Celtics did end up giving him close to the $10,000 salary he wanted. So, well, that was a brilliant move, right?
1956: The Acquistion of Bill Russell
Similar to the story of Bob Cousy, Bill Russell's arrival in Boston has an interesting background, but also includes some of Red Auerbach's classic cleverness and maneuvering.
By 1956, the Celtics had been in existence for 10 seaons, and had yet to win a championship. Red Auerbach saw that the Celtics were missing a strong defensive presence in the paint—a big man who could block, rebound and clog up the middle.
The University of San Francisco's Bill Russell appeared to be just the type of player for the job.
However, the Celtics appeared to be in no position to draft Russell, as they held only the territorial pick (which they used to draft Holy Cross's Tommy Heinsohn) in the 1956 NBA Draft, behind the Rochester Royals and the St. Louis Hawks.
The Royals were not overly interested in Russell, as they already had a big man in the form of Maurice Stokes (and were unwilling to pay the $25,000 signing bonus that Russell requested), and instead drafted shooting guard Sihugo Green.
The Hawks would go on to draft Russell, but were interested in the Celtics' Ed Macauley.
Macauley, a St. Louis native, had already requested a trade from Boston to the Hawks to be near his ailing son. Auerbach agreed to the Macauley trade in exchange for Russell.
After agreeing to include Cliff Hagan (who had served in the military for the previous three years and had never played for the Celtics) in the trade, Russell would come to Boston and become one of the greatest to ever play the game of basketball.
He won NBA MVP honors five times; was named to the NBA All-Star team 12 times; earned All-NBA honors 11 times; and led the Celtics to 11 NBA Championships in 13 seasons from 1957 to 1969, including twice as a player-coach.
Auerbach used his skill and savvy to effectively acquire Russell through the proverbial "back door" of sorts, and it would certainly prove to be one of the most famous "back door" acquisitions in the history of the sport.
1962: The Drafting of John Havlicek
Auerbach and the Celtics drafted Havlick out of Ohio State with the seventh pick in the 1962 NBA Draft.
After playing alongside fellow All-American Jerry Lucas during one of the greatest three-year runs in NCAA men's basketball history, six teams (not counting the two territorial picks) would pass on Havlicek before the Celtics drafted him.
Not only that, Havlicek was also drafted by the NFL's Cleveland Browns, and would briefly compete at wide receiver during their 1962 training camp.
Ultimately, of course, Havlick would choose basketball, and needless to say, it proved to be the right career choice.
Earning the nickname Hondo after the John Wayne character, Havlicek was known for his superior athleticism and endurance. Auerbach called him "the guts of the team," as he pioneered the role of the "sixth man."
Hondo went on to average 20.8 points per game, 6.3 rebounds per game and 4.8 assists, leading the Celtics to eight NBA championships while playing alongside the likes of Bill Russell, Jo Jo White and Dave Cowens.
Havlicek would be named to 13 All-Star teams, 11 All-NBA teams and earn an induction into the Hall of Fame following his 16-year career.
Havlicek would see his jersey number 17 retired by the Celtics, and earn a place as one of the greatest Celtics of all time.
Red Auerbach recognized his talent and wisely seized on the opportunity when draft day rolled around in 1962.
1970: The Drafting of Dave Cowens
In 1970, the Celtics were one year removed from the end of their 11-for-13 dynasty stretch.
Bill Russell was now retired, and despite a solid talent base in the form of John Havlicek, Jo Jo White and Don Nelson, the team limped to a 34-48 record in Tommy Heinsohn's first season as Head Coach.
All the Celtics would need was one more addition to complete their roster and return them to relevancy.
In the 1970 NBA Draft, the Celtics used the fourth overall pick to draft Dave Cowens out of Florida State.
At 6 foot 9 and 230 pounds, Cowens would make a name for himself as an undersized player who could play both big and small when required.
Not only could he score and rebound (averaging 17.6 points per game and 13.6 rebounds per game), but he could hit the deck and dive for loose balls and play tough defense as well.
I've heard his playing style described as "scrappy," and that's certainly accurate, as Dave Cowens was never afraid to play tough, physical basketball.
Cowens would lead the Celtics two NBA Championships in 1974 and 1976 and earn league MVP honors in 1973. He was also named to three All-NBA teams. His number 18 was retired by the Celtics in 1981, and he would be inducted into the Hall of Fame 10 years later.
1978: The Drafting of Larry Bird
By the late 1970s, the Celtics had once again faded into irrelevancy, as stars like Dave Cowens, John Havlicek and Jo Jo White continued to grow old and see their production decline.
A lack of depth beyond their superstars only added to the Celtics' woes as they finished the 1977 season with a record of 44-38, and the 1978 season a dismal 32-50.
Red Auerbach recognized that the Celtics' fortunes were soon going to change, however, when the Celtics used their sixth overall pick in the 1978 NBA draft to select a previously-unknown player named Larry Bird out of Indiana State University, a school largely unheard-of outside of Indiana and the Missouri Valley Conference.
Having seen Bird's offensive talent that included scoring, rebounding and passing, Auerbach saw the huge value that Bird held and what he could potentially do for the Celtics.
The team would be forced to wait one more season, however, as Bird opted to return to the Sycamores for his senior season. (League rules at the time allowed teams to retain a player's draft rights for a year.)
Although the Celtics would endure a 29-53 1979 campaign and fall victim to a variety of locker room issues, the Celtics would rebound with the arrival of Larry Bird in the fall of 1979 and never look back, winning Championships in 1981, 1984 and 1986, and additional Eastern Conference Championships in 1985 and 1987.
Bird would go on to amass three NBA MVP honors, 12 All-Star appearances, 10 All-NBA selections and an induction into the Hall of Fame after averaging 24.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. His number 33 would be retired the Celtics, and he is today recognized as not only one of the greatest Celtics ever, but also one of the best players of all time.
They don't call him "Larry Legend" for nothing.
1980: The Acquisition of Robert Parish
When the Celtics finally signed Larry Bird in 1979, Red Auerbach famously said that all the Celtics would need to regain success was "Larry, one or two little moves, and we're good to go."
If by "one of two little moves" Auerbach meant one of the most lop-sided acquisitions in NBA history, then sure, one or two little moves was all that the Celtics needed.
Although the Celtics finished their 1980 campaign with a 61-21 record (at the time the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history), they fell short in the postseason, as they were defeated by Julius Erving's Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Red Auerbach recognized the need to bring in more talent to play alongside Larry Bird and Cedric Maxwell in the frontcourt, and had his sights set on Golden State's star center Robert Parish.
With the first overall pick in the 1980 draft in hand, Auerbach struck a deal that would bring Robert Parish to Boston in exchange for the first and 13th overall picks.
In what proved to be one of the greatest deals ever completed by the Celtics front office, as Robert Parish would become an integral part of the Celtics' three championships in the 1980's.
He also earned nine All-Star selections and two All-NBA selections.
His nickname "Chief" came from his stoic appearance, as he was always a strong presence in the paint at both ends of the court, averaging 14.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game for his career (these numbers are even higher if you take away his last several years in the league in which his production dropped off severely).
His number 00 would be retired by the Celtics and he would be inducted into the Hall of Fame as well.
1980: The Drafting of Kevin McHale
As a part of the deal to bring Robert Parish to Boston, the Celtics also gained the third overall pick in the 1980 draft. They used the pick to draft Kevin McHale out of Minnesota.
As I said on the previous slide, how's that for "one or two little moves"?
Kevin McHale would become the third member of Boston's "Big Three," alongside Larry Bird and Robert Parish. They would become one of the greatest front courts in NBA history.
McHale's huge arm span allowed him to score a ton of points and grab a ton of boards during his peak years with the Celtics, with much of his production coming off the bench prior to the 1986 season.
Even more remarkable was his ability to average more than 20 points and close to 10 rebounds per game during a time when Larry Bird was also averaging around the same numbers. In addition to Robert Parish's always consistent scoring in the post and rebounding contributions, it was this lethal combination that led the Celtics to perennial success for so many years, even in later years when much of the team was growing old and injury-prone.
McHale would average 17.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game and earn seven All-Star selections as well as the Sixth Man of the Year Award twice. He, too, would have his number (32) retired by the Celtics and be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
1983: The Acquisition of Dennis Johnson
Dennis Johnson had already found success playing for the Seattle Supersonics (now, of course, the Oklahoma City Thunder), earning Finals MVP honors in 1979.
However, DJ would be traded to the Phoenix Suns in 1980 after repeated clashes with Sonics head coach Lenny Wilkens.
While in both Phoenix and Seattle, Johnson showcased his abilities as a scorer, passer and defender, as he helped keep both teams in playoff contention during his time there.
Eventually, just as in Seattle with Wilkens, DJ clashed with Suns head coach John MacLeod, who dealt DJ to Boston in 1983 in exchange for Rick Robey and several draft picks.
At the time of Johnson's acquisition, the Celtics were coming off two straight early Playoff exits, once at the hands of the Sixers due to the Celtics' inability in the backcourt to adequately defend the likes of Andrew Toney.
Auerbach quickly recognized DJ's defensive prowess and scoring and passing abilities and moved to acquire him and add strength to the backcourt.
DJ would play a critical role in the Celtics' 1984 and 1986 Championship runs and was a strong presence at both ends of the court. He is forever remembered for scoring the game-winng layup against Detroit in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals after receiving that famous pass from Larry Bird.
DJ would average 14.9 points and 5.0 assists per game over the course of career, earning five All-Star selections, two All-NBA selections and induction into the Hall of Fame, along with having his number 3 retired by the Celtics.
Unfortunately, DJ unexpectedly passed away on February 22, 2007 at the age of 52 after collapsing following a practice session for the NBA Development League's Austin Toros, where he was Head Coach at the time.
1998: The Drafting of Paul Pierce
It's often been discussed as to how a total of nine teams could have possibly passed on Paul Pierce, who was widely expected to be a top-five pick in 1998 coming out of Kansas, where he had three hugely successful seasons.
However, the likes of Michawl Olowokandi, Mike Bibby, Raef LaFrentz, Jason Williams, Robert Traylor and Larry Hughes were selected ahead of Pierce—as were Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter, and Dirk Nowitzki—but that's OK, considering that they've all had at least decent, productive careers.
Auerbach and the front office thankfully recognized Paul Pierce's unique all-around abilities as a scorer and defender, and selected him with the 10th overall pick in the 1998 draft.
Pierce quickly rose to become the Celtics' franchise player for much of the 2000s and the early 2010s, suffering through tough years with little to no extra talent outside of Antoine Walker.
As we all know, that all changed with the acquisition of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007 and the Celtics' resurgence since then.
Paul Pierce has long been a fan favorite, due not only to his playing abilities, but also his sticking with the team through difficult years.
Pierce has been named to nine All-Star teams, four All-NBA teams and earned an NBA Finals MVP in 2008.
Averaging 22.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game so far during his career, he will likely earn a trip to Springfield one day and see his number 34 hang from the Garden's rafters.
Although it took a decade, "The Truth" finally set us free.
2006: The Acquisition of Rajon Rondo
I put this slide here with a bit of a caveat: By the time of Rajon Rondo's draft-day acquisition, Red Auerbach had declining involvement with the team, with most of the duties of basketball operations turned over to Danny Ainge by this point.
However, Auerbach was still employed as a "special assistant," and I find it hard to believe that he wasn't at least consulted about this move, so I will include it as the last best move during Red Auerbach's tenure before his death at age 89 on October 28, 2006.
Rondo was selected by the Phoenix Suns with the 21st overall pick in the 2006 draft, but was traded to the Celtics on draft-day for a draft pick and cash.
This may very well qualify as a great modern-day draft steal, as Rajon Rondo has developed into the Celtics' starting point guard and next franchise player.
After struggling in his first year with the Celtics, he's slowly but surely made progress as a floor general and distributor, and has now emerged as one of the premier point guards in the NBA.
Whether it was Danny Ainge, Red Auerbach or someone else in the front who masterminded this deal, it was certainly a deal that will help keep the Celtics relevant beyond the Big Three era. Rondo has already been named to two All-Star teams, and is currently averaging 10.7 points and 7.6 assists per game for his career.
What Do You Think?
Think I missed an important event in Celtics history? Disagree with a move that I put in this article?
Feel free to let me know in the comments!
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