Top 5 Coaches in Boston Celtics History
Amid a report from ESPN's Chris Broussard that Doc Rivers is seriously considering stepping down after nine years as the head coach of the Boston Celtics, it seems only appropriate to determine where Rivers ranks amongst the Boston Celtic coaching greats.
There have been a total of 16 coaches in the 67-year history of the Celtics franchise. However, only six were part of the 17 banners that have been raised to the rafters.
Who makes our top five?
No. 5: Bill Russell
Title Years: 1968, ‘69
When Red Auerbach stepped down as the head coach of the Boston Celtics after the 1966 championship campaign, there was only one other person he trusted at the helm of the dynasty he’d created.
That person was his starting center, Bill Russell.
Assuming the responsibility of player-coach, and serving as the first black head coach in any major sport, Russell’s transition was not completely seamless at first. Although he led the Celtics to a 60-21 record overall in 1967, Boston’s eight-year championship run came to a screeching stop as Russell’s team lost in five games to Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers.
However, true to form, Russell rebounded the following two seasons. His teams won a combined 102 games in ’68 and ’69 and won championships in each of those years. Despite the aging Celtic roster at the end of the decade, Russell continued to lead them to the top of the basketball world.
In his final game as a Celtic, Russell led Boston to a Game 7 victory against the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers in one of the biggest finals upsets in league history. Immediately following the game, Russell retired as both a player and coach of the Boston Celtics.
Russell’s .609 winning percentage in the playoffs ranks second in franchise history, but because he coached a mere three seasons in Boston, he ranks just seventh in wins for the franchise.
Russell would go on to coach the Seattle Supersonics in the mid 1970s and then return to the sidelines in 1987 as the head coach of the Sacramento Kings. However, the Celtics legend did not experience much success in those ventures, appearing in the playoffs in just two of those five combined seasons
No. 4: Doc Rivers
Title Years: 2008
It had been almost two decades since the Celtics appeared in the NBA Finals when Rivers came to Boston. However, after just four seasons with the team, Doc helped raise the franchise's 17th banner to hallowed rafters of the TD Garden.
Rivers ranks third in both regular-season and postseason victories for the decorated franchise. His teams missed the playoffs just twice and won six division titles in his nine seasons as head coach. The 2008 championship team won the third-most games in the franchise’s history and lost just one game at home during its historic postseason run.
Yet most impressive was the way Doc changed the culture of the Celtics. In 2004 he inherited a very unimpressive and unlikeable cast of players that included the likes of Ricky Davis, Mark Blount and an ancient Gary Payton. A midseason trade that brought Antoine Walker back to Boston only further poisoned the team chemistry and ultimately led to a first-round playoff exit.
By the following spring, all of the aforementioned players were gone as Coach Rivers and President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge worked to repair the roster. And while the franchise would struggle to make the playoffs the following two seasons, Rivers created a “no hero ball” philosophy in those years that would serve as the foundation to the 2008 title team.
Nevertheless, it is difficult that make the argument that Rivers belongs any higher on this list considering his .550 winning percentage in the postseason ranks just sixth overall among Celtic coaches.
There are also five other head coaches in Celtic history with as many or more titles than Rivers. His 11-16 record in close-out games as coach of the franchise is hardly impressive and it’s difficult to overlook that it was Doc who coached the second-worst team (24-58 in 2007) in the 67-year history of the franchise.
No. 3: K.C. Jones
Title Years: 1984, ‘86
After the 1983 Boston Celtics were swept 4-0 by the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference semifinals, there was plenty of blame to go around. Coach Bill Fitch, a strict disciplinarian unafraid to publicly criticize his players, became a target in the Celtic locker room and ultimately resigned in the offseason.
He was replaced by lead assistant K.C. Jones, whose mild manner and cool demeanor was a far cry from Fitch’s authoritative ways.
Jones was a Celtic legend long before assuming head coach responsibilities for the team. The coach was a key role player for Boston, known for his defensive prowess, on eight consecutive championship teams. When team president Red Auerbach named Jones head coach at the start of the 1984 season the expectations were very high.
Recognizing the talent he inherited at the start of the 1984 season, K.C.’s philosophy became quite simple. "I listen to the players. My job is to give them direction and a base to operate from, but you have to let them use their own creativity and imaginations. It's their game, they have to be allowed to play it.”
The impact of his philosophy was felt immediately.
Between the 1984-1987 seasons, K.C. Jones coached the Celtics to four straight finals appearances. No coach in the league since has accomplished this feat. His .751 regular-season winning percentage ranks first in the franchise’s long history and only Auerbach has more playoff victories. No Celtic squad coached by Jones won less than 57 games and the 1986 team is regarded by many as the greatest in NBA history.
Still, K.C. Jones’s wisdom extended far beyond the wins and loss column as six different players from his 1986 roster went on to become a head coach in the NBA.
No. 2: Tom Heinsohn
Title Years: 1974, ‘76
Coach Tom Heinsohn arrived in 1970 with the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding the Boston Celtic dynasty.
After winning nine titles in the previous decade, the Celtics entered the 1970s with the highest of expectations. Unfortunately, they also entered the decade without Cousy, Russell, Jones or Auerbach at coach.
Regardless, Tommy Heinsohn helped bridge the dynasty of the1960s to the Bird era of the 1980s almost seamlessly. Just five years after his retirement as a Hall of Fame player, and with zero head coaching experience, Heinsohn quickly built a gritty, hard-nose and fast-paced squad that would add to the Celtics' championship history.
Unlike the dynasty teams that preceded Heinsohn as head coach, and the four championship teams that would follow, the title teams of the 1970s were not flooded with Hall of Famers. Outside of Dave Cowens and John Havlicek, there was not another Hall of Famer on either of Heinsohn’s championship coached teams.
Still, the former Rookie of the Year and the six-time All-Star coached Boston to the NBA’s elite.
Heinsohn increased the team's win total in each of his first four seasons. The 1973 Celtic team posted a 68-14 record—still the best in franchise history. At the end of the 1973 campaign, Heinsohn was named Coach of the Year, only the second coach in the franchise’s long history to be awarded with the honor. The following season, he captured his first of two titles as coach of the Celtics.
Although the Boston teams of the 1970s are all too often forgotten in Celtic lore, Tom Heinsohn captured five division titles in his eight seasons and won over 400 games as head coach for the franchise.
Only Red Auerbach has more wins as head coach of the Boston Celtics than Tom Heinsohn
N0. 1: Red Auerbach
Title Years: 1957, ’59-66
“The Boston Celtics are not a basketball team, they are a way of life.”
Those immortal words of Red Auerbach are still very much a part of the fabric of the Boston Celtics franchise today. And if the Celtics are indeed a way of life, then those who have benefited from it owe a great debt of gratitude to coach Red Auerbach.
Upon coming to Boston at the start of the 1951 season, the Celtics had never finished above .500 and had qualified for the playoffs just once in their brief four-year history. Owner Walter Brown was desperate to make a splash, but Auerbach insisted on doing things his way.
First, Auerbach passed on drafting local hero Bob Cousy in the 1950 draft infuriating the local media and fans alike. Some months later Cousy would sign after failing to reach an agreement with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks.
In the same draft, Auerbach would draft Chuck Cooper, the first African-American ever drafted in professional basketball. Auerbach’s Celtics would also be the first NBA team to start a game with an all-black lineup 14 years after the draft of Cooper.
Red’s shining moment came in 1956 draft when he traded away six-time All-Star Ed MaCauley, to St. Louis for the rights to a center out of the University of San Francisco, Bill Russell. With Red and Russell together the basketball world in Boston would never be the same.
No coach, in any sport, coached as many consecutive title teams as Auerbach and only Phil Jackson has more championships than Red’s nine. His 795 wins with the Celtics is more than 300 ahead of second place on the franchise list. Only Jerry Sloan and Gregg Popovich have coached one franchise to as many victories as Auerbach did with the Celtics.
He ranks first in games coached, wins, playoff wins and of course championships for the franchise. In fact, Auerbach’s eight championships are as many as every other Celtic coach on this list combined.
Auerbach won 50 or more games in each of his eight final seasons. Perhaps most notably though, in his 16 seasons as coach of the Celtics, Boston never finished below .500 and made the postseason in all of those years.
Even after his retirement in 1966, Auerbach continued to impact the Celtics franchise. Serving as the general manager for the rest of the decade and well into the 1980s, Red’s fingerprints were all over the team’s future success.
From naming Bill Russell as his successor as head coach, drafting Larry Bird in 1978, to trading for Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, Red Auerbach would serve as the orchestrator to eight more championships in Boston.
Auerbach was also the 1965 Coach of the Year, an award that is now named after him.
In 1971 he was named to NBA’s Silver Anniversary Team and in 1997, as part of the “NBA at 50” celebration, Red Auerbach was named one of the Top 10 Coaches in NBA history.