Ranking the Greatest Boston Celtics Since 2000
The Boston Celtics' Big Three—Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen—won the NBA title in 2008, made a spirited run at winning each of the next four and perhaps inadvertently drew up the blueprint for the league's current era of superteams. They are clearly the three best Celtics since 2000.
To fill out the rest of the top 10, we considered individual production and accolades (All-Star Games, All-NBA teams, etc.), contributions to team success and advanced metrics such as win shares (WS), value over replacement player (VORP) and player efficiency rating (PER).
Only a player's production since the beginning of the 1999-00 season factored in here. Contributions before then will be mentioned in career highlights but not measured.
The team-success factor was a big one for these rankings since the Celtics have had some major ebbs and flows in the past two decades. Immediately before and after the Big Three, they weren't even a playoff team. Same goes for the first couple of years during this century. But Boston was a legitimate title contender for at least half of the past 20 years.
Thus, with all due respect to players like Al Jefferson, Tyler Zeller and Brandon Bass, who at least tried to make the best of a bad situation during those forgettable seasons, our top 10 primarily consists of guys who were Boston's best during their peak years around 2002, 2008 and 2017.
Bradley was one of the lone bright spots for the Celtics in the mid-2010s, playing solid defense and averaging at least 13.9 points in the four seasons after Boston traded away Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. But he was never an All-Star and had sub-optimal career marks of 12.0 PER and 0.060 WS/48 with the Celtics.
After missing the entire 2011-12 season due to a heart condition, Green was also a big part of the post-Big Three Celtics. He led the team in scoring in 2013-14 and was well on his way to repeating that feat in 2014-15 before Boston traded him to the Memphis Grizzlies. Had his two best seasons not come during the Celtics' two worst seasons in more than a decade, it would've been more tempting to include him in our top 10.
After two-plus disappointing seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, Crowder was shipped to Boston as part of the Rajon Rondo trade. At that time, he seemed like the least noteworthy piece of the deal, but he ended up thriving during his short stay with the Celtics. He posted two of Boston's four highest single-season win share marks between 2013-14 and 2016-17. Crowder averaged 12.8 points in Boston while serving as arguably the best defender on the roster.
Smart was the primary ball-handler during his two collegiate seasons at Oklahoma State, but he's needed to adjust to more of a tertiary role in the offense while playing with the likes of Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving. He still provides a lot of value as one of the best on-ball defenders in the league, earning first-team All-Defensive honors this past season. If he can maintain (or further improve upon) his 36.4 percent three-point stroke from 2018-19, he could be playing in All-Star Games soon.
10. Jayson Tatum
Career Marks with Boston (2017-Present): 14.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.1 SPG, 40.0% 3PT, 15.2 PER, 0.118 WS/48
A lot of people thought general manager Danny Ainge was making a mistake when he traded the No. 1 pick of the 2017 NBA draft. Two years later, it's clear that moving back two spots, avoiding Markelle Fultz and getting Jayson Tatum was an amazing decision.
Tatum has been a durable rock for the Celtics, leading the team in minutes played and ranking second to Kyrie Irving in points scored during each of the past two seasons. He also led the Celtics in rebounds last year and has been one of the better defenders on the roster.
Boston's roster looks a lot different after the latest whirlwind ride known as free agency—goodbye to Irving, Al Horford, Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier; hello to Kemba Walker, Enes Kanter and a bunch of draft picks—but Tatum remains a building block for this franchise. He's the only player in our top 10 still with the team, so he's going to keep climbing these rankings the longer he stays in Beantown.
The big questions now are: Will he make "the leap," and when will he do so?
Tatum is already quite good, but he just turned 21 in March and still has a lot of space before hitting his ceiling. And the third or fourth season in the NBA is the one in which so many recent great players—James Harden, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, etc.—have found that higher gear that sets them apart and makes them perennial All-Stars.
If Tatum is able to get there in 2019-20 alongside Walker and Gordon Hayward, perhaps the Celtics will get back to the Finals for the first time since 2010.
9. Kyrie Irving
Career Marks with Boston (2017-19): two-time All-Star, one-time All-NBA, 24.1 PPG, 6.1 APG, 4.4 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 40.4% 3PT, 24.6 PER, 0.209 WS/48
Kyrie Irving's run with the Celtics was supposed to include a championship—or, at the very least, a trip to the NBA Finals.
This past season was a colossal disaster compared to the preseason belief that the Celtics were the heavy favorites to win the Eastern Conference. Throw in the drama and frustration that primarily defined Irving's time in Boston and it's fair for Celtics fans to feel he doesn't belong anywhere near this top 10.
From a purely statistical perspective, though, it would be preposterous to exclude him.
Only Isaiah Thomas (24.7) has averaged more points per game with the Celtics since 2000, and no one has a higher WS/48 rate than Irving. Despite playing in only 127 regular-season games, his 8.7 VORP was the 12th-highest in the NBA over the past two years.
Reiterating that this is just from a numerical perspective, Irving was more valuable in Boston than he was in Cleveland.
However, the constant distractions, the postseason shortcomings—even though he missed the 2018 playoffs with a knee injury and can't be held solely responsible for Boston's inability to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo—and the fact he was only with the team for two seasons kept Irving from being legitimately considered for a spot in the top five.
8. Kendrick Perkins
Career Marks with Boston (2003-11): 2008 NBA Champ, 6.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 1.0 APG, 12.9 PER, 0.105 WS/48
As penance to the still-frustrated-by-Kyrie's-stint Boston fans for having him in the top 10, we're putting one of the biggest fan favorites in Celtics history one slot ahead even though Kendrick Perkins scored fewer points in 454 games (2,917) than Irving did in 127 games (3,062).
As far as stats and individual accolades are concerned, Perkins is rather out of place on this list. He was never an All-Star and wasn't much more than a replacement-level player, though he started 335 games during his eight-season run with the Celtics.
The bigger selling point for his Celtics legacy, though, is that Perkins was a perfect fit during the Pierce-Garnett-Allen-Rondo era of the late 2000s.
Those Celtics didn't need more scorers or anyone with a remotely me-first attitude. They needed a low-usage enforcer who could protect the rim and send the occasional message with a hard foul or icy stare. And there might not be any player in the past two decades who was better suited for that part.
Perkins wasn't quite the defensive and rebounding juggernaut Ben Wallace was for the Detroit Pistons from 2001-06, but those centers played similar roles for teams that won one title and contended for several others. Even though they rarely scored in double figures, it's hard to imagine those teams being that good without their respective men in the middle.
7. Al Horford
Career Marks with Boston (2016-19): one-time All-Star, one-time All-Defensive, 13.5 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 4.6 APG, 1.2 BPG, 38.2% 3PT, 18.4 PER, 0.161 WS/48
Al Horford is one of the best examples of how much this game has changed in the past half-decade.
During his first eight seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, the 6'10" center made a grand total of 21 three-pointers and averaged 2.7 assists. His primary job—as was the case for the vast majority of big men—was to battle for position in the paint, amounting to 11.1 two-point attempts and 9.2 rebounds per game.
But during his three seasons in Boston, Horford made 256 threes, led the team in assists and had a decrease of roughly 25 percent in both two-point attempts (7.7) and rebounds (7.0).
Ladies and gentlemen: the modern-day NBA center.
Not only did Horford seamlessly make that transition, but he was even better in the playoffs than he was during the regular season—especially in his first year in Boston. In 18 games during the 2017 postseason, Horford averaged 15.1 points and 5.4 assists while shooting 51.9 percent (27-of-52) from downtown.
With Isaiah Thomas injured, it wasn't anywhere near enough to carry the Celtics past LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, but Horford was a huge part of Boston getting out of the first round of the playoffs for the first (and second and third) time in the Brad Stevens era.
6. Isaiah Thomas
Career Marks with Boston (2014-17): two-time All-Star, one-time All-NBA, 24.7 PPG, 6.0 APG, 2.7 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 36.8% 3PT, 23.8 PER, 0.203 WS/48
The Celtics were a bit of a mess in the mid-2010s.
After the 2012-13 season, they dealt the aging Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets for a bunch of role players and a smorgasbord of future (unprotected) draft picks. Ray Allen had already left the team the previous year. And Rajon Rondo was neither the same player after tearing his ACL nor a happy camper in his final two seasons with the Celtics.
The Celtics went 273-121 (.693) from 2007-08 through 2011-12, but they had a cumulative record of 154-173 (.471) over the next four years and did not once advance further than the first round of the playoffs. They didn't have a single representative in the 2014 or 2015 All-Star Games, and the only Celtic to go in either 2016 or 2017 was Isaiah Thomas.
But his run of two-plus seasons in Boston was all sorts of fun.
Thomas had three consecutive breakout years with the Celtics. He averaged 15.2 points for the Phoenix Suns in 2014-15 before getting traded to Boston and putting up 19.0 points per game over his final 21 contests of the season. The next year, he averaged 22.2 points and carried the Celtics to a 48-34 record. And the season after that, he jumped up to 28.9 points per game for a 53-win team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals.
He accumulated 12.5 win shares during that 2016-17 season, which is a level of individual dominance exclusive to Hall of Fame Celtics. The only other players to do so for this franchise were Bill Russell (seven times), Larry Bird (six), Ed Macauley (four), John Havlicek, Paul Pierce, Sam Jones, Kevin Garnett and Kevin McHale. Six of those eight players are already in the HOF, and it's hardly a stretch to think Garnett and Pierce are headed there one day.
Had Thomas spent another season or two in Boston, it would've been more tempting to put him at No. 3 or No. 4 on this list. As is, he had almost unarguably the best less-than-five-year-stint with Boston in the past two decades and might've been the best short-term star in franchise history.
5. Antoine Walker
Career Marks with Boston (1996-2003; 2004-05): three-time All-Star, 20.6 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.5 SPG, 33.3% 3PT, 16.9 PER, 0.068 WS/48
Antoine Walker's first three seasons in Boston—including the 1997-98 All-Star selection and per-game averages of 19.7 points and 9.4 rebounds—had to be disregarded for this ranking process. Even without those years, though, he still has more 20-point seasons (four) in the past two decades than all other Boston players not named Paul Pierce (eight).
Back before the days of Big Threes or superteams, Walker and Pierce formed one of the best one-two punches of the 2000s. Both Celtics averaged better than 23 points during the 2000-01 season.
The following year—after eight consecutive seasons in which Boston finished at least 10 games below .500—Walker helped guide the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1988. He put up 22.1 points per game during the regular season and hit the same mark during the postseason.
Walker's career efficiency metrics (PER and WS/48, in particular) leave much to be desired, but that was at a different time and on a two-man team. In each season from 2000-01 through 2002-03, Walker averaged at least 41.5 minutes and 19.9 field-goal attempts on rosters that (aside from Pierce, of course) had no one else worth remembering.
The last player in the NBA to average at least 40 minutes and 18 shots per game for a season was Monta Ellis in 2010-11, so let's forgive Walker for only shooting 40 percent under that type of volume. During that three-year stretch, he led the Celtics in rebounds and assists and only trailed Pierce in steals and points. The next-closest scorer on the team (Eric Williams) just barely scored more total points in 237 games (1,753) than Walker averaged per year (1,752).
4. Rajon Rondo
Career Marks with Boston (2006-15): four-time All-Star, one-time All-NBA, 2008 NBA Champ, four-time All-Defensive, two-time Assist Champ, one-time Steal Champ, 11.0 PPG, 8.5 APG, 4.7 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 17.0 PER, 0.127 WS/48
Rajon Rondo's time in the NBA has been enigmatic, to say the least.
His vision as a passer and his instincts as a defender have always been top-notch. Rondo sees angles that otherwise only existed in the eyes of all-time passing greats like Jason Kidd and Magic Johnson. His abnormally large hands allowed him to throw the ball with unrivaled precision and also helped him rack up steals on the other end of the floor.
In 2009-10, Rondo set Celtics franchise records for both assists (794) and steals (189) in a single season. He has four of Boston's eight highest assist marks and three of its top 10 seasons for steals.
However, his public perception always seemed to be defined by what he couldn't do rather than what he was incredible at doing. And for as good as he was at assists and steals, that's how bad he was at jump shots, drawing fouls and getting along with coaches.
At his peak in Boston (2007-08 through 2011-12), though, none of those seemed to be issues. It didn't matter that he couldn't shoot threes because Ray Allen and Paul Pierce could, and their presence on the perimeter spread out defenses just enough for him to drive into the lane and initiate offense. And there weren't public spats with head coach Doc Rivers while the team was winning 50 or more games every season.
After the torn ACL suffered midway through Boston's disappointing 2012-13 season, things started to turn sour and perhaps spoiled the memories of Rondo's successes. Don't let that revisionist history or the subsequent feuds with coaches in Dallas or Chicago cloud your judgment, though. Rondo was a standout, and that late-2000s/early-2010s string of Boston dominance wouldn't have been possible without him.
3. Ray Allen
Career Marks with Boston (2007-12): three-time All-Star, 2008 NBA Champ, 16.7 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.7 APG, 40.9% 3PT, 16.1 PER, 0.163 WS/48, 2018 Hall of Fame Inductee
The Big Three wouldn't have worked if Ray Allen hadn't been ready, willing and able to assume a lesser role in Boston.
Jesus Shuttlesworth had averaged at least 21.8 points in each of the eight seasons before he was traded to the Celtics during the summer of 2007. Though he never led the league in scoring, his 23.3 points per game made for the seventh-highest scoring average during that stretch among players who suited up at least 400 times. And in his final season with the Seattle SuperSonics, he set career highs of 26.4 points and 21.0 field-goal attempts per game.
That type of workload would have been a problem with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett also in need of huge pieces of the pie.
So Allen dialed down the volume and cranked up the efficiency, becoming less of a scoring machine and more of a three-point specialist. Toward the end of his time with the Celtics, he broke Reggie Miller's record for most career three-pointers.
Despite the shift in style, he still scored plenty, especially when Boston most needed it. In his first year, Allen shot 22-of-42 (52.4 percent) from three-point range and averaged 20.3 points in the NBA Finals to get his first ring.
He averaged at least 16 points in each of his first four Boston seasons despite not playing a game for the Celtics until he was already 32 years old. In 2009-10, he led the Celtics in total points scored during the regular season and had nine postseason games with at least 20 points, including the memorable 32-point performance in Game 2 of the Finals in which he went 8-of-11 from downtown.
2. Kevin Garnett
Career Marks with Boston (2007-13): five-time All-Star, one-time All-NBA, four-time All-Defensive, 2007-08 Defensive Player of the Year, 2008 NBA Champ, 15.7 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 21.1 PER, 0.191 WS/48
Similar to Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett wasn't quite the same guy in his 30s that he was in the decade leading up to that 2007 alliance of All-Stars. But he still represented the Celtics in multiple All-Star Games and was an integral part of the team that had the second-best record in the NBA for that five-season run at the turn of the decade.
In each of his final eight seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Garnett averaged at least 21.2 points, 11.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists. Dating back to 1999-00, Kevin Love (2013-14) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (2018-19) are the only other players to hit all three of those plateaus in any season. For Garnett to do so eight years in a row was just plain ridiculous.
He never came close to reaching any of those numbers in Boston, maxing out at 18.8, 9.2 and 3.4, respectively. All of those high-water marks came in his first season with the team.
Garnett's contributions weren't exactly paltry, though. He still had at least 14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in each of his six seasons. Among the 40 players in Celtics history to appear in at least 350 games, Garnett has the third-highest PER and the fourth-highest WS/48 rate, trailing only Larry Bird, Bill Russell and Ed Macauley in either category.
He was a force of nature in the 2008 playoffs, too. During Boston's 26-game run to a title, he averaged 20.4 points and 10.5 rebounds and had a double-double in all six Finals games against the Los Angeles Lakers. The only other players in NBA history to average 20 and 10 in a single postseason consisting of at least 22 games are Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Howard.
1. Paul Pierce
Career Marks with Boston (1998-2013): 10-time All-Star, four-time All-NBA, 2008 NBA Champ, 21.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.4 SPG, 37.0% 3PT, 20.6 PER, 0.165 WS/48
There may be some disagreement about the order of Allen, Rondo, Garnett and Walker in the top five, but there's no question they should take a backseat to Paul Pierce in recent Boston Celtics lore.
If you want to compare the full careers of Allen or Garnett against Pierce, then yes, there's an argument to be made for either of the other members of the Big Three at No. 1. But we're only concerned with what each player did in a Celtics jersey, and "The Truth" has nothing close to an equal.
Pierce scored 23,230 points from 1999-00 through 2012-13, which is more than 5,000 points above what Garnett, Allen and Rondo combined to score (18,003). Pierce led the Celtics in win shares during 10 of those 14 seasons and was also an All-Star 10 times. His four All-NBA selections are equal to the total number of all other 21st-century Celtics combined—one each for Garnett, Rondo, Thomas and Irving, per CelticsStats.com.
And those are just the regular-season numbers.
Pierce also averaged at least 18.8 points in each of his 10 postseasons with the Celtics. During Boston's only championship run since 1986, he was named Finals MVP.
He basically was the Boston Celtics for more than a decade.
All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball Reference.
Kerry Miller is a multisport writer for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.