Why are the 1985-86 Celtics never mentioned when discussing the greatest NBA teams of all-time?
With the addition of Kevin Durant, the Golden State Warriors are on the verge of once again putting together a historic season. A year after the Warriors won a record-breaking 73 games, adding a superstar like Durant just makes it seem unfair. Although, as Chicago Bulls fans would say: 73 don’t mean a thing without a ring – referring to the 1995-96 Bulls as the best team ever.
The argument for the 1995-96 Bulls team as the best ever is fair. They won a then NBA-record 72 games and were able to cap off their season with a championship. Also, it was the first championship in the Bulls’ second three-peat, one of the best runs in NBA history. Ignoring the 17 games Michael Jordan played at the end of the 1994-95 season, the Bulls won six straight titles when Jordan wasn’t playing baseball.
Pair him with Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman and the Bulls owned one of the most daunting defensive trios the league has ever seen. Not to mention legendary coach Phil Jackson. With 72 wins and a championship, it’s fair to consider the Bulls as the best team ever.
Although, the franchise with the most championships in NBA history, the Boston Celtics, always seem to be overlooked when discussing the greatest teams of all-time. There is usually the mention of the 1985-86 Celtics team or the Bill Russell led teams that won nine titles in ten years, but people rarely put them at the top.
With time travel not an option, it’s impossible to know for sure. The league has changed so much since Bill Russell dominated the hardwood. The league is guard-dominated and the three-point shot is more important than ever. Therefore, teams are built differently, so figuring out how teams matchup against each other seems pointless at times.
It leads to our only way to value teams against each other as stats, highlights and the eye test. Although, even those aren’t completely fair as you can watch every minute of the Warriors now with NBA League Pass, however, back in the day you’d only see a handful of games during the regular season. Plus, three-point shooting has become more important and the league has gone through offensive and defensive eras, making stats only comparable with teams in the same era.
Still, for a team that featured five future Hall-of-Famers, including one coming off the bench, it seems that the 1985-86 Boston Celtics don’t always garner the respect they deserve.
The Celtics won the championship with ease that year as Larry Bird won his third consecutive League MVP. There isn’t many better seasons to capture Bird’s legendary all-around play like his 25.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists and two steals per game in 1986. Not to mention his 89.6 free-throw percentage led the league, again, and he shot an incredible 42.3 percent from three.
Along with Bird, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson, Robert Parish and Danny Ainge each averaged at least 30 minutes per game and scored in double-digits, including McHale who added 21.3 points per night. With three All-Stars and Bill Walton coming off the bench, it’s considered by many as the best starting five in NBA history.
When looking at all the accolades they compiled throughout their careers and the numbers they put up, it’s hard to argue with that notion.
During the regular season, the 1985-86 Celtics cruised. They were one game away from setting the record for most wins in a season at the time. On their way to finishing 67-15, Boston scored the second most points in the Eastern Conference and their stifling defense allowed the third fewest in the NBA.
With Boston coming off losing in the Finals the year before, there’s no doubt that their main goal was winning the Finals, not winning games in the regular season. Being in that mindset and still finishing five games better than the next best team in the league, and 10 better than the second seed in the East is extremely impressive.
It’s not uncommon for great teams to think like that. That’s why LeBron James‘ teams don’t always finish on top of the East or why Gregg Popovich rests his starters in the middle of the season. Teams who’ve been to the top and know what it takes don’t have to fight every game in the regular season, rather not risking injury to a key player is more important.
With that being said, it’s not unrealistic to think that Boston could have topped 70, or even 72, wins that season. Although, with McHale being the only starter to play under 75 games, it seems that the Celtics had the right mindset that season as they entered the postseason healthy.
The real dominance came in the postseason, though. A three-game series sweep over the Chicago Bulls and then winning the first three against the Atlanta Hawks started off their dominant postseason run. It ended with a four-game sweep over the Milwaukee Bucks and then a drubbing over the Houston Rockets and Hakeem Olajuwon in the Finals.
Three of Boston’s wins in the Finals came by double-digits, including a 17 point Finals clinching Game 6. Overall, Boston went 15-3 in the playoffs.
The pure dominance of the Celtics that season can be traced back to their legendary coach K.C. Jones and their unbelievably well-rounded team. Larry Bird was one of the best three-point shooters of his time, during an era where three-point shooting was seen as a rarity rather than a commodity.
Even with one of the greatest players to ever play, McHale’s and Parish’s interior offense and Ainge’s and Johnson’s playmaking sets them apart from other historic teams. Both Ainge and Johnson averaged over five assists and a steal per game, including scoring in double-digits. As much as McHale’s footwork is praised even nowadays, Parish still shot an incredible 54.9 percent from the field that season.
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Scott Wedman, Jerry Sichting, Rick Carlisle, the list goes on and on with solid contributors off the bench. In fact, Bill Walton won Sixth Man of the Year as he averaged 7.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game in 19.3 minutes. Simply put, the Celtics dominated in every facet of the game.
Their ability to have a new player step-up every night was astounding. As great as Bird was, he didn’t do all the heavy lifting. It was just one of those teams who could exploit any weakness the opposing team had because of the depth and great players they had, making it impossible to stop them.
Also, they’re considered one of the greatest passing teams ever. With one-on-one ball becoming more common in today’s NBA, or when a team has an all-time great, the Celtics playing style sticks out like a sore thumb. Of course, when you have so many scoring options, and big men who are extraordinary passers, ball movement comes easy.
Their 67 wins don’t stand out as much as the two 70-win teams. Still, the Celtics didn’t lack star power and their pure dominance isn’t something that’s seen very often in the NBA.
With LeBron James becoming the more clear-cut choice over Larry Bird when it comes to the greatest small forward of all-time, the 1985-86 Celtics will likely continue to be pushed down the totem pole. Maybe they didn’t have the greatest player of all-time or two of the best shooters the NBA has ever seen, but they’d be a nightmare to match-up against in any era.
Larry Bird’s game is compatible with any era and it’s hard for any team to match their depth and McHale’s presence in the paint.
While we’ll never know how they would fare against the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls or the current day Golden State Warriors, passing over this team when discussing the best team ever is crazy. They went to four straight Finals and dominated that season as much as any team ever has.