Editor’s Note: The modern era of the NBA is generally accepted to have begun with the 1979-80 season, the advent of the 3-point line in the NBA. The lists to follow—one for each of the NBA’s 30 teams—will only consider seasons since 1979-80. We continue the series today with the best of the Boston Celtics.
The Boston Celtics are the most storied franchise in the history of the NBA, with their 17 titles being the most won by any team.
Things didn’t start that way. Founded as one of the original franchises in the Basketball Association of America in 1946, the Celtics missed the playoffs in three of their first four seasons and didn’t post a winning record during that span.
Enter Red Auerbach.
The Celtics hired Auerbach as their coach in 1950 after he had a successful run with the Washington Capitols, posting the league’s best record in 1946-47 and reaching the BAA Finals in 1949. Auerbach had coached a season with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks in 1949-50, but resigned after the club’s owner traded away Auerbach’s favorite player, John Mahnken.
Boston brought the 32-year-old to the franchise in the spring of 1950 and the turnaround began immediately—six straight playoff berths, with at least a .500 record in all of them, but Boston couldn’t break through.
Enter Bill Russell.
Auerbach swung a trade on draft day, sending All-Star center Ed Macauley and rookie Cliff Hagen to the St. Louis Hawks—a successor to the old Blackhawks—in exchange for Russell, a rookie who had led the University of San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA titles.
Russell returned from the Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, in early December after leading the United States to a gold medal and set about the business of leading his new team to an NBA championship.
The Celtics beat the Hawks in seven games to capture the franchise’s first title. After losing in the Finals to St. Louis in 1958, Boston would go on a run unprecedented in North American professional sports, winning eight straight titles from 1959-66.
With Russell as player-coach, the Celtics won back-to-back championships in 1968 and 1969.
Under coach Tom Heinsohn, Boston captured two more championships in 1974 and again in 1976.
The franchise hit a rough patch in the late 1970s, posting back-to-back seasons of more than 50 losses for the first time in club history in 1977-78 and 1978-79.
Enter Larry Bird.
Auerbach, now running the franchise from the front office, had drafted Bird under a now-defunct draft rule called junior eligibility. In 1978, the Celtics used the sixth overall pick to select the Indiana State forward and even though Bird returned for his senior year for the Sycamores, Boston had a year to sign him before he would re-enter the draft pool.
On the final day before the deadline, Bird agreed to terms with Boston and a new dynasty was born, as the Celtics won three titles in the 1980s (1981, 1984 and 1986).
That dynasty was fueled by one of the most one-sided trades in NBA history, however.
Prior to the 1980 NBA Draft, Auerbach swung a trade with the Golden State Warriors, sending the top overall pick to the Warriors along with the No. 13 overall selection in exchange for Parish, a young center, and the third overall pick.
As it turns out, the Warriors drafted Purdue center Joe Barry Carroll with the No. 1 pick and Mississippi State center Rickey Brown at No. 13. Two selections after Carroll, Boston grabbed McHale out of Minnesota.
Robert Parish and Kevin McHale for … Joe Barry Carroll, a player who quickly earned the moniker “Joe Barely Cares” in the Bay Area, and Rickey Brown, who averaged 4.4 points and 3.5 rebounds over the course of five NBA seasons—it’s almost mind-boggling in retrospect.
After winning the title in 1986 and reaching the Finals in 1987, the Celtics went into the longest championship drought in their storied history, logging some truly awful seasons along the way.
After finishing 24-58 in 2006-07, general manager Danny Ainge—a member of the three championship clubs in the 1980s—swung for the fences with two of the biggest trades in league history.
Ainge made a trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves for Garnett, a former league MVP, and swung another deal with the Seattle SuperSonics to bring in the sweet-shooting Allen.
Teamed with incumbent star Paul Pierce, the Celtics immediately rose from the lottery to the championship in 2008 and that group returned to the Finals in 2010.
Boston is in the midst of another rebuild, but given the success the franchise has had throughout its history, it’s hard to bet against it turning out well.
Auerbach remains the winningest coach in franchise history with his 795-397 mark from 1950-66. Heinsohn and Doc Rivers each won more than 400 games on the bench in Boston, with K.C. Jones logging more than 300 victories.
Auerbach also had the longest tenure as the personnel decision maker, taking over the duties from owner Walter Brown in 1950 before finally relinquishing the duties in July 1984. Ainge has also been in the job more than a decade since taking over from Chris Wallace in May 2003.
And here are the best players, by position, for the Boston Celtics in the modern era, beginning in 1979-80. Players had to have played 200 games for the franchise and averaged 25 minutes per game.