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1986 Boston Celtics: The Best NBA Team Ever

This year marks the 30th Anniversary of the 1986 Boston Celtics championship season.  Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the Golden State Warriors possibly being the best NBA Team Ever.  They’ve been compared primarily to the Chicago Bulls teams of the 1990’s.  The teams that are often forgotten in these discussions are the 1980’s Celtics and Lakers.  Part of the reason is that because they had to go head-to-head, these teams didn’t have the luxury the Bulls had of going on a long championship run.  The competition was simply much better in the 80’s.  Looking at one season in particular, the 1986 Celtics and 1987 Lakers are right up there with the best teams of all time.  In today’s post, a case is going to be made for the 1986 Celtics are the best NBA team ever.

Before we get into the specifics on what puts the 1986 Celtics ahead of the other all-time great teams, we’ll start with an overview of the team.  This was a team that was in the midst of four straight seasons in the NBA Finals.  The Celtics won the NBA Championship in 1984 against the Lakers and then proceeded to lose to the Lakers in the Finals in 1985.  Going into the 1986 season, the expectation was that both teams would return to the Finals for Round Three.  NBA Basketball was growing in popularity in the mid-80’s mainly because of the rivalry of these two teams and their superstars, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.  Bird and Magic were arch-rivals going back to their college days and leading up to the 1986 season, the two teams had combined to win five of the previous six NBA Championships.

The stage was set and the Celtics were ready.  In the previous offseason, the Celtics traded for Bill Walton to help their elite big men, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale.  The Celtics had a starting five of Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Bird, McHale, and Parish.  Off the bench, the Celtics were led by Walton, Scott Wedman, and Jerry Sichting.  It doesn’t sound like an overwhelmingly great bench.  However, consider that back then starters were playing a lot of minutes.  In addition, seven of these eight players were NBA All Stars at one point in their career.

The Celtics breezed through the regular season as it was expected.  Bird was the league MVP for the third straight year.  This is a feat that no other forward or guard has accomplished in NBA history.  Parish and McHale continued to be All Stars.  Walton won the NBA’s Sixth Man Award.  The Celtics posted a 67-15 record including a 40-1 record at home.  It was a great season record-wise.  However, that record does not define how great this Celtics team actually was.  We’ll get to that…

In the playoffs, the Celtics started out by sweeping Michael Jordan’s Bulls.  Most fans remember Jordan’s 63 point game in Game 2 of that series.  You know what never gets discussed about that game?  The team that won.  FYI – Bird had 36 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 assists in that game.  Yawn.  In the series, Bird and McHale both average 28.3 points.   The Celtics averaged 126.7 points per game for the series.  All five of their starters averaged over 17 points per game.  Good night, MJ!

The Celtics then went on the play the Atlanta Hawks.  The Hawks were led by Dominique Wilkins, Kevin Willis, and Doc Rivers.  This was a team that won 50 games during the regular season, but they were no match for the Celtics.  The Celtics won the series 4-1.  In the clinching game, the final score was 132-99.  Bird had 36 points and 10 rebounds in that game.  For the series, all five starters averaged over 14 points per game.

On to the Eastern Conference Finals where the Celtics faced the 57-25 Milwaukee Bucks.  57-25!  You would think a team with that type of season would be able to put up a strong series.  Think again.  The Celtics swept them too.  In fact, the average margin of victory was 15 points.  There was one game in the series where the margin of victory was less than 11 points.  All five starters averaged over 14 points for the series.  Seeing the trend?!  The Celtics were headed to the NBA Finals for the third straight year.  The Eastern Conference managed just one victory vs. the Celtics in the 1986 playoffs as the Celtics were 11-1 at this point.

The one disappointment about the 1986 season?  The Houston Rockets defeated the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.  It would have been interesting to see how the Lakers would have done that year in the Finals against the Celtics best team during the rivalry.  For the record, the Celtics won both regular season games by an average of ten points against the Lakers.  In the Finals, the Rockets accomplished an amazing feat.  They beat the Celtics twice.  It was never really that close.  The “Twin Towers” of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson were not match for Parish, McHale, Bird, and Walton.  The Celtics dominated the series and finished off the Rockets with a 114-97 victory in Game 6.  For the series, Bird averaged 24.0 points, 97. rebounds, 9.5 assists, and 2.7 steals per game on his way to winning the Finals MVP.  The Celtics had won their third championship in six-years in dominating fashion.  Combined for the regular season and playoffs, the Celtics went 82-18.

OK, so there’s the history lesson.  We’ll move to the opinion.  Here are four reasons why the 1986 Boston Celtics are the best NBA team ever.  

4.  The Celtics had the most dominant front court in NBA History.  McHale was one of the best low post players of all-time.  Parish averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds a game that year.  Then, off the bench, you have the best sixth man in the league in Walton coming in to give them a rest.  The Celtics beat teams up down low and there was nothing that could be done to stop them.  There were games down the stretch that the Celtics would go with Parish, Walton, McHale, Bird (as a guard), and DJ.  How do you stop that?!  The answer is you don’t and no one did.

3.  The overall talent level of the top six players on this team was second to none.  This team had five Hall of Famers with Bird, McHale, Parish, Walton, and DJ.  An argument could be made that there was a better top three of all time.  Magic, Kareem, and James Worthy are certainly in that discussion.  However, there was not a better top five in the history of the league.

Here are the 1986 Celtics starters playoff averages.

 

Player Points Rebounds Assists
Larry Bird  25.9 9.3 8.2
Kevin McHale 24.9 8.6 2.7
Robert Parish 15.0 8.8 1.4
Dennis Johnson 16.2 4.2 5.9
Danny Ainge 15.6 4.2 5.2

 

All five starters averaged over 15 points a game in the playoffs.  Three players averaged more than eight rebounds.  Three players averaged more than five assists.  You would be hard pressed to find another starting five where all five players scored at least 15 points a game.  All five players were also very good shooters.  Bird and Ainge were elite outside shooters as well.  Which leads us to point #2…

2.  This was the best passing team of all time.  Watch a full game from the 1986 Celtics playoff run and focus on how they played.  It was always about team first.  There would be four of five passes until they found the open man.  And if that didn’t work, you had the option of Bird creating his own shot, McHale down low, and kicking it to Ainge or DJ for the open jumper.  No one cared about their stats.  In fact, Bird had an opportunity for a quadruple double and he didn’t care at all about it.  He didn’t go back into the game.  They all knew each others strengths and they knew how good they were.  It was simply a matter of executing the game plan and letting the talent do the work.

1.  Larry Bird was at his absolute peak.  Bird was 29 years old and was clearly the best basketball player in the world.  In 1986, he received 73 of 78 first place MVP votes.  If you look at his career numbers, it was not his best year statistically.  He had years he averaged more points, more rebounds, and more assists.  However, Larry Bird was not about stats.  He did not need to put up big numbers on this team because of the talent across the board.  Bird was the 1986 Sporting News Sportsman of the Year as well.  Not only was he the best player in the NBA, he was the best player in all of sports that year.

Bird was so dominant that year that he was getting bored and was trying to figure out different challenges for himself.  In a game in Portland, Bird told his teammates he was going to shoot all his shots besides outside jumpers with his left hand.  In that game, he had 47 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists.  He also made a shot to tie the game in regulation and then won the game in OT.  He scored nearly half of his points with his left hand.

 

Bird was the leader of a team that had one priority:  Winning a championship.  They did it in a dominant fashion.  The talent level of the starting five was the best ever.  They could beat you with a dominant inside game or with great outside shooting.  They exemplified the word “team”.  The 1986 Celtics are the best NBA Team of all time.

 

 

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