When the discussion for greatest team of all time comes up, we are often pointed in the direction of some truly historical basketball teams, and rightfully so. Any team that joins the debate must be able to stand the test of time and make you wonder if any other team in this history of the league could ever possibly take them down in a seven-game series.
To be fair though, trying to determine which team is the best of all time is much like trying to determine whom the greatest rapper ever was. Indeed, one could easily make an argument for Biggie Smalls, Tupac, Jay-Z, Eminem, Nas or Rakim to occupy the top spot. In the end, our very own perceptions are a huge part of how we view the best.
Hence, the exercise of figuring out which team was truly the best ever beyond the shadow of a doubt could prove to be futile. Nonetheless, it still makes for wonderful bar or barbershop debates.
The 1996 Chicago Bulls have gotten a lot of publicity throughout the years and rightfully so; their 72-10 regular season record still stands and that team was defeated a mere three times during the playoffs. In short, on their way to the title, they were an incredible 87-13 and also had double digit scoring margins for both the regular season and playoffs. Granted, as impressive as that team was, it’s easy to gravitate towards them because of all the greatest teams in the history of the league, this one is the closest one to us from a historical standpoint. Thus, we remember them much easier than we do the 1972 Lakers for example.
But one team seems to have gotten overshadowed over the years to the point that some are even unaware of their place in basketball history. Thus it was worth revisiting the debate with the help of some prominent writers who at one point in time provided their opinions on the topic.
Former Boston Globe writer Peter May shared in his book The Last Banner his top five teams of all time. Here they are in reverse order:
5. The 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks
4. The 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers
3. The 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers
2. The 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers
1. The 1985-86 Boston Celtics
The ’96 Bulls failed to make his cut because he feels that teams that emerged during the 1990s benefited from expansion and diluted rosters, which means that they essentially feasted off of weak teams. Instead he chose the Celtics team that won the title in 1986 and added this about them:
“The 1985-86 Celtics could beat a team inside. It could beat a team outside. It could beat a tea with defense. It had the greatest front line in NBA history, the greatest back up center in NBA history, and most importantly, had an almost perfect record at Boston Garden.”
The argument for the ’86 Celtics makes sense when you consider just how dominant of a team they were and the amount of Hall of Fame players on the team. Indeed, the ’86 Celtics were 67-15 during the regular season and sported a solid 9.4 average scoring margin, but that just does not tell the whole story. Have a look at what they accomplished during the regular season:
- An astounding 40-1 home record.
- Led the league in rebounding.
- Led the league in 3-point field goal shooting percentage.
- Led the league in defensive field goal percentage.
- Finished second in the league in assists per game.
- Finished second in the league in field goal percentage.
- Finished the regular season with an improbable 19-2 record against teams with 49 wins or better.
One could debate this all they want, but it’s highly improbable that the league has ever seen or that it will ever see another team as balanced as the 1985-86 Boston Celtics. They essentially shut down their opponents, dominated the boards, and had little to no trouble putting points on the board.
Their ability to convert from just about anywhere and everywhere on the court made them one of the greatest scoring teams ever. Consider that they shot 50.8 percent from the field (second in the league in that season), 35.1 percent from 3-point range (best in the league) and 79.4 percent from the free throw line (second best in the league) and it becomes hard to argue against it.
In addition, they did a phenomenal job of sharing the ball amongst each other, which meant that defenses had an incredibly tough time defending them.
For further evidence, the next time the Jordan 63-point game is on, try not to focus on Michael (very hard); and instead focus on what the Celtics do on offense. Late in regulation and in the overtime sessions, you will notice that McHale and Parish get touches on the block and in pick and roll situations where they convert their shots. Instead of simply going to Bird and asking him to get basket after basket, the Celtics run their offense and get tons of high quality shots that they routinely convert. Also, Ainge creates several shooting opportunities for himself as a result of the Bulls defense keying on the Celtics stars.
And really, that’s what made the ’86 Celtics such a tough team to beat: they had quite possibly the best frontline ever. Indeed, their top four frontcourt players have all been inducted into the Hall of Fame because of their ability to score, rebound and defend better than most players have been able to do at their respective positions. Thus, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Bill Walton regularly toyed with opposing defenses because of their ability to play in sync with each other and routinely create great scoring options.
On defense, they found ways to limit their opponents because of their quality size, active defense and an ability to play in concert. Dennis Johnson was a terrific defensive guard, but he also benefitted from the fact that he could redirect offensive players towards his big people to contest or block their shots.
The Boston Celtics were a talented bunch, but more importantly they played together, won together and lost together. That might not seem like much, but truth be told it takes a team to win an NBA title and that’s exactly what the ’86 Celtics were.
Granted, the “Walton Team” was only 67-15 during the regular season, which puts them behind the 1996 Bulls (72-10), the 1972 Lakers (69-13) and the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers (68-13) as far as all time regular season records go. Thus, it is part of the reason that Jack McCallum listed the squad as the fourth best team in league history in an April 2010 feature he wrote for Sports Illustrated.
However, the 1985-86 Boston Celtics were not just a dominant regular season team, they were also an amazingly impressive playoff team. Have a look at some of their postseason numbers:
- 15-3 playoff record.
- 10-0 home playoff record.
- 10.3 average scoring margin.
- 11 wins by double digits.
- 28.4 assists per game.
- 50.7 percent field goal shooting.
- 39.1 percent 3-point field goal shooting.
- 20.3 average scoring margin in close out games.
The ’86 team was indeed statistically dominant from October to June, however their 15-3 playoff record puts them right on par with the ’96 Bulls and ’87 Lakers. Furthermore, the ’91 Bulls (15-2), ’83 76ers (15-1) and ’01 Lakers (15-1) all had better playoff records on their road to the title.
With that said, what the Celtics did during the 1986 postseason run is impressive nonetheless. They dispatched a Chicago Bulls team that finished the season with a 30-52 record but that saw Michael Jordan miss most of the season with a foot injury. When Jordan returned to full strength during the playoffs, he went on to dazzle basketball fans across the world as he scored 49 points in Game 1 and then an incredible 63 points in Game 2. Despite MJ’s scoring onslaught, Boston handled the Bulls in three games (back then the first round was a best of five playoff round).
In the second round, the Celtics faced off against an Atlanta Hawks team that won 50 games during the regular season. Boston handled Atlanta rather easily, wining the series in five games. The one thing people remember about this series is the Celtics’ perfect quarter. In the third quarter of Game 5, the Celtics played a flawless stretch of basketball in which they outscored the Hawks 36 to six. The victory propelled the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals to take on the Milwaukee Bucks (57-25).
Boston swept the Eastern Conference Finals and won their games against Milwaukee by an average of 15 points (only one of their victories was by single digits).
The Celtics thus made their way to the NBA Finals to face off a Houston Rockets (51-31) team led by Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson. Boston won the first two games by a combined 34 points and watched Houston come back in Game 3 and win the contest by two points.
The Celtics came back in Game 4 and won in Houston and having earned themselves a road victory in the series, they lacked the urgency in Game 5; where the Rockets won by 15 points. Game 6 was back in Boston and the home team took control of the game early and never looked back.
Bird earned the Finals MVP trophy thanks in large part to his ridiculous playoff averages of 25.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game on 51.7 percent field goal shooting and 41.1 percent 3-point field goal shooting.
Larry Bird’s play as well as the Celtics brilliant exhibition of basketball led to Bill Simmons picking the ’86 Celtics as the greatest basketball team ever in The Book of Basketball. Here is his top 10 in reverse order:
10. The 1990-91 Chicago Bulls
9. The 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers
8. The 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers
7. The 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks
6. The 1996-97 Chicago Bulls
5. The 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers
4. The 1988-89 Detroit Pistons
3. The 1986-87 Los Angeles Lakers
2. The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls
1. The 1985-86 Boston Celtics
Simmons had this to share about the squad:
“Dirk Diggler Factor. In other words, could they adapt to every conceivable style? The answer is yes. They even had one wrinkle that mortified opponents: a supersized lineup with a frontline of Parish, McHale and Walton, then Bird playing guard on offense (which could happen because McHale the Freak could defend almost any two-guard). Every time they played those four guys together at once, you moved to the edge of your seat. On the flip, they could also handle smallball with Bird-DJ-Ainge-Wedman-McHale, or even Sichting in Wedman’s place and DJ (Dennis Johnson) playing small forward. You could not throw an opponent at them from any point in history that they wouldn’t have handled. Kinda like Dirk Diggler.”
Are the 1985-86 Boston Celtics the best NBA team ever assembled? An argument can easily be made to make their case; but the fact that 25 years later this team is still worth talking about tells us that they are unquestionably one of the best teams ever and I doubt they will ever be forgotten. More often than not, such terms are reserved for the best…
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