The next team on my countdown of the greatest teams since 1980 is probably still fresh in the mind due to their inclusion in the excellent Celtics/Lakers 30 for 30 documentary on ESPN. They are without a doubt the best team from the NBA’s most historic franchise. The 1986 Boston Celtics were an incredible team that played some of the most unselfish, smart basketball you will ever see. The Celtics featured four hall of fame players, led by the transcendent Larry Bird, who would win his third straight MVP award that season.
Following the Celtics’ defeat at the hands of the Lakers in 1985, Red Auerbach knew he needed to improve the team dramatically to defeat the rejuvenated Lakers. Cedric Maxwell, the Celtics’ All-Star power forward who had played a huge part in the Celtics’ championships previously in the decade (including Finals MVP in 1981), had fallen out of favor with coach K.C. Jones after a knee injury during the 1985 season. Two time sixth man of the year Kevin McHale was given the starting spot and had blossomed into one of the best players in the league in Maxwell’s absence. The emergence of McHale into a dynamic force made Maxwell expendable, and the best avenue to improving the team was to trade him.
Red knew he needed a player who would fit in with the Celtics culture, one who was unselfish and smart. Red identified Bill Walton, the former Trailblazer, former NBA MVP, and current Clipper, as the player he thought could elevate the Celtics over the Lakers. Despite Red’s interest in Walton, some within the organization felt gambling their championship hopes on him was career suicide. Walton had begun to break down physically and had missed the majority of the last 6 seasons due to foot issues, including 3 whole seasons lost to his injuries. Walton hadn’t been considered healthy since 1978, and even then he only played in 58 games that season. Still Red persisted, and traded Cedric Maxwell and a first-round draft pick (which would become Arvydas Sabonis) for Walton.
As usual, Red Auerbach turned out to be right. Perhaps due to luck, foresight, or maybe leprechaun magic, Bill Walton had his healthiest season in nearly a decade and played in 80 games, the most games played in a season in his career. The acquisition of Walton proved to be just what was needed to reinvigorate the team. Walton came off the bench behind Robert Parish and took over McHale’s vacated sixth man role and thrived. Walton’s passing ability was unmatched by any other big man at the time and his unselfishness was a perfect fit for Boston’s style of play. Walton was able to make any pass, whether it was to a back-door cutter or an over the head flip out of the high post.
Combining Walton with Larry Bird’s usual brilliance, Dennis Johnson’s leadership, the tenacity of Danny Ainge, and the post brilliance of Kevin McHale, the Celtics barnstormed through the league and finished with a 67-15 record, the second-best record in Celtics history. The Celtics recorded the third highest offensive rating that year, as well as the best defensive rating. Walton would come away with the sixth man of the year award, the third year in a row a Celtic took home the award. They also outscored opponents by an average of 9.4 points per game. The Celtics knew all of the regular season awards and praise didn’t really matter to the team. Their goal from the beginning of the season had been to extract their revenge on the Lakers, and the Celtics would not disappoint in the playoffs.
Once the playoffs began, the Celtics embarked on an incredible run in which they would only lose three times. Sweeping Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the first round, the Celtics would then win 4-1 over Dominique Wilkins and the Hawks in the conference semifinals. The Conference Finals wouldn’t be much more of a challenge, with the Celtics sweeping Sidney Moncrief and the Bucks. We all know the history of Lakers/Celtics, and it was widely assumed they would meet for the third year in a row, but Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets upset the Lakers in the Western Finals. Despite the disappointment of not facing the Lakers, the Celtics still took care of business and beat the Rockets in six to reclaim the crown.
1986 would prove to be the last championship the Celtics would win until Kevin Garnett’s arrival in 2008. The 1986 Celtics Dominated the NBA, and remain one of the best teams ever assembled.