Remembering the 1986 Boston Celtics

March 28, 2016

Flickr | Kip-koech


With ten games left in the NBA season, the Golden State Warriors have a chance to make history. Not that they haven’t already – between Steph Curry’s 3’s and their incredible 24-0 start to the season – the Warriors have broken several records this year. However, if they manage to win eight of their remaining ten games, they will tack on having the greatest regular season team to their already impressive resume. Because of their incredible success, the Warriors are often compared to what is often considered the greatest team of all time: the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.  

While I consider ’95-’96 Chicago Bulls the greatest team ever assembled, there is another team that isn’t included in the conversation often enough: the ’85-’86 Boston Celtics. That year, the Boston Celtics amassed an incredible 50-1 (40-1 regular season, 10-0 postseason) record at home on the way to defeating the Houston Rockets in six games. They had the star player in Larry Bird, the perfect sidekicks in Kevin McHale and Robert Parish and a cast of incredible dependable cast including Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge and Bill Walton (6th Man of the Year).

Five players on the ’86 Celtics averaged points in the double digits, with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale leading the way with 25.7 and 21.3 points per game respectively. Bird, often considered the greatest shooter NBA history not named Steph Curry shot 49.6% from the field including 42.3% from three. To round out their frontcourt, the combination of Robert Parish and Kevin McHale averaged a combined 63.2 points and 27.4 rebounds per game. When either of those guys needed a break, Bill Walton was able to enter and contribute 14.1 points and 12.7 rebounds off the bench. If not the greatest team, then the ’86 Celtics definitely had the best frontcourt to play the game.

 The ’86 Celtics were so good throughout the season that they would often experiment with different shots because they became so acclimated to winning. On one occasion while playing in Portland, Larry Bird decided to only shoot baskets with his left hand. Knowing that they were the best team in basketball that year, they often got bored when playing lesser teams away from home. While they went 19-2 against teams above the .500 mark, they lost less meaningful games against teams such as the 1985-86 Sacramento Kings (37-45) and Pheonix Suns (32-50). Today, former Celtics admit that they might have reached 70 wins as well, but they instead chose to rest for the playoffs.

Additionally, the Boston Celtics managed to reach an Elo rating of 1816 during their ’85-’86 campaign. Elo is a measurement, manufactured by FiveThirtyEight, of a team’s current state of play. It measures how a team is performing relative to others in the NBA in a season. Only four teams have ever reached an Elo rating above 1800 (here is a chart tracking all time NBA history), and two of those four teams reached that level this season. While this year’s Warriors currently reached the second highest level of all time after this year’s game against Boston, the San Antonio Spurs, managed to just graze a max of 1800 after defeating the Warriors at home earlier this year.

The all-time NBA Elo rankings has the ’86 Boston Celtics ranked as the fourth best team of all time. While they reached a peak of 1816 after defeating the Houston Rockets in Game 2 of the Finals, they ended the season with a rating of 1801 because of two subsequent losses before clinching the title. Interestingly, the all-time scale does not have only the ’95-’96 Bulls ahead of the ’85-’86 Celtics and ’14-’15 Warriors, but also the ’96-’97 Bulls team, a team that finished just one game shy of 70 wins.

While the ‘85-’86 Celtics clearly do not match up from a numbers perspective to these other teams, one also has to consider what the team meant to the players and to the city. The ’86 Celtics were coming off of a Finals loss to the Lakers at the conclusion of the ’84-’85 season and were gunning for redemption. In a column Bill Simmons authored in 2007, while discussing what teams passing the Grandkids test, a test to determine if the team is good enough to tell your grandkids about, Simmons wrote “To this point, I’ve only rooted for one team great enough to pass the Grandkids Test: The ’86 Celts.”

So sure, the ’85-’86 Boston Celtics are not the best basketball team ever put together, but they deserve to be recognized and discussed far more. As the best team of the 80’s, the ’86 Celtics developed a model for future teams to follow. In an ironic twist, while Boston still maintains the best home record of all time, that record has the chance of being bested by not one but two teams, as both the Warriors and Spurs are perfect approaching the end of the season. While basketball continues to evolve and produce better teams, it is important to remember the teams that brought us here.


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