The 10 Best Boston Celtic drafts of all time
By Cort Reynolds
With the NBA draft just around the corner, it seems a good time to reflect on the best drafts in the storied history of the Celtics.
Boston has enjoyed some great draft day acquisitions, as well as some pretty poor ones (remember Norm Cook, Rex Morgan, Steve Downing, Tom Boswell, Charles Bradley and of course Len Bias to name a few busts).
But many of the bad picks were because the team consistently picked low in the draft. Since Boston won so consistently big from the early 1950s to 1993, with only a few bad spells in between, they thus often had to reach for picks, some of whom panned out while others did not.
When those infrequent bad spells hit - especially in the very early 1970s and the late '70s - Boston came up with great picks to restore the dynasty.
So without further adieu, here are my top 10 drafts (with trades) in Boston Celtic history.
10) 1960: The Celtics picked up long-time defensive stalwart Tom "Satch" Sanders with the eighth pick in the first round out of NYU. Sanders, a lanky 6-8 forward, averaged just under 10 points and over six rebounds a game over 13 seasons. But his greatest contribution came on defense. Along with Russell and Havlicek, he comprised the greatest defensive frontline in NBA history in the mid to late 1960s. Sanders helped Boston win eight NBA titles in the decade with his solid, unsung play.
9) 1998: Paul Pierce was a slightly overweight 6-7 junior forward out of Kansas when the Celtics picked him 10th in the first round. Blessed with outstanding skills but not eye-popping athleticism, the California native initially preferred to play for the Lakers or Kings, who had the seventh pick but took flashy playmaker Jason Williams instead. Pierce proved his doubters wrong and easily crafted the best career of any Celtic in the post-Bird era, leading the franchise to its only title of the last 27 years.
He is the number two scorer in team history, has been an underrated defender and clutch shotmaker as well as the heart of the team over his 14 stellar seasons. Along with Dirk Nowitzki, taken ninth that year by Milwaukee before being traded to Dallas, they are the top two scorers of the 1988 draft. Often overshadowed by flashier players of his era like Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson, Pierce has played in 10 All-Star Games and continues to be a solid player into his mid 30s. None other than LeBron James called the underrated Pierce "his toughest opponent."
The consistent and durable White averaged close to 20 points and five assists a game for the Celtics in nine years before he was dealt to Golden State at age 32. JoJo was a hybrid shooting/point guard with great quickness and shooting touch. He was named MVP of the 1976 NBA Finals and helped the Celtics win league titles in 1974 and 1976 along with the then-"Big Three" of John Havlicek and Dave Cowens. As an even greater testament to White's contribution to the Celtic success of that era, they made five straight Eastern Conference finals from 1972-76, at a time when the league was especially good.
Ironman White played 58 minutes in the classic triple overtime game of the 1976 Finals, scoring 33 points and dishing out nine assists as the Celtics outlasted the Suns 128-126 in arguably the greatest game in championship series history.
Boston also picked up solid backup forward Steve Kuberski in the fourth round with the 52nd pick. Kuberski was a key reserve on the two Celtic champs of the decade, and was one of the last men to wear 33 for the C's before Larry Legend. He also donned number 11.
The underrated Jones won 10 rings with the Celtics and was one of the game's great clutch shooters. Sam was probably the best bank shooter in NBA history. He went out on top with Russell in 1969 after the aging Celtics won one last championship by upsetting the Lakers at LA in game seven, 108-106. But that would never have been possible if Jones had not hit a clutch, wrong-footed 19-footer at the buzzer to even the series 2-2 in an 89-88 game four thriller in Boston. In 1964-65, he averaged a career-best 25.9 ppg but he was always overshadowed by other contemporary guard greats Jerry West and Oscar Robertson throughout his career.
Thus Jones never made first team all-league, although he made second team twice, yet he won a lot more titles than Zeke or the Big O.
6) 1953: Boston got super swingman Frank Ramsey out of Kentucky with the fifth pick in the draft, and the 6-3 sniper became the first in a long line of great Celtic sixth men. In nine seasons Ramsey won seven titles and averaged 13.4 ppg in just 24.6 minutes a game. By the time he retired in 1964, he handed off the sixth man role to the greatest one ever, John Havlicek.
In the same draft, the Celtics also picked another Kentucky standout, hook-shooting 6-4 Cliff Hagan, via the third round's 24th selection. Hagan didn't play for Boston due to a two-year military hitch, but he became part of the draft trade for Bill Russell in 1956 that helped build the Celtic dynasty. Hagan became a five-time All-Star with the Hawks and made the Hall of Fame.
5) 1970: In 1970, the Celtics missed the playoffs for the first time in almost two decades as they declined to well below .500 without the retired Russell and Sam Jones. As a result, they received the fourth pick in the draft. While some expected them to select good-passing center Sam Lacey, who had led New Mexico State to the Final Four, Red Auerbach fooled everyone and made one of the two greatest draft picks of his distinguished career.
Few had heard of Dave Cowens since his Florida State team never made the NCAAs as an independent, and Dave was not even named second team All-American. Yet the high-flying, intense muscleman led the Seminoles to a 23-3 record and number 11 ranking his senior year as the redhead from Kentucky averaged 19.2 points and 17 rebounds a game. But they were on NCAA probation for recruting violations and were left out of the big dance.
While scouting, Auerbach saw Cowens excel in a college all-star game, but Red made a big scene of walking out early while decrying the lack of talent in the contest. All along, he was hoping others didn't see the great potential in Cowens that he did. His ruse worked as the Pistons took Bob Lanier first, the Rockets selected Rudy Tomjanovich second and Atlanta took Pete Maravich number three in a draft loaded with future superstars. Red then practically shouted that the "Celtics take Dave Cowens of Florida State with the fourth pick" when his turn came at the draft.
Some doubted whether the unheralded Cowens could play center at 6-8.5, so Russell was brought in to evaluate Dave. After watching the uber-aggressive and driven Cowens compete fiercely, Russell advised Red to keep him in the pivot, perhaps as a southpaw who likely reminded him of himself. "No one is going to tell that kid he can't play center," reasoned Russell.
All Big Red did was earn co-Rookie of the Years honors in 1971 with Geoff Petrie as coach Tom Heinsohn designed a unique running offense that at times employed a point center in Cowens and point forward in Havlicek to take advantage of his small team's speed.
In that decisive seventh contest, Cowens outplayed Jabbar despite giving up six inches in height, tallying game-high totals of 28 points and 14 rebounds. Two years later, Cowens led Boston to its second title of the decade with a 4-2 win over upstart Phoenix. Dave's seven big points in the final minutes made the difference in the clinching sixth game as his outburst broke open a tight battle that paved the way for an 87-80 win.
Cowens was an incredible athlete: he possessed great speed and quickness for a 6-8.5 center, great strength, excellent leaping ability, and no one ever played harder. Yet he was also a smart player, a superb defender who relished the challenge of switching onto smaller guards, and also served as Boston player-coach part of one season. As Havlicek once said, "No one ever did more for the Celtics than Dave Cowens." High praise indeed.
4) 1962: John Havlicek was the overlooked forward on the great Ohio State teams that made it to the NCAA finals each year he was on the varsity from 1960-62. Superstar center Jerry Lucas was the Buckeye headliner while Hondo quietly excelled in all phases of the game, especially defense and rebounding. Auerbach drafted Havlicek unseen with the seventh pick of the first round, and Hondo immediately became a standout on a deep squad featuring seven future Hall of Famers John later called "the most talented team in Celtic history."
The humble Havlicek served as sixth man for several seasons, patiently waiting to break into the starting lineup even though he was already one of the best all-around players in the NBA. Arguably the greatest athlete in the league, he used great drive to break out of the sixth man misnomer and the shadow of Lucas to become the top player in the NBA during the early 1970s. From 1971-73, he nearly averaged a triple-double with over 28 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists a game - all while making the all-defense team!
At 6-5, Hondo was clutch, tenacious, smart, quick, fast and most of all, relentless. He played small forward, big guard and point guard, was a tremendous passer, and the most versatile defender perhaps ever. After coming to the Celtics as a defensive specialist reluctant to shoot, he imrpoved his offense to become the franchise's all-time leading scorer.
Hondo was a quiet but very intense competitor, and a true gentleman of the game, the Lou Gehrig or Stan Musial of basketball. A true ironman he was known as the "Green Running Machine" for his incredible conditioning, durability, tireless running and movement without the ball.
The son of a butcher from the Ohio/Pennsylvania/West Va. confluence earned all-state notice in three sports and was recruited to play quarterback for Ohio State by Woody Hayes, yet chose basketball. In 16 seasons with the Celtics, he won eight titles, was the 1974 Finals MVP and played in 13 straight All-Star Games from 1966-78.
When he finally retired in 1978, he had played more games than anyone in NBA history, scored more playoff points than anyone except Jerry West, and was universally respected and liked. In his retirement ceremony at halftime of his last game, he received a well-deserved seven-minute plus standing ovation.
Jeff Judkins, a 6-6 swingman from Utah. The other was a little-known junior eligible out of a mid-major school called Indiana State named Larry Bird, who was selected with the sixth pick of the first round by Auerbach.
When great 76er player and then-coach Billy Cunningham asked Red "why would you draft this guy Bird when he has another year of college left", the far-sighted Auerbach replied, "Do you know how short a time a year is?" Of course a year later Larry would have been the first pick and become a Laker instead of Earvin Johnson, but that's another story.
Bird had been eligible for the draft since he had sat out a year after transferring from Indiana to ISU, but had promised his mom he would be the first one in his poverty-stricken family to get a college degree. So he returned for a storybook senior season where he led the Sycamores to the national finals in their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance with a 33-0 record (the last team to make the title game undefeated), earn consensus Player of the Year honors and help make March Madness the annual national passion it is today.
Bird justified Red's foresight by then leading Boston to the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history up to that time. The Celtics improved from 29-53 to 61-21 and posted the best record in the league in his spectacular rookie campaign. Bird was a runaway Rookie of the Year, then led Boston to the crown his second season. From 1984-86, he became the first non-center to win three consecutive NBA MVP awards, and in two of those campaigns he also copped Finals MVP honors and rings, capping arguably the best three-year stretch of any player ever in league annals.
Bird earned first team all-league honors in each of his first nine seasons, a run ended only by double achilles surgery in 1989. He courageously came back for three more very good years, then went out in storybook fashion to win a gold medal with the original Dream Team.
Bird is hands-down the best forward in NBA history, a great rebounder (10 boards a game over 13 years), the best passing forward ever by far, and averaged nearly 25 ppg when he could have scored much more had he not been so unselfish. He is probably the greatest shooter/passer in NBA history. Larry possessed great fundamentals but also a flair for the spectacular, great improvisation skills and basketball genius instincts.
As rival Julius Erving once said, "Larry Bird wore the mask of a 'hick from French Lick, but if you believed that for one minute, you were in for a long day...he was a basketball savant."
As great as his tangibles were, Larry's intangibles were just as great. He was the smartest player of his era if not ever, played extremely hard, was a great leader, was inspirational and stoically great through severe injuries that would have ended the careers of many others.
And Larry Legend was the premier clutch player of an era loaded with great players and great teams, a player who lived for the final seconds and loved to make the dagger shot that finished his opponent. If not for injuries, bad luck and playing in a loaded east throughout his career, Bird and Boston could easily have doubled his total of three titles.
Video: Larry Bird's greatest passes ever http://t.co/X1VE3uwaLV via @CelticsLife— coachdeneef (@coachdeneef) August 22, 2015
Hawk forward foe Dominique Wilkins said that looking into the cold blue eyes of the league's premier clutch marksman was like "looking into the eyes of an assassin."
Bird's skills, mystique, popularity and style of play also did more to resuscitate a league on life support when he entered the NBA in 1979 than any other player. He not only met the massive expectations placed on him, he was the rare top tier superstar who exceeded them.
Even though some doubted whether Bird would even be able to be a starter in the NBA, Larry used those doubts as motivation to work harder and become even greater. At each successive level, the proud Bird was underrated because of his appearance yet he always surpassed the greatest expectations and embarrassed his doubters.
Auerbach admitted later on that although he knew Bird was great when he picked him a year early, he did not know he was such a great rebounder and passer, nor that he would play so well and so often when he was hurt.
Bird in fact dislocated his right index finger badly in a softball game before his rookie year, and briefly contemplated playing left-handed, since he was the most ambidextrous player of the time and a natural southpaw. Yet he overcame multiple injuries to his shooting hand and changed his shot with endless practice to still become the player with the most deft passing/shooting touch in league history.
In the late 1980s Red said that Bird was the most self-motivated player he had ever seen, even more than Russell, Cousy or Havlicek. And that if he had to start a team with just one player from the history of the league, he would choose Larry.
Nice pick, Red.
Robert Parish and their third overall selection. While the Warriors took Purdue big man Joe Barry Carroll first and Utah selected Darrell Griffith of NCAA champion Lousiville second, Red grabbed Minnesota big man Kevin McHale third, the player he had wanted all along, while also getting Parish to replace the aging and injured Dave Cowens.
The sweet-shooting Parish, the long-armed McHale and second-year forward Bird would combine to form the greatest frontline in NBA history. Each made the 50 Greatest list compiled by the league in 1997.
The stoic Chief, named after the tall Native American character in the classic mid-1970s film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", ably replaced the retiring Cowens and immediately became an All-Star. Parish ran the floor well, gave Boston a seven foot shot-blocking presence, and possessed a deadly turnaround jumper.
McHale developed the greatest array of low-post moves ever seen in league history, along with Hakeem Olajuwon, and made seven All-Star teams. A fine leaper and shot-blocker himself, Kevin became an excellent defender with his incredible reach, smarts, jumping ability and excellent lateral movement from playing hockey in his native Minnesota. He made six all-defense teams, and guarded everyone from centers to power forwards to small forwards.
McHale was a superb sixth man over his first four seasons, helping Boston win titles in his rookie and fourth campaigns. With the injury and later trade of Cedric Maxwell to the Clippers for Bill Walton, Big Mac moved into the starting five and blossomed into a first team All-NBA forward. In 1987 he and Bird became the only forward duo from the same team to make first team all-league. Only a severe foot injury suffered late that season, one he played through valiantly while helping the Celtics to the Finals for a fourth straght season, could begin to slow him down.
In his first seven seasons through 1987, McHale's scoring average went up each year, topping out at 26.1. Over his final six years after the foot injury robbed him of some lift and quickness, his scoring average dipped each season. Yet he remained one of the league's most lethal inside scorers and defenders with his loose-jointed array of moves: the fadeaway, jump hook, up and under, pivoting reverse layup, over the shoulder flip shots, jsut to name a few (in fact, he named some of his favorite moves, such as the slippery eel and the salamander).
Possessing a textbook jump shot, he led the league in field goal shooting twice and even became a good three-point shooter late in his career. As gregarious and carefree as Bird and Parish were introverted and serious, McHale always had fun and was unstoppable inside. He never brought the ball down, leading to his lightning quick shot release. Kevin often saw his soft touch put the ball nearly in the hoop before opponents could even reach the apex of their futile late leap to attempt to stop him.
Parish had been labeled by some as an underachiever in Golden State over his first four seasons, but in Boston he became a perennial All-Star and quiet workhorse who shunned the spotlight. He learned to run the floor well with his high-knee gait, was a fine rebounder/scorer, and a true stalwart inside on defense. Playing in an era with numerous Hall of Fame and All-Star centers, as well as superstars on his own team, Parish was often overlooked and underrated.
Yet he was extremely durable and was selected for nine All-Star Games. His 14 seasons in the pivot for Boston are the most by any center in Celtic history, one more than the incomparable Russell and four more than the mercurial Cowens.
As a tribute to the Chief, Larry Bird simply said, "We don't win any of our titles in the 1980s without Robert."
When Parish finally retired in 1997 after 21 NBA seasons, he had played 1,611 games, a record that still stands. And he later won a fourth and final ring with the Bulls in that final season.
The 1980 trade and draft for Parish and McHale is known around the league as "the heist" and perhaps the greatest deal in NBA history.
K.C. Jones early in the second round out of San Francisco, where he had teamed with a center named Russell to capture the NCAA title in 1955 and '56 while winning a then-record 60 games in a row.
Heinsohn became a Hall of Fame forward and starter on eight title teams in his nine seasons. Most probably don't know that it was "Tommy Gun/Ack-Ack", so nicknamed for his propensity to shoot often and well, who was the 1957 Rookie of the Year, not Russell, since Bill missed part of the season while playing at the 1956 Olympics in Australia. Russell once humorously noted during a TV telecast that Heinsohn had a great All-Star Game one year, going "18 for 20...he touched the ball 20 times and shot it 18 times" (followed by his trademark cackle).
Jones sat behind consummate playmaker Bob Cousy for his first five seasons while playing a key role off the pines for the deep Celtics of that era, waiting his turn before he became a starter in 1963. K.C. won the league crown in each of his first eight seasons from 1959-66 after missing two years by serving in the military, making it 10 straight seasons including college that his team had won it all.
A great defender, the quiet Jones was clever, tenacious and athletic; he was drafted by the LA Rams as a defensive back prospect. Had there been an all-defense team during his time, he certainly would have been a perennial choice.
The low-key but intense Jones later coached the Celtics to the championship in 1984 and 1986, and to two other Finals appearances in 1985 and 1987.
Heinsohn averaged 18.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game over his nine seasons, in which Boston advanced to the Finals every time. In 104 playoff contests he upped those considerable averages to 19.8 and 9.2 per outing.
Heinsohn then coached the rebuilding Celtics during the post-Russell era from 1969-78. His clubs captured two championships in the extremely tough NBA of the early and mid-1970s, which was laden with great teams. He led Boston to five straight conference finals from 1972-76, and Jones also turned the same difficult trick five consecutive seasons from 1984-88.
With the death of team patriarch Red Auerbach, the fiery Heinsohn became Mr. Celtic. He has spent over 55 years as a very successful player, coach and announcer for the franchise, as well as an insightful lead analyst for CBS in the 1980s and ABC in the 1960s. He is also an accomplished painter, which belies the perpetual scowl he wore over 19 seasons as a player and coach. That artistic skill might surprise some who think of him first as an overbearing coach who berated referees, a biased Celtic TV analyst in recent years, a do-whatever-it-takes to win forward, or even as a memorable Miller Lite TV beer pitchman.
Russell was chosen by St. Louis with the second pick in the 1956 draft. When Auerbach and owner Walter Brown made a deal with the Royals partly to guarantee the Ice Capades would go to Rochester in exchange for them not picking Russell, the Royals then chose Duquesne's Sihugo Green first overall.
Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan because the Hawks were wary of the potential popularity problems for a black player in their borderline southern city of the mid-1950s. Indeed, the 1958 Hawks are the last all-white team to win the NBA crown. Plus, Macauley was a St. Louis native who starred for the hometown Billikens in college as a two-time All-American, so the six-time All-Star would be a good gate attraction as well as a fine player for the Hawks.
While Easy Ed and Lil Abner were excellent players who helped the Hawks to that title, the only one Boston failed to win in Bill's first nine seasons as he had a sprained ankle and Bob Pettit scored 50 in the clincher, Russell was the last piece to the Boston puzzle and the linchpin of the greatest dynasty in NBA history.
The 6-10 gazelle supplied much-needed rebounding and smothering defense to put the perennially close-but-no-cigar Celtics (pun intended, Red), who boasted tons of offensive firepower yet could not win the championship, over the top and into the winner's circle regularly.
With his prolific rebounding, outlet passing and revolutionary shot-blocking, Russell ignited the vaunted Celtic fast break, which was run to perfection by Cousy. He tipped many of his blocks to teammates instead of trying to draw attention to himself by swatting them out of bounds violently, and these tipped blocks often led to easy transition baskets for his offensively-talented teammates.
Russell altered and intimidated even more shots than he blocked, and was the ultimate last line of defense. He made his teammates even better defenders since they could apply extra pressure on the perimeter, knowing he had their back to make up for any mistakes they might make. Thus he was the ultimate defensive safety valve, a 22.5 rebound and capable 15.1 career scorer.
Russ is the greatest defensive force in NBA history, and maybe in all of North American pro team sports history. Numbers don't really do justice to his career, and blocked shots were not kept as official stats in his career, adding to his mystique even further.
He wasn't a good shooter (career 44% FG and 56% foul shooter), but he was a phenomenal rebounder, a good and unselfish passer and great defender who brought out the best in his teammates with his cerebral, instinctive team play. He ran the floor well and was a tremendous leaper with great reach and anticipation. In addition, he was an extremely intelligent and cunning competitor, so driven to succeed that he threw up routinely before games.
Perhaps the only numbers one needs to really know about Russell's career are the 11 titles he won in 13 NBA seasons. The last two crowns came in 1968 and '69 when he served as player-coach of the Celtics after becoming the first black head coach of a major American pro sports team in 1966 upon Red's retirement. Combined with his two NCAA crowns and the Olympic gold, some consider him the greatest winner in NBA history and maybe in all of pro team sports.
Tommy Gun, K.C. and Russ: a pretty good draft haul in 1956, to say the very least.
Honorable mention: 1964 draft-Mel Counts, Ron Bonham and John Thompson; 1981-Danny Ainge in second round with 31st pick after other teams were convinced he would stick with baseball. Ainge would have been a high first round pick had he not been with the Toronto Blue Jays; 1987-Reggie Lewis, 22nd pick in first round and Brad Lohaus, 45th pick in second round; 2004-Al Jefferson, the #15 overall pick eventually flipped for Kevin Garnett, Delonte West also #24, Tony Allen and #25.