While the Lakers have more worldwide popularity, it’s the Celtics that actually got to 17 championships in their storied news history well before the Lakers.
Given how much success Boston has had, it should seem obvious to anyone—even those who could not care less about basketball—that the C’s have had an awful lot of great players walk through their doors.
As a result, coming up with any list of the best Celtics players ever is quite the tall task, but let’s give it a whirl. Perhaps Jayson Tatum will be on this list down the road, but not yet.
Here are the top five players in Celtics history.
5. Kevin McHale
Kevin McHale was basically the Manu Ginobili of big men in the earlier stages of his career.
No, not in terms of play style, but because he was actually the Celtics’ sixth man right through 1985. Of course, he played starter minutes and was one of Boston’s top three players, much like Ginobili during his San Antonio Spurs days.
McHale defined an era of bigs to come a decade after his prime, as he is widely considered one of the best low-post scorers the game has ever seen.
His arsenal of moves on the block was unrivaled, and he helped turn future Celtic Kevin Garnett into the dominant presence he was while McHale was serving in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ front office.
McHale was also a terrific rim protector, having averaged 1.7 blocks per game throughout his career, and he probably doesn’t get enough credit for his defense in general.
The University of Minnesota product boasts career averages of 17.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game while shooting a scorching 55.4 percent from the floor and helped Boston win three NBA championships.
4. Paul Pierce
For today’s era of Celtics fans, Paul Pierce is their version of Larry Bird.
While Pierce does not own nearly the amount of accomplishments that Bird has, he was a dominant force in his own right at his peak, representing one of the NBA’s most prolific scorers.
Pierce was one of the smoothest offensive players you will see. He could do a little bit of everything. He could shoot. He could handle. He could pass. He could post. He could get to the free-throw line. His offensive game didn’t really have a weak point.
No, he wasn’t the most athletic guy out there, but he made up for it with his craftiness and sheer size and strength, as he outmuscled a whole lot of other wings during his heyday and was one of the few small forwards with the stature to hold his own against LeBron James.
Pierce was also renowned for his penchant for hitting big shots in big moments, a quality that was on full display during the Celtics’ march to a championship in 2008.
The Truth owns lifetime averages of 19.7 points, 5.6 boards and 3.5 assists per game and also developed into a pretty fine defender during the second half of his career. He will be going into the Hall of Fame in 2021.
3. John Havlicek
I talked earlier about McHale serving in a sixth man role for part of his career. Well, John Havlicek revolutionized and even romanticized what it meant to be a sixth man.
Yes, he averaged a hefty 36.6 minutes per game throughout his illustrious NBA tenure, but Havlicek did most of his damage as a bench player, registering 20.8 points per game for his career and averaging over 20 a night eight straight years between 1967 and 1974.
Havlicek ranks 16th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, just two points behind Pierce. But keep in mind, Havlicek achieved that feat without the benefit of a three-point shot, which was not introduced until 1979 (Havlicek played his last NBA game in 1978).
That right there should tell you just how marvelous of a scorer Havlicek was.
Alongside of Bill Russell and Sam Jones, Havlicek helped lead the C’s to eight championships between 1963 and 1976, capturing four straight titles from 1963 and 1966 and winning six of seven between ’63 and ’69.
Sure, the league was smaller back then, but that is still one heck of a feat.
And who could forget one of the most famous calls in NBA history: “Havlicek stole the ball!”
2. Larry Bird
Some insist that prime Bird was the best player the game has ever seen, and you know what? They may have a real argument.
Peak Bird was an absolute monster.
He was one of the best scorers the game has ever seen, possessing the ability to get his shot off from literally anywhere on the floor (even behind the backboard). He was also probably the best passer in NBA history (sorry LeBron stans).
But what made Bird so incredible was his toughness. We are talking about one of the grittiest players to ever step on the hardwood here, and generally, those types of compliments are saved for hustle guys who typically don’t have much skill.
Bird’s confidence was through the roof, so much so that some regard him as the most vicious trash talker the game has ever seen. Just ask Chuck Person.
In addition, his court awareness and floor vision may have been the best.
Bird lays claim to career averages of 24.3 points, 10 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game (my goodness; look at those numbers) and made 49.6 percent of his shots and 88.6 percent of his free throws. Most importantly, he led the Celtics to three championships in the 1980s.
Larry Legend is not only the second-most prominent player in Celtics history, but he is a top-five player of all-time, period.
1. Bill Russell
In terms of pure skill, Bird is the best player to ever done a Celtics uniform, but there is no denying that the most accomplished NBA player to ever set foot in Boston is Russell.
You know, the man who gave Wilt Chamberlain nightmares on a daily basis.
Russell is one of the best rebounders and defenders ever, averaging an inhuman 22.5 rebounds per game for his career. Say what you want about eras and all that, but that is ridiculously impressive no matter how you slice it.
Also, blocks were not a stat back then, so we aren’t able to see on a stat sheet just how ferocious of a rim protector Russell was. But just watch some highlight reels of him, and you’ll quickly get the picture.
Russell achieved what no player in history will ever do again: win 11 titles. Yes. Eleven. That included eight straight banners between 1959 and 1966.
No, he wasn’t the most talented player ever. No, he wasn’t the most exciting to watch. Far from it.
But you cannot have an NBA Mt. Rushmore, or a list of best Celtics players ever, without Bill Russell.