Who are most influential figures in Celtics history? Ranking the Top 10
Earlier this month we unveiled our top 10 Celtics by position. Now we’re taking it a step further and trying to pare those lists down to the 10 most influential Celtics in team history. For these rankings, we added coaches and general managers to consideration given the contributions that came beyond the players on the floor. What we came up with are the 10 men who most impacted Boston’s title trajectory during their time in green.
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HONORABLE MENTION: In crafting our top 10 list, we were left with a handful of tough snubs, including the likes of Jo Jo White and Sam Jones. We also gave strong consideration to Danny Ainge for his contributions as both a player and general manager. In early drafts, we had Robert Parish at the back end of our top 10 because of his importance to the 80s Celtics but, ultimately, he got muscled out by somebody whose influence on the team stretches across eight different decades.
10. Tommy Heinsohn
How do you make a list of Celtics greats and not include Mr. Celtic?
A two-time Hall of Famer as both a player (eight NBA titles in nine season) and a coach (427 career wins, 1973 Coach of the Year, two NBA titles), Heinsohn deserved a spot on this list for everything he did between 1957 and 1978. But then you add in more than four decades as a broadcast voice of the team (and someone that Celtics coaches and players still seek out for guidance).
Heinsohn has, essentially, been around for the nearly the entirety of the Celtics’ existence and has been a part of all 17 championships in one role or another.
9. Kevin Garnett
Garnett completely changed the culture for a team that lost a franchise-record 17 consecutive games the season before his arrival.
He immediately delivered a title that ended a painful 22-year drought. There were only small blips of optimism between Larry Bird’s retirement and Garnett’s arrival, but Garnett restored the title-or-bust mentality of a franchise that had endured a lot of lean years. His fingerprints remain on today’s team based on the picks his departure delivered.
8. Dave Cowens
The original small-ball center, Cowens’ career was defined by grit and tenacity.
Those Celtics teams of the 70s are always seemingly overshadowed by the accomplishments of the teams sandwiched around them, but Cowens was the league MVP in 1973 and helped the Celtics to titles in 1974 and 1976. Despite standing only 6-foot-9, Cowens routinely took on the challenge of defending 7-foot-2 Kareem-Abdul Jabaar (including in the ‘74 Finals).
7. Bob Cousy
The Houdini of the Hardwood, Cousy was the greatest point guard in team history and so far ahead of his time with his style of play.
He was the perfect complement to Bill Russell and those two were the cornerstones of that early Celtics dynasty. One MVP award, 13 All-Star nods, six titles. Yes, he shot only 37.5 percent for his career, but he still averaged 18.4 points per game and quarterbacked everything.
6. Kevin McHale
Just like his teammate Robert Parish, it’s sometimes easy to overlook just how good McHale was. But that’s what happens when you play alongside Larry Bird.
There was the time in March 1985 when McHale erupted for a franchise-record 56 points. Nine days later, Bird went for 60. McHale’s Torture Chamber skillset made him a menace near the basket. He was at the peak of his powers in 1987 and only injuries could slow him down. In the end, he was still a three-time champ, a seven-time All-Star, and a two-time Sixth Man of the Year.
5. Paul Pierce
In the half-decade before Pierce was drafted, the Celtics didn’t win a playoff series and the missteps of the Rick Pitino era made it seem like they might not any time soon.
But as Pierce emerged as an All-Star talent — and Pitino exited — the team finally found optimism largely in Pierce’s potential. Pierce sits second all-time in team history in scoring, and might have passed John Havlicek if he finished his career in green.
4. Red Auerbach
We entered wondering if Auerbach deserved one of the top spots but it was suggested to us by those most knowledgeable that, ultimately, players are who impact winning most.
It’s the reason that no other coach or GM even spots on this list. So, maybe a bit begrudgingly, this curator slots Auerbach behind what we’ll call the Holy Trinity of Celtics legends, even if Red's fingerprints are all over this list and we can’t help but wonder how things might have been different without his shrewd roster management.
3. John Havlicek
With eight titles in 16 years, Havlicek didn’t just aid Russell’s run but he (and Cowens, too) carried the torch through the overshadowed 70s, all while bridging the gap to the Bird era.
Havlicek is the all-time leading scorer in Celtics history, but the man nicknamed “Hondo" also placed on eight All-Defense teams from 1969 (Russell’s last year) until 1976 (the other title team of the 70s). Havlicek played an absurd 46,471 regular-season minutes for the Celtics (Russell is the closest, nearly 6,000 minutes behind).
2. Larry Bird
Think about all the individual talent in the NBA during the mid-80s and it makes the fact that Bird emerged with three straight MVP awards all the more absurd.
Bird was at the peak of his powers from 1984-1986, just seemingly toying with opponents at times, and leading Boston to two titles while winning Finals MVP both years. Heck, the NBA might not have survived without Bird and Magic Johnson reviving the Celtics-Lakers rivalry.
1. Bill Russell
The greatest winner in all of sports is the slam dunk choice to headline the list of most influential players for the NBA’s most decorated franchise.
Russell produced 11 titles in 13 seasons, including eight in a row, and two more as a player/coach at the end of his playing days. The image of him clutching two handfuls of championship rings is the quintessential image of Boston’s banner-filled history.