Published May 14, 2022
The Boston Celtics’ Top Ten Greatest Players
Some things to consider:
– These rankings are based on greatness to the franchise, not the greatness of their career. For example, Hakeem Olajuwon is the greatest to ever play in a Raptors jersey, but his lack of importance to Toronto would leave him off of this kind of list.
– The main criteria considered include: accomplishments with the franchise, notable franchise records (within top ten range), and talent.
Sam Jones, Jo Jo White, Kevin Garnett
10. Tom Heinsohn
4x All-NBA 2nd Team
1957 Rookie of the Year
9th in rebounds
Tom Heinsohn is the heart of the Boston Celtics franchise. His influence on the team goes beyond his days as a player, being a two-time Champion as a head coach and boasting a legendary broadcasting career. However, that doesn’t mean sleep on prime Tommy; one of the better players of the late-50’s, and a big part of the Boston dynasty’s beginning.
His talents immediately impressed the media, winning Rookie of the Year over teammate Bill Russell. His combination of versatile scoring ability and valuable defense remained part of his game from his earliest days as an NBA player, and he would likely be even higher on this list if he had a longer playing career.
9. Bill Sharman
4x All-NBA 1st Team, 3x All-NBA 2nd Team
1x All-Star Game MVP
Notable Records: N/A
Bill Sharman was one of the earlier Celtics greats, being a part of their foundation long before the dynasty. He and Bob Cousy formed the greatest backcourt of that era, with Cousy’s elite playmaking complementing Sharman’s amazing shooting efficiency (well over 40% in his career, when the league average most years was around the mid-30s back then).
Sharman was consistently recognized as the best shooting guard in the NBA for several years, and eventually put those skills to the ultimate test as a starter for the eventual championship teams. A somewhat short career and moderate stats prevented him from holding any great franchise records, but he’s well-known as a Boston legend.
8. Robert Parish
1x All-NBA 2nd Team, 1x All-NBA 3rd Team
4th in minutes
4th in field goals made
4th in points
2nd in rebounds
4th in steals
1st in blocks
Robert Parish, also known as The Chief, is the definition of longevity. He played a long two decades of basketball in the league, which was rather atypical for his time.
After experiencing disdain with his role on the Golden State Warriors, Parish was traded to Boston and remained there for fourteen years. In this timeframe, he became an essential part of one of basketball’s greatest dynasties; the 80’s Celtics, where he – alongside Larry Bird and Kevin McHale – formed a “big three” that saw immense success in both the regular and post-season.
Parish felt like a successor to Bill Russell; much less of a leader, yes, but with the necessary dominance on defense that wins championships. And championships were won, indeed; three of them, which Parish will forever be known as a part of.
7. Kevin McHale
1x All-NBA 1st Team
3x All-Defensive 1st Team, 3x All-Defensive 2nd Team
2x Sixth Man of the Year
1981 All-Rookie 1st Team
7th in minutes
5th in field goals made
5th in points
6th in rebounds
2nd in blocks
Speaking of the “big three”, Parish’s teammate and legendary power forward Kevin McHale finds himself next on this countdown. The second most decorated player of that Celtics core, McHale has earned widespread acclaim for his excellent defense and unselfish style of playing basketball.
He is one of the league’s greatest sixth men, carrying on the energy of John Havlicek through making an impact without having to start each game. There was only a brief period throughout the late-80s in which he did, which makes the multiple Sixth Man awards even more unique. Productive scoring and defense can be a quality of any great player, and if somebody proved that translated to winning basketball, it was McHale.
6. Dave Cowens
3x All-NBA 2nd Team
1x All-Star Game MVP
1x All-Defensive 1st Team, 2x All-Defensive 2nd Team
1971 Rookie of the Year
8th in minutes
10th in field goals made
9th in points
3rd in rebounds
10th in assists
10th in steals (tied)
6th in blocks
Dave Cowens is the forgotten legend of Celtics basketball. In the 70’s, where parity was the trend and only two teams won a championship more than once, Cowens helped lead Boston to two of them in three years.
He is one of four league MVPs in Celtics history, and was a rare example of somebody that grazed the “best player” conversation Kareem Abdul-Jabbar typically dominated at the time. He wasn’t quite there, but averaging twenty-one points, sixteen rebounds and four assists in your MVP year is no joke regardless.
Cowens’ biggest setback, much like a lot of older greats, was his shortened career. Add some more years to that resume, and he’d be remembered in a very high regard; this means nothing to Celtics fans, though, as the hustle and passion he brought to the court will always be appreciated.
5. Bob Cousy
10x All-NBA 1st Team, 2x All-NBA 2nd Team
2x All-Star Game MVP
6th in minutes
7th in field goals made
6th in points
1st in assists
The Houdini of the Hardwood. The first truly great point guard. Bob Cousy was an early basketball phenomenon; long before showtime offense and flashy passes became widely acknowledged, he was doing them on a regular basis to a high rate of success.
The first star of the franchise, he earned a reputation as the leader of the league’s best offense, winning the 1957 MVP and his first championship in the same year. While that was the last season you could argue his status as the first option on the team, it sparked the legendary dynasty that would define the NBA for the next twelve years.
Cousy was the beginning of it all for Boston, and remains one of their top five greatest to this day.
4. Paul Pierce
1x Finals MVP
1x All-NBA 2nd Team, 3x All-NBA 3rd Team
1999 All-Rookie 1st Team
3rd in minutes
3rd in field goals made
1st in three-point field goals made
2nd in points
7th in rebounds
5th in assists
1st in steals
4th in blocks
Paul Pierce didn’t have as great a career as Cousy all-time, but his importance to Boston is immense. He was a spark of hope in an era where the franchise had entered complete doubt; after the 80’s Celtics had moved on and the promising Reggie Lewis passed away, the team looked horrible.
However, The Truth changed that. He slowly led Boston to steady improvement throughout the 2000’s that resulted in the 2008 championship, their most recent and one of the most memorable of the past fifteen years.
He was never quite the best player of his era, but was consistently great. His prime consisted of him getting well over twenty-five points a game all the while grabbing boards and dishing dimes productively, and it’s this sort of versatility that earned him his place in Celtics history.
3. John Havlicek
1x Finals MVP
4x All-NBA 1st Team, 7x All-NBA 2nd Team
5x All-Defensive 1st Team, 3x All-Defensive 2nd Team
1963 All-Rookie 1st Team
1st in minutes
1st in field goals made
1st in points
5th in rebounds
2nd in assists
In a comfortable number three spot we find John Havlicek, who is one of the greatest small forwards of all-time and the Celtics’ leading scorer.
A true jack of all trades, Hondo combined elite scoring, playmaking, and defense to provide value to every Boston team he was a part of. He revolutionized the sixth man role with his sparks off the bench, to the point where the Celtics’ rotations inspired others to close games with bench players for better results.
Once he was upgraded to starter status, he unsurprisingly became even better. By the mid-70’s he was one of the top players in the league, with that Finals MVP being hard-cold evidence.
2. Larry Bird
2x Finals MVP
9x All-NBA 1st Team, 1x All-NBA 2nd Team
1x All-Star Game MVP
3x All-Defensive 2nd Team
1980 Rookie of the Year
5th in minutes
2nd in field goals made
7th in three-point field goals made
3rd in points
4th in rebounds
3rd in assists
2nd in steals
3rd in blocks
A consensus top ten player of all-time, Larry Bird revived the Celtics’ streak of dominance through leading an 80’s dynasty that found itself butting heads with the entire league.
As soon has he entered the NBA, Bird was immediately one of the best talents. Rival Magic Johnson may have won Finals MVP in his rookie year, but Bird was no slouch either as he received the Rookie of the Year honors. Fast forward to his sophomore season and he’s already a champion; a trend that would continue for the rest of the decade.
Bird is one of the greatest all-around players ever; an elite scorer, shooter, and playmaker, with great defense to boot. Absolutely a top two Celtic.
1. Bill Russell
3x All-NBA 1st Team, 8x All-NBA 2nd Team
1x All-Star Game MVP
1x All-Defensive 1st Team
2nd in minutes
8th in field goals made
8th in points
1st in rebounds
6th in assists
When it comes to this franchise’s greatness, there shouldn’t be a debate on who number one is. Bird could be the most talented player to ever rep the green, but nobody has surpassed the impact of Bill Russell.
The eleven championships is one thing, but being the clear-cut leader of almost all of those – all the while picking up five MVP awards and functioning as a player-coach – is the real deal. Russell was the anchor for American sports’ most dominant dynasty, which prided itself on unselfish play and elite defense – two of his best attributes.
Without Bill Russell, Celtics fans don’t have nearly as many bragging rights. We’re talking far less notoriety, something Boston sports embraces. Far fewer Hall of Fame careers that were boosted by Russell’s leadership. Not to mention only six championships to seventeen…notice the difference?