Earlier this week, well-respected former Boston Celtic rebounding ace Paul Silas died at age 79 in North Carolina. He became the latest in a line of Celtic legends who have died in the past few years. JoJo White, John Havlicek, Sam and K.C. Jones, Tom Heinsohn, Larry Siegfried and most recently Bill Russell all preceded him in death.
The rugged 6-7 Arkansas native went to McClymonds High School in Oakland, California – the same school that also impressively graduated Bill Russell, baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and Curt Flood.
Silas was known mostly for his powerful rebounding and tough, physical defense. He was probably the best rebounding forward of his era, along with Elvin Hayes.
At Creighton, he averaged 20.5 points and 21.6 rebounds per game over three seasons, and was inducted to the College Basketball Hall of Fame. He is one of a handful of players to average 20-20 over a season or college career.
He was drafted 12th overall by the then-St. Louis Hawks in 1964 and played five seasons for them, then three years with Phoenix. Needing a rebounding forward to pair with young but undersized center phenom Dave Cowens, Red Auerbach acquired Paul for the rights to Charlie Scott, whom Boston had drafted out of North Carolina before he opted for the ABA.
Scott then jumped to the NBA Suns, and ironically in 1975, Boston would get him “back” by trading budding young star guard Paul Westphal to the Suns. Even more irony ensued when the Celtics with Silas and Scott would meet Phoenix and Westphal at the close of that season in the memorable 1976 Finals, which Boston won 4-2. In effect, the crafty Auerbach got both Silas and Scott for each other.
Wearing number 35, Silas was not a career or long-time Celtic, spending only a quarter of his long 16-year career in Celtic green from 1972-76. But those four seasons were all high-achieving and arguably his best. Boston authored the best aggregate record in the NBA over that four-year span, the proud franchise’s best in the decade following Russell’s retirement.
In all four of his seasons, Boston advanced to at least the Eastern Conference Finals and two NBA Finals, amassing the league’s best record at 238-90. In those four playoff seasons from 1973-76, the Celts went 38-23 and hung two more championship banners. Titles 12 and 13 were the first in the post-Russell era, and Silas played a very important complementary role in achieving them.
The 12th title was earned over an epic seven-game 1974 Finals against a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Milwaukee in Oscar Robertson’s last season. The road team won five of the seven games in the unusual series, with the Bucks taking both overtime games, including a double-OT Game 6 thriller in the Boston Garden to force a seventh game in Milwaukee. Underdog Boston would whip the Bucks 102-87 on the Bucks home court in the championship decider. Young center Dave Cowens rang up 28 points and 14 rebounds to outplay Jabbar and send Robertson into retirement, and Havlicek was named Finals MVP. Silas averaged 9.5 rebounds a game in the series and contributed strong defense.
In Game 7, he came off the bench as a sixth man to amass 14 points, nine rebounds and four steals. The career 67-percent foul shooter even hit all four of his free throws and made two key baskets in the fourth quarter to help stymie a late Buck rally.
In his Celtic years, Silas teamed with fellow ferocious board-banging buddy Cowens to form arguably the best center/forward rebounding duo in the 1970s’, alongside Unseld and Hayes of the Bullets. No other duo in the unmatched history of the Celtics pulled down more rebounds per game together over four seasons. The relentless tandem combined to average almost 30 rebounds per game and were particularly adept as offensive rebounders, a stat that wasn’t officially compiled until 1974.
After winning the 1976 NBA title over Phoenix, Auerbach decided to trade the soon-to-be age 33 Silas, who may have been asking for a raise. He dealt Silas to Denver in a three-way deal that brought the Celtics the talented but troublesome Curtis Rowe.
The loss of Paul’s defense, rebounding and intangibles were immediately noticeable as the aging Celtics slumped to 44-38 that season, and lost to the 76ers in a second round seven-game series. Boston never went to the playoffs again until Bird arrived three seasons later.
Cowens, so upset with the loss of his unselfish rebounding/defensive cohort and other things he saw in the year of the 1976-77 ABA/NBA merger, that he took his infamous 30-game AWOL absence.
Silas was extremely durable, missing just three regular season games in his four Celtic seasons. He was mostly a starter, but at times he served as sixth man interchangeably with Nelson. In much of the Celtics’ 60-22 1974-75 campaign - Nelson’s great comeback season at 35 where he amazingly led the NBA in field goal percentage and scored 14 points per game at age 35 - Silas served mostly as the latest in a long line of fine Celtic sixth men.
Over his four Celtic seasons, Silas averaged 11.5 points and 12.5rebounds plus 2.7 assists in 32.4 minutes per game. A whopping 4.3 of those rebounds were of the offensive variety.
His first season in Beantown of 1972-73 was his best statistically, as he averaged 13.3 points and 13 rebounds per outing. His career scoring high of 31 points came in 1974 with Boston, and he once grabbed 26 boards against Buffalo in 1973.
Silas, who was not a particularly great leaper, was a master at getting position. He sometimes used a little-known strategy of going out of bounds under the offensive boards, then coming back in bounds to get prime rebounding position. Defenders usually would lose contact with him if he went out of bounds and let up or forget about him momentarily, and he would often make them pay by using the space and momentum of coming back into play and carve out space to grab the offensive carom.
He was also known for using his body and arms to create space. Some people thought he was a dirty player. When he went to Denver, the physical Silas attempted to teach legendarily clean Nugget star Bobby Jones how to use the “tricks of the trade” to become a better rebounder. Jones respectfully declined.
In 15 of his 16 NBA seasons, Silas played at least 77 of a possible 82 games. Six times he played all 82 games, and in five other years he played 80 or 81 out of 82 contests.
He was a very good defender, good enough to be named to All-Defense Teams five times, thrice with Boston. He was not a good shooter (he had a bad habit of dropping his right shoulder when he aimed to shot), and he was encouraged by Red Auerbach to concentrate on the things he did best — rebound and defend — which maximized his effectiveness. He made one All-Star Game as a Celtic in 1975.
Silas was a part of the fastest Celtics teams under hard-driving coach Tom Heinsohn. The small squad featuring a speedy 6’9” center ran the floor relentlessly and were known for constant motion under the leadership of the indefatigable Havlicek.
The rugged defensive rebounding of Silas and Cowens helped fuel their lethal running game. But Paul could also run the floor effectively still in his age 29-32 years as a Celtic.
Two of those years, 1974 and 1976, Boston won the NBA title. The other two years, 1973 (68-14) and 1975 (80-22) Boston had the NBA’s best regular season record but lost in the conference finals.
In his first season with Boston in 1972-73, the Celtics actually fashioned the best regular season record in franchise annals. Ironically, it was one of the few times in that era that they did not win it all. Havlicek injured his shooting shoulder in Game 3 of the epic seven-game conference finals against the rival Knicks.
New York won in seven and went on to beat the Lakers for their last championship. Despite Silas being a notoriously mediocre foul shooter, he canned two clutch free throws at the end of Game 5 to give Boston a 98-97 victory to stay in the series when they were down 3-1.
After one season in Denver, he moved on to Seattle and became an elderstatesman nicknamed “Papa Bear” on the great Supersonics teams of 1978-80.
In his first year there, wearing a different hue of Sonic green, he helped Seattle advance all the away to the seventh game of the Finals. They lost to Washington, but returned to the championship round the next year in 1979, where they again met the Bullets. This time Silas and Seattle beat Washington 4-1 to win his third ring of the decade. He became the second key player in that decade of parity to win two NBA crowns with different franchises. Bob Dandridge was the other, with the 1971 Bucks and 1978 Bullets.
In 1980, Seattle reached their third straight Western Conference Finals but they lost to the eventual champion Lakers. Had they won and had Boston beaten the 76ers in the Eastern finals, Silas would have had an awkward reunion against the Celtics in the 1980 Finals. It would have been a unique meeting, with his pal Cowens also playing his final Celtic season and Larry Bird playing in his first.
Years later in 1999, Cowens would resign early in the lockout year as head coach of the Hornets so his friend and assistant Silas could inherit the reins of the team. Charlotte went 22-13 under his guidance the rest of that season. Silas would serve as head coach of four NBA teams over 12 seasons in San Diego, Charlotte, New Orleans and Cleveland. He was the first NBA head coach/mentor for LeBron James with the Cavaliers. He also as served as an assistant coach on four other squads for over a decade. His teams won 387 games, and went 13-16 in the playoffs.
A smart player, Paul was so well-regarded that he was given the unenviable job as head coach of the abysmal San Diego Clippers the season immediately after he retired in 1980-81. He was usually on the bench as an NBA coach for most of the next 32 seasons.
His son Stephen is the current coach of the Houston Rockets.
Paul was an assistant on the Knicks team that infamously came back from 0-2 down in the 1990 Eastern Conference first round to upset Boston and ruin Larry Bird’s comeback season, winning game five on the parquet.
Oddly, he and several other cerebral Celtics of the great 1970’s Boston squads became head coaches, but never came back to coach Boston. Don Nelson, Don Chaney, and Paul Westphal all were successful NBA head coaches who never got the call to come back to Boston and helm the Celtics.
Only Cowens, who was player-coach of the team for most of one season in the late 1970s after Silas was gone, was given the chance to coach Gang Green from that underrated group of Celtics sandwiched and lost between the incredible Russell and Bird eras.
He still ranks 21st on the all-time rebounds list and led the NBA in offensive rebounds during his final Celtic season of 1975-76 with 365. When he retired after 16 seasons, he was among the very top in total rebounds among forwards. At that time he was one of a handful of players to score over 10,000 career points and grab over 10,000 rebounds.
In 15 of his 16 seasons from 1984-80, excluding his second year in the NBA, Silas missed just 23 total games. Only legendary Hall of Famers Havlicek, Jabbar, John Stockton, Karl Malone and Hayes were more durable over as long or a longer time.
Over his three Seattle seasons, he averaged just 5.1 points and 5.8 rebounds a game over just 23 minutes, but his veteran presence and moxie were immeasurable. In the 1978 Finals, Sonic coach Lenny Wilkens played the aging Silas played 30 minutes a game and grabbed eight rebounds per contest over seven grueling contests.
At almost age 36, he played 26.6 minutes per game in their 1979 Finals win over Washington as he gained a measure of revenge against the Bullets for the 1975 Eastern finals 4-2 loss as a Celtic, and the 4-3 Finals defeat as a Sonic in 1978.
He was a very valuable member of three NBA title teams between 1974 and 1979, and played in the conference finals seven of his last eight seasons from 1973-80.
In short, he was a player who eschewed personal stats to make his teams better He was a smart player who made the most of his modest offensive ability and size as a so-so leaping ability as a smaller power forward to help his teams achieve highly.
To contact article author Cort Reynolds, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.