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Where do the current Boston Celtics rank in the history of the franchise?

Here are the CelticsBlog rankings of the ten distinct time periods that constitute the franchise’s illustrious history.

2022 NBA All-Star - NBA 75 Group Portrait
From left to right, Robert Parish, Paul Pierce, Jayson Tatum, Kevin McHale and Kevin Garnett — four whose numbers are in the rafters, one destined to join them.
Photo by Chris Marion/NBAE via Getty Images

August is a slow month for NBA news – but that makes this the best time to consider topics such as: where do the current Celtics rank in the glorious history of the franchise?

The question is almost unfair, because the rosters of the past seven seasons achieved plenty. If the Celtics were a young franchise such as Toronto or Memphis, then teams in the Brad Stevens era would be at or near the top of the historical pecking order. Not in Boston, though.

Bill Russell Blocking Shot
Bill Russell teams were 7-0 vs. the Lakers in the Finals.

Consider that the Celtics are historically the NBA’s premier franchise. Lakers fans will dispute that, but the facts are clear:

  • Entering their 78th season, the Celtics are one of two teams (the Knicks are the other) founded when the league began and still playing in their original city.
  • Boston leads all NBA teams with 3,570 regular season wins and is tied with the Lakers in all-time winning percentage at .592. The Cs own a 165-133 advantage in regular season matchups between the two.
  • Although both franchises have won 17 titles, Boston has beat the Lakers nine times in 12 Finals meetings, including once when the franchise was still in Minneapolis.
  • To cap it off, the Basketball Hall of Fame website lists 49 Celtics players, coaches and contributors who’ve been enshrined, the most of any franchise.

Living up to that history isn’t easy. Since the 2016-17 season, the Celtics have won more regular-season games (349) than anyone but the Bucks – yet it means little. It’s overshadowed by coming up empty after going to five Eastern Conference Finals and one NBA Finals in seven years.

During most of that period, the Celtics have been led by the core group of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Marcus Smart and Robert Williams. The squads have gone from overachievers (the brief but electrifying Isaiah Thomas run) to title favorites who failed to return to the Finals (losing a Game 7 at home to the eighth-seed Heat last spring). They’ve had some regrettable missed opportunities, the worst one coming two years ago in Game 4 against the Warriors in the 2022 NBA Finals. Leading late in the fourth quarter with a chance to go up 3-1, the Cs were outscored 17-3 down the stretch. They didn’t win again in the series.

So, in ranking all the Celtics seasons dating back to 1946, where should we put the Jaylen Brown-Jayson Tatum era? For convenience, we’re breaking up the 77 seasons into 10 chunks of time. Here are the CelticsBlog rankings of those distinct time periods that constitute Celtics history, presented in reverse order.

Celtics Camp At Brandeis University Photo by Frank O’Brien/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

10th Place: 1992-2001

This was by far the worst stretch ever seen on the parquet floor.

  • Larry Bird retired after the 1992 Dream Team Olympics.
  • Reggie Lewis passed out on the court during a 1993 playoff game, was diagnosed with a heart condition, and three months later collapsed and died while simply shooting baskets in a gym.
  • Without Reggie, the Celtics were below .500 for the next eight seasons. They made the playoffs only in 1995, losing to Orlando, 3-1.
  • The ancient but iconic Boston Garden was demolished, replaced by the new arena now known as TD Garden.
  • 1996-97 was the worst season in Boston’s history. The team posted a brutal 15-67 record, with hopes of landing the number one draft pick, Tim Duncan. The season was a fiasco, and so was the tanking effort: Duncan went to San Antonio and won five rings.
  • To close out those dark times, we had four years of Rick Pitino, the highly successful college coach who was expected to rejuvenate the franchise. He did the opposite by building poor rosters, making unwise and impatient trades, losing way too many games, and generally overpromising but underdelivering. Pitino resigned in disgrace and everyone was relieved to see him go.
  • The only true bright spot was the drafting of Paul Pierce, thanks to nine teams passing up a future Hall of Famer. And even then, Pierce nearly died after being attacked and stabbed in a night club.

9th Place: 1976-79

After winning the 1976 championship, the Celtics suddenly spiraled down, triggered by trading away impending free agent Paul Silas. Starting guard Charlie Scott broke his arm, hyper-competitive center Dave Cowens was burned out and stepped away from the team for several weeks, and the Cs lost in round one of the playoffs.

The next two years were the worst at that point in thirty years. John Havlicek retired, JoJo White was traded, coach Tommy Heinsohn got fired, ownership was in turmoil, and Red Auerbach nearly defected to the Knicks. The only silver lining: being that bad got them the draft pick that landed Larry Bird.

Boston Celtics - Tom Heinsohn
Tommy Heinsohn coached the Celtics for nine years and won two titles.
Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

8th Place: 1969-71

Bill Russell and Sam Jones, winners of a combined 21 rings, both retired after upsetting the Lakers in the 1969 Finals. It was a tribute to Red’s team-building skills that the setback lasted just two seasons.

Boston Celtics’ Paul Pierce (34) leads teammates Antoine Wal Photo by Keith Torrie/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

7th Place: 2001-07

Mixed bag here. These seven years began well, with Jim O’Brien replacing Pitino and leading the Celtics to the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals. That series featured the emotional 26-point comeback versus the Nets in Game 3, led by Pierce’s 19 points in the fourth quarter — definitely one of the parquet floor’s most memorable moments.

In 2003, Danny Ainge was hired as head of basketball operations to rebuild the roster. He brought on head coach Doc Rivers the next year, but the Cs soon became a lottery team. In 2006-07, Pierce missed 35 games with injuries and Boston’s record was 24-52, second worst in the league. The final disaster: the draft lottery dropped Boston to the fifth pick, denying Ainge the ability to draft Kevin Durant.

Beginning in the early Fifties, Red Auerbach and Bob Cousy were cornerstones of the Celtics dynasty.

6th Place: 1946-56

In the first four years of the franchise, the Celtics couldn’t make the playoffs. But it got better before the 1950-51 season, when Red was hired and future Hall of Famers Bob Cousy and Ed Macaulay joined the roster. The following season, Red traded for Bill Sharman, another future HOFer. With three perennial All-Stars and Cousy leading the league in assists every season, those Celtics were a good-but-not-great team that could never get past the Eastern playoffs. (Wonder if Boston newspaper columnists demanded that Red break up the Cooz-Sharman backcourt?)

Golden State Warriors v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

5th Place: 2013-23

The current and most recent teams land here. As noted, they’ve been successful overall, but they can’t move up the ranks until they ride the duck boats.

4th Place: 2007-13

Ainge took the lemon of the Durant draft lottery and made victory lemonade. His trades for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett reenergized Pierce, powering the Celtics from 24 wins to 66 wins and Banner 17. During this Big Three’s time together, Boston made two Finals and won one title. If Garnett had stayed healthy and if 2010 Game 7 was more evenly officiated (FTs 37 to 17 favoring LA), there might’ve been one or two more.

Legend Bill Russell, Ray Allen, Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce pose with the Larry O’Brien trophy after defeating the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

3rd Place: 1971-76

Quickly bouncing back from the end of the Russell era, Red hired Heinsohn to coach; drafted future Hall of Famers White, Cowens and Paul Westphal; traded for Silas, and had Havlicek at the peak of his powers. The result was two trips to the Finals, both successful. These were Havlicek’s last two appearances in the Finals, finishing with an 8-0 record.

Indiana Pacers v Boston Celtics
The Larry Bird era is second only to the Bill Russell dynasty in Celtics lore.

2nd Place: 1979-1992

Larry Bird arrived in 1979, won Rookie of the Year, and spurred an improvement from 29 to 61 wins. Robert Parish and Kevin McHale were acquired the next year, joining Cedric Maxwell and Tiny Archibald, and Boston returned to the top. Dennis Johnson was added in 1983, and four straight Finals appearances followed. All those players were obtained through some of Red’s most brilliant maneuvers, and the payoff was three more titles for Boston.

1st Place: 1956-69

Thirteen seasons, 12 Finals appearances, 11 titles. It began with the 1956 draft, when Red landed not just Russell, but also Tommy Heinsohn (and KC Jones, who was beginning a two-year military commitment). Russ and Tommy were the missing pieces that launched the greatest dynasty not only in NBA history, but perhaps in all sports. One year later, Sam Jones was drafted. Soon, the Celts were expected to win every year – and in the sixties, they nearly did, with nine titles in 10 seasons.

Boston Celtics vs Cleveland Cavaliers
Will Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown raise a banner in Boston? The answer will determine their rankings in Celtics lore.
Photo by Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

Back to the current team, Danny and Brad have brought in a lot of talent during these 10 seasons, but like those early Cousy teams, the Jays & Co. haven’t reached their goal. We’re definitely not saying that Kristaps Porzingis is a Russell/Heinsohn-level acquisition, but the hope is the same – that he will be the missing piece for this particular roster.

The legacy of the current Celtics will be determined by only one standard: whether or not they win at least one title. With this franchise, that’s totally fair and expected.

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