“Of all the people I play against, the only one I truly fear is Larry Bird”
- Magic Johnson
The Boston Celtics were the powerhouse Eastern Conference team of the 1980’s, and as I said in my Finals blog a couple of months back, that was one seriously powerful Eastern Conference. At one point or another the Celtics had to go through Dr J and Darryl Dawkins of the 76’ers (one of the best rivalries of the 80’s, they met in three-straight Eastern Conference Finals), Dominique Wilkins and the Atlanta Hawks, Bernard King and the Knicks, Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars of the Pistons, and of course Michael Jordan and the Bulls. But more often than not the Celtics came out on top, because of one man – Larry Bird.
A lot of the younger kids today probably don’t understand how good Larry Bird was (his 60 point game vs the Hawks will give you some idea – hit up Pontel for it). A common comparison you hear these days is that Dirk Nowitzki is the “next Larry Bird”, but as good as Dirk is, this doesn’t do Bird justice (and after watching Dirk choke in two-straight post seasons it’s almost an insult to Bird). At his peak Bird was a 30 point scorer with more offensive versatility than Dirk will ever have, he had an uncanny rebounding ability like Tim Duncan (career 10.0 rpg average), the court-sense of Jason Kidd and the clutch shooting of Kobe Bryant (if that mix of talent sounds ridiculous, it’s suppose to). He was arguably a better all-round player than even Magic Johnson, except he lacked the athleticism and flair that made Magic a world beater. History will show that the Lakers were the undisputed kings of the decade, but a closer look shows just how close Larry came to overthrowing the Magic reign.
Let’s go back to 1984. The Celtics were the world champions after a stunning 7-game win over the Lakers, their second title in four years, the Lakers stumbling after back-to-back Finals defeats. More significantly 1984 was the first Magic vs. Bird Finals match up, and Bird won. It was a huge psychological edge for Bird whose battles with Magic went back to the 1979 NCAA title (which Magic’s Michigan State won). But the Lakers hit back in ’85 beating the Celtics for their third title of the decade – Magic going one up on Bird 3-2. Not to be outdone, Bird soared to new heights in 1986 claiming his third straight MVP (at which point Magic hadn’t won one) and leading the Celtics to a championship against the Houston Rockets. It was Bird 3 – Magic 3.
Here lies the turning point. After trading Gerald Henderson to the Sonics for a first round pick in the 1986 draft, the Celtics were in the rare and fortunate position of being a Finals contending team with a chance to nab a top rookie. And luck fell their way when the lottery balls gave Boston the #2 pick. The Celtics chose Len Bias, an athletic guard out of Maryland who warranted comparisons to Michael Jordan – he was that good. Forty-eight hours after being selected by Boston in the draft, Len suffered a fatal cardiac arrhythmia that resulted from a cocaine overdose. It is one of the great NBA tragedies, not only because of the unfortunate death of an up and coming player, but because of the huge “what if?” we’ll always be asking about that Boston team. How good could they have been? How many titles could they have won? 5? 6? 8? Would they have outlasted the Magic-Lakers dynasty (who went on to win two more titles)? I could keep writing about the Len Bias tragedy and the effect it had on the Boston franchise, but thankfully my favourite sports writer Bill Simmons has already done it. This is a touching piece that every Celtics fan needs to read.
So right now anyone still reading this blog probably has two questions: 1) How come I’m calling this Celtics team a “dynasty” when they fail to live up to my dynasty commandments? and 2) Why have I ranked them behind the Shaq-Kobe Lakers at #3? The answers are intertwined. Looking back at the Dynasty Commandments I set out in Part I, the Celtics seemingly fall short thanks to my back-to-back rule. It is my commandment and I’m sticking by it, though the Celtics have one saving grace – they made four-straight Finals from 1984 to 1987, and despite not winning two in a row, winning two from four-straight is damn impressive (remember, the Spurs haven’t even made two-straight Finals). As for the Shaq-Kobe Lakers, they jump the Celtics in my dynasty rankings for two reasons: 1- They won three titles in a row which is mind-blowingly difficult, and 2 – Who do you honestly think would win in a Celtics vs Lakers match up? The answer is pretty obvious in my mind. Shaq is simply dominant no matter what era you’re comparing him to; he would be too strong for the likes of Parish, McHale and Walton. Kobe meanwhile would give the Celtics the same problems they had in guarding Michael Jordan, plus Kobe is a better outside shooter so the whole “collapse on Jordan” approach wouldn’t work. “What about Larry Bird?” I hear you say? The Lakers were fortunate enough to have two very solid defensive role players in Rick Fox and Robert Horry who would both be perfectly suited to guarding Bird – they won’t stop him, but they’ll make him work. In a 7-game series, with each team at their peak, I’d tip the Lakers in 6.
There’s something else about this Celtics dynasty that can’t go unmentioned, and that is the fact that they were the Celtics. There is an almost mystical, haunting aura that seemed to engulf The Garden whenever the Celtics played there. There’s a weird feeling I get when watching old Celtics playoff games that some outside force, perhaps the basketball Gods, are staring down on them from the sixteen Championship banners in the rafters, shaping destiny with every play. It seemed like whenever the Celtics needed a minor miracle to stay in the game, it happened. Perhaps it was the ghost of Celtics past. Maybe I’m just being silly. But if you go and watch those old games, if you watch Henderson steal the ball in Game 2 of the ‘84 Finals, Bird’s stop-and-pop bank shot that knocked out Philly in the ‘81 Conference Finals, DJ’s buzzer beater in Game 4 of the ‘85 Finals or Bird’s steal against Detroit in ‘87, you’ll know what I mean. The Boston Celtics of the 1980’s weren’t just a dynasty because they won a lot of games and championships, they were a dynasty because they were the Celtics, and because miracles happened.
#5 The San Antonio Spurs
Titles: 4 (’99, ’03, ’05, ’07)
I already spoke about the Spurs in Part I. Just like the Celtics they failed the dynasty back-to-back rule, but unlike the Celtics, they’re dynasty is still reigning. They also have one more title – so why do they get ranked behind Bird and the Celtics? Two reasons:
1) Any impartial observer can easily see that three of the Spurs four titles were won in exceptionally lob-sided contests. The 1999 title (lockout season) saw them face the 8th seeded Knicks and was wrapped up 4-1 (that Knicks team could be the worst team EVER to reach the Finals). In 2003 the Spurs faced a dreadfully under-matched New Jersey side who did well to push it to six games. (Besides, the Finals had already been played that year… I’ll never forget the end of the Western Conference Semi Finals. It was game 6 and the Spurs were thumping the Lakers, about to end their hopes of a fourth-straight title. Shaq was on the bench, stone faced, all too aware that the winner of this series had the championship wrapped up. Kobe was sitting there too, crying, and I was sitting at home thinking the same thing – the Spurs had just wrapped up the title. It was an inevitability. You don’t ruin the title-winning streak of one of the most unstoppable duos in NBA history and NOT win the championship). In 2005 the Spurs faced their only real opposition in a Finals (Detroit), and they barely got over the line at home in the 7th game. And in 2007 we all know very well what a one-sided event the Finals were. I don’t like to use the word “luck”, but the Spurs were very lucky to draw such weak opposition in three of those four Finals. The Bird Celtics on the other hand had no such luxury, battling Magic and the Lakers and the twin towers of Houston for their three titles.
2) The hypothetical match-up trick. In a Spurs vs Celtics match-up I don’t see how the Celtics would lose. McHale on Duncan is a fantastic match up for the Celtics because he plays just like Duncan (with slightly less of a defensive presence). If Duncan is tearing it up they could easily move Bird to the power forward spot which would cause all sorts of problems for Coach Pop. Parish is a far better centre than what the Spurs currently have in their rotation, and Dennis Johnson would be too big, too strong, and too good defensively for Tony Parker (over the last 20 years Gary Payton is the only better defensive point guard I can think of). Over a 7-game series I’d tip the Celtics in 6 or 7 – they’ve been through too many pressure situations against the Lakers and Pistons not to get over the line against this Spurs team.
So that solves it. The top 5 teams of the past 30 years have been ranked 1-5. Of course if you’re like me you love an NBA debate so drop me a line if you think I’ve lost my marbles. We’re not quite done yet though… We may have covered the “dynasty” candidates, but there is one other standout team who might fall just short of the mark (as if a Detroit fan is going to keep his mouth shut )
#6 The Bad Boy Pistons
Titles: 2 (’89, 90)
“The Detroit Pistons?!” I hear you say? “How on earth do they deserve making the list of greatest NBA teams of the past 30 years? They only won two titles!” I’ll tell you how, and I’m leaving my Detroit goggles at the door on this one. Go and look at the dynasty chart. Find the point where the Bulls dynasty kicks in and draw a horizontal line. Notice how the Lakers and Celtics dynasties were still in power? Notice how for the next two seasons there is an overlap between the teams led by Magic, Bird and Jordan, all fighting for the title? Do you know how unlikely it is that three of the mightiest teams in NBA history had to co-exist in the same era? And do you know which team happened to come out on top during this clash of the titan dynasties? It was the Detroit Pistons. Champions in 1989 and 1990, the Pistons tasted championship glory when the Lakers and Celtics were still geared for winning titles, and Jordan was making us believe he could single-handedly win one himself. Don’t forget that this Pistons team was one minute away from beating the Lakers in the ’88 Finals – potentially giving them a three peat. They were so close that the Championship trophy was actually wheeled into the Pistons’ locker room along with buckets of iced champagne (true story). They were one minute away from Isiah Thomas pulling off what would have surely been the greatest NBA Finals performance ever (just let a Detroit fan dream a little… 43 points, 8 assists, 6 steals, all on a severely sprained ankle…in the title-winning game, on the road… as if it wouldn’t have been the best Finals performance ever?)
I haven’t lost all reason though. The Pistons of the late eighties were clearly not a dynasty – they didn’t win enough titles or dominate for a long enough period. But they still deserve to be named amongst the best teams of the past 30 years. I guess it goes to show how back-to-back title winning teams can still be worlds apart – the 94-95 Rockets have nothing on this Pistons team. But it also demonstrates just what a huge leap it takes for a team to go from “great” to a “dynasty”. As good as the Isiah-led Pistons were, as tough as it was beating out the Bulls, Celtics and Lakers through all those years, and as close as they were to winning three titles, they still clearly fall short of that “dynasty” label.
Before I go, I’d like to just thank the Bad Boy Pistons one last time:
- Thank you for giving us the fiery Dennis Rodman, one of the true characters of the game, an absolute rebounding machine, and a decent WWF wrestler
- Thank you for giving us Isiah, one of the most competitive players I’ve seen, who would go on to become one of the worst GMs I’ve ever seen
- Thank you for the “Jordan Rules” and then denying they ever existed
- Thank you for Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson for the 22 in the 4th against Boston in ‘85, and the Championship-winning buzzer beater in ‘90 (and thank you to Danny Ainge for coming up with one of the best nicknames in NBA history)
- Thank you for Bill Laimbeer who was a total jerk on the court but hard not to laugh at
- Thank you for Joe Dumars who Michael Jordan always said was the toughest guy he ever played against
- And last of all, thank you for teaching the Bulls a basketball lesson for three years straight, so they could ultimately go on to become the greatest dynasty ever. They couldn’t have done it without you.
Comment posted by
at 12/19/2007 11:45:26 PM