There’s always a lot of NBA talk about the best player ever. Who’s the GOAT? It’s a question that’s always difficult to answer. Trying to compare statistics of players from different eras is a tough task. I went a bit further and tried to come up with the best NBA team of all time. It’s just as challenging. With apologies to the ’87 Los Angeles Lakers and the ’96 Chicago Bulls, here’s my case for the 1985-86 Boston Celtics championship team as being the best ever.
The 1985-86 Boston Celtics had four Hall of Famers in the starting lineup
The Celtics returned to dynasty status in the very early 1980s. Long after the franchise won eight straight championships from 1959-66, Boston became a yearly contender after Red Auerbach pulled off a deal with the Golden State Warriors before the 1980 NBA Draft. In that trade, the Celtics netted Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, two cornerstones that helped lay the foundation for a team that captured three titles in six years.
McHale and Parish teamed with a young Larry Bird, who had just won Rookie of the Year honors and helped the Celtics become a 61-win team after winning 29 games the previous year. In their first year together, Boston’s Big Three defeated the Houston Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals for the first of those three championships.
After falling short of reaching the Finals in 1982 and 1983, the Celtics knew they needed help at guard after getting torched by players like Andrew Toney and Sidney Moncrief. Toney’s Philadelphia 76ers outlasted the Celtics in seven games in the ’82 Eastern Conference Finals. Moncrief’s Milwaukee Bucks swept the Celtics in the conference semifinals the following year.
Boston acquired veteran guard Dennis Johnson before the 1983-84 season and helped the Celtics return to the championship round. For the next four years, the Celtics reached the NBA Finals, where they met the rival Los Angeles Lakers three times.
By the 1985-86 season, McHale was a full-time starter, giving Boston arguably the best frontcourt in NBA history. Bird, McHale, and Parish are all Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famers. Johnson, a Hall of Famer, was a defensive-minded guard who helped clamp down on the high-scoring guards.
The addition of Bill Walton made the ’86 Celtics a complete team
Not only did the Celtics boast four future Hall of Famers in the starting lineup in 1986, but they added another to shore up their bench. Before the 1985-86 season began, the Celtics addressed their lack of depth. They turned to the experienced Walton, an injury-prone center who provided Boston with the lift it needed.
In a reduced role off the bench, Walton appeared in the most games in one season (80) in his 10 years in the league. He gave the McHale and Parish much-needed breaks. He averaged 7.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in 19.3 minutes. Walton made them complete. He was the missing piece after the ’85 team lost to the Lakers in the Finals.
The Celtics also added veteran guard Jerry Sichting to their bench. He allowed Johnson and Danny Ainge to free up some of their minutes. Everyone on the team had a role. It was a team full of stars, but it was also an unselfish group that did whatever it took to win.
“Everybody played off each other,” McHale said in a 2020 video that celebrated the ’86 team. “Everybody could pass, and everybody moved. We had great spacing. We just had an entire group of guys that understood spacing and movement.
“In the end, us being a great team meant much more than any individual. Had we all been on different teams, we would’ve scored more but won less.”Kevin McHale on the 1985-86 Boston Celtics
Walton said team chemistry was great, and the players fed off each other.
“We had a great team, and we loved each other,” Walton said during a 2020 interview with Brian Scalabrine. “We loved the way we played and we knew we could get the job done. We’ll take our chances. We’ll take our chances anywhere against anybody, anytime. We had it all. We had size, strength, power, finesse, skill, discipline, talent.
“And at the end of the day, we had Red Auerbach, K.C. Jones, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and nobody else did.”