Larry Bird and the 1985-86 Boston Celtics — the Best Starting 5 Ever?

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The 1985-86 Boston Celtics' team picture.

Larry Bird has gone on record as saying he would put his 1986 NBA championship team against anyone. The 1985-86 Boston Celtics finished the regular season with a 67-15 record, cruised through the postseason, and earned their third NBA championship in the 1980s. It may be the greatest Celtics team in history. Could that Celtics team also boast the best starting five ever in the NBA?

Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics were hungry entering the 1985-86 season

Larry Bird and the 1985-86 Boston Celtics — the Best Starting 5 Ever?
The 1985-86 Boston Celtics’ team picture. Front row (left to right): Danny Ainge, Scott Wedman, Alan Cohen, Vice Chairman of the Board, Jan Volk, General Manager Red Auerbach, President, K.C. Jones Head Coach, Don Gaston, Chairman of the Board, Larry Bird, Dennis Johnson, Back row: (Left to right) Wayne Le Beaux, Equipment manager, Thomas Silva M.D., Team doctor; Jim Rodgers, assistant coach; Sam Vincent; Rick Carlisle, Greg Kite; Robert Parish; Bill Walton; Kevin McHale; David Thirdkill; Jerry Sichting; Chris Ford; Assistant coach; Ray Melchiore, trainer | Getty Images

The Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers alternated turns winning the NBA Finals from 1984-87. Boston won its second and third titles of the decade in ’84 and ’86, while the Lakers won in ’85 and ’87. They repeated in ’88 for good measure. The Lakers’ win in ’85 may have set the wheels in motion for Boston’s championship season in ’86. Boston was fired up.

“I don’t think that we ever felt we were going to win just by showing up,” said Danny Ainge in a video by the Boston Celtics commemorating the 1986 title. “We had a great deal of confidence. I mean when you have those kind of players, you’re very confident in your team.

In ’85, we thought we were the best team and let one get away. I think that was extra motivation for us as well.”

Jerry Sichting, a reserve guard who came over from the Indiana Pacers to play for the Celtics in 1985, could sense his new team was hungry.

“Right off the bat, I knew the whole summer that their goal, there was no success unless you win the championship,” Sichting said.

Led by Larry Bird, the Boston Celtics were an unselfish bunch en route to their 1986 title

Without question, the Celtics had the talent. Perhaps, they had too much. Led by Bird, Boston was made up of superstars in Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in the frontcourt. Dennis Johnson and Ainge took care of the backcourt. While those stars shined, it made no difference to any of them which ones were the brightest.

All five starters could score on any given day. All five could find the open man. It didn’t matter who was doing the scoring as long as the team was winning.

“We just had a lot of guys who played unselfishly,” Sichting said. “We had a group of guys who knew how to play and hit the open guy.”

“Everybody played off each other,” McHale said. “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.”

Did the 1985-86 Boston Celtics have the best starting five ever?

Like any other debate regarding the NBA, it’s tough to pick out the best player, team, or coach in the history of the league, but we’ll try. Is the starting five of Bird, Ainge, Johnson, McHale, and Parish the best of all time? It’s a tough call.

Two starting units that immediately jump out in addition to that ’85-’86 Celtics team. The 1987-88 Lakers team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Byron Scott, and A.C Green is certainly right up there. Also, the 1962-63 Celtics team of Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, John Havlicek, and Tommy Heinsohn has to qualify as one of the best.

There certainly are others, including the 1969-70 Lakers (Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West), the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls (Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman), and the 2007-08 Celtics (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen) to name a few.

That 1987-88 Lakers team, however, featured a 40-year-old Abdul-Jabbar. Although still effective, he was at the tail end of his Hall of Fame career. Scott led the team in scoring that year at 21.7 points.

The ’62-’63 Celtics team might have the biggest names among the teams in the running for the best starting five. All five are Hall of Famers. Havlicek was a rookie and wasn’t established, and Cousy was in his 12th and final season with the Celtics.

The ’85-’86 Celtics get the slight edge because their five were still in the meat of their careers. The team boasted four Hall of Famers in the starting unit and lost just three postseason games on their way to another championship. Bird won his third straight MVP as the Celtics put together their best season in its storied history.

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