Red Auerbach Was the Pioneer of the Modern NBA Offense

The NBA has seen many incredible coaches. Don Nelson racked up an all-time best of 1,335 wins. Meanwhile, the legendary Phil Jackson secured a record-setting 11 titles with the Bulls and Lakers. Yet for anyone old enough to remember him, the late Red Auerbach will always hold a special place among NBA coaches.

Auerbach built a formidable resume in his 16 years as head coach of the Boston Celtics. Let’s look back at Auerbach’s achievements and highlight how he helped usher in the way the game is played today.

Red Auerbach’s coaching legacy

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Although he was considered a talented player in college, Auerbach never played at the pro level. Instead, he launched into a coaching career, first at the high school level. Then, he coached the Navy basketball team. Next, the coach of the Basketball Association of America team, the Washington Capitols.

Finally, after nine years of coaching, Auerbach took over as the Celtics coach prior to the 1950-51 season. Even before the season had begun, Auerbach made headlines by spurning point guard Bob Cousy in the 1950 NBA Draft. Instead, Auerbach drafted Chuck Cooper — the first black player drafted into the NBA. In other words, Auerbach almost single-handedly broke down the league’s color barrier.

Auerbach was a talented NBA coach from the get-go. Yet it wasn’t until the 1956 season, when the Celtics drafted center Bill Russell, that their reign of greatness truly began. The Celtics won the title in 1957. Then, starting in 1959, they won eight consecutive championships. In other words, the Celtics won a total of nine championships in just 10 years.

In 1966, Auerbach stepped down as coach, selecting Bill Russell to take over as his success in a player-coach capacity. Auerbach served as the Celtics general manager until 1984. In that year, he took over as president, a position he held off and on until his death in 2006. Auerbach is, without a doubt, one of the most legendary figures in all of Celtics history.

Red Auerbach’s fast-break mentality

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Back in Auerbach’s time in the league, the dominant offensive mentality involved plodding half-court play. In most cases, this meant finding a way to throw an inlet pass to a center playing in the post position. The big man would then methodically back down his opponent until close enough to the hoop to score an easy basket. Such half-court sets were considered the most reliable way to win games.  

Auerbach, however, didn’t subscribe to that mentality, at least not all the way. From his earliest days in college, he had always recognized the potential of the fast break — a technique that involves passing the ball ahead to a streaking guard, who can attack the basket before the defense has time to get set.

The fast break today

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Auerbach was able to prove that the fast break was an effective offensive weapon. Yet most teams still clung stubbornly to center-dominated half-court sets. That trend continued well into the 2000s, when Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” strategy led the Phoenix Suns to the brink of several championships.

Still, the rest of the league most resisted the fast break mentality, considering it too risky and hard to control. Around the 2014-15 season, all of that changed thanks to the Golden State Warriors team anchored by sharp-shooting guard Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

Those Warrior squads struck fear into teams still reliant on plodding half-court play. Big centers and power forwards simply didn’t have the mobility to switch onto smaller guards. By emphasizing the fast break, the Warriors proved that a team could basically negate all of the stopping power of a shot-blocking center.

At this point, the speed revolution seems to be here to stay. Centers have never had a harder time finding a place in the league. Meanwhile, speedy undersized guards can feast on three-point shots and easy transition buckets. Auerbach deserves credit for recognizing the power of the fast break long before it became the standard NBA strategy it is today.