The Boston Celtics Took a Serious Risk With Bill Walton in 1986, and It Paid Off

The Boston Celtics nearly repeated as champions in the 1985 NBA Finals. They knocked off the Los Angeles Lakers in 1984 for their second title of the decade. They faced LA again the following year but just didn’t have quite enough as the Lakers bounced Boston in six games.

The core pieces were there for the Celtics. Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale made up arguably the best frontcourt in the league. Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge gave Boston a tremendous backcourt. The Celtics needed bench help.

Celtics president and GM Red Auerbach took a risk. He reached out to Bill Walton, a veteran and oft-injured center. Like most of Auerbach’s moves, it turned out just fine.

The Boston Celtics traded for Bill Walton before the 1985-86 season

Former Boston Celtics player Bill Walton waves to fans in the crowd in the second quarter against the Golden State Warriors during Game 4 of the 2022 NBA Finals at TD Garden on June 10, 2022, in Boston, Massachusetts. | Elsa/Getty Images.

The Celtics had four future Hall of Famers in their starting lineup (Bird, Parish, McHale, and Johnson) during the 1985-86 season. It was the bench that needed work. Walton needed a change of scenery after playing for seasons with the Clippers, who recently moved from San Diego to Los Angeles.

Walton’s career was marred by injuries. He missed three full seasons with a foot injury after playing four strong seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland made Walton the first pick in the 1974 NBA Draft after an outstanding college career at UCLA. With Portland, he helped guide the Blazers to an NBA championship in 1977. Walton was also named the MVP of the league for the 1977-78 season.

Walton hit a stretch where he missed three out of the next four seasons. The one season he played came in 1979-80 when he appeared in 14 games with the San Diego Clippers. Walton then played three uneventful seasons with the Clippers. There was no winning culture. He needed a change, and the Celtics needed a veteran big man off the bench.

It was a perfect match. It was also a completely different role for Walton. No longer the star of the team, he found himself among several stars.

“It was a completely different role,” Walton told former Celtics forward Brian Scalabrine in a 2020 video put out by the Boston Celtics. “I was only playing a few minutes a game. My basic role was to tell Larry what the schedule was and to make sure he knew what time the game started.”

The Celtics made a risky and expensive move to land Walton

Auerbach and the Celtics pulled the trigger on a deal to land Walton. The move was pricey but worth it.

Boston sent Cedric Maxwell, the 1981 NBA Finals MVP, and a 1986 first-round draft pick to the Clipper for Walton. In addition, the Celtics agreed to pay more than half of Maxwell’s salary. It was quite the gamble for Boston, who took a chance on Walton, who had spent nearly half his NBA life on the sideline.

“If he stays healthy and happy, he’ll hang another flag up,” said Celtics great Bob Cousy to Sports Illustrated at the time of the deal. “His presence is that significant.”

Walton knew right away Boston was the ideal place for him.

“The tremendous community support, the love of basketball — the relationship that exists between the fans and the team was sort of startling to me, frankly,” Walton told SI when he arrived at training camp in ’85. “I definitely missed it with the Clippers. We had very, very intense fans at UCLA, and it was the same way at Portland.

“And it looks like it will be even greater here. I almost can’t believe it.”

In his first year with the Celtics, Walton played the most games (80) in any of his professional seasons. He averaged 19.3 minutes and put up 7.6 points and 6.8 rebounds. He earned the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award, and Boston knocked off the Houston Rockets for their third title of the ’80s.

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