With all this talk of Michael Jordan’s Bulls and their amazing dynasty, I started thinking about the NBA’s original and most prolific dynasty, the Bill Russell Celtics. Russell’s teams won 11 titles in 13 years, which is basically an unmatchable run today. The primary reason that the record won’t be touched is because the playoffs were much shorter than gauntlet that modern teams have had to run. For example, the 1956-57 Celtics only had to win one three-game series to make the Finals and didn’t have to play more than two rounds of playoffs until the late 1960s.
Still, the Celtics’ run was special and I was particularly interested in revisiting it after listening to the Hollinger & Duncan NBA Show from a few days ago, where they noted that Wilt Chamberlain was likely overrated because his gaudy stats were greatly inflated by the fast-paced era in which he played, as well as huge amount of minutes he played and, conversely, Russell has sort of been underrated based upon his team’s sustained winning.
Certainly, the early 1960s numbers were hugely inflated (our examination of Walt Bellamy’s crazy rookie season flushes that out a bit) but the prevailing wisdom on Wilt v. Russell has always been:
-For the most part, Russell had the better teams, with tons of stars that Wilt did not have (Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Sam Jones).
-Wilt was the better individual player because Russell couldn’t score.
-Despite Wilt’s superior overall skills, Russell should get tons of credit for beating Wilt’s 76ers in 1967-68 and Lakers in 1968-69, when Wilt finally had the better teammates. Those wins, even for stat buffs, seem to indicate that Russell might’ve been the better player to build a team around.
Instead of talking only about Wilt and Russell, I wanted to focus on how good those Celts were relative to their opposition. How often were there teams that were as good as, or better than, Boston? Let’s do a 13-year run through Russell’s Celts relative to opposition via Basketball-Reference.com’s SRS to see:
-1956-57: In Russ’ first season, things were weird. Boston was 44-28 and had a 4.78 SRS. Only two other teams (both also in the East) were above .500, and they were both only a few games over. Boston was the class of the NBA even without Russell. They started out 16-8 while Russell was competing in the 1956 Olympics in Sydney. They beat the Hawks in the Finals 4-3. St. Louis was only 34-38 (believe it or not, the West had a three-way tie for first place at 34-38). The Hawks led the West with a whopping -0.27 SRS that season.
-1957-58: Boston again was the best team in the NBA (49-23, 5.02 SRS). The best team in the West was St. Louis again (41-31, 0.82 SRS). Boston actually lost to the Hawks in the Finals, likely because Russell broke his hand during Game 4. Boston had the series tied at 2-2 when Russell went out. In his absence, Tom Heinsohn played center and was torched by Bob Pettit (83 points and 40 boards in two games). Russell might’ve helped in that regard.
-1958-59: Boston led the NBA at 52-20 (5.84 SRS). The second best team by SRS was actually Syracuse, which went 35-37 but put up a 3.74 SRS. The Hawks were best out West (49-23, 2.89 SRS) but they were upset by the Lakers and dynamic rookie Elgin Baylor (33-39, -1.42 SRS). Boston swept the Lakers in the Finals.
-1959-60: Boston had its best season so far (59-16, 7.62 SRS). The second-best team was the Warriors (49-26, 2.77 SRS) with rookie Wilt but they were nowhere near Boston’s league. Boston beat Wilt 4-2 and then took out the Hawks (46-29, 1.77 SRS) again in the Finals 4-3.
-1960-61: Deja vu. Boston (57-22, 4.94 SRS) faced the Hawks (51-28, 2.99 SRS) again in the Finals. The teams were a closer match on paper but Boston took them out 4-1. Wilt’s Warriors were good (46-33) but were swept in the first round by a Syracuse team with a higher SRS.
-1961-62: Boston set a new high mark in wins (60-20, 8.25 SRS). They were way better than the rest of the NBA but didn’t blow away their opponents in the playoffs. Boston was taken seven games in both rounds of the playoffs by Wilt’s Warriors and the Jerry West/Baylor Lakers (54-26, 1.80 SRS) in the Finals.
-1962-63: Again, Boston is the best team (58-22, 6.38 SRS), with no team quite near them on paper. They met the Lakers (52-27, 2.67 SRS) again in the Finals and won 4-2.
-1963-64: The competition started to get tougher. Boston still led the league in wins and SRS (59-21, 6.93 SRS) but the Royals (55-25, 4.43 SRS) and the Wilt Warriors (48-32, 4.41 SRS) posted SRS in the mid-4s. Boston dispatched both teams 4-1 in the playoffs.
-1964-65: Another record win total in Boston (62-18, 7.46 SRS) and no one else in the NBA had an SRS higher than 2.68. The Celts met the Lakers (49-31, 1.70 SRS) again in the Finals and, again, beat West and Baylor (this time 4-1).
-1965-66: For the first time, Boston (54-26, 4.34) did not have the most wins in the NBA. In fact, the top team was the Wilt 76ers (55-25, 4.16 SRS). Wilt finally had some real All-Stars to play with (Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Billy Cunningham). Despite all that, Boston was slightly better by SRS. The teams were actually a dead heat but Boston tossed them easily, 4-1, in the playoffs. The Lakers (45-35, 2.76) were waiting for another loss in the Finals (this time 4-3).
-1966-67: Wilt’s revenge! The 76ers were dominant (68-13, 8.50 SRS) and finally beat out the Celtics (60-21, 7.24 SRS). Even in Wilt’s best year, though, Boston was still only slightly worse in the regular season point-differential. In the playoffs, the 76ers got their pound of flesh, beating Boston 4-1. Interestingly, this was the first year that Boston had to play a round of the playoffs before the conference finals (with expansion, the NBA was finally large enough to make every team play a first round game). Out West, the Warriors were the best team with a middling 44-37 record (2.58 SRS) and Philly tossed them 4-2.
-1967-68: The numbers just can’t explain this one. Philly (62-20, 7.96) looked much better than Boston (54-28, 3.87 SRS). Boston wasn’t even the second best team, with the Hawks (56-26, 2.37) and Lakers (52-30, 4.99 SRS) having arguments as being superior. Boston somehow beat the 76ers (4-3) in a series where Philly blew a 3-1 lead (the series also was marred by the assassination of Martin Luther King). After squeaking by Philly, Boston beat the Lakers again (4-2) for the title.
-1968-69: With an aging core and a larger deeper league, it looked like Boston might finally lose to a team without Wilt or Pettit on it in the playoffs. Boston did struggle relative to its past heights (48-34, 5.35 SRS) and finished fourth in the conference. Looking deeper though, Boston was still good. The Celts’ SRS was a close second in the NBA (to the third seeded Knicks at 5.48). Boston beat the Knicks in a tough series and found all his old nemeses (West/Baylor/Wilt) waiting for him with the Lakers. L.A. looked like a favorite with a 55-27 record but the SRS (3.84) indicated they might not really be the better team. Boston won a tough seven game series featuring a bonkers Celtics win in L.A. to clinch where Don Nelson’s hit that crazy high-bounce on a jumper and Lakers coach Butch van Breda Kolff benched Wilt for the fourth quarter of Game 7 for Mel Counts (which by contemporary terms would sort of be like benching Joel Embiid for Amir Johnson). Russell quickly retired after the series.
Our deeper dive shows that the Bill Russell Celtics were far ahead of the rest of the NBA for much of its reign. Most of their victories were expected on paper and even a few of the upsets (1965-66 and 1968-69) were not a surprise by point-differential. There is no explanation, however, for how the hell they beat the 76ers and Lakers in 1967-68. Boston looked clearly inferior that season and that year, more than any other, supports the theory that they had an intangible quality outside of even the stats. It might’ve been a fluke but Boston had a habit of winning under most circumstances.
I’m agnostic as to how much credit Russell gets for the Celts’ greatness but it is clearly a large share. The Celtics’ supremacy seemed to rest on defense. They were first in the NBA in defense every season of Russell’s career except 1967-68 (where they finished second). Conversely, the Celtics finished near the bottom of the NBA in offense almost every one of those seasons. In the inflated offensive era, Russell’s defense appears to have been a huge factor and gives him added value that probably would be shown if we had full stats for that era.
A few more random observations:
-The Celtics usually led the NBA in pace every year with Russell until 1965-66, when they were slightly below average in pace. The later Celtics shifted to a slower pace relative to the NBA. Russell was clearly huge in permitting the Celtics to run while also preventing easy baskets on the other end.
-Wilt’s teams were typically pretty good defensively but not as good. The 1968-69 Lakers were actually below average defensively though.
-In fact, the West/Baylor Lakers losing to the Celtics every time they played was no fluke. L.A was way worse and usually not very good defensively (this includes the teams they had with Wilt). The only Jerry West teams that were very good defensively popped up in 1971-72 and 1972-73, after Baylor retired. There may be some correlation there.
-To throw a little cold water on the Bill Russell Celtics, it was very helpful that they started the playoffs in the conference finals every year. LeBron James or the Warriors need to win 16 games to win a title every year and the Celts needed only seven or eight most years. It’s not that Boston would have a problem winning extra series but the cumulative toll of all those games tends to make it much harder to win so many years in a row.
-It is highly unlikely that Russell could be the same force in the modern NBA that he as in his era but, relative to his peers, I’m pretty sold on him being incredibly valuable and possibly having more value than Wilt. In a modern context, Russell translates as a souped up Ben Wallace (I mean that as a complement).