When Red Auerbach passed away a week ago, it marked the loss of one of the true giants of the NBA. Most people know the story of Auerbach, the man who had the major hand in creating three Celtic dynasties and was a dominant personality in the NBA up until the day he died. Much has been written about Auerbach over the years and since his death that it’s tough to really tell you something you don’t really know already. Still, an overview of Auerbach’s career is always helpful, and will launch us into some of the interesting lesser known facts that we’d like to explore. So off we go…
What did Auerbach do before coaching the Celtics?
After graduating college in the early 1940s, Auerbach started off as a high school basketball coach when he started to get offers to coach professional basketball teams. In 1946-47, Auerbach was hired to coach the Washington Capitals. Auerbach coached well for the Caps for three years, even winning 17 in a row at one point. When the Caps lost to the Cleveland in the Finals 1948-49, Auerbach and ownership split up and Auerbach took a job as assistant coach at Duke.
Duke was an unusual circumstance. The coach, Gerry Gerard was a friend and was suffering from cancer. In his autobiography “Let Me Tell You a Story”, Auerbach described the situation thusly: “[i]n a way, they were offering me a job where I was supposed to sit around and wait for Gerry to die. ..He said he didn’t have a problem with that, he wanted someone there. But it still felt awkward to me.” Not liking the morbid feel at Duke, Auerbach left shortly thereafter and returned to the NBA with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. After one season with the Blackhawks, Auerbach did not get along with owner Ben Kerner and bolted to run the Celtics for the 1950-51 season.
The Celtics Pre-Bill Russell
The Celtics first officially were an BAA (the NBA precursor) in 1946-47. For the four seasons before Auerbach was in Boston, the team didn’t come close to .500. In Auerbach’s first year (1950-51), the team jumped up from 22-46 to 39-30. While Auerbach’s coaching probably helped, the Celtics were helped when by the bankruptcy of two other teams and Auerbach was able to poach Bob Cousy and Ed Macauley as a result, who were the team’s two best players by far.
Cousy was a local college star from Boston College and was drafted by Tri-Cities just few months earlier. Auerbach had resisted the temptation to draft Cousy at the time in favor of center Charlie Share. According to Bill Reynolds’ “Cousy”, Auerbach told the Boston Press that he didn’t need Cousy because “[t]he only thing that counts for me is ability and Cousy hasn’t proven to me he’s got that ability. I’m not interested in bringing someone in just because he’s a local yokel.” When Auerbach got Cousy in the dispersal draft, he was less than thrilled and told Cousy: “[y]ou’re not a big man….I hope you make the team, but if you don’t, don’t blame me. It’s a big man’s game.” Years later, in an interview for “Tall Tales”, Auerbach backtracked on his harsh initial treatment of Cousy stating that “I saw Cousy in college. I knew what he could do that he was a great talent. But I looked at my roster and I didn’t need a guard, I needed someone to get the ball off the boards.” In the same chapter, Macauley stated it most succinctly: “Red is never one to second-guess himself or admit that he made a mistake, but I guess even he’d have to say that Cousy wasn’t exactly some local yokel.”
Cousy was second in on the team in minutes and was good right away (15.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 4.9 apg). Cousy would go on to lead the NBA assists from 1952-53 until 1960-61 when Oscar Robertson came around. Cousy truly dominated his position statistically at a level that few other athletes dominated his peers. For a little perspective, here are Cousy’s average season versus his peers from the 1950s:
Everyone of these 1950s point guards went to the Hall of Fame and you can see that Cousy beat pretty much every single one of them. While I’m not sure that Cousy could dominate in the modern NBA he was as high above his competition as Magic Johnson was to his peers.
Though Cousy was an something of a lucky draw for Auerbach, he did find several other very good players. The Celts nabbed Bill Sharman in 1951-52 from Auerbach’s former team the Capitals, who also had just folded, and drafted scorer Frank Ramsey in 1954. This Celtics team was a run ‘n gun fun team that was usually in the playoff hunt. From 1950-51 through 1955-56 the Celts averaged a solid record of 40-30 but never advanced to the NBA Finals. The team was fun to watch (they led the NBA in scoring from each year from 1951-52 through 1955-56) but they couldn’t rebound or really stop anyone either–think the Steve Nash Suns or the Don Nelson Warriors of the early 1990s.
Bill Russell: do we have anything to add?
Now that we have a sense of the running team the Celts had before Bill Russell, one can imagine of how much of a help he was. By modern standards, it was like taking Alonzo Mourning or Ben Wallace in his prime on the Nash Suns or the old Nellie Warriors. Well, Russell was significantly more dominant defensive force than Zo or even Wallace in the context of his time and he obviously helped the team jump to championship level. We all know what happened next, the Celts would win 11 of the next 13 titles. Auerbach was the coach until 1965-66 and only lost one playoff series in that time, the 1957-58 Finals against the Hawks when Russell was out with a broken wrist.
Did Auerbach know that Russell would be that good?
Unlike with Cousy, Auerbach was very high on Russell from the beginning, even trading a star in Macauley to St. Louis for the rights to Russell’s pick (seventh overall). Auerbach also traded third round draftee Cliff Hagan who would go on to have a Hall of Famer career–though this was far from apparent at the time. The drafting of Russell was controversial subject and the Hawks and Royals, who picked sixth overall, both had excuses as to why they did what they passed up on him.
In “Tall Tales”, Royals’ owner Lester Harrison rambled on that “[t]he real truth about this draft was the Auerbach and Russell set me up….I was cheated out of Russell, who played poorly at the All-Star Game because he didn’t want to play in a small city like Rochester….We had Maurice Stokes at center, and he would have been as good as Russell if he hadn’t gotten ill. Listen, what was I supposed to do?” In the same chapter, Ben Kerner of the Hawks stated that “I knew I couldn’t afford Russell. I heard that he had turned down $50,000 from the Globetrotters. I heard he wanted $25,000 or $50,000–it didn’t matter because to me, it may as well have been a million. We didn’t have the money.”
Referee Norm Drucker, an impartial observer, saw it differently. He said that “[i]n 1956, St. Louis was an antiblack city. The black players who who played there from other teams–the fans called them such names….I don’t know if Ben Kerner was willing to bring a black player into that environment, although I do know that Ben himself got along very well with his black players in the 1960s.” Likely, money and race played factors. The Hawks got a quality player and a local favorite in Macauley and the team anticipated that Russell, who was considered combative, would not go over well in a Southern city.
Just for kicks, here are players taken in the first round of the 1956 NBA Draft with their career stats:
|2||St. Louis||B. Russell||963||15.1||0.441||22.5||4.3|
|4||New York||R. Shavlik||8||1.3||0.174||2.9||0|
|7||Ft. Wayne||R. Sobie||192||8.4||0.379||4.1||1.8|
While Rochester and St. Louis would’ve been better off with Russell, you have to wonder how the Pistons, Warriors, and Knicks got off without criticism. Their picks barely lasted more than a year or two. Also interesting to note is that only two picks that were great in that first round were both drafted by Auerbach. In addition, the only other pick in the draft to stick was also a Celtic in K.C. Jones (who was Russell’s college teammate).
How often were the Celts tested during the Red/Russell Era?
In addition to Cousy, Sharman, Ramsey and Russell, Auerbach had collected a bunch of great players to work with Russell when the 1950s core got older. Auerbach drafted Sam Jones and John Havlicek to replace them and the team didn’t miss a beat and dominated for years. The league and the playoffs were both smaller back then. In 1956-57, the Celts needed to win only one five game series to reach the Finals and the Celts didn’t have to play more than one round of playoffs in their own conference until Auerbach’s last year. In those years, here are the teams that took the Celts to a deciding game in the playoffs:
–1956-57: Celts beat Hawks 4-3 in the NBA Finals
-1957-58: Hawks beat Celts 2-4 in the NBA Finals
-1958-59: Celts beat Nationals 4-3 in the Eastern Conference Finals
-1961-62: Celts beat Hawks 4-3 in the NBA Finals
Celts beat Lakers 4-3 in the NBA Finals
-1962-63: Celts beat Royals 4-3 in the Eastern Conference Finals
-1964-65: Celts beat 76ers 4-3 in the Eastern Conference Finals
-1965-66: Celts beat Royals 3-2 in the First Round
Celts beat Lakers 4-3 in the NBA Finals
While the Celts were tested a couple of times, they were almost always the best team in the league. From 1956-57 through 1964-65, the Celts had the best record in the NBA each year, usually by a pretty wide margin. The only year they didn’t lead the NBA in wins, 1965-66, the Celts were off the pace by only one game and had a better expected record than the actual leader, the Sixers.
Auerbach as GM: Russell’s Final Years
In 1966, Auerbach retired and named Russell as player-coach. To make an African-American coach was fairly revolutionary at the time and he was the first of his kind. Major League Baseball didn’t have an African-American manager until Frank Robinson in 1975 and the NFL didn’t hire Art Shell until 1989 (which is fairly ridiculous when you stop and think about it). In Thomas Whalen’s “Dynasty’s End”, it is noted that hiring Russell was very controversial and that both Auerbach and Russell endured tons of questions about the issue. While Auerbach clearly did not suffer from the racist tendencies of many of the time, it’s pretty clear that he didn’t make any decisions with any idealistic motives at heart. Rather, Auerbach noted that “when a pro athlete reaches his thirties, the way Russell has, he loses some of his motivating power. He has trouble getting up for games. But as coach he won’t have that problem.”
Auerbach correctly identified that the key now was to squeeze as many title out of the aging core of Russell, Sam Jones, and Havlicek. Auerbach nabbed Bailey Howell for young seven-footer Mel Counts. Howell was turning 30 but he aged remarkably well and averaged nearly 20 ppg and 9 rpg in his first three season with the Celts. Counts would go on to have a middling career for several teams (he’s best remembered for being the recipient of playing time when the Lakers benched Wilt at the end of Game 7 of the 1968-69 Finals, which helped Russell win his final title. Mel Counts was truly the gift that kept on giving for the Celtics).
The Celtics lost to a historically good Wilt-led Sixers team in 1966-67 but would go on to upset that same team in 1967-68 and win a tenth title. In 1968-69, the Celts, running on fumes, still managed to win the final Russell title over the favored Lakers troika of Wilt, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor. Russell and Sam Jones retired after the season and Auerbach was left to find a new star and coach and to rebuild.
The 1970s Celtics
1969-70, the first year without Russell, was a down year (34-48) and the only good player on the team really was Havlicek. But Auerbach was already re-loading. He drafted Jo Jo White with a mid-first rounder in 1969. In 1970, Auerbach then took Dave Cowens with the fourth overall pick. The core of Hondo, White, and Cowens was not on the level of the Russell teams but it was very good. Cowens was a particularly huge pick because he was an anchor at center for the rest of the decade, averaging 17.6 ppg and 13.6 rpg.
Cowens was a straightforward pick either. At the fourth slot, it was a toss up between Cowens and fellow big man Sam Lacey, who would be taken fifth by the Royals. Lacey had a respectable career (he averaged 10.3 ppg and 9.7 for his 13 seasons and peaked at 14.2 ppg and 13.4 in 1973-74) but Cowens was clearly better (he peaked at 20.4 ppg and 14.7 rpg in 1974-75). It’s unlikely that the Celts could’ve won two titles with Lacey instead of Cowens.
The Celts immediately turned it around with the new core and went 44-38 in 1970-71. The Celts then went on a a nice five-year run where they won two titles and won an average of 59 games per year. It was a very good team but not quite as good as the Knicks of that era. They lost to the Knicks 4-1 in the 1971-72 Eastern Conference Finals. The next year, the Celts won 68-14 games (a franchise record) but they lost to the Knicks 4-3 in the Conference Finals (Havlicek hurt his shoulder and the team was down 3-1 before rallying and losing in Game 7). But in 1973-74, the Knicks (most notably Willis Reed and Jerry Lucas) had aged and the Celts were hitting their stride. They won two of the next three titles before it began to erode.
The Late 1970s: A Bad Time
As Hondo, Cowens, and White aged, no new players really came in to replace. Just the opposite. The team traded Paul Silas, their Charles Oakley-type veteran power forward, for the younger Curtis Rowe. Rowe was a complete dud as a player and was not particularly well-liked as a teammate either. Sidney Wicks, Marvin Barnes, and Bob McAdoo were other bad ideas in the late 1970s. The McAdoo trade (for several draft picks) was reportedly made by owner John Y. Brown without Auerbach’s consent.
Auerbach’s feud with Brown spun out of control and caused the Knicks to solicit his services. Auerbach told Brown that he’d take the Knicks job unless Brown sold. He gave Brown two weeks to sell out his interests or Auerbach would go. Brown gave in and sold out and Auerbach stayed with the Celts for another grand run in the 1980s.
The Bird Years
Like the Bill Russell years, the Larry Bird years were built by Auerbach. As mentioned, the Celts of the late 1970s were the worst kind of team–bad, old, overrated, and overpaid. After a 32-50 season in 1977-78, the Celts were comprised a good older player in Cowens (age 30) and a bunch of aging vets or prematurely fading players like Rowe (fading), Don Chaney (aging), Marvin Barnes (troubled), and Jo Jo White (aging). In the 1978 draft, the Celts had the sixth pick. Auerbach, figuring that the team needed long-term change, chose Bird, who was returning for a fifth year of college but was also eligible to be drafted if a team was willing to wait that year. Bird, of course, would go on to be as good any forward ever and the team became an instant contender. Again, Auerbach was lauded as a genius for finding yet another Hall of Famer.
In “Let Me Tell You a Story”, Auerbach put his choice in perspective: “[a]nyone tells you they knew Bird would be as good as he turned out–including me–is a liar. I thought he was good, very good. He also played a position where we needed help, a lot of help. But did I know he had one the great work ethics ever? No. Did I know he had a genius IQ for the game? No. Smart, yes. Genius, no.”
Skill and Luck
After Bird’s rookie year, the Celts found themselves with the first overall picks, thanks to the Pistons who gave up to picks for McAdoo. We all remember that Auerbach made one of the great trades of All-Time dealing the pick (which ended up being Joe Barry Carroll) to the Warriors for the third pick (Kevin McHale) and Robert Parish, two Hall of Famers in one shot. But this was Auerbach’s fall back plan. Really, Auerbach’s first decision was attempting to convince 7’4 freshmen phenom Ralph Sampson to leave college early and play with Bird.
According to Peter May in “The Last Banner”, here’s how it went down: “[a]t the time, Sampson had just complete his freshman season and had said, even before enrolling, that he was unlikely to remain at Virginia beyond his sophomore year. Auerbach assumed that one more year in college was not a serious obstacle….But a funny thing happened to Auerbach when he flew to Virginia to try and talk Sampson into leaving immediately to join Larry Bird in Boston: Sampson said no. He was having too much fun in college. He wasn’t interested in turning pro. Auerbach, who wasn’t accustomed to having anyone tell him what he didn’t want to hear, was furious.”
If you’re keeping score at home, the Sampson missed two shots of playing with the great dynasties of the 1980s. Sampson turned down similar entreaties from the Lakers before the 1982 draft. In the end, Sampson went to Houston in 1983-84 and was good but his career was submarined by knee problems and his regular playing days were ostensibly over by 1988-89. Would things have been different if Sampson had gone to the Celtics for the 1980 season? Certainly he might’ve been thought of differently had he been part of a perennial contender like the Celts. He would’ve given Boston a front line of Bird, Maxwell, and Sampson, which while not as good as McHale and Parish, would’ve been enough to possibly win a few titles before Maxwell’s and Sampson’s knees went. It wouldn’t have been bad but clearly the Celtics got much more mileage out of McHale and Parish.
Still, as May noted, Auerbach “doesn’t try to put a revisionist spin on this pursuit. He wanted Sampson then, convinced, as many were, that this was going to be the next great center. ‘You couldn’t tell that his career wouldn’t pan out….[H]e looked like a helluva prospect. We would have taken him if he had come out.'”
DJ: The Difference
As a young kid in 1980s, it seemed like the Bird and the Celtics won the Eastern Conference every year. In fact, the Celts window of winning was impressive but they had serious problems with the Sixers. In fact, from Bird’s rookie year to the 1982-83, the Sixers came out of the east three times, beating the Celts twice (the Celts were swept by the Bucks in 1982-83). By 1982-83, the Celts were pretty vulnerable. Tiny Archibald was too old to run the point and the Celts had a decidedly non-offensive backcourt of Quinn Buckner and Gerald Henderson. Then, out of nowhere, Auerbach was able to acquire Dennis Johnson for Rick Robey, a backup center. DJ instantly provided a huge upgrade over Buckner and at the same time Danny Ainge emerged and took Henderson’s job. All of sudden, the frontcourt had some support and this coincided with Bird’s peak and two titles.
After the 1982-83 season, McHale was in line for a big extension and the Knicks wanted him badly. While the Celtics could match any offer for McHale, they feared that the New York money would’ve been too much to match. As such, Auerbach devised a plan of signing three Knicks restricted free agents to force the Knicks to choose between using the cap room on the three players or McHale. In the end, the Knicks blinked and chose to re-sign the three. Who were these jewels? Rory Sparrow, Sly Williams, and Marvin Webster. Sparrow was young but ended up being a middling point guard. Williams (who was let go to Atlanta) had personality issues that undercut a his promising ability. Webster was 31 at the time and ended up playing only one more full season where he scored 3.8 ppg.
The Future Never Comes: Len Bias
By the late 1980s, Auerbach took a step back from day-to-day operations and retired. His last huge move, drafting Len Bias, had turned out tragically when Bias died of a drug overdose the night after the draft. Could Bias have continued the dynasty for Bird? I examined this issue a few years ago and concluded that Bias was a great player but I doubted that he was enough to keep the team at the level of the Bulls of the early 1990s. If you never saw Bias play, I do recommend that you take a look at some highlights of his college career and see what a monster talent he was.
For fun, I thought we’d take a look at Bias’ stats per 40 minutes versus that off other great guards and forwards of the ACC in the mid-1980s in their final college seasons:
Based on pure numbers, Bias was great–though his ball handling/passing was the worst of the bunch. In addition, Jordan as a junior was clearly superior to Bias in every aspect of the game but rebounds. Really, it looks like Bias might project into one of those great pure scoring small forwards but not a guy who does much in other areas. Let’s see how Bias compares with other scoring college forwards:
These comps aren’t quite as illustrative as the ACC comparison because the stats came, primarily, against different leagues and we have no idea what the pace of play was. We assume the pace was a crawl for Worthy and Nique, who played in the pre-shot clock era, thus those comps are somewhat out the window. In looking at these stats, you still are concerned that Bias had, by far, the weakest block and steal rates and again, he is at the bottom in ball handling. While you hate to get bogged in numbers versus ability, it seems that Bias wasn’t destined to be a superstar as much as single-minded scorer. In either case, the Celtics would’ve been much more respectable in the early 1990s with Bias in a featured role.
Even though we’ve spent some time dissecting how much credit Auerbach should get for many of his moves but it is indisputable that Auerbach is greatest GM in the history of the game, a great coach, and a true innovator. Rather then sum up with a corny ending that Auerbach, himself, wouldn’t want to hear, I thought we’d instead review Auerbach’s final legacy: his players.
Here is a list of the the Hall of Famers drafted Auerbach:
Here is my All-Auerbach team:
PG: Bob Cousy, 1958-59, 20.0 ppg, .384 FG%, 5.5 rpg, 8.6 apg
SG: John Havlicek, 1970-71, 28.9 ppg, .450 FG%, 9.0 rpg, 7.5 apg
SF: Larry Bird, 1984-85, 28.7 ppg, .522 FG%, 10.5 rpg, 6.6 apg
PF: Kevin McHale, 1986-87, 26.1 ppg, .604 FG%, 9.9 apg, 2.6 apg
C: Bill Russell, 1961-62, 18.9 ppg, .457 FG%, 23.6 rpg, 4.5 apg