As Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors march into the record books on their way to 70-something wins, it is inevitable that the talk will turn to whether this year’s Warriors are the greatest team of all-time.
The contenders are the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls that went 72-10 in the regular season and won the NBA championship after going 15-4 in the playoffs.
The 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. That team went 69-13, including the incredible 33 game winning streak. That Lakers team had four Hall of Famers in their lineup: Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Gail Goodrich, and the Logo himself, Jerry West. LA had a 12-3 playoff run on their way to the championship.
And then we have the 1985-86 Celtics. That beloved team went 67-15 and lost only one game at home all year. That team had five Hall of Famers: Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, and Bill Walton. That Celtics team took no prisoners in the playoffs finishing the slate with a 15-3 record on their way to NBA title No. 16 for the franchise.
Out of the three contenders, the 1985-86 Celtics were the best team ever. As former colleague Bob Ryan — in his book “Scribe” — concurred.
“I think their best was the best of all time, and the single biggest reason was the simple fact that only that Celtics team was able to bring a healthy Bill Walton off the bench,” Ryan wrote.
The ’86 Celtics team was dominant. They could score: averaging 114 points per game which was third best in the league. They could defend: giving up only 104.7 points per game. That sounds like a lot by today’s standards but it was third best in the league at the time as teams scored much more then than they do now in today’s NBA. And boy could they bang the boards. The C’s led the league in rebounds by a whopping five rebounds per game over their nearest competitor.
Not only did the ’86 Celtics win, but they did it in a style that electrified basketball fans everywhere. In Bird and Walton, they had two of the greatest passing big men ever to play the game. This team not only made the extra pass, but they made the extra-extra-extra pass that usually resulted in a crowd-roaring basket.
So let’s match up the 1985-86 Celtics against this year’s Golden State Warriors team. It should go without saying that it’s hard to match teams up that played in different eras. The way basketball is played in the NBA today is completely different than the way the game was played 30 years ago. Back in 1986, the game was much more physical. Defenses were allowed to hand check and maul offensive players. The Kevin McHale take down of Kurt Rambis would be a multiple game suspension today.
Teams shot the ball more and scored more points 30 years ago. In the 1985-86 season, all but one team averaged over 100 points per game. This year, there are eight teams averaging under 100 points per game.
And the biggest change of all was how teams used the three-point shot back then. The NBA of today is a pick-and roll league where the three-point shot rules. How much more do players and teams use the three point shot now vs. in ’86? In 56 games this season, the amazing Curry has made 288 three-pointers while attempting 615. That’s an off-the-charts .468 shooting percentage. In 1986, the entire Celtics team made 138 three’s on 393 attempts for a .351 percentage. So by the time the season ends, Curry will have made more than twice the amount of three pointers than the entire ’86 Celtics team would have attempted. Larry Bird — one of the great three-point shooters of all time — made 82 three-pointers that whole season. That’s a good month for Curry.
And 30 years ago the NBA was still dominated by big men. The centers of that year were names like Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone, Robert Parish, Patrick Ewing, and Ralph Sampson. They were dominating big men who could score down low. The centers of today are nowhere near the caliber of that group and many of them do not play with their backs to the basket. Instead, they like to stretch the floor with their outside shooting.
So let’s get into the matchup. The first word goes to Larry Bird who recently talked about how his ’86 Celtics team is more versatile than this year’s Warriors.
“They play a different style. We took pride in playing every style of basketball,” Bird told SiriusXM NBA Radio in December. “Golden State plays a small lineup and gets up and down the court and use the three-point shot more than we ever dreamed of. Fun team to watch. Our team liked to pound it inside and down low go inside and out. Not the same style but the same results.”
What Larry was saying is true. His Celtics team could play the ground and pound game of basketball so prevalent in the Eastern Conference back then, but they could also run the ball and play fast break to match up well against the teams in the West like the Showtime Lakers that played that style of ball.
In a series with the Warriors, the Celtics would attempt to slow the game down and pound it down to McHale and Parish in the post. I don’t see anyone on the Warriors to match up against them. Draymond Green at 6-feet-7-inches and Andrew Bogut could not contain those two. McHale would have a field day. And to open things up for their two big men, Bird and Danny Ainge, along with Scott Wedman and Jerry Sichting off the bench, would keep the defense from double teaming their big men with their outside shooting ability. And don’t forget the Celtics X factor that year: A healthy Bill Walton added so much diversity to their offense and a shot blocker and big rebounder on the other end of the floor.
The Warriors would have to rely on their outside shooting. Steph Curry is a once-in-a-lifetime shooter for his size and would be a great player in any era. His numbers this year are eye popping: 30.7 points per game, dishing out 6.6 assists while shooting 47 percent from three-point range. Just incredible.
The ’86 Celtics team had Dennis Johnson one of the truly great defensive guards in the history of basketball. No one will stop Curry, he will get his points but I don’t see him going for over 40 points a game. DJ would not allow that to happen. The other splash brother, Clay Thompson, would be matched up with Danny Ainge who was a pretty good defender in his day. If the game is officiated like it was 30 years ago, the Celtics guards would physically beat up the Warriors guards. With the way the game is officiated today, Johnson and Ainge would have a tougher time with Curry and Thompson — but I still see them being effective.
So who wins a seven-game fantasy NBA Finals series?
I see the 1986 Boston Celtics winning in six games, with the Warriors taking two games on their home court. It would be an all-time classic and highly-entertaining series much like the 1984 NBA Finals between the Celtics and Magic and the Lakers.
But in the end size matters. And the Boston’s Bigs would ultimately be too much for the Warriors to handle.