Is Larry Bird the Best Player in Boston Celtics History?

Larry Bird

Getty Larry Bird is a three-time MVP and three-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics.

When we think of the all-time greats who played for the Boston Celtics, two names quickly jump to the top of the list — Larry Bird and Bill Russell. Both hold prominent places in Celtics tradition, and both are firmly etched in NBA history.

The Celtics certainly have had their share of superstars in their storied history. No team has more members in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, as Boston boasts 36 players and four coaches. When it comes to picking the best of the best, who is the greatest player in Celtics history?

Larry Bird Is the Best Player in Boston Celtics History

With apologies to Russell, Bird is the best Celtics player ever. This is no knock on Russell, a five-time MVP who may have the greatest NBA resume ever. Russell, a 6-foot-10 center, won 11 championships and earned 12 All-Star appearances while leading the league in rebounding four times.

Russell helped change the way the game was played with his defense-first mentality. He was a fierce rebounder and shot-blocker, who played mind games with his opponents.

“Basketball is a game that involves a great deal of psychology,” Russell said during the early part of the 1963 season, according to Sports Illustrated. “The psychology in defense is not blocking a shot or stealing a pass or getting the ball away. The psychology is to make the offensive team deviate from their normal habits. This is a game of habits, and the player with the most consistent habits is the best. What I try to do on defense is to make the offensive man do not what he wants but what I want.”

Bird couldn’t rebound or block shots like Russell, but he did everything else better. He also made those around him better.

Bird came into the NBA in the 1979-80 season and took a Celtics team that won 29 games and turned it into one that led the league with 61 victories. He averaged 21.3 points and 10.4 rebounds en route to Rookie of the Year honors.

In his second year, the Celtics swung a lopsided traded with the Golden State Warriors that brought back veteran center Robert Parish and the third pick in the draft, one they used to select Kevin McHale. Parish had been a serviceable center in four years with the Warriors, but he made the first of seven straight All-Star appearances in his first season playing with Bird.

Bird won three straight MVPs from 1984 to 1986. He guided the Celtics to four straight NBA Finals appearances from 1984 to 1987 and won two of his three championships during that stretch.

Red Auerbach and Bob Cousy Gave the Nod to Bird

Russell was outstanding in leading his star-studded Celtics teams to 11 championships in the late 1950s and 1960s when there were eight teams in the league. He wasn’t overly gifted offensively, averaging 15.1 points in his career. He also shot 44.0% and 56.1% from the free-throw line.

Red Auerbach, the man who brought both to the Celtics, admitted Bird was the best he’d ever seen.

“If I had to start a team, the one guy in all history I would take would be Larry Bird,” Auerbach said in a 1988 Sports Illustrated article. “This is the greatest ballplayer who ever played the game.”

Russell’s teammate, playmaker Bob Cousy, said he used to go back and forth between players who would be considered the greatest ever. He flip-flopped between Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Wilt Chamberlain before Bird came along.

“Before Bird, I used to vacillate,” said Cousy in a 1986 Sports Illustrated piece. “The question didn’t seem relevant. But Bird came along with all the skills, all the things a basketball player has to do. I think he’s the greatest.”

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