Anatomy of a Champion: The 1963-64 Celtics
Last night, the Boston Celtics beat the New Orleans Hornets at home, giving them an amazing 22-2 record on the season. That scorching mark not only puts them on pace to win an NBA-record 75 games by the end of the year, but it’s also the best start in the history of the game’s most storied franchise. Just think of all of the great Boston teams over the years — from Russell and Cousy to Cowens and Havlicek and Bird and DJ — and yet, none have started the season as red-hot as this year’s Celtics squad.
One team came close, though: the 1963-64 Celtics, who started their season 21-2 en route to a 59-21 regular-season record and an NBA championship. In today’s edition of “Anatomy of a Champion,” we look at what made that Boston team from 45 years ago truly great.
Offseason Moves: The Celtics were already 5-time defending World Champions (and had won a ring in 6 of the last 7 years) going into the ’63-64 season, but Boston was faced with the unenviable task of replacing PG Bob Cousy, who retired at age 35 after the previous year’s Finals victory over Los Angeles. K.C. Jones, a key backup on previous Celtics title teams, would have to take over for the fabled “Houdini of the Hardwood” in the starting lineup, while Red Auerbach added Willie Naulls to join Tom Heinsohn as a top reserve. It wouldn’t be easy to win a 6th consecutive title (it never is), but no franchise was more equipped to handle change than this Celtics dynasty.
Strengths and Weaknesses: Despite winning all of those championships, the Celtics were not a strong offensive team during the early 1960s. After finishing last in the league in FG% in 1961 and 1963 with Cousy at the helm, Boston was at it again in ’64, ending the year ranked 9th out of 9 teams. The Celtics’ 2nd-ranked 113.0 PPG was merely an illusion of pace — Boston easily took the most FGAs of any team in basketball, 654 more than Philadelphia, the next-closest team. The offense ran through John Havlicek and Sam Jones, each of whom averaged over 19 PPG, but Bill Russell was conserving himself for defense and rebounding (he took only 13.6% of the shots when on the floor), and the rest of the team shot well below average.
Luckily, the Celtics weren’t especially interested in keeping their FG% up, as long as their opponent’s FG% was kept way down. K.C. Jones wasn’t even close to Cousy offensively, but he was among the best defensive players in the league, and he teamed with Russell, Sam Jones, and Satch Sanders to give Boston one of the greatest defenses in NBA history. Despite the breakneck pace, the Celtics allowed the 2nd-fewest PPG in the league; from their team stats and points allowed, we can also estimate that they held their opponents to roughly 0.85 points per possession, easily the NBA’s best defensive efficiency mark. Russell, who was 2nd-team All-NBA but finished 3rd in MVP balloting, was dominant as usual, averaging 44.6 MPG and snagging a league-best 24.7 RPG. In short, the Celtics’ D was an impenetrable fortress, and there were very few teams who had any prayer of breaking through and snapping their title streak.
The Playoffs: One of those teams was supposedly the Cincinnati Royals, who pushed the Celts to the brink of elimination in the East Finals the year before, and whose brilliant MVP guard Oscar Robertson was coming off his best season yet. But instead of caving to the upstarts, the Celtics dismissed them rather handily, as the Joneses blanketed Robertson at every turn during Boston’s 5-game series win.
Waiting in the Finals were the imposing Warriors and Russell’s chief rival, Wilt Chamberlain, the league’s reigning scoring champion and the 1960 NBA MVP. With the firepower of Chamberlain, some thought the Warriors would perhaps be able to upset the mighty C’s, but Russell proceeded to slow down the first-time Finalist, and his San Francisco teammates were no match for Boston’s tough-as-nails D. The Celtics would win the first 2 games of the series at home, and after dropping Game 3 in San Francisco, they won on the road to take a commanding 3-1 lead. Back at home for Game 5, Boston weathered a ferocious Warrior attack late in the 4th, coming away with their 6th straight title after a clutch putback by Russell finally placed the game — and the championship — out of San Francisco’s reach.
Lessons Learned: When faced with an important and potentially devastating change — the retirement of Bob Cousy — Red Auerbach and the Celtics could have tried to find a poor man’s Cousy at PG and continue to force the system that gave them 5 straight titles. That approach would likely have failed, though, because there simply wasn’t a Cousy-esque player out there who could have even approximated his style of play with any degree of success. Auerbach realized this, and instead of forcing the wrong plan on his personnel, he changed the plan to fit the players he had.
Without Cousy, the Celtics went from perpetually having one of the league’s highest rates of assisted FGs to one of its lowest; Cousy’s team-leading assist rate of 33.7% gave way to K.C. Jones’ 20.4%. At the same time, Auerbach realized the offense would suffer either way, so he went all-in with his dominating D, penciling Jones in as a starter despite his weak offense, knowing that he would help push the team’s defense to even greater heights. This flexibility to confront change and use it to his advantage was one of the things that made Auerbach a great coach, and it was one of the defining characteristics that allowed the Celtics to adapt to challenge after challenge en route to an astonishing 11 championships in 13 years.