It’s getting to be a ritual among Warriors fans and anyone familiar with NBA history: Forget what’s happening at the moment and play the mythical game. Among all the great teams of the past, who could take down Golden State?
With a single criterion — bring those teams right into the present, playing modern rules — Bob Ryan believes it’s a lock. He would take the 1985-86 Boston Celtics, representing the peak of the Larry Bird years, against coach Steve Kerr’s club.
Ryan is perhaps the nation’s foremost authority on NBA history. The mostly retired Boston Globe columnist has been a firsthand witness since the prime of Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Bill Russell. He has a natural leaning toward the Celtics, having first visited Boston Garden in 1964 as a freshman at Boston College — but at the time, he was a Philadelphia fan.
“When the 76ers beat the Celtics in the ’67 Finals, I was ecstatic,” he said by telephone last week.
By 1969, the 23-year-old Ryan was covering the Celtics for the Globe, viewing the league objectively and delighting readers with his knowledge and natural wit. Over the years, he became a legend in the press box. But before hearing his thoughts, let’s acknowledge some other teams in this conversation.
Russell’s Celtics won eight straight titles. The 76ers of ’66-67 halted the streak with Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Luke Jackson and Billy Cunningham. The 1971-72 Lakers notched a record 33 straight regular-season wins and a championship with West and Chamberlain. The 1972-73 New York Knicks had six future Hall of Famers: Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Earl Monroe, Bill Bradley and Jerry Lucas. The Magic Johnson-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Lakers were at their unstoppable best in 1984-85 and 1986-87. Michael Jordan led the Bulls to three straight titles twice in the 1990s. You wouldn’t want to rule out Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal playing together on the Lakers’ “three-peat” teams (2000-02) or the 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs, lauded by Kerr as the ultimate model for fundamental brilliance.
That’s a list to turn loose the imagination for weeks. But turn now to the 1985-86 Celtics, who went 40-1 at home and steamrolled through the playoffs, defeating the Houston Rockets and the Twin Towers of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson in the Finals. Much like today’s Warriors, they moved the ball like a dream, leaving defenses no clear alternative to disaster. (Note: I also contacted Peter Vecsey, the sharply opinionated, street-wise New Yorker who began covering pro basketball in the 1960s. He went with this Celtics team, as well.)
“The three-point shot wasn’t at all predominant in those days,” Ryan said. “Bird didn’t care much for it — he didn’t think it was great strategy until late in the game, when he used it as a dagger. But he would be Stephen Curry’s equal today, and I mean with any shot on the floor. Danny Ainge led the league in three-point shooting one year. I think Dennis Johnson could have learned it, and hurt teams with it. Scott Wedman (off the bench) could shoot from deep. Defensively, we know Curry gets his shot off against anybody, but Ainge wouldn’t have been helpless against him. I think DJ could give Klay Thompson a heck of a battle.
“Here’s the thing: How would the Warriors stop Kevin McHale and Robert Parish inside, with a healthy Bill Walton coming off the bench? Throw in Bird, and that’s the best front line of all time. Don’t think you could even argue that. I mean, who’s gonna guard McHale? The guy was 6-10 with extremely long arms and textbook footwork — greatest post player in the league, and nobody’s ever matched him. As for Parish, tell me any center the Warriors have had who’s that good.”
Well, it’s been since … Parish, actually, before he was traded to Boston in 1980.
“Right. And Walton is the trump card,” Ryan said. “There have been great sixth men in the league, but nobody ever brought a 7-footer off the bench who could change the game the way Walton did. That was the happiest year of his NBA career, and he relished playing with Larry. The rapport they had, the interior passing of that whole front line — we’ve never seen anything like it.”
Ryan said he wrote about this topic in 2016, while the Warriors were compiling their 73-win regular season and Harrison Barnes was the small forward. “Kevin Durant definitely changes the equation,” Ryan said. “I’m not 100 percent confident in my theory as I was before. McHale guarded Dominique Wilkins and Sampson pretty well, but Durant — you have to have full respect for what that man can do.”
And what about DeMarcus Cousins? What if he comes back in top form?
“Now, that’s interesting,” he said. “It’s like, come on, how did he wind up with them? It could be devastating. But we don’t know how that will work out. A lot depends on his attitude, his willingness to subjugate himself, how he feels during a drought when he’s not touching the ball. What’s the projection (for Cousins’ return), January? See me then.”