2024 NBA Finals

Ranking the top 10 Celtics champions in franchise history

Boston has reigned supreme across 6 decades, capturing 18 championships since the 1956-57 season.

Take a look at the history of the Celtics as they collect NBA title banner No. 18.

• Download the NBA App

When a franchise reaches 18 NBA championships, the toughest part after winning them is ranking them. Like, how exactly is that done?

There are so many great teams, so many legends, multiple eras and plenty of cases to be made for this team and that team. It’s a great problem to have for the Boston Celtics, who are sending off another banner to be embroidered and soon raised to the TD Garden ceiling.

The Celtics are now the envy of all franchises, with more titles than anyone, a rich history that puts them at the front of the line. Built by Bob Cousy, revolutionized by Red Auerbach, put on a pedestal by Bill Russell, this team won championships in six different decades.

Quite simply, the Celtics are the gold standard for NBA excellence. But again, how do you place an order or importance to those championships? As any parent will tell you, they love all of their kids.

Anyway, here’s a very conversational and debatable attempt at ranking the top 10 Celtics champions, where the only easy and unquestionable selection is the team at the top spot:

1. 1985-86

  • NBA Finals: Celtics def. Rockets, 4-2
  • Title No. 16

Not just the best Celtics team, but likely the best NBA champion, period, with Hall of Famers galore, depth, a lethal fast break, Bill Walton off the bench and a generational talent in prime Larry Bird who was collecting MVPs.

They won a combined 82 regular season and playoff games, a record that lasted until the Chicago Bulls (and, later, Golden State Warriors) topped it. And they had two sweeps before reaching the Finals, where they beat the Rockets in six.

Take a look back at Bill Walton's career in Boston as he helped the team win a championship in 1986.

2. 2007-08

  • NBA Finals: Celtics def. Lakers, 4-2
  • Title No. 17

This was destined to be a legendary team once Kevin McHale did his old teammate Danny Ainge a solid and sent Kevin Garnett from Minnesota to Boston the previous offseason. Garnett was everything they needed, and more.

And so, KG’s defense and snarl along with future Finals MVP Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and an emerging Rajon Rondo was a nightmare for the league. They won 66 games in the regular season, the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history. This was their only title together, though. In subsequent years, blame Kendrick Perkins’ injury, Metta World Peace, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.

3. 1963-64

  • NBA Finals: Celtics def. Warriors, 4-1
  • Title No. 7

Celtic historians including Bob Ryan, longtime scribe of the Boston Globe, say this is probably the best of the Russell dynasty. It’s a close call with a few others, but this team had all the ingredients, won 59 games and then the Finals in five games.

Bob Cousy retired the previous season, but K.C. Jones was a capable replacement. Also, John Havlicek, in his second season, became a much better player and led the Celtics in scoring.

4. 2023-24

  • NBA Finals: Celtics def. Mavericks, 4-1
  • Title No. 18

Those who rank the current champion this high might be accused of being prisoners of the moment. Yet, the dominance of this team cannot be denied. They ruled the regular season (64 wins) and playoffs (only three losses).

Along the way, the Celtics were ranked either at or near the top of the league both offensively and defensively. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were two much all season and into the Finals. Adding Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis to a talented roster sealed the deal.

5. 1983-84

  • NBA Finals: Celtics def. Lakers, 4-3
  • Title No. 15

Those 1980s Celtics teams were so great during the most competitive decade in NBA history that two deserve to be in the top five.

We nominate this one, if only because Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were all in their prime, while Dennis Johnson was still a big-game player. The road was tough — twice the Celtics were forced to a Game 7 in the postseason — but that reflected the quality of the competition.

6. 1962-63

  • NBA Finals: Celtics def. Lakers, 4-2
  • Title No. 6

This Celtics team had the most Hall of Famers on the roster — nine. Can you imagine today using an eight-man playoff rotation and telling a Hall of Famer there were no minutes for him?

This was Havlicek’s rookie season and Cousy’s last season. One great leaving, another arriving, and the Celtics didn’t skip a beat, mainly because Russell was still the glue that kept everything together.

7. 1960-61

  • NBA Finals: Celtics def. Hawks, 4-1
  • Title No. 4

This team deserves top-10 flowers because it was arguably the best with Russell and Cousy as teammates. And it was rich with other Hall of Famers — the Jones Boys, Tom Heinsohn and Bill Sharman among them.

The Celtics beat the St. Louis Hawks in five games in the Finals. It was a revenge of sorts as the Hawks in 1958 were the only team to beat Russell in the Finals in his career.

8. 1980-81

  • NBA Finals: Celtics def. Rockets, 4-2
  • Title No. 14

The “weakest” of the three championship teams in the ‘80s, only because Bird was young and hadn’t hit his stride just yet. This was reflected in the NBA Finals when he shot poorly and yielded the Finals MVP to Cedric Maxwell.

But a 62-win season and a glorious decade was secured when, during the previous summer, Auerbach executed perhaps the greatest trade in history: getting McHale and Parish to form history’s greatest front line with Bird.

9. 1961-62

  • NBA Finals: Celtics def. Lakers, 4-3
  • Title No. 4

This team was the first in NBA History to win 60 games. Cousy was still a year from retirement and everyone else in the rotation, Russell included, was tapping their prime.

Yet the Celtics had to survive Elgin Baylor’s 61 points in Game 5 of the Finals, still a record, and Frank Selvy missed an open shot in Game 7 which would’ve won it for the Lakers. The Celtics won in overtime, the last time a Finals Game 7 was decided in OT.

10. 1973-74

  • NBA Finals: Celtics def. Bucks, 4-3
  • Title No. 12

This team needs context: the Celtics were better the year before when they won 68 games (still the fifth most ever) and Dave Cowens was NBA MVP. But Havlicek injured his shoulder midway through the conference finals and the Celtics’ season was over.

The next season the Celtics finished the job, beating Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Bucks in a thrilling seven-game Finals.

The other eight 

(listed chronologically): 

1956-57: The first championship. Cousy was a doozy.

1958-59: The Celtics swept the Lakers to launch a run of eight straight championships.

1959-60: This was the last NBA Finals to debut in March.

1964-65: This was the “Havlicek stole the ball” team, immortalized by Johnny Most’s call and Hondo’s theft to secure a Game 7 win in the conference finals.

1965-66: The last season with Auerbach as coach and the Celtics sent him out with a championship.

1967-68: With Russell as player-coach, this was the last Finals without a Finals MVP Award as it would debut the following year.

1968-69: The weakest Celtics championship team (finished fourth in the division) was beloved because it was Russell’s final season and they beat the Lakers in a thrilling Game 7.

1975-76: Game 5 of the Finals, sent to triple-OT on the Suns’ Gar Heard’s shot-heard-round-the-world, was a classic.

* * *

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery.