Which is the greater franchise in NBA history, the Lakers or the Celtics? "Bar room" debates like these are essential to our sports culture and the impetus for this website. In this case, it's East Coast vs. West Coast. It's 16 championships vs. 14. It's Hollywood glamour vs. New England grit. It's victory cigars vs. Showtime. It's the Garden vs. the Forum. Magic vs. Bird. Red vs. Riley (or Phil). Russell vs. Wilt (in this exercise at least). Cousy vs. [[Jerry West}West]]. And now, Kobe vs. the Big Ticket, the Truth and Jesus (Shuttlesworth). These two storied teams are facing each other in the Finals for the record eleventh time; but, they have never met like this...
To (attempt to) answer the debate, let's first phrase the question a little differently. "What if" a team of the greatest Lakers players of all-time faced a team of the greatest Celtics players of all-time? Not only does that sound like the perfect question to ask us, Whatifsports.com, it is something that anyone can actually do on our site with our free SimMatchup and Dream Teams features. We've made use of that technology ourselves to "play" a seven game series between the two hypothetical all-time teams 10,000 times. Just as they do this season, Boston gets homecourt advantage in the series due to the edge in championships.
We reached out to FOXSports.com NBA contributor Randy Hill to help us assemble the All-Time Lakers and Celtics teams. Only stats that a player accumulated while with the Lakers or Celtics are used. We did our best to give adequate playing time to everyone, with preference given to starters and those who played more of their careers with the franchise. Clearly, the Lakers are stacked in the paint with four definitive centers. However, they lack a "true" small forward and depth at power forward behind Elgin Baylor or at point guard behind Magic. Boston has a very strong starting five with some great role players and defensive specialists coming off the bench. Boston definitely does not appear as deep with star power, though. Nationally, names like Tom Heinsohn and Jo Jo White may not be as well known as Michael Cooper and Byron Scott, but they are well-rounded players who know exactly what to do to improve the team. In fact, that is probably the biggest common factor amongst all of the great Celtics' squads: that no player is ever really bigger than the team and everyone contributes.
All-Time Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers: Starters - Magic Johnson (PG), Jerry West (SG), Kobe Bryant (SF), Elgin Baylor (PF), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (C) Bench - Gail Goodrich, Michael Cooper, Byron Scott, James Worthy, George Mikan, Shaquille O'Neal, Wilt Chamberlain
All-Time Boston Celtics: Starters - Bob Cousy (PG), John Havlicek (SG), Larry Bird (SF), Kevin McHale (PF), Bill Russell (C) Bench - Dennis Johnson, Jo Jo White, Sam Jones, Tom Heinsohn, Kevin Garnett, Dave Cowens, Robert Parish
Disagree with the rosters? Build your own.
So which is the greatest NBA franchise of all-time? According to 10,000 simulations, it's the Boston Celtics. The Celtics win 61.5% of the series. Boston's stellar defense, passing and rebounding at every position leave them without an exploitable weakness and, thus, with this distinction. The most common series result is a Boston win six games (eerily similar to the actual Finals preview).
What follows is an example series based on the most common result of those simulations. It includes boxscores, play-by-play and stats for each game in the series. Click on the links after each brief summary to see the entire breakdown of the game.
Los Angeles 107 @ Boston 108 - The first game in the Garden lives up to its billing and then some. Boston overcomes 13 blocks and 53.8% shooting by the Lakers to take Game One by just a point. Trailing by two with eleven seconds to play in the game, Kevin McHale tosses the ball out to Bob Cousy after being doubled on the block. Whether he's ever seen the line in front of him at his feet or not, Cousy nails a three-point jumper from the right wing to put the Celtics ahead. On the final possession of the game, Bill Russell's defense keeps Kareem Abdul-Jabbar away from the hoop, forcing him into a 14 foot miss. John Havlicek leads the team with 26 points in a game the Celtics really have no business winning.
Los Angeles 98 @ Boston 99 - Another one-point nail-biter goes to the Celtics. This time, it's well-deserved as Boston shoots 50% from the field and holds all Lakers under 20 points. The Lakers' top scorer in the game, Elgin Baylor, actually has a chance to hit 20 points and win the game with four seconds remaining, but his eight-foot jumper goes awry. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar catches the errant shot and tries to throw it up off balance as time expires, but his putback is denied by Kevin McHale. John Havlicek again leads the victors in scoring with 22 points. Sam Jones' 12 points in 13 minutes provide a great spark off of the bench for the Celtics; while, Larry Bird earns Player of the Game honors with 17 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and three steals.
Boston 110 @ Los Angeles 114 - The Lakers' backcourt comes alive and the team shoots 57.1% from the field and 91.7% from the line as Los Angeles takes the first game played at the Great Western Forum. After two defensively oriented games with more balanced scoring, the stars come out in Game 3. Larry Bird leads five 20-plus point scorers with 30. Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson top the Lakers with 24 and 21 points respectively. The duo combines to shoot an astounding 18-for-25 against a great Celtics' defense. The win and offensive output breathes life in this ultimate version of Showtime.
Boston 112 @ Los Angeles 116 - And just like that, the series is even. Apparently, Boston is only capable of winning by one, while LA can only win by four. Six players from each team score in double figures as Red Auerbach and Pat Riley keep tinkering with the matchups to find something that works against such great players. James Worthy only plays eleven minutes for the Lakers, but his performance may be the most notable of the night. In those eleven minutes, Worth puts up ten shots, making seven to score 14 points. Only Jerry West[ with 18 ends the game with more for LA. Also notable are [Bill Russell]]'s 22 rebounds in the loss. The Celtics do not shoot as well as the Lakers, yet keep it close with 19 second-chance opportunities against the likes of Shaq, Wilt, Mikan and Kareem.
Boston 110 @ Los Angeles 106 - "Havlicek steals the ball"...twice! John Havlicek comes up with two huge steals in the fourth quarter to seal the victory for Boston. The last steal comes with 2:14 remaining, the score tied and Jerry West looking to put LA ahead for the first time since midway through the third quarter. Havlicek takes "Mr. Clutch's" dribble and leads a break that ends in Magic Johnson fouling Bob Cousy for two go-ahead free throws. The game that Boston really needed before it headed back home is also Cousy's best game of the series. Mostly quiet for the first four games - outside of a game-winning three - the basketball pioneer and innovator scores 23 points to go with six assists and three rebounds. He hits seven straight free throws in the last 12:55 of the game. Who is Mr. Clutch?
Los Angeles 92 @ Boston 99 - The defensive superiority and the depth of the Celtics really shines in this decisive game. All twelve players score for Boston, with Cousy leading the way with 18 points. Eight Celtics grab four rebounds or more, including ten from shooting guard John Havlicek and nine from Bill Russell. Russell, who only averages 11.2 points a game for the series, has anchored the defense with 14.2 rebounds and 3.7 blocks - including six blocks in Game Six - per contest. Larry Bird narrowly edges Havlicek and Russell for series MVP honors. Does that mean he is the greatest Celtic of all-time and better than Magic, Wilt, Kobe, West, Kareem, etc.? I am not sure. But, 18.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.7 steals per game (37.7 minutes played) on this team and against this competition is very good. Havlicek puts up 18.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists in 36.8 minutes a game for the series.
Whatifsports.com is a website that specializes in answering the great “What if?” questions in sports by simulating games between historical teams in professional basketball, football, baseball and hockey, or collegiate football and basketball.
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