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The Celtics championship needs an asterisk — but so does the rest of NBA history

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The Celtics championship needs an asterisk — but so does the rest of NBA history

Asterisks are wonderful things.

With a simple little star after any word, one is enabled to write outrageous things all over the internet while maintaining plausible deniability. The asterisk is the weapon of the careful. No matter how accusatory, how unresearched, or how ridiculous, the asterisk gives the writer an out.

In the NBA, asterisks are often used as a weaponized extension of the way they are employed statistically — to note some context in a footnote about a stat; to show it was an outlier. Only, in NBA discourse, instead of contextualizing, they’re usually used to minimize, a textual grenade to lob at (and troll) whatever team just won the NBA Finals.

Right now, that’s the 2024 Boston Celtics.

The refrain is something I’m sure everyone is familiar with; some description of how weak the opposing teams were, a rehashing of “what-ifs” or injuries from the playoff run, and perhaps some reference to Mickey Mouse in certain online circles, a name that has become synonymous with questioning championships.

What’s really going on here is organized bitterness mixed with the impulse to compare. The Celtics just earned the title of “Best Team in the League in 2024,” but the nature of NBA discourse necessitates some kind of additional commentary. Where do they rank among historical “Best Teams in the League?” Did they earn their accomplishment by outworking everyone else, or did the seas simply part for them and they walked through?

It’s all very unnecessary. Putting asterisks on championships isn’t a particularly high level of NBA discussion, and as far as I can tell, no serious national pundit has tried to do so (depending on how “serious” one considers Dwight Howard dropping a YouTube video titled “Did The Celtics Have The Weakest Finals Win in NBA History?”)

But in fact, perhaps as a sign of some small measure of progress in sports media, most national discussion about if the Celtics’ title should have an asterisk simply states that it doesn’t matter.

“All right, (Jimmy) Butler was hurt. Giannis (Antetokounmpo) got hurt, I get it. (Tyrese) Haliburton got hurt against Indiana, fine. Luka (Doncic) is dragging along who know what kind of scar tissue,” said ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt on the Ryen Russillo Podcast. “(But) nobody looks at Banner #14 and goes ‘yeah that was when so-and-so was hurt.’ I just don’t think that’s what we do.”

It’s true that most people won’t remember who Team X beat in Year Y on their way to championship number Z, which in turn makes it tempting to say that it doesn’t matter. But while collective memory isn’t exactly a strong suit of human society, being judgmental absolutely is. If people could somehow remember all the excuses they made after each title, suddenly all the asterisks would matter a great deal.

Now, those asterisks are still an exercise in bad-faith, disingenuous straw-man argumentation… which is exactly why we’re now going to parse through every single champion in NBA history and assign a retroactive asterisk to (nearly) all of them, hopefully proving that the powers of subjectivity can overcome any seemingly-airtight championship. Once we’re done, we’ll discuss the Celtics, and what asterisk they’ve earned and if they — or anyone else — actually deserve it.

Note: Feel free to skip around to your favorite or least favorite champions and see what I have to say about them, though not every title is mentioned individually if I felt it could be lumped in with some others.

1946-1947: Philadelphia Warriors

Philadelphia Warriors 1947 Team Portrait

Photo by Charles T. Higgins/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: Overpowered — Joe Fulks scored 23.2 points per game in an era where no team averaged more than 80 total per game. Also, this is the Basketball Association of America, not even the NBA yet.

1947-1948: Baltimore Bullets

Baltimore Bullets team photo

Photo by NBAPhotos/ NBAE/ Getty Images

Asterisk: Only played 48 games, down from 60 in order to cut down on travel costs for each team. The Warriors obviously had it much harder with their grueling slate in 1947. Four of the previous year’s eleven teams folded, leaving only eight left after one addition. Still the BAA, by the way.

1948-1949: Minneapolis Lakers

Minneapolis Lakers Basketball Team Posing Together

Asterisk: Standing at 6’10”, George Mikan was way too tall for the competition of the day. He also wore a cast in the Finals due to a broken hand, which is basically like wielding a blunt weapon. Also, they beat the Washington Capitols… isn’t that a hockey team?

1949-1950: Minneapolis Lakers

Minneapolis Lakers Basketball Team

Photo by © Minnesota Historical Society/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Asterisk: The Lakers played in the Minneapolis Auditorium, whose court was literally a few feet narrower than a regulation-sized court. How was that allowed? ASTERISK.

1950-1951: Rochester Royals

Red Holzman Action Portrait

Photo by NBA Photo Library/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: This season had a game that ended 19-18, with eight total made shots. If that doesn’t signify weak competition, I don’t know what does. Clearly another Mickey Mouse ring.

1951-1952: Minneapolis Lakers

‘The Sporting News 100 Years of Sports Images’

Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

Asterisk: Two players on the Indianapolis Olympians — Alex Groza and Ralph Beard — were banned from the league for point-shaving while in college. With such dark deeds on full display, how can we take this season seriously?

1952-1953: Minneapolis Lakers

George Mikan Busting Through Center

Asterisk: This is now the third straight year the Knicks failed to close the deal after making the NBA Finals, officially consigning them to choke-artist status. The Lakers did nothing but walk over a team that had already proven to be frauds.

1953-1954: Minneapolis Lakers

1953-54 NBA World Champion Minneapolis Lakers

Photo by NBA Photos Library/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: The Lakers must have been overpowered. Like, is anyone else going to win?

1954-1955: Syracuse Nationals

Syracuse Nationals Team Portrait

Photo by The Stevenson Collection/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: Former scoring champion Paul Arizin was in the military and George Mikan retired, leaving the league weaker than ever. Syracuse’s owner also invented the shot clock that year, which curiously coincided with them winning the title. Fishy.

1955-1956: Philadelphia Warriors

Portrait of Warrior Teammates With Their Championship Trophy

Asterisk: Philadelphia only had to win eight playoff games to win the title, with a bye landing them all the way in the Eastern Division Finals. Can’t rule out variance, so let’s call this one fake for now.

1956-1957: Boston Celtics

Bob Cousy and Teammates Celebrate Victory

Asterisk: Couldn’t defend the title. It’s a historical tragedy that they lost the next ring, you’ll see why.

1957-1958: St. Louis Hawks

Brains & Brawn - Season 1

Photo by: Bob Ganley/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

Asterisk: Fluke. I love Bob Pettit and his iconic toppling of the Celtics in the Finals, but check out what the team he just beat is about to do. Bill Russell sprained his ankle in Game 3 and missed Game 4, so my apologies to the seven Hawks fans from St. Louis. No dice, this title is fughazi.

1958-1966: Boston Celtics win eight consecutive championships

Bill Russell Portrait

Collective Asterisk: This dominance leads one to believe they were potentially too good in a league with too few teams, but who is going to tell that to a 90-year-old from Boston to their face?

1966-1967: Philadelphia 76ers

Wilt Chamberlain Drinking Champagne

Asterisk: Sure, Philadelphia beat the Celtics in the Eastern Division Finals, but the West was unable to muster a true challenger for the 76ers. It’s probably a fluke that they beat Boston anyway, so they can hop in with Bob Pettit and Co.


INTERMISSION: The NBA-ABA Question

As much as I’d love to keep listing off Celtics championships, now feels like a pretty good time for an intermission, given that from 1967 to 1976, the NBA was competing with the American Basketball Association before the merger. This is basically the de facto asterisk for every NBA and ABA Champion during that era, as they were simply not playing against all of the highest-level basketball talent in the world.

For all the NBA Champions of the era, there is one absolute electrifying, high-flying, slam-dunking asterisk: Julius Erving. Dr. J was considered by some to be the best player in either league in the early 1970s and a major reason for the merger, with the NBA’s legitimacy as the premier basketball league disputed with The Doctor filling stadiums in New York.

New York Nets Julius Erving, 1976 ABA Championship

SetNumber: X20494

Dr. J is one of the best examples of how asterisks can be literally lost in history. The 1971-1972 Milwaukee Bucks are often considered one of the greatest teams in history, but they never got a chance to play Erving, who was tearing it up over in the ABA. Who knows how NBA history would have been different if Dr. J could have been a real rival to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in both of their respective primes, rather than having to stare at each other from across the aisle? We have to rule out every title in this range as illegitimate just to be safe.


1976-1977: Portland Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers vs Philadelphia 76ers, 1977 NBA Finals

Asterisk: Unfairly acquired Maurice Lucas in the NBA-ABA expansion draft? I’m kind of grasping at straws here, this was a great title. Rest in peace Bill Walton, you and your guys were one of our only true NBA champions ever.

1977-1978: Washington Bullets

Washington Bullets Coach Dick Motta and Wes Unseld, 1978 Finals

SetNumber: X22420 TK3 R6

Asterisk: This was a 47-win team defeating a 44-win team. I know the league could have done better than that, but good for the Bullets. This is the last time they’ll amount to anything for half a century and counting.

1978-1979: Seattle Supersonics

Sonics Trophy Tour

Asterisk: The team doesn’t exist anymore, thus this title is owned by nobody and is void until Seattle gets an expansion team again. Don’t even talk to me, Oklahoma City Thunder fans.

1979-1980: Los Angeles Lakers

NBA Finals Game 6 - Los Angeles Lakers v Philadelphia 76ers

Asterisk: Not even I can deny how iconic this title is. Magic Johnson’s performance in Game 6 is maybe one of the greatest individual performances in sports history. If I had to find something… I guess they dodged the 61-win Celtics?

1980-1981: Boston Celtics

Boston Celtics NBA Championship Winners 1981

Photo by Frank O’Brien/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Asterisk: Even with an astounding Moses Malone season, the Rockets team the Celtics toppled won 40 games during the regular season to Boston’s 62. Modern NBA media would have eaten this up as less deserving than previous title-winners.

1981-1982: Los Angeles Lakers

Los Angeles Lakers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1982 NBA Finals

Set Number: X26991

Asterisk: Dodged the 63-win Celtics. They really can’t keep getting away with this.

1982-1983: Philadelphia 76ers

Los Angeles Lakers vs Philadelphia 76ers, 1983 NBA Finals

Set Number: X28564

Asterisk: Bill Russell was doing CBS color commentary, which has to be the most cursed thing ever for the Lakers, giving the 76ers a cosmic advantage. Also, it must have been convenient for Russell to watch the two teams he owned play each other.

1983-1984: Boston Celtics

Boston Celtics vs Los Angeles Lakers, 1984 NBA Finals

Set Number: X30089 TK3 R6 F16

Asterisk: Lakers fans are still mad about Game 5, which was played in 97-degree heat in the old Boston Garden. Whether or not that was a Red Auerbach conspiracy remains an open question.

Editor’s Note: Case closed, I’m putting an asterisk on it. Come on just look at that bulls—.

1984-1985: Los Angeles Lakers

Boston Celtics vs Los Angeles Lakers, 1985 NBA Finals

Set Number: X31597

Asterisk: (grumbles angrily) Larry Bird only shoots that poorly once in a blue moon.

1985-1986: Boston Celtics

1986 Boston Celtics Championship Parade

Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: Yeah, this was one of the best, coolest, most overpowered teams ever with at the apex of Bird and a revitalized Bill Walton. But… (sighs from constant repetition) I guess the Celtics dodged the 62-win Lakers and played the Rockets instead. Is this what being a TV producer is like?

1986-1987: Los Angeles Lakers

1988 Los Angeles Lakers Victory Parade

Photo by Bud Symes/Allsport/Getty Images

Asterisk: The Celtics plainly weren’t healthy for this series, and this was the peak of Magic Johnson’s powers. I’m so glad I get to make excuses for this one.

1987-1988: Los Angeles Lakers

1988 NBA Finals Game Seven: Detroit Pistons v Los Angeles Lakers

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: “Can he actually say it again?” Yes I can, because the Lakers dodged the No. 1-seeded Celtics in favor of the Detroit Pistons (who were probably a better team that year but shhh we’re making excuses). Being a TV producer is so easy!

1988-1989: Detroit Pistons

Detroit Pistons v Los Angeles Lakers

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: I physically can’t make any more Celtics-related excuses since they got swept by these Pistons in the first round, and this is an unassailable, awesome championship, with the best team beating the second-best team in dominant fashion and even beating Michael Jordan with the iconic “Jordan Rules.” The best I got is that they got lucky with playing Jordan this early in his career. Historical luck.

1989-1990: Detroit Pistons

1990 NBA Finals Game 5: Portland Trail Blazers v Detroit Pistons

Photo by NBA Photos/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: Refer to above. It’s almost the same exact story.

1991-1993: The Chicago Bulls three-peat

1993 NBA Finals - Game Six: Chicag Bulls v Phoenix Suns

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Collective Asterisk: They literally had Michael Jordan, the greatest player of all time. I don’t know if that’s an asterisk or just a compliment, but I’m just going to leave this here.

1993-1994: Houston Rockets

1994 NBA Finals: David Stern Presents Trophy to Houston Rockets

Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: The aforementioned greatest player of all time was playing baseball.

1994-1995: Houston Rockets

1995 NBA Finals: Houston Rockets Celebrate in Lockerroom

Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: The aforementioned greatest player of all time was playing baseball for the first few months of the season.

1996-1998: The Chicago Bulls three-peat again

SPORTS-BKN-BULLS-RING-TB

Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Collective Asterisk: #We’reDoneWithThe90s

1998-1999: San Antonio Spurs

BKN-FINALS-SPURS-TROPHYS 2

Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Asterisk: Weak era for the league post-Jordan, and the Spurs were the most ready to take advantage of that with David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Also, it was a lockout season, so as we’ve previously established, it has a different number of games than normal and basically doesn’t count.

2000-2002: The Los Angeles Lakers three-peat

Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant (L) and Shaquille O

Photo credit should read MATT CAMPBELL/AFP via Getty Images

Asterisk: The Eastern Conference had nothing — and I mean nothing — that could hang with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal during this stretch. If the NBA was a Pokemon battle, the East was saying “Reggie Miller and Allen Iverson, I choose you!” while Shaq and Kobe just stomped on them repeatedly.

2002-2003: San Antonio Spurs

Tim Duncan holds the trophy

Asterisk: This is a pretty solid ring all things considered, but the Jason Kidd-led New Jersey Nets were the latest in a string of weaker-than-needed Eastern Conference offerings, this time against the Spurs. But they beat the Lakers in Round 2, so that’s pretty cool.

2003-2004: Detroit Pistons

2004 NBA Finals - Game 5: Lakers v Pistons

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: The Lakers were injury-ridden, old — like they had Karl Malone and Gary Payton in 2004, come on — and may have hated each other, so even much as I respect this Pistons ring, it simply has to be voided due to Lakers’ incompetence. Take it up with Los Angeles, Pistons fans.

2004-2005: San Antonio Spurs

NBA Finals Game 7: Detroit Pistons v San Antonio Spurs

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: It’s time for the Spurs to do the Spurs thing: capitalizing on a power vacuum left by a Phil Jackson-led potential dynasty falling apart. The Pistons were great, but there was no titan to stop the Spurs, so they did what they do, and took advantage.

2005-2006: Miami Heat

TOPSHOT-BKN-FINALS-HEAT-MAVERICKS-12

Photo by JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images

Asterisk: This was basically a coin flip between which young “hey he hasn’t won yet” star would get a ring, and it wound up being Dwayne Wade over Dirk Nowitzki. Congrats. Also, Wade shot like a billion free throws, including 25 in Game 5 alone, so this was probably rigged anyway.

2006-2007: San Antonio Spurs

BKN-NBA-TONY PARKER-CONTEST

Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Asterisk: Go look at that 2007 Cavaliers roster. LeBron James dragged that team to the NBA Finals kicking and screaming and had no chance against the Spurs. The only way this ring could be more Mickey Mouse is if Bob Iger was starting for the Cavs at shooting guard.

2007-2008: Boston Celtics

Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers

Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: If anything, the Lakers should have the asterisk for even making the Finals after that criminal Pau Gasol heist like how was th— sorry. I guess… uh, erm, Paul Pierce tainted this ring in 2019 when he admitted the wheelchair incident was just so he could go use the bathroom, quite literally the definition of a “dirty trick.”

2008-2009: Los Angeles Lakers

BKN-NBA-FINAL-LAKERS-MAGIC

Photo by STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

Asterisk: This is Dwight Howard’s fault for beating LeBron and the much-improved Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The world wanted Kobe versus LeBron, and the Orlando Magic said no. Show some respect next time, guys. Asterisk because it’s not the matchup we wanted. Deal with it.

2009-2010: Los Angeles Lakers

NBA Finals Game 7: Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers

Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Asterisk: The Lakers still to this day haven’t beaten Boston’s starting five. Just ask Doc Rivers. Easy asterisk.

2010-2011: Dallas Mavericks

BKN-NBA-FINAL-HEAT-MAVERICKS

Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

Asterisk: The Miami Heat weren’t a team yet? Like… I don’t know guys, beating that Miami Heat team is pretty undeniable. We might have our second real champion in NBA history.

2011-2012: Miami Heat

Oklahoma City Thunder v Miami Heat - Game Five

Asterisk: Overpowered superteam facing literal children in the finals. Asterisk.

2012-2013: Miami Heat

San Antonio Spurs v Miami Heat - Game 7

Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Asterisk: Still overpowered, but don’t make me besmirch the 2013 Finals. (“…rebound Bosh, back out to Allen, his three-pointer… BANG!”)

2013-2014: San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio Spurs Victory Parade

Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: San Antonio took a page out of Red Auerbach’s playbook and cranked the heat up to give LeBron cramps. There’s no shot this one can be allowed.

2014-2015: Golden State Warriors

New Orleans Pelicans v Golden State Warriors

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: Unfair home court advantage. I don’t have any proof, but some witchcraft was happening at Oracle Arena that won them 54 straight home games between this season and the next.

2015-2016: Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers Victory Parade And Rally

Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Asterisk: Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5. Easiest asterisk of my life.

2016-2017: Golden State Warriors

Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: Kevin Durant.

2017-2018: Golden State Warriors

2018-19 Golden State Warriors Media Day

Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: Kevin Durant.

2018-2019: Toronto Raptors

Toronto Raptors’ Kyle Lowry holds the Larry O’Brien trophy as Kawhi Leonard exults after Raptors’ 114-110 win over Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of NBA Finals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Thursday, June 13, 2019.

Photo by Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Asterisk: Kevin Durant’s Achilles Injury.

2019-2020: Los Angeles Lakers

2020 NBA Finals - Los Angeles Lakers v Miami Heat

Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: Played in a real-life Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. There has literally never been a more Mickey Mouse title.

2020-2021: Milwaukee Bucks

Brooklyn Nets v Milwaukee Bucks

Asterisk: The lack of fans for a huge chunk of the year, the short turnaround from the bubble and the wave of injuries and COVID absences just messed with the league, and we also didn’t know that the Phoenix Suns were frauds yet. Also, Kevin Durant’s big toe, technically.

2021-2022: Golden State Warriors

2022 NBA Finals - Game Six

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Asterisk: The Celtics beat pretty much every other good team in the league, while the Warriors stomped through young or injured teams and haven’t made it past the second-round since. Clearly a lucky break.

2022-2023: Denver Nuggets

Denver Nuggets Victory Parade

Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Asterisk: The Miami Heat roster they smoked had run out of magical power, and the Nuggets played an eight-seed, four-seed, seven-seed, and then another eight-seed. Have to cross this one off.

2023-2024: Boston Celtics

2024 Boston Celtics Championship Parade

Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Asterisk: (see below)

And now we’ve come to the crux of our 79-year-long list: the Boston Celtics. The commonly-held asterisk for this team is easy to conjure: the Celtics played middling teams in the first three rounds, and all three lost their superstar player before or early in the series. The absences of Jimmy Butler, Donovan Mitchell, and Tyrese Haliburton may have made the Celtics’ ring less appealing to non-fans.

But I think I have a better asterisk: the Denver Nuggets didn’t show up to the party.

If my hunch is right, the 2020s Nuggets will go down as one of the teams to beat of this decade. They were the one team that gave the Celtics real, tangible trouble in the regular season, and even as a card-carrying Celtics exceptionalist, I was far from sure Boston could beat them in the NBA Finals. But they just weren’t in the mix, bowing out in Game 7 of the second round.


So as you can see, with nothing but bare minimum historical literacy and couple perusings of NBA.com, one can construct an asterisk out of basically thin air for (almost) every ring in NBA history, and there are basically two (1977, 2011) context-clear champions.

That’s because these asterisks are built on bitterness, and true bitterness can overcome any logical barrier. I’m sure everyone could sense my specific indignation every time I had to make up an asterisk for a Celtics championship, and my glee when I got to make fun of a Lakers one.

These qualifiers are built on negative impulses, with fans of the team being asterisked taking offense and saying things like “nobody will remember the asterisks.” But I think remembering them is important, as it helps us contextualize the season so long as we think long and hard about which one to pick.

I do not have a strong enough understanding of NBA discourse throughout history to come up with a fair and honest asterisk for every ring ever, but perhaps there are those out there who do. And even if we have to toss out the last 79 years due to rude and bad-faith asterisks, I’m starting a movement today: From here on out, we will come up with a good asterisk for every ring; not to make it any less valid, but to provide every championship with an added layer of recorded context.

The Nuggets failing to meet the Celtics in the NBA Finals is the real asterisk on these playoffs. The injuries probably wouldn’t have ultimately swung any of those series, and the Celtics were so dominant that only one team could act as their real challenger. It’s unfortunate for the history of basketball that the Nuggets couldn’t rise to that challenge, but the Celtics’ championship remains valid despite that.

Because grammatically, asterisks aren’t supposed to question the validity of something. They’re just supposed to clear things up. And nothing needs more care and clarification than history, so let’s get to asterisking.

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