Most people aren’t aware, but Larry Bird and Magic Johnson nearly ended up on the Celtics. Before 1985 the 1st pick in the draft was decided by a coin flip between the two teams with the worst records in the league. In 1979 the Chicago Bulls were a coin flip away from the #1 pick but ended up 2nd. Had they won the coin flip and 1st pick Magic Johnson stated he would have gone back to college. There is reason to believe he would have as most college players stayed until at least their junior years in those days anyway and Magic didn’t come from the worst of situations.
Larry Bird was drafted in 1978 before his senior season, so Magic staying in or coming out would have had no effect on him being drafted by the Celtics. They already had his rights. The Celtics also had the rights to the number one overall pick in 1980 (which was from Detroit. They had given up an accomplished player in Bob McAdoo to acquire the pick. Red Auerbach was a great talent evaluator, and you would think it would have drafted Magic Johnson. In reality with Magic off the board, he sent that pick to Golden State who drafted Joe Barry Carroll. In return, he received the 3rd pick and drafted Kevin McHale and was traded Robert Parrish who had averaged 17ppg 11rpg the previous season and was 26 years old.
Obviously, the trade for McHale and Parish was incredible in its own right, but if Magic was on the board I don’t think Boston passes up the opportunity to take him. Tiny Archibald was 32 years old and not much longer for the league. Point Guard was a pressing need as well as center. At the time they still had a young power forward in Cedric Maxwell and a deep overall frontcourt with Bird. Dave Cowens had retired after the 1980 season putting them in a tough situation. He would come out of retirement 2 seasons later, so it’s possible if Magic Johnson was in the draft he may have decided to play on. Regardless they had a competent center in Rickey Robey who had averaged 11.5ppg and 6.5rpg in 1980 in only his 2nd year. His career got stunted some when Parrish and McHale came on board as did Cedric Maxwell more importantly. Without those two Maxwell likely steps up his game quite a bit. Robey’s rim protection seems light but with Magic’s rebounding and size, I think you could have gotten by with Robey in those early years until they got another center. They could have probably traded Archibald for a serviceable center. You take Magic and figure it out regardless.
It’s still a great team. Any team with Bird and Magic I think would figure it out. Where they drafted players like Ainge and Reggie Lewis in the decade I don’t think much changed as far as those picks or most of the others. They would need to find a better center in a trade along the way to compete with the Lakers, 76ers, and Houston through the early and mid 80’s. With Kareem, Olajuwon, and Moses Malone the Celtics would have needed to find someone to slow them down some to have success.
Spencer Haywood was waived before the season and out of the NBA for one season. He would have been a decent stop-gap option. Dave Corzine was a young player traded for two 2nd rounders before the season as well. Both would have been available and pretty good options as well. Corzine on that team would have fit well. Bill Lambeer was traded in 1982 for a first-round pick. Probably a little better one than Boston could offer, but he was available. George Johnson was signed by the Spurs that offseason at the cost of a 1st rounder as well. He lead the NBA in blocks at 3.4 bpg and would have fit well as well on defense. There were options out there.
I think the Celtics with Bird and Magic could have won five or six Championships throughout the 1980’s. They would win 8 separately. I can’t give them all of those 8 as players like Kareem, McHale, Parrish, Worthy, Cooper, and Scott certainly helped both win independently. The Lakers the first half of the decade with Kareem, Cooper, Jamal Wilkes, Bob McAdoo, Norm Nixon and Worthy would have still had something to say about who won championships in the 1980’s. They would have been a tough test. I think the 76ers probably still win in 1983 as well and the Pistons were coming on the later half of the 80’s. Even as good as Bird and Magic were it’s not a given without a much better center that they dominate at that sort of level. Getting that center would be the biggest challenge as well. Maxwell was eventually traded for Bill Walton before the 85-86 season. He was old and injured by that point, but healthy that one season. He could have likely played more minutes as well. That only solves one season at the center though. Complete domination would come down to who else they could add long-term at center, and that is the unknown.