Today’s post will focus on why Larry Bird was a better basketball player than Lebron James. In the last couple of years, these two players have been compared very frequently by sports media and fans. It’s an easy comparison to make considering that both players played the same position as small forwards. In addition, both guys were the best player in the NBA, at one point, in their respective careers. These types of comparisons come up frequently when a player is elite and at the top of his game. The same comparison is happening now in the Tom Brady vs. Joe Montana debate. Brady is at the top of his game. We watch him week after week and it’s easy to put him at the top because it’s fresh in our minds. The same was true for Montana when he was in his prime. The current player usually gets the nod and the older player is forgotten. Lebron James is a great player. But, let’s make one thing very clear. Larry Bird was a better basketball player than Lebron James. This post will tell you why.
We’ll break down the two players careers and compare them in a number of ways. One of the categories you will not see broken down in this post is who has the most flashy highlights that you normally see from Lebron James. Over time, the flashy play of NBA players has become the focus of many fans. With all of these highlights and fun plays to watch as a fan, something has been lost. Winning basketball has been put on the back burner.
If you google “Larry Bird”, you’re not going to find flashy highlights. You’re not going to see a player who was more athletic than his opponents. In fact, you’ll find a player who had below average athletic ability than most NBA players. What you’ll find is a player who was the best thinker on the floor. You’ll find an all-time elite shooter. You’ll find a player who would sacrifice everything to win. You’ll find a player who gave more effort than everyone in the league. You’ll find a player who made his teammates better. You’ll find a player that could have done a lot more on an individual level because of his great skill, but always did his work in the framework of a “team first” approach. You’ll find a player who raised his game in the big moments. You’ll find a true winner in every sense of the word.
So, let’s get to it. We’re going to compare Larry Bird and Lebron James in the following categories: Statistics, Skill, Impact, Clutch Play, and Winning.
Most of the time when you see a statistical comparison of these two players, it’s oversimplified. Fans and writers will just take the overall career numbers and compare them. Isn’t there more to it than that? The problem with a career statistical comparison of a player who is no longer playing and one that is in his prime years is that the analysis is skewed in favor of the current player. Naturally, as a player enters the final years of his career his numbers decline. What do you think Larry Bird’s career numbers looked like when he was 31 years old? Here’s a hint. In 1986-87, many experts were saying that Larry Bird was the best basketball player ever. Rather than simply giving you a career comparison, we’ll give you the players stats during their five prime years. For Bird, this will be from 1983-1988. For Lebron, this will be from 2010 – 2015. This gives us a strong five year comparison when both players were at their peak.
Here are some initial thoughts on these numbers. Usually, the Lebron argument in this debate starts with stats. Lebron is a stats guy. He posts great numbers…but not as great as Larry Bird. Most would argue that Lebron is a much better scorer than Bird Wrong. Bird’s scoring numbers are actually slightly better and scoring wasn’t even the best part of his overall game. Bird was a much better rebounder as shown in a 2.5 rebound per game difference. The assist numbers are basically even. And how about the defensive numbers? Would anyone supporting the Lebron side of the argument have guessed that the slow, unathletic Larry Bird would average more steals and blocks than the great defensive player, Lebron James?! I would guess not. Bird was not a stats guy. The intangibles he contributed far outweighed his numbers and we’ll get into all of that as we continue this post. Having said that, his stats were amazing and he clearly has better overall numbers than Lebron in their prime years.
Statistics Edge: Larry Bird
This is a good category to look at after the stats. When we think about skill, we’re looking at overall ability of the players. The stats don’t need to show you this and even the people on the Lebron side will admit that Bird is the better shooter. No debate there. The same is true for rebounding. Many fans forget that Bird was an elite rebounder who averaged 10 rebounds a game over the course of his career. Despite the numbers above showing the steals and blocks edge for Bird, Lebron gets the edge defensively. He is vastly overrated defensively, but his athletic ability makes him a tough presence on the defensive end. Bird was more of a team defender who managed to get to the right place at the right time to make defensive plays. See Game 5 – 1987 Eastern Conference Finals.
Who is the better passer? The numbers won’t tell you the answer. It’s too close. The reality is that both players are elite passers for their position. They both did a great job of finding the open man. We’ll call this one a wash. Remember, there’s a lot more to skill than athletic ability.
Skill Edge: Even
Many fans today don’t know about or do not remember the overall impact that Larry Bird made on the NBA. When he came into the league, the NBA Finals were not even televised on live television. The league was on a significant decline in the late 1970’s. No one cared. Bird and Magic Johnson changed the NBA. Bird made the NBA’s greatest all-time team, the Boston Celtics, marketable again. In Bird’s rookie year, the Celtics went from being 29-53 to 61-21! They went from being a bottom of the league team to the best team in the NBA when Bird arrived. By his second year, he was an NBA champion and was arguably the best player in basketball. By his third year, the NBA was quickly becoming a major sports attraction. Bird and Magic then took off from there in historic playoff battles that will probably never be matched.
Another thing Bird did was that he changed the way basketball was played to more of a team aspect. This made basketball more attractive than the individual type play that many fans were tired of before Bird and Magic came into the league. Bird and Magic paved the way from Jordan, Shaq, Duncan, and…
Lebron James came into the league in 2003. At the time, the NBA was already doing very well and was marketable. Shaq was still the major star in the league after Jordan’s departure from the Bulls. Jordan was not the same guy playing for the Wizards. The NBA needed someone to take the torch from Shaq. Kobe Bryant and Lebron did that. They both won multiple championships and they brought in revenue for the league. However, are there many basketball fans that think the NBA is better today than it was 10, 20, or even 30 years ago?
The league is back to the self-centered approach. The league’s greatest star, Lebron, has helped bring this all back to the league. Disagree? Listen to a Lebron post-game interview. Listen to how often he uses the words “us” or “we” compared to how many times he uses the words “me” or “I”. Or you can just watch a clip of the “The Decision” to play for the Miami Heat. This category isn’t even close. There may not even be an NBA right now had it not been for Bird and Magic saving the league. Larry Bird changed the NBA for the better.
Impact Edge: Larry Bird
We could break this down with more statistics, but let’s simply use the “eye test” here. It’s the NBA Finals. Your team is down by one point and you have the ball with 15 seconds to go. Who would you want to take the last shot? Larry Bird or Lebron James? Ask Michael Jordan. Ask Magic Johnson. Ask Charles Barkley. They’ll all pick the same guy.
Larry Bird had an ability to raise his game to another level when the game was on the line. In the history of basketball, there’s really only one player that matches Bird in this area and that’s Michael Jordan. Players feared Bird at the end of the game. They would double team him and they still couldn’t stop him. He made game winning shot after game winning shot. He demanded the basketball and he delivered. His exceptional shooting ability put him in a superior class in NBA history. Bird was one of the best pure shooters who ever played basketball.
Lebron James has never been known for his clutch play. In fact, there have been many times in his career where he would shy away from taking the last shot. Opponents did not fear Lebron taking the last shot as they did with Bird. Why? Because he isn’t a very good outside shooter. Opponents are perfectly fine with him taking the last shot from outside of 15 feet. The fear is really around him getting to the basket. He is certainly superior to Bird in that phase of the game. He has made some big shots, but he’s not in the same league as Bird in this category.
Clutch Play Edge: Larry Bird
Winning and Team Play
This is the most important category. Similar to the statistics category, this is often over-simplified. Most fans just go straight to championships. This is certainly a major contributing factor in this part of the debate. Bird has a 3-2 edge in championships. Yes, Lebron still has plenty of time to win more and, perhaps, he will. In the NBA Finals, Bird is 3-2 and Lebron is 2-4. It’s tough to really come up with a clear cut winner here right now simply based on championships. Let’s break it down further.
Rather than just looking at championships alone, let’s like the actual impact the players made winning those championships. As it was noted earlier, Bird took a team that won 29 games to an NBA Championship in his second year in the league. Granted, the Celtics did add other players as well including Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, but Bird was the clear-cut leader and he made his teammates better. This is important when analyzing the impact on winning that each player had.
In Lebron’s two championships, he joined a team that already had a great player in Dwayne Wade. They also added Chris Bosh. Did Lebron James make those players any better than they already were? No. They certainly came together and did what was needed to win two titles, but Lebron didn’t elevate those players games.
Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, and Danny Ainge combined for 17 All-Star Teams playing with Larry Bird. They combined for one All-Star Team playing without Larry Bird. Robert Parish made the All-Star Team nine times in 12 years playing with Bird. He made it 0 times in nine years playing without Bird. All of the Celtic players were able to raise the level of their games while playing with Larry Bird. He made the players around him better. The Celtics were the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference every year but one from 1980-1988. In 1988-89, Larry Bird played just six games as he had surgery on his Achilles. In that season, the Celtics went from being the #1 seed five years in a row to the #8 seed with a 42-40 record. Kevin McHale had the opportunity to take the lead on the team with Bird out. Despite now having more opportunity to be “the guy” his stats dropped that year in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. His field goal percentage dropped from .604 to .546. McHale went from having the best field goal percentage in the NBA to being just another guy without Larry Bird. Coincidence? Bird’s overall impact on his team and winning were through the roof.
Another point here is that players who played with Bird wanted to play better with Bird because he led by example. No one worked harder. The team followed that lead and they knew that if they put the work in, they would ultimately be rewarded by playing with Bird. What players in Lebron James career were significantly better players playing with Lebron James than without him? Not Wade. Not Bosh. Not J.R. Smith. Not Ray Allen. Still waiting…
Lebron James certainly did a lot make his team a winner. You don’t make the NBA Finals five years in a row without doing that. However, again, Bird was just at another level.
Winning and Team Play Edge: Larry Bird
Larry Bird was a better basketball player than Lebron James. “Edge” is putting it lightly in many of these categories. It’s unfortunate that so many fans and media members forget just how good “Larry Legend” was. It’s also unfortunate that many fans in the younger generation never had the privilege of watching Bird play in his prime years.
If you’re picking Lebron, that’s fine. But, do yourself a favor and consider taking a deeper dive into it. Perhaps, even check the NBA archives and watch a few Celtics games from 1983-1988. It may open your eyes to Bird’s greatness.
In terms of all around play in his prime years, Larry Bird takes a back seat to no one…especially Lebron James.