ESPN’s 30 For 30 episode “Best of Enemies” has rekindled an ageless debate his week. Larry Bird or Magic Johnson? In the 1980’s, this debate dominated not only the NBA, but all of professional sports. 30+ years later, fans are still talking about it. However, as the years have gone by, something has been forgotten…the facts. It’s very easy to make an opinion on who was the better player based on highlights and total number of championships. However there’s more to it than that.
In today’s post, we’re going to share three facts that prove that Larry Bird was a better player than Magic Johnson.
1. Larry Bird finished above Magic Johnson in the NBA MVP Voting in 8 of their 9 first seasons. 8 of 9!
Bird and Magic entered the league together in 1979. They both won titles within their first two years and had team success. The reality is that Magic wasn’t even the best player on his own team until around 1984 and Bird was the MVP of the league in that year…and the next one…and the next one. Let’s take a look at the breakdown.
1980 – Bird finished fourth in the MVP voting as rookie. Magic wasn’t even listed. He didn’t receive one vote. The Lakers won the title that year, but they also had the MVP of the league, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
1981 – Bird finished a close second behind Dr. J. It was 454-423. Magic? He finished 11th playing just 37 games. We’ll give him a mulligan.
1982 – Bird is 2nd again. This time Moses Malone had 506 votes to Bird’s 406. Magic finished 8th. Robert Parish and Gus Williams finished ahead of Magic. Think about that…
1983 – You guessed it. Bird was second for the third straight year. Magic finished 3rd that year and entered the Top 5 for the first time his four year career.
1984 – Bird gets over the hump and wins his first MVP. Magic finished 3rd behind Bernard King.
1985 – Larry Legend wins his second MVP in a row. Magic was 2nd. It wasn’t close. Bird 763, Magic 264. This was the first time Magic finished in the top two.
1986 – Larry Bird becomes just the third player in NBA history to win three consecutive MVP awards. Magic was 3rd. This time, behind Dominique Wilkins.
At this point, after their first seven seasons, Larry Bird had finished in the Top 2 in the MVP Voting five times. Magic had done is just once and hadn’t won an MVP. Bird finished ahead of Magic in every season.
1987 – Magic wins his first MVP. Bird finished third behind Michael Jordan. Finally, it’s not one sided!
Many fans point to this being the point where Magic took over the reigns. Thank again.
1988 – MJ wins the MVP. Bird finishes second (for the fourth time). Magic was third.
8-1. If we were talking about one season, the MVP voting could be argued as possibly not being an accurate reflection of who is a better player. But, nine seasons? Pretty good sample size, no? And the people voting are viewed as the experts. The voting numbers aren’t even remotely close. How is this really even debatable?
Granted Magic went on to win two more MVP’s and Bird didn’t. Bird missed all but 6 games in 1989 and had just one more healthy season from there. During his prime years, Bird was the best player in the league and these league votes confirm that.
2. Magic joined a top NBA Team. Bird made the Celtics a top team.
Before Magic joined the Lakers, they had won 47 games the previous season…and they had the best player in the league in Kareem. He certainly made the Lakers better, but he was an addition to an already strong team.
When Larry Bird joined the Celtics, they had won 29 games in the pervious season. They had the second worst record in the NBA. The Celtics were a mess! The following season, they won 61 games which was the best record in the NBA. Keep in mind this was before the Celtics had Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. Larry Bird made the Celtics the second worst team in the NBA to the best overnight. You could make the argument that no single player in the history of the NBA made this type of immediate impact.
3. Bird was the better clutch player. The head-to-head Finals matchups proved that.
The Celtics and Lakers played 19 head-to head NBA Finals games. The Lakers won eleven and the Celtics won eight. Amazingly, only four of those games were close down the stretch. Bird and Magic had an impact on all four. Here’s a summary of the plays each player made in those games.
1984 NBA Finals, Game 2: Magic had the ball with less than 10 seconds to go in a tie game. He dribbled out the clock and doesn’t get a shot off. Celtics win in OT.
1984 NBA Finals, Game 4: Magic missed two key free throws. He then throws a lazy pass which gets stolen by Robert Parish in double overtime. Celtics ball. Bird got Magic in the post and hits a turnaround jumper which give the Celtics the lead and they win the game. Bird over Magic…again.
1985 NBA Finals, Game 5: The game was tied with less than ten seconds to go. Bird drove to the hoop and got double teamed. He kicked it out to Dennis Johnson who hit a buzzer beater to win the game.
1987 NBA Finals, Game 4: Bird hit a three in the corner to give the Celtics a two point lead. As Byron Scott recalls it “he told us the play”. Ridiculous. The guy tells you the play in Game 4 of the NBA Finals with the game on the line and then he executes it? Magic hit the sky hook over Parish and McHale which is the shot everyone remembers from this series. The Celtics had two second. Bird had an open look in the corner….and missed. Magic finished on top this time.
In summary, Magic Johnson failed three different times in clutch NBA Finals games against the Celtics. Bird failed once on a fadeaway three in the corner…if you want to call that a fail.
Magic Johnson won two more titles than Larry Bird. For the record, he didn’t have to go through the Sixers and Pistons to get the Finals year after year. That does not make him the better player. Over the past thirty years, this debate has gotten skewed in Magic’s favor.
The facts prove otherwise. Larry Bird was a better basketball player than Magic Johnson. Just ask the hundreds of NBA experts who voted on this debate, at the time, over a nine year span. Period.