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Bird vs. Magic - Who Was The Better Player?


DaveO
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Bird or Magic--Who Was Better

 

I can't argue with people who think Magic (who I would put as my #2 passer) was a better ball-handler than Bird because he was better at dribbling through traffic and doling out passes on-the-run - when the Lakers were fast-breaking with Magic carrying the ball (can't you just visualize that in your mind?), the opposing team was doomed. Bird had a spatial perception that I've never seen before or since, not even with Kidd or Nash - the Celtics without Bird simply would not have been a great team (Magic had a *much* better supporting cast - people forget just how good James Worthy was, and even in college Magic had Greg Kelser who was Michigan State's leading scorer and almost surely an all-American; Bird had nobody). The only other thing Bird could really do well *besides* pass was shoot (having both of those skills, which all of these people did, is a lethal combination - one opens up the other). As for Stockton, take away Karl Malone (the NBA's #2 all-time scorer), and Stockton's value is diminished ... or, is it the other way around? There's no way that Malone is #2 all-time without Stockton (the NBA's #1 all-time assist leader). Either way, that was one hell of a symbiotic relationship. In terms of "making your teammates better," Magic, Bird, Nash ... they all did, but nobody more so than Bird, and I think being a great passer is the one thing that does that the most. The beauty of this debate is that people usually like both players, and often have them ranked #1 and #2 in this general category. Damn those were heady times to be an NBA fan.

Bird or Magic.  Its the epic debate.  Two well matched, multi talented team oriented players who dominated the decade of the 80's in the NBA.  They both entered the league in the 79-80 season and played through the decade.  Both careers were cut short;  Bird by back injuries, Magic by contracting HIV.  Their careers were remarkably similar both leading teams to incredible regular season dominating records and a number of championships.

During the 1980's the Lakers made it to the NBA finals times and won 5 championships.  The Celtics made it to the finals 5 times and won 3 championships.  The Celtics played in the East and faced tremendously tougher competition, The 76ers being the equal or better than either the Lakers and Celts during the first 4 years, with 3 finals visits, and 1 championship.  The Milwaukee Bucks had seasons in a row of 50 or more wins, Atlanta had at least 5 seasons of over 50 wins, and the Detroit Pistons became the dominant team in the league, going to the championship in the 87-88 and 88-89 season and winning it in 89.  Detroit won 54 and 63 regular season games those two seasons.  The Celtics played tougher competition during the decade but the Lakers won the big ones, the championships when it counted....and when the Celts and Lakers faced off in the NBA championships the Lakers took 2 of 3.

The teams were packed with other stars besides Bird and Magic.  Don mentions "Big Game" James Worthy....but jeez....what about Kareem???   All time great Kareem Abdul Jabbar played the last 10 years of his all-time career with Magic Johnson, from age 32 to 41.  He averaged over 20 pts/game for the first 7 of those years He was first team all NBA 4 of those years and 2nd team 3 times.  Magic was running with a STUD et al.

In Bird's first year he helped the team to 61 regular season wins...a turnabout of 32 games from the previous season.  Bird was the Stud in 79-80.  But in later years the Celtics added Robert Parish, Kevin McHale (probably the decades #1 power foward and an all time great) and Dennis Johnson, a 9 time all NBA defensive choice (6 times first team) and twice made all NBA.   During Johnson's 7 years with the Celtics he was the primary point guard.   Between Parish, Mchale, and Johnson the Celts were loaded...as were the Lakers.

What about attributes?   Don doesn't highlight Bird's rebounding skills.  Cripes, the man is one of the NBA's best defensive rebounder EVER.  To get a feel for this;  Larry Bird currently is ranked 31st for career points at a little under 22,000 pts.  He is well known as one of the NBA's best scorers, year in year out.  But his total ranking is diminished because his career was shortened due to injuries.   His all time NBA defensive Rebound ranking is 22nd  with 7217.  He was a monster on the defensive boards and he did it most of the time with 2 other excellent rebounders, Parish plus Mchale (and others).  Bird was great at sweeping the defensive boards and keeping the opposition from regaining the ball.  His defensive rebounding per game is among the highest recorded (they didn't account for this stat in the "old days" so Wilt, Russell, et al are not part of those stats).

Magic was also a great if not formidable rebounder.  He averaged 7.2 rebounds as a guard in regular season and 7.7 in the playoffs.  Magic averaged over 10 rebounds/game in his first 3 years, playing as a shooting guard/ 2ndary ball handler 2ndary rebounder.

Neither of them had the primary function as rebounder.  But both were absolutely significant in that regard.

Bird was a scorer and Magic was a passer.  Both were excellent in the other categories, supporting other passers or scorers.  Neither had to lead in the alternative category, but did need to provide critical support....and they did.

Bird and Magic were utter stars that both turned their teams into championship contenders, annually during the decade.  Pre the 79-80 season the Lakers had Kareem for several years and couldn't win a championship.  Pre that season the Celtics were dreadful.  When Bird was injured in 88-89 the Celtics went from championship caliber to so so.  After Magic retired (for the first time)...the Lakers were no where's near a championship caliber team.

Bird, btw:  was an exquisite passer, probably the best at "touch passes"   Here is a video with some of his "best"

Meanwhile Magic, with his flash, and speed, and passing, and scoring and rebounding, was after all is said and done, often a winner:   Here, a video of some of his best and most crucial plays:

Among those plays is the Magic Johnson "baby hook" that won the 4th game of the 87 season NBA finals described here  Clutch.  A lotta "tall guys" tried to block that shot.

Now who was better???

Well if you search on "best players in NBA history"  one will find many lists from many sources.  While Michael Jordan is usually described as "best" I'm interested in the relative rankings of Bird and Magic; who is ranked higher by which sources?  Scan through them, one will find that Magic usually outranks Bird.  A consensus from those that watch too much NBA basketball.  There is one "expert" whose opinion on this topic interested me:  Bill Simmons, the author of the Book of Basketball and who spent way too much time evaluating too many NBA players for his epic book.

Simmons, who is from Boston, who loves the Celtics, who grew up watching the 80's Celts in person, and has the most heartfelt mancrush on Larry Bird, actually ranks Magic higher.  Whoa...that alone might get him banned from Boston.

My opinion?   I don't have one.  I was lucky to have packages of tickets to Bullets games during the 80's and saw both of them play in person along with so many other stars.  They were magnificent.  If you blindfolded me spun me around, mixed them up and I had to choose one of them as a 2nd pick, (after Jordan), I'd be happy as can be with either one.  They would both end up leading a team of stars against one another to many victories.

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The teams were packed with other stars besides Bird and Magic.  Don mentions "Big Game" James Worthy....but jeez....what about Kareem???   All time great Kareem Abdul Jabbar played the last 10 years of his all-time career with Magic Johnson, from age 32 to 41.  He averaged over 20 pts/game for the first 7 of those years He was first team all NBA 4 of those years and 2nd team 3 times.  Magic was running with a STUD et al.

What about attributes?   Don doesn't highlight Bird's rebounding skills.  Cripes, the man is one of the NBA's best defensive rebounder EVER.  To get a feel for this;  Larry Bird currently is ranked 31st for career points at a little under 22,000 pts.  He is well known as one of the NBA's best scorers, year in year out.  But his total ranking is diminished because his career was shortened due to injuries.   His all time NBA defensive Rebound ranking is 22nd  with 7217.  He was a monster on the defensive boards and he did it most of the time with 2 other excellent rebounders, Parish plus Mchale (and others).  Bird was great at sweeping the defensive boards and keeping the opposition from regaining the ball.  His defensive rebounding per game is among the highest recorded (they didn't account for this stat in the "old days" so Wilt, Russell, et al are not part of those stats).

Now that I have something else to add, I'll point out that I didn't bother to mention Abdul-Jabbar because it was too obvious. :)

I think it's important to emphasize your point about "not accounting for this stat in the 'old days,'" because they only started dividing up rebounds into offensive and defensive in the 1973-1974 season - both Chamberlain and Russell had over 20,000 rebounds. It's also amazing to me that Jason Kidd is #25 on your list. Jason Kidd!

Bird averaged *exactly* 10 rebounds per game over his career which is pretty darned solid - he's 50th all-time in total rebounds, but as you note, most of his were defensive. Bird wasn't afraid to mix it up, that's for sure - it may be why his back got injured prematurely.

It's very obvious to me, when you break things down into individual skills, who is better at what, but putting those things all back together to determine the better player? That's best left for a higher power than I am. I don't think farmer john's point can be over-stressed: Johnson consistently had better teammates - I don't think McHale or Parish would have been McHale or Parish without Bird (we'll never know for sure about McHale because his career virtually overlapped Bird's), but I think the Lakers' studs would have been stars on any team, with the possible exception of borderline-star Mychal Thompson, who was much more effective at Portland when he was younger. Interesting side note: Did you know that Parish never made a single 3-point shot in his entire career?

No complaint from me for anyone who wants to make the case for either player as being "best all-around," because I don't think it can be answered.

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Some of those Laker teams had 4 players who were the first pick in the draft their given year- Kareem, Magic, Worthy (my favorite player ever), and Klay Thompson's Dad (Mychal). This of course means almost nothing but I always found it interesting. 

Worthy is of course a "worthy" choice.  Is he the "best finisher" ever?  In the 80's I favored the Celts over the Lakers, so of course hated Worthy and his skills.  He was faster and quicker than any Celtic big man. None could stay with or cover him; A Celtic killer.  He of course did the same to the Pistons in '88. As to first picks the Wizards got Kwame Brown, so yeah...first picks...sometimes great..sometimes not.

I liked Mchale, (a 3rd pick like Michael Jordan).  Like all the Celtics he benefited by playing with Bird, but on his own he was a legitimate star, easily having the best post moves in the game to that period.  Nobody could cover Mchale.  Many of Bird's feeds to Mchale were from the wing or top to a Mchale with a defensive body behind him.  Bird would feed him high.  Mchale would take the poor defender through what he described as the "torture chamber" of fakes and more often than not score.  Charles Barkley called Mchale his toughest opponent.  In 87 having a year that was truly Bird-like in quality, he broke his foot and kept playing through the regular season and then through the NBA finals.  Besides talented he was tough.

As many great Bird feeds that led to Mchale baskets, once he set position, even with someone on him he could score, a very unique talent:

It's also amazing to me that Jason Kidd is #25 on your list. Jason Kidd!

Kidd played for around 19 years and probably 40% more games than Magic or Bird.  There is something to say for longevity.  Kidd was sort of Magic like in his ability to distribute the ball, a supreme talent in his own right.

Back to the Bird vs Magic topic.  If somebody was paying me to write an article and rank them I would, but until that time I'd choose either for my dream team over the other and not fret.  The Bird team would win some of the time and the Magic team would win others.  It would be tremendously entertaining.

---

Kevin McHale (farmer john)

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