Larry Bird has long been considered the gold standard at the small forward position and one of the five greatest players ever, but LeBron James’ chokehold over the NBA in the past few years has likely led to him eclipsing the former Celtics legend…
Or has it?
Adam Joseph: We always have recency bias, that’s the first thing to point out here. It’s so hard to judge past achievements versus current because we either didn’t genuinely experience it or we remember recent accomplishments so clearly it clouds our judgment.
Thirteen seasons in (same as Bird’s career), three titles each, 12 All Star Games, James has one more MVP (four to three), Finals MVP (three to two). It’s such a subjective argument no answer feels wrong.
Can we split them because of LeBron’s superior defense?
James Holas: But Adam, even résumé wise, you’re proving the point; more MVPs, more Finals MVPs, and a physical presence we’ve never seen at small forward. Without a doubt, Bron has done what was once thought unthinkable: bullied his way into that Pantheon of Legends. Since the late 80s, the Bird-Magic-Jordan triumvirate was the gold standard for perimeter excellence. What LeBron has done the last two finals (13 games, 32.5 points, 12.2 rebounds, 8.9 assists per game, roaring comeback from down 1-3) shifts the paradigm. The narrative-driven knock on James was he lacked that nebulous “killer instinct”. Well, we could put a snapshot of that mind bending block on Andre Iguodala as the definition of “Killer Instinct” in our Hoop Buzzword dictionary. I was vocally in the “Bird is the greatest small forward ever, don’t @ me” camp as recently as 2011. LeBron Raymone James has made that obsolete.
J.M. Poulard: Much like James, I was once firmly entrenched in the “Basketball Jesus” camp, but LeBron’s ascension with the Heat strongly forced me to reconsider whether Bird was indeed the clear cut superior player. James’ second title in Miami led me to venture and consider that LBJ might indeed have surpassed Bird, but the triumphant comeback at the expense of the greatest-regular season team ever in these past Finals have made it a slam dunk case for me.
James’ two best teammates – Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – this past season had never experienced the rigors of the postseason, and yet LeBron’s overall brilliance helped lead them to the crown.
Even at age 31, James is a program changer who immediately turns a bad/average team into a title contender, which is saying something. As both of you noted, the Akron native’s credentials outpace those of his counterpart, but the same is true in terms of overall production.
Bron’s total surpass Bird in every major stat, save for rebounding. However, when we look at postseason numbers, James beats out Bird everywhere.
The lone advantage one might give Bird is shooting, and even then, it turns out LeBron is better. Surprisingly, his true shooting percentage (58.1 percent) exceeds Larry’s (56.4 percent).
Is it even necessary to cover James’ defense at this point? Might be like running up the score no?
Holas: Let’s pump the breaks on that, JM, let’s not do that thing where we let analytics lead us astray. Bron makes his living in the paint and at the rim; Bird was a perimeter savant in an era where the three-pointer was treated as a novelty. If we arrange 29 games of H.O.R.S.E. between LeBron and Prime Bird (no dunksies!), I’m confident Bird would shoot himout of the gym. But being as dominant as LeBron has been with a shaky jumper is a testament to his greatness.
Poulard: Here’s the thing about that, though. It may actually be factually incorrect. Bird is often cited and remembered as a cold-blooded killer who made it rain from long range; but the truth is he barely shot the ball from deep.
For his career, he launched 1.9 treys per game and connected on 37.6 percent of his attempts, while LeBron has shot four three-pointers on average and converted 34 percent. With that said, one would assume that Bird was better in the playoffs, where he made his living right?
Turns out it’s incorrect. Bird and James have identical postseason three-point percentages (32.1 percent).
And one last point on the shooting: Prime Bird (1984-87) nailed 41.5 percent of his treys, while Prime James (2010-13) nailed 38.5 percent. Yes, Bird is better, but it’s not the landslide that many might assume it is as far as their primes are concerned.
Holas: We don’t need to fall down the rabbit hole, JM, but let’s not forget that there’s more to shooting than “just” threes (but there’s a reason Bird won a three-point contest without taking off his warm-up jacket). Or like this 60=point eruption from Larry: Legend that even had the Hawks bench going nuts
Not to beat a dead horse, but in terms of SHOOTING (not finishing around the rim, but putting up jumpers), Larry is one of the best to do it, while Bron does it well enough to keep defenses honest.
But to your point, defensively is where Bron separates himself the most. Bird was a smart, capable defender, but LeBron’s speed and athleticism makes him a terror on that end that Bird never was.
Poulard: You might be right that Bird was the better outside shooter, but it’s worth mentioning that James’ field-goal percentage rose every year from 2009 to 2014. I highly doubt that this was a product of LeBron rediscovering how to make layups. This coincides with LBJ’s refinement of his offensive arsenal whereby he distributed his shot attempts from different parts of the floor to better exploit defenses and protect himself from the wear and tear caused by hits and fouls in the painted area.
After pacing himself for much of the season and playoffs, LeBron demonstrated during the Finals that he can still be the most disruptive defensive force in the sport as well as its most potent offensive player.
James’ two-way brilliance used to be a consistent nightly occurrence, but the minutes have finally added up and forced him to coast for parts of the season. But when engaged on defense in the manner we saw during the 2016 Finals, it’s true that Bird simply cannot compare.
Larry Legend got by with smarts, anticipation and toughness on defense, while LeBron adds speed, size, quickness, athleticism and versatility to that package to turn himself into one of the better perimeter defenders in league history.
Shane Young: It’s definitely safe to say LeBron’s outside shooting tribulations have been overstated for his entire career. We may never see anything like the Miami King James after his 2011 Finals disappointment. Once Dwyane Wade gave him the keys and moved to the passenger seat, James drove that vehicle better than Dominic Torretto. His true shooting percentages of 64 percent and 64.9 percent from 2012 to 2014 were untouchable, and the fact that he did it with so much pressure and responsibility on his shoulders is what’s remarkable.
Mind you, this is coming from someone who held the torch of “Kobe over LeBron, and it’s no debate” for so long, because … well …. fandom.
Bird also had two seasons elevating into the 60 percent range of true shooting, and LeBron’s physical dominance in the paint obviously made it “easier” for him to get those closer looks. However, people act like just because LeBron didn’t play in the 1980’s, that he’s not been subjected to hard fouls, tough defenses, or physical competition.
Complete BS. Watch him attack the paint during those Miami days, on a nightly basis. He constantly got hounded, with two or three defenders swarming him at times. To me, it’s been just as tough for James to be as efficient as he is. Bird clearly has his rounds with unforgiving defenses (Detroit, mainly), but too many people discredit the competition LeBron has faced.
For instance, just take a look at who’s faced the greatest NBA Finals competition (by Net Rating) out of LeBron, Kobe, and Michael Jordan:
It’s LeBron, with his seven opponents having an average Net Rating of +8.04. As a player — skills, accomplishments, whatever the case may be — James eclipsed Bird a couple years ago. It’s just taken this long to accept.
Closing remark by Shane Young:
There’s a such thing as nuance in these player discussions, which you all have done an excellent job with. Bird can be the better shooter by any margin, small or significant. But the thing is, James has proven himself in literally every area of the game throughout these 13 years.
Was Bird the better rebounder? Yes, and it still has me dumbfounded how he managed 28.7 points, 10.5 boards, and 6.6 assists per game during the 1984-85 season — when they fell to Magic Johnson and the Lake Show. That translated to 34.3 points, 12.6 rebounds, and 7.9 assists on a per-100 possessions basis.
Nevertheless, while LeBron takes a backseat to Bird in shooting and being a force on the glass … you have to revert back to what our editor, Jesse Blanchard, always says. “Making a checklist of all the things a player does better and then claiming he’s superior or ‘more versatile’ is silly.”
James’ ability to create points for himself and find his teammates with passes even they aren’t expecting, is what makes him special. After his performances in Games 5, 6, and 7 of the 2016 Finals, we shouldn’t ever question if he has all facets pretty much mastered.
Is he the perfect player? No. But neither was Michael Jordan. There are always times you wish he had another player’s gift in certain areas. If he had Bird’s shooting to go along with everything he does have, we’d be replacing Obama with LeBron James as the next U.S. President.
Does he make hundreds of players envy his skills and pull their hair out when matched up with him from April to June? Yes.
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