After 24 years, Larry Bird has officially passed the torch of the “Greatest Small Forward” to none other than LeBron James himself. The debate is still very strong, and it is not an inflammatory thing to say. For many years, I was of the mindset that it was considered somewhat blasphemous. Somewhat insulting say that someone would surpass Larry Legend as the best small forward ever. Over the past few years, LeBron James has made his climb quickly to that throne. Now, it is safe to say that LBJ has established a stronger legacy than Bird:
LeBron James (13 Seasons):
FG%: 49.8 %
3PT%: 34.0 %
FT%: 74.4 %
Championships: 3 (2012, 2013, 2016)
Finals MVP: 3 (2012, 2013, 2016)
NBA MVP Awards: 4 (2009, 2010, 2012, 2013)
All-Star Selections: 12 (2005-2016)
Larry Bird (13 Seasons):
FG %: 49.6 %
3PT %: 37.6 %
FT %: 88.6 %
Championships: 3 (1981, 1984, 1986)
Finals MVP: 2 (’84, ’86)
NBA MVP Awards: 3 (’84-’86)
All-Star Selections: 12 (1980-’88, ’90-’92)
Like other fans who respect the history of the game, I hold Larry in high reverence as one of basketball’s most influential legends because of how he and his West Coast arch-rival Magic Johnson saved the NBA during the 80’s. Larry and Magic built the foundation for the NBA for the next 35 years before they ushered in the likes of Michael Jordan to escalate the NBA to an even more global status. Even though David Stern was the Commissioner that introduced Jordan, Olajuwon, etc in 1984, where would he be without Magic and Larry? Bird took a Celtics team that only won 29 games the previous season and turned them into a 61 win powerhouse his rookie 1979 season. A 32-game improvement is monumental. Not only that, but Bird brought the once proud Celtics Dynasty back to prominence as the premiere team in the Eastern Conference as they won three championships in the 80’s.
At 6’9″, Bird was dangerous and versatile as a scorer, shooter, rebounder, and passer. Bird was “Mr. All-Around” and one of the toughest minds in NBA history. He also had an incredible flair for the dramatic, as his performances and moments in the playoffs and NBA Finals are forever part of NBA lore. His performances against the Lakers in the Finals are what further established his legendary status. Bird was Finals MVP in 1984 when Boston defeated L.A. in a Classic 7 Game Series. Bird was a player of great instinct and genius. When he intentionally missed a shot against the Rockets in the 1981 Finals so that he could run to the basket in time for the offensive rebound and lay up, Bird clearly knew how to improvise. Bird saved the day in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals when he stole an inbound pass from Isiah Thomas to pass it to Dennis Johnson for the score to lead the Celtics to victory. Larry also joined Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain as only the third player in NBA history to win three straight NBA MVP Awards (’84, ’85, ’86). Each time Bird was named MVP, the Celtics made it to the NBA Finals.
With all of those accomplishments, Bird is rightfully considered a mountainous figure in NBA history because of his contributions. What LeBron has accomplished in the same time span as Larry makes it even more amazing that James has passed him.
Exceeding The Hype:
Much like Bird, Magic, even Michael himself, (just to name a few) LeBron was one of those players that you could tell was great from the start. At 6’8″ 240 lbs, James was a dynamic small forward with point guard skills and a power forward body. LeBron was without question the Rookie of the Year. All eyes were on LeBron, especially when he gave himself the moniker of “King James” and was called “The Chosen One”. From that point, LeBron had a massive bullseye on his chest and had the World on his shoulders.
Originally, LeBron just got by with his freakish athleticism and impeccable play making skills. Now, he is regarded as one of the most polished perimeter players in the history of basketball. Over the course of his illustrious career, LeBron has redefined himself and cleaned up his weaknesses (broken jumper, lack of post game, average defender, lack of mental toughness) and turned them into weapons against his opponents.
Not only does James have the natural size, strength, speed and quickness to give him the edge against many opponents, but he also has become the total package as a player. Still, those natural abilities were not enough to help the Cavaliers reach the pinnacle of the NBA mountain no matter how many times he made them perennial contenders. The inability to break through the glass ceiling forced LeBron against the wall and caused him to make two big career changing decisions: Join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami and improve as a player.
Things were not getting any better at that time in Cleveland and LeBron was humbled and had to go back to the drawing board to become even better. LeBron was someone who I felt had a hidden genius. He probably did not know it yet, as Bill Simmons has mentioned before. Simmons even asked “What if he KNEW he was a genius?”. Apparently, LeBron had to go to South Beach to discover that genius that was hidden for so long in Cleveland.
Evolution of LeBron in Miami:
LeBron wanted what players like Larry and Magic enjoyed, and that was the privilege of having teammates capable of not only sharing responsibility but could also rise to the occasion when he needed them the most. His exit from Cleveland to Miami was heavily scrutinized by legends and fans all across. As a long time fan of LeBron, “The Decision” left me jaded for some time, but ultimately it was the best thing that he had to do for himself at that time. In order to reap those rewards, he had to go to a place with greener pastures.
It was just the way it was executed. Miami was in the process of rebuilding and LeBron was the defining piece of the puzzle to make the process work. The LeBron beast was UNLEASHED in Miami. LeBron did not have to be weighed down by being a Point Forward. Although LeBron was building himself as an All-Time Great in Cleveland, he knew that he could reach for even greater territory. Even though LeBron was regarded by many to be the Best Player in the World, he became even more of a Savage with the Heat.
No longer did LeBron have to settle for being a combination of a stronger Oscar Robertson and a Superior Scottie Pippen. LeBron tapped even deeper into his Greatness and became the Undisputed Most Complete Player in Basketball. James developed into a more polished shooter and refined his Post Game to become a bigger threat in the paint because of his training with Hakeem Olajuwon. LeBron also became the top perimeter defender in the NBA and arguably one of the best defenders of all-time. Not the best, but one of them.
Even in a new uniform, LeBron still posted LeBron-level numbers. If not for the voters being tired to vote for him as well as the fiasco with “The Decision”, LeBron James would have won 5 Straight MVP Awards. In the Playoffs, LeBron showed the world that he was the REAL MVP and The NBA’s alpha male when he emasculated Derrick Rose and nullified him defensively. They also conquered the Boston Celtics Big 3. Miami became juggernauts with that core lineup, and LeBron James was the Ultimate X Factor. During his time in Miami, LeBron led the Heat to Back to Back Championships.
When it comes to evaluating greatness for all-time rankings, blemishes have to come into the equation. When deciding where to rank a player, one has to look not only at the accomplishments, but also the shortcomings. This is where things really become tough.
Players from a previous generation have the benefit of nostalgia and a certain mystique because their failures and mistakes are largely forgotten. Their careers are painted in a rosier picture as opposed to current athletes’ whose shortcomings are far more prevalent especially with the advent of Social Media.
In Game 5 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Semi Finals vs the Boston Celtics, LeBron mailed the game in. He played with no passion or motivation at all as Boston destroyed Cleveland. In the process, LeBron was grilled by the media and NBA legends like Charles Barkley for how abysmal he played. In Game 6, he put up a triple double but the writing was clearly on the wall at that point. At that time, LeBron’s days in Cleveland were numbered.
In the 2011 Finals, Miami would hit a wall when LeBron underperformed. It was unbelievable to see him collapse like that mentally. The Dallas Mavericks took advantage and won the NBA Finals for the first time in Franchise History. There is no question that Miami had that series won if LeBron dominated the way that he was capable of dominating. That series and “The Decision” TV Special are the Watergate of his Career. He has made up for that, but it always hurts whenever someone brings it up. LeBron was the punchline for jokes about not having a ring.
After the Heat imploded in the 2011 Finals, LeBron went back to the drawing board and added another element to his game. That element was the low-post back to the basket game taught by Olajuwon himself. That became the ultimate equalizer as LeBron won his 3rd MVP on his way to his first Championship with Miami. LeBron won regular season and Finals MVP that year. His dominance in the Playoffs was legendary in and of itself, especially against the Celtics.
Larry himself did not exactly have a spotless legacy. In the 1981 NBA Finals, Bird only averaged 15.3 PPG and shot 41.9% from Field Goal Range. The biggest difference is that he had the other Celtics teammates to cover up his flaws.
Perhaps the flaws for LeBron could be seen in a different light if his teammates around him stepped their game up the way that Larry’s did.
Return to Cleveland:
LeBron ultimately decided that it was time to make the return to his homeland of Cleveland. James made the promise of bringing a Championship to his hometown. In his first season back with the Cavs, LeBron led them to the Finals only to lose 4-1 to a Powerhouse Golden State Warriors team. James carried an unhealthy Cavaliers team to the best of his abilities. Cleveland would get their revenge the next year when they overcame a 3-1 deficit to conquer a 73-win Warriors team to win their first Championship in Franchise History. LeBron James won his third Finals MVP Award along with his third Championship. This proved that with a healthy team, the Cavs could beat the Warriors. LeBron delivered on his promise and in the process, took the crown from Larry Legend.
Both men have had phenomenal careers. Larry Legend had an understanding of the game that very few players have ever had. His impressive Offensive Repertoire, instincts and fundamentals were legendary as well as his drive to win. You could argue that Bird had a better stretch as MVP because of the Era that he came from. However, time has not been very kind to Larry and his numbers. Of his 13 NBA Seasons, Larry enjoyed 9 Transcendent Seasons (’80-’88). After the 1988 Season, Bird’s body started to break down on him. For the rest of his career, Larry had to nurse his back whenever he was on the sideline. Back injuries, as well as foot problems cut off extra quality years from Bird’s career. Meanwhile, LeBron has played the same number of seasons with no health problems. Overall, LeBron has had a Transcendent Season every year. He clearly wins in the Durability Category. LeBron has the edge Defensively along with his versatility as an athlete. Those are the things that create the separation. LBJ has truly made the most out of what was given to him. Over his Career, LeBron has been named to 6 All-Defensive 1st Teams, while Larry Legend has none. LBJ has evolved into one of the most well-rounded defenders in a long time. As mentioned before, LeBron has improved his already amazing offensive skillset. You can say they are nearly on even footing in that department. This has led LeBron to win 4 MVP Awards to Larry Legend’s 3 MVPs. James has tied Bird with 3 Championships. LeBron has gone from being the butt of the no ring jokes to having as many rings as one of the greatest Champions in NBA History. However, LBJ has 3 Finals MVPs while Larry has 2. When it comes to Metrics, those numbers are also in LeBron’s favor.
LeBron James: 192.5
Larry Bird: 145.8
Offensive Win Shares:
LeBron James: 134.1
Larry Bird: 86.8
Defensive Win Shares:
LeBron James: 58.4
Larry Bird: 59.0
Win Shares/48 Minutes:
LeBron James: .240
Larry Bird: .203
PER (Player Efficiency Rating):
LeBron James: 27.7
Larry Bird: 23.5
These numbers show how much of an Impact LeBron’s presence has on his team. James has the second highest PER only behind Michael Jordan himself, which speaks volumes of his Efficiency as a player. Bird carried a big load and was incredible, but the load that he carried was nowhere close to what LeBron had to carry on his shoulders for much of his career. LeBron showed that he constantly had to turn lemons into lemonade. The Overall Volume of LeBron’s numbers and achievements outshine his no-show games and give him a strong enough case to move ahead of Bird.