Can We Dare Say Larry Bird Was a Better Basketball Player Than Michael Jordan?
Bring up the NBA’s GOAT conversation, and Michael Jordan usually dominates the talk. It’s tough to argue against him claiming the top spot as the all-time greatest NBA player, but can we make a case for Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird being better than Air Jordan? We’ll try.
Larry Bird and Michael Jordan enjoyed some early battles
Michael Jordan came into the NBA just as Larry Bird hit his prime. The Chicago Bulls selected Jordan with the third overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft. In 1984, Bird won the first of his three straight MVPs and guided the Boston Celtics to their second championship of the decade.
Jordan made an instant impact by averaging 28.2 in his first season en route to Rookie of the Year honors. A broken foot limited him to 18 regular-season games. He returned for the playoffs and squared off against Bird and the Celtics in the first round. The Celtics were by far the superior team after winning 67 games and losing just once at home all season. Chicago went 30-52.
In the series opener, Jordan scored 49 points in a 123-104 loss. In Game 2, he racked up 63 points and put a scare into the Celtics, who pulled out a 135-131 win in double overtime, prompting Bird to famously refer to the Bulls star as “God disguised as Michael Jordan.” The Celtics swpt the Bulls in three games.
In his early years, Jordan had to score to give his team a chance. During that 1985-86 season, Bird had the luxury of playing with three other future Hall of Famers in Boston’s starting lineup, so he didn’t have to carry the load. As time went on, the Bulls surrounded Jordan with better talent, creating a Bulls dynasty in the 1990s.
Can Bird be considered a better basketball player than Jordan?
Larry Bird had a 23-11 head-to-head record against Michael Jordan, but what does that really mean? It means Bird was on better teams than Jordan when they were in the league together. Jordan averaged 30.1 points in his career, while Bird put up 24.3. What does that mean? It means Jordan shot much more (took 7,203 more shots than Bird). Bird played 13 seasons. Jordan played 15.
The fact Bird averaged 24.3 points and 10.0 rebounds for his career speaks volumes. With Hall of Fame talent around him, Bird didn’t have to score. Bird still put up the numbers while making everyone else around him better. Imagine what his numbers would be had he been forced to do it all like Jordan did in his early days?
Robert Parish played four years with the Golden State Warriors. He didn’t become an All-Star until he came to Boston in a trade with the Golden State Warriors and played with Bird. Cedric Maxwell thrived in Boston with Bird as his teammate. He disappeared when he left via trade in 1985. Bird’s intangibles — his ability to make teammates better, his anticipation, and his drive to succeed — are often overlooked.
Bird didn’t have the flair of Jordan. There were no high-flying dunks. Jordan even admitted that’s why Bird doesn’t get the love he deserves when it comes to GOAT talk.
“People ask me all the time who my all-time top five players are, and when I start saying Larry, they interrupt me,” Jordan said in Jackie MacMullan’s book When the Game Was Ours. “They say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. He can’t play with LeBron James.’ I tell them, ‘You guys don’t get it. Larry is far better than any small forward who played the game, and to be honest, I’m still not sure if he’s a small forward or a power forward.’
“To appreciate Bird fully, you need to know the game. You have to be a basketball person to be able to give him his due. He’s not jumping out of the gym. He doesn’t dunk on anyone. He doesn’t show any quickness. That’s why some people can’t see the value of his game.”
Jordan likely wins this GOAT battle over Bird. What separates the two is defense. Bird was a solid defender, but Jordan was First-Team All-Defense nine times, while Bird never reached that level. Jordan will typically be the lead piece in the GOAT debate, but Bird has to be in the conversation.