Skip to main content

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic just earned his first NBA championship after a dominant run through the postseason. Many also believe he was cheated out of a third straight MVP after Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid walked away with the award.

Jokic has put up triple-doubles like no other player this season. He’s often been compared to Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird. Not so fast, says Bird’s former teammate and fellow Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Kevin McHale.

Kevin McHale and Larry Bird won three championships together with the Boston Celtics

Although he was drafted in 1978, Larry Bird didn’t make his Boston Celtics debut until the 1979-80 season. Drafted as a junior, Bird elected to play his senior year at Indiana State, where he squared off against Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the epic 1979 NCAA title game.

As a rookie with the Celtics, Bird, named Rookie of the Year, helped turn a 29-win team into one that finished the season with an NBA-best 61 victories. Although the Celtics lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals, they became a significant threat in the 1980s.

The Celtics made a key trade before the 1980 NBA draft that helped turn the franchise into an ’80s dynasty. With the help of a previous trade with the Detroit Pistons, the Celtics held the No. 1 pick in the 1980 NBA Draft. Boston traded the top pick to the Golden State Warriors and added the No. 13 pick in exchange for the third pick and veteran center Robert Parish. With the third pick, the Celtics selected Kevin McHale.

In their first year together, Bird, McHale, and Parish won the NBA championship. They defeated the Houston Rockets in six games in the 1981 NBA Finals, earning the first of three titles of the decade.

Every year from 1984 to 1987, the Celtics reached the NBA Finals. They added championships in 1984 and 1986. Bird won three straight MVPs during that stretch, claiming the award from 1984 to 1986.

McHale quickly halted Jokic comparisons to Bird


Kevin McHale: The Boston Celtics of the 1980s Beat Teams on Grit and With Broken Bones

During a recent phone conversation with Frank Isola and Brian Scalabrine of The Starting Lineup, McHale talked a little hoops, both current basketball and from his playing days. Like everyone else, he’s impressed with how good Jokic is. While many have compared Jokic to Bird, McHale wasn’t going there.

“I laugh, someone was saying he plays like Larry Bird,” McHale said. “No, he doesn’t. He plays like a big guy with great, great vision — like Bill Walton-type vision.

Scalabrine jumped in and said announcer Mike Breen said Jokic was a combination of Bird and McHale.

“Larry played from your standard triple-threat position in front of you,” McHale said. “Jokic plays like a big guy, with the ball on top of his head. He plays the ball upright, plays different than Larry, but he has great vision — great vision — like Larry did.

“Jokic is going to put up huge numbers because he plays the right way. I find it hard to criticize Jokic. He just plays the game. He makes so many good reads and he makes so many nice plays. The thing I like about him is he doesn’t bail out. If you need a hoop, he’s going to take his big butt in the post and just hit you with his shoulder every single dribble. Then he’s just going to spin off you, and he’s got great touch around the rim.”

McHale loves Jokic’s game. He just won’t compare it to Bird’s.