When you compare basketball legends, one of the best rivalries the NBA has ever seen involved Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. The two were seemingly joined at the hip since their showdown in the NCAA tournament final in 1979, and faced off multiple times in the NBA Finals.
The two were both known for being fierce competitors on the court, and we think they would both put up huge numbers in today’s NBA. Who would turn out to be the better player? Today we will look at this question and pick a winner in this new take on the Bird vs Magic debate.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird career comparison
When you look at both players, their career accolades are outstanding. Both were named to the Basketball Hall-of-Fame. Both were voted to 12 All-Star teams and both made the 1980 All-Rookie team.
Going head-to-head in other instances the slight nod goes to Magic. He won five NBA championships to Bird’s three, and he led the league in assists four times, while Bird never led the league in any statistical categories.
In his prime Magic was the league’s best point guard, with his height and court vision being the main strengths of his game. His only real weakness was a lack of an outside shot, which would hurt him in today’s game.
Larry Bird was a sharpshooter, and also had the competitive fire unmatched by anyone not named Michael Jordan. The only real hole in Bird’s game was durability towards the end of his career, as he played in just 115 games the last two seasons.
Reasons why Larry Bird would be a better player today
Although Magic was one of the game’s best passers, his inability to shoot from the outside would be a problem in today’s game. That’s where Bird would shine.
The first reason we are going with Bird is his career 40.1% from 3-point range. Although he attempted just under two per game for his career, comparing them to today’s modern sharpshooter Klay Thompson (41.9%), it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to see him make three a game.
His versatility would also be a matchup problem for today’s NBA wing players. His physical peak of 6’9, 220 lbs would be a nightmare for small forwards. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are the game’s best two perimeter defenders, but we think they would have trouble fighting off screens as Bird got open for shots.
The final reason we think Bird would be better than Magic is his ability to impact both ends of the floor. He averaged nearly two steals and one block per game for his career, but the key stat that is overlooked is the two fouls he averaged per game. Not being in foul trouble would help Bird stay on the floor in crunch time.
Making a case for Magic Johnson
The big case you can make for Magic is his out of this world court vision. He went four consecutive seasons averaging at least 12 assists per game, and we think his passing ability would have him in the 13-15 range in today’s NBA. The game is geared toward attacking guards and Johnson would use his strength to get into the paint and find the open man.
On the defensive end, we think Magic would have struggled to stay in front of quicker guards, with his length being an issue and earning him more than three fouls per game.
Looking at both players objectively, it’s hard to imagine Magic outshining Bird in today’s NBA. Players are simply bigger and faster, Magic might have a tough time keeping up.