SPECIAL: The Greatest Small Forward of All-Time: Larry Bird vs. Lebron James

(Originally published in 2013)
I began thinking about this last night: Has Lebron already surpassed Larry Bird? I’m almost certain that he will one day.  I already think he’s a better defender than Bird ever was and will undoubtedly play longer than Bird did.  It just seems inevitable.  But is Lebron already the greatest small forward ever?

Frankly, as I begin writing this, I’m not certain after looking over the raw numbers.  Their career numbers are a lot closer than you think:

Bird: 24.3 ppg, 10 rpg, 6.3 apg, 1.7 spg, 0.8 bpg, 3.1 TOV, 49.6% FG, 37.6% 3pt, 88.6% FT
Lebron: 27.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 6.9 apg, 1.7 spg, 0.8 bpg, 3.3 TOV, 49.7% FG, 34.1% 3pt, 74.7% FT

I’ll be honest: I was shocked by how close they were. I always assumed Bird was simply a better offensive player than Lebron.  I’ve watched Bird games from his prime and man, he was surreal.  He could just shoot and score from anywhere on the court.  He was a basketball player.  Watching Lebron his entire career, he was less of a basketball player and more of a physical force if that makes sense.  I always wondered how his career would change if he started to lose his speed or his strength and had to rely on his knowledge and ability (and we may very well find that out next season), which would be interesting if you believe this ESPN article that Lebron may have a photographic memory.   Lebron is just a force in the same way that Wilt and Shaq were.  Just physically dominating and nearly unstoppable.  Bird wasn’t.  He was slow and had to utilize his crafty skills to score every point.  Larry Bird may have invented the attitude of “swag” with his undeniable swagger on the basketball court.  I love these videos from Xavier McDaniel and Chuck Person about Larry Bird’s trash talk to them and also this video of the Atlanta Hawks bench high-fiving themselves while Larry Bird is torching them:

Bird was just intense and most of all he backed it up.  Lebron doesn’t have that kind of fire and it’s always been the knock on him.  Most people compare him to Jordan and Kobe, but it’s not just them.  Magic and Bird were competitors too and their swagger and fire elevated their greatness to new heights.  The only times I remember seeing that from Lebron were Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics and the ridiculous Game 6 against San Antonio in the 2013 Finals where he lost his headband and went into a different zone like Don Flamenco after he loses his toupee on the Wii version of “Punchout!”:
We don’t see this Lebron James nearly enough.  It’s almost like he’s afraid of alienating his teammates. Jordan, Bird, Magic, Kobe and nearly every other transcendent player never seemed to have those concerns. I wish Lebron didn’t either.

Defensively, I always thought Lebron was better than Bird. He’s simply more versatile, stronger, and more capable on that end.  Bird was a good defender though and vastly underrated having made the All-Defensive 2nd Team three times throughout his career.  He, surprisingly, has the exact same average of steals and blocks per game as Lebron.  I’m not sure what to make of that.  Examining it further, Bird’s Defensive Rating is 101 and Lebron’s is 102. (Note: Defensive rating is an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions per basketball-reference.com)  Then I looked at Defensive Win Shares (wins attributed to a player’s defense).  Bird’s highest was 6.2 and Lebron’s highest was 6.5.  Their average Defensive Win Share averages for their career are Bird at 4.6 and Lebron at 4.5. This is what I’m hypothesizing from the data: Either we’ve vastly underestimated Larry Bird’s impact on defense or we’re all overrating Lebron James on defense.  Also something to take into account: Bird was dealing with injuries the latter part of his career and became less effective on both ends. That may skew the results some. To put these numbers into perspective, Scottie Pippen’s Defensive Rating for his career is 102 and his Defensive Win Shares for his Bulls’ run is 4.35 (his numbers for his career are drastically lower due to his significant decline late in his career).  Was Bird really as good of a defender as Pippen and neck and neck with Lebron?

To me, here’s where eras need to be put into perspective.  Bird defended more power forwards in his day and they were usually big bruising bodies and not the athletic power forward we’re used to seeing today.  Still, the pace of the game was as quick as it was today and defensive rules were tougher with the infamous illegal defense rule.  You HAD to guard your man.  In today’s NBA, you can almost shadow a weak defender inside a strong defensive scheme by playing something of a zone.  Even though these are the realities of the eras, it still keeps the water muddy and frankly, I don’t have a conclusion for if Lebron or Bird were the better defender.  My eyes say Lebron, but the numbers suggest it’s much closer than we think.

The accolades are equally as close: Bird is a three time MVP and a three time NBA champion and made the All-NBA First Team for nine of his thirteen seasons and a twelve time All-Star.  Lebron has four MVPs and two NBA championships with eight All-NBA First Team selections in his first eleven seasons and a ten time All-Star already.  He will undoubtedly pass bird with All-NBA selections and All-Star appearances due to longevity, but the accolades are already close today.

In conclusion, I really have no idea who is the greatest small forward and to me, if there isn’t conclusive evidence that Lebron has surpassed Bird then Bird retains that title.  I still believe Lebron will get there one day, but I have to admit, I was stunned by the defensive similarities.  I thought that was Lebron’s huge edge and it simply wasn’t.  You cannot deny both men are great players and I really wouldn’t argue if you said one was greater than the other.  They’re that close.  It’s going to be fun watching Lebron as he’s beginning the downside of his career and how he cements his legacy.  And if you’ve never watched Larry Bird, then I suggest you buy this DVD and enjoy his greatness.  He was awesome.