When LeBron James was sprawled out on his back during the season opener against the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night, it was almost impossible not to flash back to some 20-odd years ago when Larry Bird, towards the end of his career, would often be seen doing the same thing. For Bird, in the sunset of his career, the “bench” was really the floor. So, with the rest of their careers so stunningly similar, yet completely different, why not this too?
Now, Bird has taken some flak from the younger fans who watched him play near the tail end of his career, but his arrival at greatness was no fluke, and neither is his comparison to LeBron James. They are, without question, the two most dominant, successful small forwards to ever man the position.
In the history of the NBA, only three players have averaged 24.0 points, 6.0 assists and 7.0 rebounds over the course of their careers: Oscar Robertson, Bird and James. In short: No two small forwards dominated the triple-double categories the way that Bird and James have. And they’re statistically quite similar to one another.
And their shooting numbers aren’t all that different either, considering the differences in the age and defenses they played against. James has a 49.6/53.1/58.1 field goal/effective field goal/true shooting percentage slash compared to Bird’s 49.6/51.4/56.4 — the primary difference between the two just being that three-point shooting wasn’t utilized as much in yesteryear as it is now.
In the course of his career, LeBron has won four regular-season MVPs and two Finals MVPs. For Bird, those numbers are three and two, respectively. That comes with the caveat that James hasn’t really had a “rival” parallel his career in the same way that Bird did with Magic Johnson. During James’s career, the only other player to win it twice has been Steve Nash. (Tim Duncan’s two came before LeBron’s rookie season.) During Bird’s career, Moses Malone, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan all were named the recipient multiple times. So that fourth award was a little more difficult to come by.
And while James has the edge in MVPs, Bird has one more ring. Again, the distinction is negligible. Bird lost in the Finals twice to James’s four. And getting to the Finals is still an accomplishment, win or lose. When did losing in the Finals become a bad thing, anyway?
And while their numbers and accomplishments are so strikingly similar, the way they got there is in perfect apposition to one another. James is the perfect physical machine, a 6’2″ athlete in the body of a 6’8″ man. He does things that someone of his size and strength has no business doing. His burst, athleticism, handles, drive to the rim — all of which better reflect a Derrick Rose/Russell Westbrook athlete 80 percent his size more than the man who can push around power forwards.
Larry Bird, by contrast, while a better athlete than history remembers, was certainly no lightning bolt. But he was a deliberate artisan with the ball, wasting no movement and precise in every pass. Because of that he was able to dominate just as much as James without the physical gifts. His skill level was unmatched.
But whether it’s skill or sheer physical prowess, the duo are similar in one other regard that surpasses the best. They were two of history’s great surveyors of the court. They were both always cognizant of their surroundings, the players around them and the strengths of their teammates. They were, without dispute, the biggest reason for their team’s success, not merely because of what they did, but because of what they enabled their teammates to do.
So, while I hope LeBron’s back gets better and that there are more great years ahead of him, the current situation has me thinking once again of the odd symmetry he shares with history’s co-greatest small forward.