COMMENTARY | It may be sacrilegious for anyone growing up in the Michael Jordan era to question his greatness, but before the Nike commercials, Spike Lee, Gatorade and Bugs Bunny, a lanky 6-foot-9-inch guy from French Lick, Indiana, was embarrassing ultra-athletic NBA stars in stadiums across the country.
And although Larry Bird's injury-shortened career undoubtedly did not live up to the one Michael Jordan would later experience, there are five good reasons to believe that when comparing both players in the prime of their careers, Larry "Legend" was a better -- albeit only slightly -- basketball player than the man everyone routinely refers to as the "greatest ever."
1. Larry Bird was a better shooter
Bird's shooting form is legendary in basketball circles for good reason. He may very well be the best pure shooter the game has ever seen, especially for his size. In 12 seasons, Bird finished in the top 10 in 3-point field-goal percentage seven times, sinking an amazing average of 41.4 percent of his attempts from 1984-1988. In contrast, the average 3-point field-goal percentage in Jordan's four best shooting seasons was only 38.2 percent and his career average was a low 32.7 percent. Additionally, Jordan never managed to finish among the 10 best 3-point shooters in any of his 13 seasons.
Bird was also a better free-throw shooter. Over his career, Bird made 88.6 percent of his free throws, compared to Jordan's 83.5-percent career average. Bird also led the league in free-throw shooting four times and finished in the top 10 amongst all players 11 times. Jordan never led the league in this category or even managed to end a season in the top 10.
2. Bird could rebound with the best of them
Unlike Jordan, who primarily played on the perimeter and stole most of his rebounds away from other guards, Bird spent a lot of time in the post fighting for boards with some of the NBA's best rebounders. Despite having a thin frame, Bird managed to end the season in the top 10 for rebounds seven times and in the top 10 for defensive rebounds nine times. Jordan, who was a great rebounder for a guard, rarely had to fight off guys like Moses Malone and Charles Barkley to get a rebound, and he was never able to crack the top 10 in either total rebounds or defensive rebounds.
3. Larry had to compete against Moses Malone, Julius Erving and Magic Johnson; Jordan had to compete with John Stockton, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley
With all due respect to Stockton, Karl Malone and Barkley, the NBA in the 1980s was a more difficult environment to be a dominant player in than the 1990s. Everyone loves to point to Jordan's six championships as proof of his greatness, but Jordan's Chicago Bulls lost in the playoffs in his first five years in the league, including three losses in a row to the Detroit Pistons.
It wasn't until the great teams of the 1980s, including Malone's Philadelphia 76ers, Magic's Los Angeles Lakers and Bird's Boston Celtics, were aged or completely out of the picture that the Bulls started winning titles. And of the six championships Jordan earned, only one of the teams, the 1990-1991 Lakers, could arguably be considered in the same stratosphere as the Celtics, Lakers, Pistons and 76ers of the 1980s. If Jordan's Bulls had to play a decade against those teams, Jordan would never have come close to six championships, and one could reasonably make the argument that the Bulls of the 1990s would never have won more than one or two.
The lack of truly great teams in the 1990s, however, is only one aspect of the equation. Jordan's number of Most Valuable Player Awards, five in total, would also be significantly lower if he had to compete with Moses Malone and Magic Johnson the way Larry Bird did. From 1980-1986, Bird finished in the top two in MVP voting every season, winning the award three consecutive times from 1983-1986. Considering that Bird had to compete with Johnson and Malone over those six years, this is a truly remarkable feat.
Jordan, playing most of his career in an era without another great star to match up against him, won only two more MVPs than Bird, and he never finished in the top two in MVP voting more than three consecutive times, compared to Bird's six consecutive finishes in the top two. You can't blame Jordan for playing in an era lacking another great legendary team or a player who could live up to Jordan's legacy. But you shouldn't punish Bird for not having the total number of championships or MVPs that Jordan has when Bird's career was cut short due to back problems, and he played in an era against more talented players and teams.
4. Jordan was a great defender, but Bird could guard players at almost every position
Michael Jordan is one of the all-time great defenders at his position, leading the NBA in steals three times and finishing his career third all-time in that category. But as good as Jordan was, he was limited by his size. Bird, on the other hand, could guard players in the post, on the perimeter, in transition and anywhere else.
5. Bird could score in the post
Michael Jordan is unquestionably the greatest scorer in NBA history, but when comparing Jordan to Bird, it must not go unmentioned that Bird was absolutely unstoppable in the low-post, dazzling Celtics fans with unthinkable trick shots on a regular basis. Jordan, who certainly dazzled the world in multiple ways throughout his legendary career, was not big enough to develop a truly overpowering game in the post, making him slightly less diverse than Bird on the offensive end.
A tale of two legends
Determining whether Larry Bird is better than Michael Jordan is sort of like arguing that Christmas presents are better than birthday gifts; both are great, just different. But with that said, if I could have either player in his prime, I would take Larry Bird. Bird was a better shooter, a better rebounder, a more diverse player on offense and defense, and an exceptional passer for his size.
Don't agree with me? Tell me why I am wrong on Twitter @TheNewRevere.
Justin Haskins is a New England native and journalism student at Regent University. He has been obsessively following Boston professional sports for 10 years and has been published in numerous online publications and websites.
- Sports & Recreation
- Michael Jordan
- Larry Bird