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Victors are determined decisively on the court, but one great joy of fandom outside the lines has no clear winner. We love to weigh the merits of our favorite players against each other, and yet a taproom full of basketball fans can never unanimously agree on the GOAT. In this series, we attempt to settle scores of NBA undercard debates — or at least give you fodder for your next “Who is better?” argument.
[Previously: Dwyane Wade vs. Dirk Nowitzki • Carmelo Anthony vs. Vince Carter • Kobe Bryant vs. Tim Duncan • Chris Paul vs. Isiah Thomas • Pau Gasol vs. Manu Ginobili • Patrick Ewing vs. David Robinson • Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon]
THE MATCHUP: Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson
After leading Michigan State to the NCAA title over Bird’s underdog Indiana State squad, Johnson, who turned 60 on Wednesday, joined the Los Angeles Lakers as the No. 1 overall pick in 1979. He was the Finals MVP in his rookie season and was still the best player on a Finals team in 1991, the summer before his HIV diagnosis forced him into his first retirement.
In that 12-year span, Johnson was an All-Star every season but his sophomore campaign, when torn cartilage in his left knee cost him 45 games. In nine straight seasons from 1982-91, he appeared in the All-NBA First Team backcourt and finished top-three in MVP voting, winning three times. Johnson’s Lakers made the playoffs in each of those 12 seasons, reaching nine Finals and winning five titles.
Johnson averaged 19.7 points (52.1 FG%, 29.8 3P%, 84.8 FT%), 11.4 assists, 7.3 rebounds and 2.3 combined blocks and steals in 36.9 minutes per game over those 12 seasons. The 6-foot-9 point guard’s numbers don’t quite do justice to his ability to dictate the pace of a game and play all five positions before it was en vogue.
Same goes for Bird, by the way. He joined the Boston Celtics in 1979 by way of Red Auerbach’s strategic sixth pick the year prior. His prime is a little harder to define. He finished fourth in MVP voting as a rookie and top-three for the next eight seasons, winning three straight awards and making the All-NBA First Team every year until bone spurs in both heels cost him all but six games of the 1988-89 campaign.
Bird returned to play three more seasons, making the All-Star team each year and posting similar statistics through back pain brought on by a shoveling incident earlier in his career, but he never approached his peak again. In the first nine years of his career, Bird averaged 25 points (50.3 FG%, 37.7 3P%, 87.9 FT%), 10.2 boards, 6.1 assists and 2.6 combined blocks and steals in 38.5 minutes per game.
Add his final three seasons, and Bird averaged 24.3 points (on 50/38/89 splits), 10 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 2.6 combined blocks and steals in 38.4 minutes per game over 12 seasons. He transformed a 29-win team into a conference finalist in his first season and made the playoffs every year of his career, reaching eight conference finals and winning three titles in five Finals trips in his first nine seasons.
Much of the primes for Bird and Magic coincided with too many Hall of Famers and All-Stars to list here. Bird’s teammates made four All-NBA rosters in his prime: Nate Archibald (1981 Second Team), Robert Parish (1982 Second Team, 1989 Third Team) and Kevin McHale (1987 First Team). Magic’s made eight: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (4x First Team, 2x Second Team) and James Worthy (1990-91 Third Team).
You could argue that Bird’s statistics were less reliant on teammates, because Magic’s biggest edge in statistical averages was assists. But we are splitting hairs here where we need not. The fact of the matter is Magic’s prime extended farther than Bird’s.
Bird’s statistical averages saw greater peaks in other seasons, but 1985-86 was his masterpiece. He was the maestro of one of the great teams in NBA history — a collection of talent that won 67 games, lost once at home all season (including the playoffs) and rolled to the title, playing some of the most beautiful basketball ever.
Playing all 82 games, a 29-year-old Bird averaged 25.8 points on 49.6/42.3/89.6 shooting splits, with 9.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 2.6 combined blocks and steals in 38 minutes a night, capturing his third consecutive MVP award during the NBA’s glory years. He led the league in nearly every relevant advanced statistical measure.
Bird was even better in the 1986 playoffs, raising his averages to 25.9 points (on 52/41/93 splits), 9.3 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 2.7 combined blocks and steals in 42.8 minutes per. The Celtics required only 18 games to get their third ring in six seasons, the last of which saw a 29-11-12 triple-double with three steals from Bird.
Magic’s apex came a year later, when he ended Bird’s three-year MVP reign to capture his first of three over the next four seasons. He conducted his own brand of beautiful basketball, as the Showtime Lakers went 65-17 and rolled to the Finals, where they beat Bird’s hobbled Celtics in six games for their fourth of five titles.
Johnson averaged a career-high 23.9 points on 52.2/20.5/84.8 shooting splits in 1986-87, adding a league-leading 12.2 assists with 6.3 rebounds and 2.2 combined steals and blocks per game. Those numbers stayed consistent (if not more efficient) in the playoffs, and he nearly closed the Celtics out with a triple-double (16-19-8).
Both seasons ended in major hardware sweeps — the regular-season MVP, Finals MVP and Larry O’Brien trophies. We can quibble over stats, but little separates Bird and Magic when you start comparing advanced numbers. Magic was one of the greatest passers in NBA history. Bird was a more dangerous scorer at every level and one of the greatest passers ever at his position. It’s a matter of preference.
The true measure of these two players was their contribution to creating a winning atmosphere. It’s a shame we never saw their teams meet at their absolute peaks, because the Rockets upset the Lakers in the 1986 Western Conference finals, and the 1987 Celtics limped to the Finals with McHale on a broken foot, Parish and Danny Ainge nursing ankle sprains, and Bill Walton and Scott Wedman both out.
It is hard to imagine the ’86 Celtics wouldn’t have prevailed. They took two games and nearly a third from the Lakers in ’87 without most of their rotation playing at full strength. Bird carried his team to two wins against the Lakers at their best, and Magic could not get his Lakers to the Finals when the Celtics were at theirs. And that, to me, is what gives Bird the slightest of edges here: The gap between peak Bird and everyone else was a hair greater than that between Magic and the pack.
Game 4 of the 1987 Finals is the feather in Magic’s cap. His baby sky hook gave the Lakers a 107-106 with two seconds left, and Bird’s game-winning 3-point try missed by a hair, turning what could have been a 2-2 series into a 3-1 deficit. That fully flipped the script on a narrative that developed despite Johnson’s epic Game 6 performance in the 1980 Finals and culminated in a Sports Illustrated piece under the headline “Johnson in the clutch: Don’t call him Magic, just call him unreliable.”
Bird never received that criticism. His career saw countless game-winning shots (seriously, there is no consensus on how many he hit; it was just a ton), but his iconic clutch play came in the form of a steal. His swipe of Isiah Thomas’ inbounds pass and ensuing assist to Dennis Johnson for a layup with one second left in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals swung the series in Boston’s favor. It came two years after he ended the conference finals with a steal against the 76ers.
There are few players, if any, you would rather have taking the final shot than Bird, and that alone should give him the edge, but let’s get some more numbers to confirm.
Their career playoff averages:
• Magic: 19.5 points (50.6 FG%, 24.1 3P%, 83.8 FT%), 12.3 assists, 7.7 rebounds and 2.2 combined blocks and steals in 39.7 minutes over 190 games
• Bird: 23.8 points (47.2 FG%, 32.1 3P%, 89.0 FT%), 10.3 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 2.7 combined blocks and steals in 42 minutes over 164 games
Their career Finals averages:
• Magic: 19.4 points (51.6 FG%, 24.3 3P%, 87.4 FT%), 11.7 assists, 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 combined blocks and steals in 40.9 minutes over 50 games
• Bird: 23.1 points (45.8 FG%, 46.3 3P%, 87.2 FT%), 11.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.9 combined blocks and steals in 42.8 minutes over 31 games
It’s not dissimilar from the arguments we’ve already discussed. Both were great, and even better in big games. Their production is secondary to their performance.
They met three times in the Finals, with Magic’s Lakers prevailing twice. In the biggest game of their careers — Game 7 of the 1984 Finals, essentially a rematch of the do-or-die NCAA title game between the two in 1979 — neither was great, but Bird got the best of Johnson, who committed two of his seven turnovers in the final minutes, reinforcing the Tragic Johnson nickname that developed during the series.
For the first eight years of their careers, Bird was 5-1 in advance-or-go-home Game 7s or first-round, series-deciding Game 5s (or Game 3s), and Magic was 0-2. Bird averaged a 28-11-7 on 46/50/95 splits in those games. Magic averaged a 13-9-12 on 25/0/67 splits. That changed in 1988, when Magic finally submitted three straight Game 7 gems en route to his fourth title, but for the bulk of their careers, this was not even all that close. Bird was more clutch, maybe the most clutch ever.
• Bird: Three-time champion (two-time Finals MVP); three-time Most Valuable Player (1984-86); 12-time All-Star (1982 All-Star Game MVP); 10-time All-NBA selection (9x First Team, 1x Second Team); three-time All-Defensive Second Team selection; three-time 3-Point Shootout champion; 50-40-90 club member (twice); 1980 Rookie of the Year; 1979 National College Player of the Year; 1992 Olympic gold medalist
• Johnson: Five-time champion (three-time Finals MVP); three-time Most Valuable Player (1987, 1989-90); 12-time All-Star (two-time All-Star Game MVP); 10-time All-NBA selection (9x First Team, 1x Second Team); four-time assists leader; two-time steals leader; 1980 All-Rookie First Team selection; 1979 NCAA champion (Final Four Most Outstanding Player); 1992 Olympic gold medalist
Their trophy cases are nearly identical, save for Magic’s two extra rings. I’m going to guess Bird would rather have won the 1985 and 1987 titles than win Rookie of the Year over Johnson in 1980. Or at least take one of those to even the score.
Things might have worked out differently for Bird had he entered the NBA earlier than 23 years old, had he not shoveled his mother’s gravel driveway in 1985, had Len Bias joined the Celtics in ’86, or had McHale not broken his foot in ’87. That’s a lot of ifs to even a score that is decidedly in Johnson’s favor.
For the culture
Bird enjoyed a successful post-playing career in the game, winning 1998 Coach of the Year honors when he led the Indiana Pacers to the first of three straight Eastern Conference finals appearances and earning 2012 Executive of the Year honors for building what became another multiple-time conference finalist in his home state.
Magic’s post-playing career in the game is less decorated. He resigned 16 games into his coaching career, and his tenure as an executive with the Lakers was littered with missteps until his shocking resignation two years after he accepted the job.
But where Bird always preferred returning to relative anonymity in his hometown of French Lick, Magic sought the spotlight and succeeded to a ridiculous degree. Few sports personalities have been as perfect a match for their cities as Magic is for L.A., and that includes Bird in blue-collar Boston. L.A. was the party in the 1980s, and Magic was its life, turning the Forum into Showtime for the rich and famous.
Magic’s ability to build a brand was a blueprint for the modern NBA superstar. With an eye toward developing underserved communities, he made hundreds of millions of dollars investing in movie theaters, Starbucks and a host of other successful business ventures. He has held ownership stakes in the Lakers, Dodgers, Sparks and LAFC. This is all more than enough to excuse his failed foray into late-night TV.
We would be remiss if we did not mention Johnson’s HIV diagnosis. He became the face of an epidemic and helped de-stigmatize the disease. In addition to raising awareness about HIV/AIDS at a time when the general public knew next to nothing about it, his charitable efforts continue through the Magic Johnson Foundation.
Magic’s stardom transcended sport in a way only a handful of icons ever have.
THE DAGGER: Magic Johnson is better.
If you have an idea for a matchup you would like to see in this series, let us know.
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