Bird vs Magic: Who was better?

Let’s take a trip to the wayback machine shall we? Let’s go back to the 80s which I like to refer to as the “Golden Age” of basketball. To get some perspective on what the 80s meant to the NBA, we need to take a look back at the 70s.

The 70s were rough times for the NBA. You could barely find a game on TV. You might get a game on Sunday afternoon on CBS. But I can remember here in Florida the local CBS channel would sometimes decide to show a college game instead. I remember staying up late on Friday nights to watch tape delayed games of the playoffs. That’s right, playoff games weren’t even shown live. Sometimes they weren’t even shown at all. Game 7 of the Finals in 1979 between Seattle and Washington wasn’t even on TV here.

Then along came a couple of young superstars named Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. We first saw these two match up in the Championship Game of the NCAA Tournament in 1979. It was a classic that saw Magic’s Michigan State Spartans beat Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores. The loss was the only loss ISU suffered all year. Then as luck would have it, Magic ended up with the Lakers and Bird with the Celtics.

This could not have worked any better for the league. The Lakers-Celtics rivalry was already legendary going back to Russell vs. Wilt. And with the new young stars ready to start a new chapter with these two great franchises, the NBA was on its way back. In 1980, The Lakers won the title over Philadelphia and Dr. Julius Erving in six games. Laker center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was injured in Game 5 and could not go in Game 6. So Magic took over at the center position. Think about that for a minute. A rookie point guard takes over at center in the NBA Finals and tears it up, leading his team to victory. Hollywood would not even dare to write that one.

The next year, the Lakers were upset by an upstart Houston Rockets team in the first round. But the Rockets met Mr. Bird in the Finals. The Celtics had just come back from down 3-1 against the Sixers in the Eastern Finals. Bird led the Celtics past the Rockets in six games. Between the two young studs, they had two rings in their first two seasons. The rivalry was on. Magic’s Lakers made it three straight by beating Philly in 1982.

It hit its peak in 1984 when the two squared off in the Finals. Bird’s Celtics won it over Magic’s Lakers in a thrilling seven game series. Game 4 was an Overtime thriller won by Boston on the road to tie the series at 2-2. The Celtics then held serve at home in Game 5 and 7 to take home the title. The Lakers got even in 1985, taking the Finals from the Celtics in six games. In those two Finals, there were 13 games played. In NONE of them was either team held under 100 points. Whatever happened to those days?

The Celtics won the title over the Rockets in 1986. The Lakers beat the Celtics again in ’87. At this point, it’s pretty much a dead heat. But after 1986, the Celtics first round draft pick Len Bias died a few days after the draft. Coupled with Larry Bird’s back giving him problems, Magic’s Lakers were able to forge ahead. They won the Title again in 1988 over the Detroit Pistons.

So who was better? When both were at the top of their game it was difficult to say. Each could shoot the lights out. Each could get you a rebound. Each would make passes that often times had spectators in awe. Both could play defense with the best of them. Had there been no Michael Jordan, the debate would still be raging on as to which of these two players were the best ever.

For those keeping score the Lakers won titles in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988. The Celtics won in 1981, 1984 and 1986. So I suppose that would put Magic over the top. He was able to stay healthy longer than Bird. In fact, the Lakers won Western Conference Titles in ’89 and ’91 before Magic started his decline. He then passed the torch onto Michael Jordan and his Bulls, who won six times in the next eight years. And the NBA has never looked back. Thank you to Magic Johnson and to Larry Bird for some great memories and for making the NBA what it is today.

One Comment;

  1. James Stewart said:

    Liked the article – good info on 2 of the best and most versatile players to ever play. I would take Bird over Magic for a variety of reasons. Many people do not know Bird was a good defender and better than Magic. Bird made 3 all defensive teams early in his career to 0 for Magic. In fact in Magic’s book “Touch” he talks about how the zone defense he played in college hurt his ability to defend and how he was getting “lit – up” on the defensive end. Both players are known for making “those around them better” and again I give Bird the edge. Why? Look at what Bird did in college. Only 1 of his teammates – Carl Nicks- played in the CBA for a couple of years and quit. There were 3 of Magic’s teammates that saw an NBA roster = Greg Kelser & Jay Vincent & Ron Charles-drafted by the Bulls in ’80. LA prior to Magic was a 47 win team and in the playoffs. Celtic’s prior to Bird were a 29 win team and terrible. Bird’s rookie year, Celtics won 61 games = a 32 game turnaround. Bird won ROY over Magic (63 first place votes to 3 for Magic) and with 2nd in MVP voting for Bird in 81,82,83 and 88 and MVP in 84,85 and 86 = 8 years Bird played better than Magic. LA played in a weaker conference – see Dave Heeren’s “basketball abstract” = east dominated the west (top to bottom) every year for all 10 years of the 80’s. For purely statistical analysis, Heeren has Bird as MVP for 4 seasons and player of the decade. Bird drew the opposing teams best defender every night – not so for Magic and Bird was the best player on all of his teams and often demanded the ball at the end of the game and made many more game winning shots. Magic became that same type of player but it was years later. From his book “Touch” – “I was afraid to go for it, Kareem and Wilkes and Norm all wanted it, all I got were crumbs, but that was ok”. Kareem was the best player in the world (1980) MVP and the best laker for several of Magic’s first years, a huge asset that Bird never had. Bird finished his career (games played in) with the highest win % of any NBA player ever at 73.58 % = 660 wins in 897 games. Jordan = 68% and Russell = 69%. LA during Magic’s career played in 30 western conference playoffs winning 27 of these = 90% win rate but against the east in finals won 5 titles in 9 attempts = 55% for a 35% drop in win %. Each time LA didn’t make the finals – the east also won. Magic gets the nod for ball handling and passing, but Bird gets the nod for shooting, scoring, rebounding and defense. Bird created the 50 – 40 – 90 club and did it while pouring in 29.9 pts per game one season (the highest so far) and did it 2 years in a row. Magic has more rings but ring counting is a terrible way to judge a player. If you look at the total package, Magic was tremendous but Bird was better.