Magic & Bird: Who Was the Better Player?
At 14:20 in this video Larry Bird says that Magic Johnson was the better player because he won more championships. Far be it for me to disagree with Larry Legend’s self-assessment on the issue, but I would like to offer three points of nuance:
- Obviously it’s impressive that Magic won a ring his rookie season, but keep in mind he inherited a squad that already had Kareem Abdual-Jabbar. Meanwhile Larry turned his Celtics around from worst to first in just his second season. It seems to me that’s the more impressive achievement.
- Regarding the rings, I think it’s worth noting that Larry might only have three to Magic’s five, but Larry was always the best player on his team whereas Magic clearly was not. Larry never had the opportunity to play with another Top 5 all-time player.11.After Jordan and Russell most people put Magic and Larry as #3 and #4 on the all-time great list. I disagree, and I honestly don’t even know how the point is debatable: Jordan, Russell and Kareem, then Magic/Larry… As an aside: I’ll offer a defense to putting Kareem number 3 all-time. Jordan is the greatest combination of team success and individual dominance in NBA history. That’s why he’s #1. Russell has 11 rings. That’s why he’s #2. After that, Kareem is clearly the second-best combination of team success and individual dominance. During his 20 seasons he was the ROY, went to 10 championships and won 6, was Finals MVP twice, holds the record for most league MVPs with 6, went to a reDONKulous, league-best 19 All-Star games, and made 11 All-Defensive Teams. Look at Capt. Murdock’s final stat lines when he finally hung ‘em up at age 42. Career highs: 34.8 PPG, 16.9 RPG, 5.4 APG. Career averages: 24.6 PTS, 11.2 REB, 3.6 AST, 2.6 BLK, .9 STL. Career totals: 38,387 PTS, 17,440 REB, 5,660 AST, 3,189 BLK, 1,160 STL. Statistically, over the duration of a career there’s no question Kareem is the greatest player the game has ever seen. In terms of winning, his 10 finals appearances are second only to Russell’s 13 and his 6 rings match Jordan. Oh, and individually his 6 MVPs trump even His Aforementioned Airness. Of Magic’s five rings, in two of those seasons Kareem was the best player on the team. In only two of them was Magic the undisputed best player on this team, and his Lakers lost in five games the one time Magic made the Finals without Kareem.
- At the peak of their individual powers I’d suggest Larry was the more dominant player. Not only do most people agree that the ’86 Celtics were a better team than the ’87 Lakers, but look at the stat lines for each of their best respective seasons. In the ’84-’85 season Bird averaged 28.7 PPG, 10.5 TRB, 6.6 AST, 2.0 STL, and 1.2 BLK in 39.5 MPG. In ’86-’87 Magic averaged 12.2 AST, 23.9 PPG, 6.3 TRB, 1.7 STL, and .5 BLK in 36.3 MPG. Both are ridiculously great, but I’d give the slight nod to Bird.
In sum, I’m not making a case that Larry is actually better than Magic. Ultimately I’ve got to agree that the championship total gives the nod to Magic. All I’m saying is that rational doesn’t do justice to just how evenly matched they actually were. Instead of 1) Jordan, 2) Russell, 3) Kareem, 4) Magic, and 5) Bird, I think it should be 1) Jordan, 2) Russell, 3) Kareem, 4a) Magic, and 4b) Bird. Somehow I doubt that would comforting to Bird, though.