LeBron James has been drawing a lot of comparisons to the all-time greats as of late. His recent six-game streak of scoring 30 points while shooting 60 percent from the field is one piece of evidence that we are witnessing an all-time great entering his prime. "King James" has raised his level of play to such a level of excellence that his NBA peers simply cannot match.
If he is above comparison to most current NBA superstars, then the next logical place to weigh and compare his greatness to is the past. After finally winning that elusive first championship ring last season, he is drawing more comparisons to all-time greats Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson instead of current rivals Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.
James has a long way to go before matching Jordan or Magic, but there is one all-time great that he could legitimately surpass in the next couple of seasons: Larry Bird. This should be the primary target for LeBron as overtaking Bird would elevate the "King" to a new title: the greatest small forward to ever play the game.
It may sound absurd to speak of LeBron in those terms already, but he is only a few theoretical seasons away from matching or surpassing Larry Legend in the history books. Before you start hurling rocks at me for suggesting such a farce, the historical numbers and situations are in place for LeBron's ascension to occur sooner than later. With that being said, Bird's numbers are surprisingly very similar to James' and will take a legendary effort to surpass.
The first observation to make is how their games compare to each other on a per game basis. When observing their career statistics, there are many similarities between the two players:
LeBron James (10 seasons): 27.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.8 blocks per game
Larry Bird (13 seasons): 24.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.8 blocks per game
Here are their career shooting percentages:
LeBron James: 0.488 FG%, 0.336 3P%, 0.746 FT%
Larry Bird: 0.496 FG%, 0.376 3P%, 0.886 FT%
Their career averages are very similar. These are two of the most well-rounded and versatile players to ever play and they mirror each other in many ways. Bird was a better perimeter shooter and cleaned up more rebounds, while LeBron is the more explosive scorer and all-around defender. Overall, these two players define the very best of what a NBA small forward should be and redefined the position during their playing careers.
Due to the similarity between Bird's and James' career averages, it is necessary to observe advanced NBA statistics to further separate their game and find more differences between these two legends. Below are key advanced stats that will be further explained in the proceeding section.
LeBron James: 27.5 PER, .573 TS%, .521 eFG%, 10.7 REB%, 34.1 AST%, 2.3 STL%, 1.6 BLK%, 31.7 USG%, .238 WS/48
Larry Bird: 23.5 PER, .564 TS%, .514 eFG%, 14.5 REB%, 24.7 AST%, 2.2 STL%, 1.2 BLK%, 26.5 USG%, .203 WS/48
Advanced statistics can be confusing but they are great ways to compare players' statistics across different eras. They paint a picture of what that player's game was like and what they actually did on the court. With that in mind, here is an observation of how LeBron's style of play and effectiveness compares to Larry's.
James excels all over the court but what separates him from the pack is his court vision and efficiency. His 27.5 PER (Player Efficiency Rating) is a statistic that takes into account his offensive and defensive statistics, minutes played, pace and combines them all into one statistic. LeBron's number is one of the highest in NBA history and generally speaking, the NBA's greatest all-around players have high PER numbers. It rewards you for taking and making high percentage shots, not turning the ball over and impacting the game all over the court, whether it be dishing out assists or deflecting passes. LeBron wins this category over Bird by a pretty wide margin.
As for TS% (true shooting) and eFG% (effective field goal), they are another measure of how efficiently a player shoots on the court. True shooting combines two-point field goals, three-point field goals and free throws into one percentage. This usually favors players with high free throw rates, but Bird's superior success clip at the charity stripe still translates to overall lower shooting percentages all over the court than LeBron's. This does not mean that James is a better all-around shooter, but that he takes and makes higher percentage shots. Bird's numbers are no slouch but James' numbers will beat nearly anyone in these categories.
Moving on to the individual stat percentages, these are easy to explain. For example, rebounding percentage is the amount of available rebounds that a player collected during a game, in relation to his minutes played. For assist percentage, it's the amount of assisted plays in a game that a player contributed.
These stats showcase the different play styles embraced by Larry and LeBron. Bird was a great distributor and dished out a quarter of his team's assists every game, but he hit the boards more often than James and collected more available rebounds in the process. As for the King, he is one of the great distributors of our time and assisted on more plays throughout a game than Bird did, which is an impressive feat.
As for steals and rebounds, these advanced stats back up each player's career averages as they both were active on defense the same amount while on the court. This may seem like a surprise to LeBron fans but is not surprising as Bird was active all over the court. The key difference is that James has the quickness, strength and versatility to legitimately guard all five positions on the court and that is a trait that is hard to show via statistics.
Their on-court numbers mirror each other's in so many ways, so we now move on to individual accolades and playoff performances to see how these players stack up to each other. James might be one of the best regular season players in NBA history, but it is the playoffs where his legacy still remains in limbo. The sport's biggest stage is where Larry Bird solidified his place among the all-time greats. It is also where LeBron James needs to step up his game in order to raise his legacy to elite status and eventually join or surpass Bird.
First of all, here are basic individual accolades that Bird and James accrued over their respective careers.
LeBron James: 1 NBA title, 1 Finals MVP, 3-time NBA MVP, 2-time All Star Game MVP, 9-time NBA All Star, Rookie of the Year, 6-time 1st Team All-NBA, 4-time 1st Team All-Defensive
Larry Bird: 3 NBA titles, 2-time Finals MVP, 3-time NBA MVP, 1 All Star Game MVP, 12-time NBA All Star, Rookie of the Year, 9-time 1st Team All-NBA, 3-time 2nd Team All-Defensive
Yet again, these two players could not have more similar career resumes. Larry Bird's numbers show more longevity due to more seasons played, but LeBron is on a full-out assault to match or surpass Larry's incredible numbers and accolades.
Bird has two more championships and that is the most obvious area in need of improvement on LeBron's part. His Miami Heat team appears well on their way towards making another NBA Finals and have to be considered as one of the favorites to win the title and repeat as champions. LeBron also appears to be the favorite for the 2012-13 NBA MVP award again and only has Kevin Durant standing between himself and his fourth MVP award.
This season is crucial for James' long-term legacy. If he wins his fourth NBA MVP, leads the Heat to back-to-back NBA championships and win the NBA Finals MVP award, then LeBron would essentially be even with Bird in those categories. However, what could tip the argument over in favor of James is this current two-year peak that he could pull off.
LeBron James would be the first player since Michael Jordan to pull off back-to-back seasons of NBA MVP, Finals MVP and NBA champion. Notable players who never pulled that off include Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and... Larry Bird. It would be an all-time great two year peak in his career and would showcase a level of individual and team dominance rarely seen in basketball.
Of course, this actually has to occur before heaping all sorts of praise on James. But it is certainly a plausible goal and if it happens, it would be the launching pad for LeBron's legacy and could potentially set it off into the stratosphere with a few more seasons of dominance afterwards.
If the Miami Heat do not pull this off, then the road to becoming the NBA's greatest small forward becomes more difficult. Simply winning individual titles every couple of years would elevate him, but it would not surpass the accomplishments of the legends mentioned above, including Bird.
So for the time being, Larry is the obvious choice for greatest small forward in history and it will still require a few more seasons of dominance for James to claim that title for his own. But he is coming hard at Larry Legend and it will be interesting to see how the prize fight plays out.
But James has a chance to do something incredibly special and in a few more months, the basketball world will find out if LeBron is ready to take that next step forward and cement his legacy among the five or six greatest players to ever step foot on the hardwood. The ball is in the "King's" court and it is up to him whether his next move is a check or a checkmate for the rest of the NBA.