One day before the greatest calendar year of his career-to-date concludes, LeBron James turns 28. The Miami Heat star ends 2012 as an NBA champion, a Finals MVP, regular season MVP (for the third time) and Olympic champion (for a second time).
Early in his career, James was frequently compared to Michael Jordan and, as our understanding of his all-round game grew, Magic Johnson. But how does LBJ compare to the third of the NBA’s holy trinity of iconic players, Larry Bird?
Let's take a look at how the NBA’s current undisputed king and Larry Legend compare at the age of 28.
Bird turned 28 in December 1984, the early stages of 1984-85 season. Like LeBron now, he had just proved himself the league’s top dog - a reigning NBA champion and the league’s reigning MVP – but hadn’t yet reached his apex.
Bird would turn in his most efficient season in 84/85 (although the Celtics would ultimately lose the NBA finals to the Lakers) and score a career-best (at that point) 28.7 points per game. For the fifth successive season, he would post averages of 20+ points, 10+ rebounds and 5+ assists. He would finish playing as the only NBA star to maintain these averages across an entire career.
Like Bird, James’ achievements in his 28th year reflect his stature as the league’s best player but do not mark the limits of his potential. Six months after securing his first NBA title, LeBron’s field goal percentage, three-point percentage, rebounds per game and assists per page are higher this season than in his championship year. He already great but he's going to get even better.
Looking further ahead, it’s a distinct possibility that the league’s premier player will ultimately end up with one of the NBA’s most storied franchises. Do you see LeBron staying in Miami forever? What sort of numbers would he put up in a more high-powered offence? Could be average a triple-double for an entire season?
Beyond the numbers
While statistics demonstrate the individual brilliance of both Bird and James, they don’t offer a truly accurate method of comparing the two superstars. The modern-day NBA in which LeBron thrives is a very different place to the league Bird ruled alongside Magic and Michael in the 1980s.
In Bird’s heyday, he would routinely abuse opposition small forwards who had no interest in defence (hello, Alex English). Bird would only match-up against a defensive-minded Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen or Michael Cooper-type (the Laker Bird admitted was a defender he feared) occasionally. In today’s NBA, he would face committed defenders at small forward eight nights out of 10.
Since Bird’s prime, the NBA has expanded and the overall talent pool diluted. Boston’s big three of Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale was matched by the Lakers’ Magic-Kareem-Worthy combo or the Detroit Pistons’ bad boys. Right now, no team (other than Oklahoma City Thunder before they traded James Harden) could match the talent of Miami’s James-Wade-Bosh trinity.
That shouldn’t diminish LeBron’s numbers or titles. But it shows the folly of comparing players’ numbers from different eras.
Read any book about Larry Bird. Regardless of the author, the Legend’s game-clinching feats have, thanks to the passing of time and absence of blanket media coverage every night, attained something close to mythological status: half-court practice shots, improbable game-winners, trash-talking the competition at the three-point contest, shooting left-handed for an entire game to counter boredom. You’d think the Birdman never had a bad game.
Thanks mainly to The Decision and a handful of dire and uncharacteristically timid playoff displays for both Cleveland (against Boston) and Miami (2011 finals against Dallas), the assessment of LeBron as a basketball player is far harsher. Is he a hero or villain? A game-winner or a choke-artist? The truth or a fraud? Are the Heat in crisis or the league’s best team?
The discussion changes on a daily basis. The dissection of LeBron never ends. And thanks to League Pass and Sportscenter, every mistake he makes is amplified.
Winning his first NBA championship silenced much of this criticism of LeBron. His performance in game six of the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics (45 points, 15 boards and five dimes) was as stellar as any of Bird’s 1980s heroics.
James’ consistency through the 2012 playoffs was as impressive as anything produced by superstars of the recent or distant past.
But The Decision will cast a shadow over LeBron as long as he stays in Miami. From Bill Russell to Kobe Bryant, the NBA’s most revered icons played for one club. Bird did. So did Magic. Their triumphs are unquestioned.
Only LeBron decided to join forces with his rivals to form a super-team – a stick with which critics will be able to beat him forever. Could you imagine Michael Jordan joining forces with Isiah Thomas to end his wait for a championship? Of course not. The elevation of LeBron to the rarefied air that Bird, Magic and MJ breathe may only come when he wins a title on our terms, away from South Beach.
At 28, Bird had established himself as an NBA superstar, the most creative scorer of his era and one of the best passing and rebounding small forwards ever. Larry Legend was ‘super clutch’, a player who expected to take and make big shots regardless of the pressure. He did not need to dominate the ball to dominate a game. Despite a lack of athleticism, Bird’s savvy and ability to anticipate plays also made him an excellent team defender.
Compared with Bird, James boasts superior athleticism and is a better individual defender. His stats are similar, although, as a point forward, LeBron is a more ball-dominant player and has more opportunity to put up big numbers.
For me James can’t match Bird at post play, free throws or three-point shooting. Although he’s a clever passer, he’s not yet in Bird’s class. And, until 2012, he couldn’t match Bird’s consistency in the playoffs.
Who’s the better player at 28? I say Bird, who was close to reaching his peak. But LeBron’s ceiling is higher and his career likely to last longer.
When King James calls time on his NBA career, he’ll be joining Larry Legend in the NBA’s all-time Top 10 and, for me, his achievements are likely to surpass those of the Boston Celtics icon.
Follow Lee on Twitter @sportsbloke_UK