Blog Entry

Legend vs. Star: Larry Bird vs. Dirk Nowitzki

Posted on: July 30, 2011 5:25 pm

By Matt Moore

We live in an immediate society. The internet, social media, the ever-accelerating news cycle, everything means that the next 30 seconds is 10 times more important than the last 30 seconds regardless of what actually happened in the past 30 seconds. As a result, we lose perspective on what stands truly relevant from the past. The NBA is no exception. So in an attempt to merge the two worlds (since, as a blog, we love/hate/want to be BFFs within the next 30 seconds), we'll be bringing you a look at players past and present, in relation to one another.

This is important enough, we're going to bold it. Legend Vs. Star is not meant to necessarily decide who was "better." You're talking about different eras, with different rules, with fewer teams. The objective here is to discuss the two and how they're alike and dissimilar. It's an exercise in exploration of the present through the context of the past and vice versa. Or to put it another way, no need to flood the comments with "Whatever! (Player X) was/is way better than (Player Y), there's no comparison!" Since they're both basketball players who played in the same basketball league, I'm pretty sure you can make the comparison.

This week we explore the belief of 2011 NBA Champion head coach Rick Carlisle of the two greatest players he's ever shared a team with, Dirk Nowitzki and Larry Bird.

There's a dichotomy that exists in public knowledge and awareness of Larry Bird. Because Bird was born into an NBA with a significant problem around television contracts and because of the stunning fame he entered into as a revelation on the floor, Bird is very different in the eyes of those who watched him on a daily basis and in the lore his name has become synonomous with. This isn't to say one is greater than the other. Both versions of Bird are equally heralded as belonging to the greatest players of all time, even if they're conceptualized differently.

If Jordan was idolized the way a great political leader is, with posters and video propoganda and a crushing history of success, and if Magic Johnson is glorified the way movie stars are, with the perfect picture magazine covers and the walk of fame, Bird is more folk tale. He's spoken of in terms that are general. It's not any one area that's discussed, it's his overall greatness. He overwhelmed the game. The idea of Bird is not so different than an army of Birds always on the floor. Always making the perfect pass. Always hitting the clutch shot. Stealing the ball when there is no logical reason for him to be able to steal the ball. Hitting shots off the backboard, off the ceiling. The difference in that McDonalds commercial is you'd believe the idea of someone telling you Bird could hit a shot like that, and you'd believe seeing Jordan hit a shot like that. In reality, neither would surprise you, even if it's not physically possible.

In reality, Bird was a mega-forward with an intensity that couldn't be topped. That's the best way to describe him. He was capable of adjusting his game to nearly anything that was required. If he needed to rebound, he could snatch 20 in a game. If he needed to deliver the passes and be the all-around distributor, he did. And if he needed to light of the scoreboard like the Fourth of July, he did. Bird left his mark on every game whether the shot was there or not. In a lot of ways, LeBron James is more like him than any other player, except for Bird's ability to consistently hit from anywhere on the floor. He was a marksman shooter, a stud rebounder, a gifted passer. The crossover between the ideallic Bird and the actual Bird was the intensity and will to win that drove his play to resemble a one-man army. It was like Bird was everywhere on the floor at the same time. You weren't facing the five Celtics on the floor, you were facing four Celtics and five Celtic Birds, and you had to guard all of them. And worse still, they could all pass. 

Bird burned beneath the failures of not matching Magic Johnson right out of the gate after the 1980 Lakers championship, only to turn around and win his own first ring in 81 over the Rockets. Bird was defined by his rivalry with Johnson, and has never suffered the brutal examination current players are given when their rival winds up with more rings. Bird experienced a year of struggle, then success, then two years of frustration, then won the title again two out of three years. In essence, Bird burned not out of frustration and desperation for the elusive championship, but from some type of motor that inexhaustibly searched out glory. 

And then, we have Nowitzki.

When we look at the two players, race is most often brought up, as if that's the only comparison for two gangly players with unbelievable scoring ability who stayed with their franchise for the duration of their tenure. It's true that quite often the two players are compared solely on the basis of race, but instead, I was drawn to compare and contrast the two because of how strongly and how often Carlisle brought up Bird's name when discussing Nowitzki in the Finals. Carlisle was adamant, having played with Bird, that the two were comparable. Bird, when asked to comment, was his usual (publicly) humble self, saying it was an honor to be compared to Nowitzki. People took umbrage but largely missed the fact that Carlisle was in large part comparing their will to win, their passion, and their ability to rise to the moment. He referenced Bird when Nowitzki was dealing with a torn ligament in his hand in the Finals, talking about how the great players play through that kind of pain. There is a comparison there, a symmetry between the two, even if they are far from identical idenities on or off the floor. 

Bird experienced immediate and consistent success in his first seven years in the league. Nowitzki just won his first title in his 13th season. Bird was once and forever known as the toughest competitor, a downright mean son of a gun who would do whatever it took to win. Nowitzki had his toughness challenged until the past few years when it became apparent just how versatile he was. Nowitzki went from being a defensive liability to being underrated as a defender. And all the while, Nowitzki was the consummate leader who led the Mavericks to unparalleled success. Both are quiet men who don't brag but will quite willinglly let you know when they're victorious. Both want to win, like all the great ones do, but that doesn't make them unique. What makes them unique is their determination not only to win, but to win on their terms. Bird never left the Celtics, Nowitzki never left the Mavs. Loyal leadership is hard to come by in this league, and both men epitomized it. 

If it felt like Bird was a one-man army, an onslaught of different players cresting the hill to storm your team's gates, Nowitzki is the opposite. Nothing illustrated Dirk's on-floor identity of greatness like the 2011 playoff run, wherein it felt legitimately like Nowitzki could take on all five players at once. Double-teams, triple-teams, you name it, Dirk beat it, hitting the fadeaway time after time. Body him, zone him, swarm to him, delay the double, immediately bring the double, play him in space, front him, attack the pass, do whatever you want. Nowitzki had an answer. And that's been his whole career really. If Bird was constantly in feud with Magic Johnson, it was Dirk who wound up caught in a flurry of greatness. Bird had to topple Magic and Kareem, Dr. J and Moses. Once Jordan really found his footing, Bird's time had already passed. But Nowitzki? He suffered through the Shaq-Kobe mini-dynasty, played in the same division as Tim Duncan and Popovich's Spurs throughout the entirety of the last decade, faced the crushing defeat by the Heat in 2006, the bizarro meltdown in 2007, and the Lakers' resurgence behind Pau Gasol teamed with Bryant (along with Odom and Bynum). In short, if I were to tell you a few slight differences could have led to three or four titles for Nowitzki, you wouldn't be sympathetic (that's how these things go), but you wouldn't be surprised either. 

The career totals are fascinating. If we compare their career averages on a per-minute basis, we see that per 36 minutes, Bird averaged 22.8 points to Nowitzki's 22.6, 9.4 rebounds to Nowitzki's 8.3, 6.0 assists to Dirk's 2.3, 1.6 steals to Dirk's 0.9, and 2.9 turnovers to Dirk's 1.9. Perhaps most stunningly, for a player that is arguably the best pure offensive player of the past ten years, and at very worst in the top five, Nowitzki's .476 field goal percentage pales in comparison to Bird's .496. That's just a two percentage point differential, but it's the gap between a 50 percent career shooter and a 48 percent. That's a big deal in the NBA. I was surprised to find that after both players had logged 13 years in the league, Dirk has 233 more blocks than Bird. That's more indicative of Dirk's seven-foot stature and Bird's more perimeter-based role playing than anything, but still surprising considering the two players' reputations. Taken out of the per-minute ranges into the per-game averages, Bird has the clear upperhand, and while his career minutes average is nearly two minutes higher, it doesn't change the impact he had which was greater than Nowitzki in nearly every way. I shouldn't have to really tell you that Bird was a greater player in his time than Nowitzki, but for those who balk at the absence of a definitive and nearly dogmatic appraisal of the past as always better in order to protect a legacy that is untarnishable, there it is: Larry Bird was better than Dirk Nowitzki. 

Nowitzki's best single season: 24.6 with 8.9 rebounds on 50 percent shooting in 2006-2007. 

Bird's single best season (arguably, it's tough between '84 and 88'):  28.1 points and 9.2 rebounds on 53 percent shooting (from a forward on the perimeter) with 7.6 assists in 1986-1987.

Not too shabby either way, but the results are the same. 

Still, the two provide an interesting, if loose parallel, and an examination of what one player can mean to a franchise. They defined their teams in their eras, and will stand as two of the greatest the game has ever seen. 

And if you're ever looking to see what a truly great jump shot looks like? Just examine either one. It's less about mechanics and more about art and beauty, wrapped in daggers. 


Since: Sep 5, 2008
Posted on: August 1, 2011 12:04 pm

Legend vs. Star: Larry Bird vs. Dirk Nowitzki

It's a stupid thing to do.  You can't compare players of today versus players of yesterday, in any sport.  The first thing always mentioned is the condition of todays players, they are bigger, stronger, and overall more talented with a higher skill set.  BUT, yesterdays players played up to the compition of the day, just like todays players are doing.  The players ten years from now will have the advantage over todays players too.  DIrk in the 80's or Bird today, they would both be stars, but Dirk wouldn't play then like he does now because it wasn't around, a seven footer in those days didn't play the perimeter and very few players do the overall game today like Bird did.  NO not even the self proclaimed king.

Since: Mar 17, 2009
Posted on: August 1, 2011 11:09 am

Legend vs. Star: Larry Bird vs. Dirk Nowitzki

But I believe Dirk could be the better player, if you take into account the number of Hall-Of-Fame players Bird had on his team


Bird made them Hall-Of-Famers..McHale and Parrish were made by Birds passing.

Since: Jul 27, 2011
Posted on: August 1, 2011 10:13 am

Legend vs. Star: Larry Bird vs. Dirk Nowitzki

This artical is racist.

Why cause he is white and tall you compare him to Larry?

And I suppose all black people look alike. 

Since: Oct 23, 2006
Posted on: July 31, 2011 9:03 pm

Legend vs. Star: Larry Bird vs. Dirk Nowitzki

Don't forget
Dirk's Mavericks are tied with the most 50 win regular season in a row (11) in NBA history
No, the Spurs currently have 12 official 50 win seasons in a row and counting.

It could be longer if not for a technicality.  50 wins is equivalent to .610 winning percentage.

The 1999 Spurs went 37-13 (.740 percentage) in the lockout season AND won the title.

The 1998 season they won 56 games.

So the Spurs have 14 consecutive seasons of .610 winning percentage or higher.

The 1999 technicality is the only reason that they are listed as only 12 seasons in a row which is still the record.

Since: Dec 10, 2006
Posted on: July 31, 2011 8:57 pm

Legend vs. Star: Larry Bird vs. Dirk Nowitzki

Bird is greater than Dirk for his time. The truth is though, the game has evolved since Bird's day. Back then most 7 footers were shooting awkward jump hooks. A 7 footer like Dirk would have been unstoppable back in the day. Dirk is facing larger, stronger and more athletic opponents than he would have in the 80's. That being said, Dirk would sweep the floor in the 80's but he did not play in the 80's. Bird's accomplishments are far more and much deeper than anything Dirk has done to this point. To even belong in the conversation, Dirk would need to contend four more years and lead his team to at least two more titles.

Interesting comparison: Bird to Lebron. Lebron is so much more athletic but has never put the time into his game that Bird did (as is the case for many of today's stars). Things have come easily and it shows when a Lebron has to hit a key shot and misses. Maybe if he did what Bird did- took thousands of shots a day, every day.. maybe Lebron would learn to close like Bird did.

Since: Oct 3, 2006
Posted on: July 31, 2011 8:38 pm

Legend vs. Star: Larry Bird vs. Dirk Nowitzki

I would Agree with that comment 1000%!!!!!If you wanted to start a team with a forward, NO WAY LARRY BIRD ISN';T ON THAt list as a small or power forward!!!!!!!Greatest passer for forward ever!!!!!Tough S O B !!!!!!!People forget thaT IT was his back problems that made him retire early. I don't really watch the NBA anymore cause of all the "ME"    BS!!!!!!

Since: Nov 23, 2007
Posted on: July 31, 2011 8:23 pm

Legend vs. Star: Larry Bird vs. Dirk Nowitzki

I'll start by saying Bird has the better stats overall. But I believe Dirk could be the better player, if you take into account the number of Hall-Of-Fame players Bird had on his team. You don't think Bird's defense was not helped by playing with Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson, and Robert Parrish. Dirk was backed up by Shawn Bradley and Eric Dampier.  Bird's offense was also not helped by the above, Danny Ainge, Bill Walton, Rick Carlisle, etc. Dirk best help was Micheal Finley, and Steve Nash before he became MVP Steve Nash. Bird was rarely double teamed, Dirk is almost never not double teamed, and sometimes triple teamed. If he had more consistent offensive support Dirk would consisently average 6 assists a game. Dirk also rarely gets the superstar free throw calls like Kobe, DWade, and LeBron. He is routinuely battered on a nightly basis and he just continue to play the game.

Think about this how good would Dirk have been on the 1980's Celtics, compared to how good would the 2000's Mavericks be with Bird. Don't forget
Dirk's Mavericks are tied with the most 50 win regular season in a row (11) in NBA history. This is just my 2 cents.

Since: Dec 1, 2006
Posted on: July 31, 2011 8:03 pm

Legend vs. Star: Larry Bird vs. Dirk Nowitzki

The commentary is totally laughable, from the outright racist (no white "role models" between Bird and Nowitzki?  John Stockton?  Steve Nash?) to the boneheadedly obvious (yeah, no kidding, Bird is way better than Dirk)

The article is an interesting contrast, though, and it really does provide an eye-opening viewpoint on where the NBA is right now, how one of the best the league has to offer over the last decade stacks up against one of the top-10 of all time.

I do agree with a number of folks here who have commented on Bird and Magic being better than Jordan, simply because they were team-first players that truly elevated everyone around them, not just by drawing triple-teams, but by making the great pass rather than forcing the ridiculous shot, and by giving everything they had on every play on BOTH sides of the ball.  Ko-Me will always fall short of these two for the same reason, and I wouldn't put him in my top-10 GOAT either.

Since: Oct 23, 2006
Posted on: July 31, 2011 7:52 pm

Legend vs. Star: Larry Bird vs. Dirk Nowitzki

Larry might be the toughest competitor in history.  He was a fairly good defender who made 3 all NBA defensive teams.

Until last season, Dirk was arguably one of the softest players in history.  He finally shed a little bit of that, but he is still arguably the worst defender in the league.

I am not sure why this is even a debate.

Dirk is a good player.

He is not in the same league as Larry especially in toughness and defensive ability.

Since: Dec 9, 2006
Posted on: July 31, 2011 7:00 pm

Legend vs. Star: Larry Bird vs. Dirk Nowitzki

Why does anyone have to make life tough on Dirk by comparing him to Larry Legend???   Dirk is a great player, he's won an MVP, and now he finally has a ring and Finals MVP.  Let Dirk enjoy his success.

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