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.