Tag:Legends vs. Stars
Posted on: July 30, 2011 5:25 pm

Legend vs. Star: Larry Bird vs. Dirk Nowitzki

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. 

Posted on: July 23, 2011 2:19 pm
Edited on: July 23, 2011 4:49 pm

Legend vs. Star: Isiah Thomas vs. Chris Paul

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. 

We begin with Isiah Thomas and Chris Paul

Before Isiah Thomas' name was synonymous with the failure of the CBA (that's the Continental Basketball Association in this case, though you could argue that some of Thomas' later contracts offered might suggest he had something to do with this lockout), sexual harassment and the utter ruin of the New York Knicks as a professional basketball franchise, he was an incredible basketball player. He was an elite point guard from the moment he stepped on the floor at St. Joseph High School. He won a NCAA Championship at Indiana under Bob Knight (take a second and think about those two personalities sharing a floor). In his sophomore year, Thomas averaged 16 points and 5.8 assists while shooting 55 percent from the field.

So that's a pretty good start. 

You know how Blake Griffin made the All-Star team as a rookie, and it was a really big deal this year. Thomas made it in '82 when it wasn't quite so surprising, but Thomas also started, scoring 12 points with 4 assist and 3 steals. From there on, Thomas was an All-Star each year until his retirement in '93. He won the title in 1990 and 1991 with the "Bad Boys," even downing Michael Jordan's Bulls in the Conference Finals.  But those are just figures. To weigh Thomas' impact, much like to weigh Chris Paul's, you have to actually go back and watch. 

But even the highlight clips don't really show the kind of control Thomas had on the game. At only 6-foot-1 (that's right, the same size I have mocked Kemba Walker for being continually ... every time I read that height I get queasy to a ridiculous degree), Thomas was in such firm athletic control of his opponents, he was always one step in front of them, always in charge. Players had a remarkably difficult time forcing Thomas into doing anything he didn't want to do. His control and precision were offset by his scoring range, which was pretty much omnipresent. It was this control that allowed him to make defenders seem as if they were just trying to keep up with big brother. 

Paul, on the other hand, never won a championship at Wake Forest, though he was just as highly lauded for his intensity and performance. In Paul's first six seasons, he's established himself as the best point guard in the league (Derrick Rose fans, this is qualifying point guards under the traditional role; Derrick Rose isn't a point guard, he's Derrick Rose, which is more than a point guard). Paul's  ability to make his teammates better is arguably higher than that of Thomas. The comparisons between the two relative to Paul's stage of his career are eerily similar. 

From Basketball-Reference.com (click to enlarge):



Thomas scored more, but needed more shots. He had more assists, but had a higher usage. Essentially, were Paul to be as assertive with the ball as Thomas was at this point, his numbers would be even or better than Thomas, more than likely. But of course, injuries play a part. Paul has not only missed significant time with injuries since the infamous 2008 series with the Spurs that very nearly landed Paul in his first Western Conference Finals, but has admitted that he's holding back.  

In terms of style, Paul is much more beatific with his approach. His passes are delicate floaters, while Thomas' were primarily either lasers or high arcing bombs. Paul's 3-pointer is a dagger, while Thomas was more of a hoist. Thomas preferred the mid-range jumper while Paul's short-elbow floater is stunning in its lethality, when he turns to it. But there are vital comparisons. Both Paul and Thomas possess the intense desire to win at all costs that helped Thomas win the title. Of all the new breed of superstars, particularly those in the clique of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, etc., Paul's drive to win is perhaps fiercest. It was Thomas' intensity, or arrogance, depending on which side of the aisle you're on, that led to his feuds with various stars of his era. He and Paul share that, a willingness to tussle with nearly anyone. It is a relentless gear that never allows them to back down from anyone, while always then turning a smile to the camera. But Thomas' battles were almost personal, more vicious. While Thomas has, despite his numerous, nearly incalculable public relations disasters, been well-spirited toward his former rivals in retirement, at the time, it was Thomas against the world. 

Paul's approach has been different. He's much more calculating in his approach. He's willing to befriend anyone that will help him, and makes nearly no enemies. Paul is beloved by everyone. He's a darling of the league. A brilliant player who serves as a tremendous member of his community, an All-Star who pals around with the two-time MVP. He's everything to everyone, where Thomas was popular but also controversial.

In the end, Thomas gets the edge on Paul thanks to, you know, the championships. But Thomas won those when he was 28-29, two to three years older than Paul. CP3 has time. He has the mindset, the skills, and the leadership. He just needs the opportunity. As he showed us in the playoffs this year, Paul just needs a team good enough to support him and allow him to unleash that wolf in sheep's clothing he's often portrayed as (HT: Free Darko). 

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com