Magic and Bird: who was more key to his team’s success?

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were two of the NBA's finest in the 1980s.

I know it seems somewhat out of place and random for me to be flipping through the history books on a Tuesday afternoon, but my professor brought up the Lakers-Celtics rivalry (and Magic Johnson in particular) in class today. He discussed why Jerry Buss selected Johnson over Bird in the 1979 draft, underscoring how Magic had the ability to both dominate on an individual basis and also make his teammates better, while commanding more star power than Bird did.

So I said, “But Larry Bird was a bigger key to the Celtics’ success than Magic was to the Lakers’.” He responded, “No, he wasn’t.”

Obviously, I couldn’t get in to an argument with him in the middle of his lecture, so I conceded, but what better argument to make today than the very one that came up by accident. Also, it’s somewhat relevant given the documentary HBO recently released on this storied rivalry. So here I go.

I do admit that Magic certainly was more of a “star” than Bird. He played with more flash, more thrill, and he was much more athletic (but Tim Duncan’s lack of star power didn’t stop the Spurs from drafting him first overall in 1997, did it? And how did that turn out for them?). Nevertheless, the star power isn’t what gets Ws up on the board. That comes from basketball production. So in examining who had the greater impact on his team, let’s look first at the pure statistics.

Magic Johnson: 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 1.9 steals, 3.9 turnovers.

Larry Bird: 24.3 points, 10 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 3.1 turnovers.

Looking at these stats, it’s safe to say that Bird was the better scorer and rebounder. That said, Magic played (for the most part) point guard, where he has to commit just as much to making his teammates better. As you can see, Magic clearly outdistanced Bird in assists — but you don’t expect your scoring small/power forward to be racking up over six a game either (unless he’s LeBron James), so Bird stood out in that category.

Based on the stats alone, the difference between their respective influences is essentially negligible.

Moving on to the hardware, Magic won five NBA championships with the Lakers, while Bird won only three with the Celtics. Each of them won three MVP awards over the course of their careers. Certainly the higher number of rings reflects well on Magic, but we don’t christen Robert Horry (with seven rings) better than LeBron (with zero), do we? So I still consider them to be basically even with the championships taken into consideration.

The real discrepancy emerges, in my opinion, after an examination of each of the player’s supporting casts during their heydays. Larry Bird and the Celtics had Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Tiny Archibald, but Magic sported such figures as James Worthy, Jamaal Wilkes, Michael Cooper, and … Oh, yeah. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. My professor asserted that it wasn’t these players that allowed Magic to shine but that it was the other way around. He made them all the great players they were. While point guards certainly can make their players a lot better, he vastly overstated Magic’s, well, magic. To suggest that Johnson made Kareem the best scorer in the history of basketball is just untrue.

Besides the fact that he came into the league about eight years before Magic during which he played, by far, his best ball, Kareem featured a skill set the success of which was not really dependent on a talented point guard. He was so successful because he mastered the most indefensible shot in basketball — the skyhook.

Furthermore, it’s evident that Magic’s game was affected more by his teammates than theirs were by him. When you’re surrounded by fantastic scorers and finishers, it becomes a hell of a lot easier to pick up assists. Take a look at Steve Nash, one of the greatest point guards this decade. He plays a few seasons for the Mavericks and plays respectable basketball. Then he goes to Phoenix and finds Amar’e Stoudemire, and he goes on to win two consecutive MVP awards and narrowly misses out on a third. That’s not to say Amar’e didn’t benefit from Nash’s arrival, but the effect was reciprocal.

My point is that Larry Bird didn’t have the people around him to improve his game as much as Magic did. Robert Parish was more known for his defense (and, incidentally, his inability to successfully defend Kareem — but no one could do that). McHale was a solid player but not on the level of Kareem or Worthy.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird will be considered some of the NBA’s finest players for decades to come. They were both immensely talented and basked in their fair shares of NBA championship. And Magic was, and still is, the bigger star. But to say that, withdrawing both those players from their franchises, the Celtics are even close to the level of the Lakers during that decade is just a falsehood. Bird was way more instrumental to his team’s success than Magic.

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