LeBron vs Bird at 30


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When it comes to small forwards, no two players have accomplished more in their careers than LeBron James and Larry Bird. In large part, they both owe their success to their incredible versatility, having in mind that they can do pretty much anything on the floor: scoring both inside and out, passing like elite guards, rebounding and shooting. On top of that, they are both three time champions, multiple time MVPs and great leaders on and off the floor. Having said all that, there are some obvious differences in their game.

Bird vs Lebron at 30, who’s better? Bird and LeBron are both legends of the NBA in their own right. Although LeBron is a modern day legend however, if it wasn’t for Bird the NBA may not have survived the 80s. Bird just nudges Lebron out as the better player at 30.

Bird was mostly a sniper, never really being known for athletic plays as he relied on his basketball IQ to get where he wanted on the floor. Throughout his career, he was a feared shooter whose stroke was difficult to guard, resulting in him averaging close to 50/40/90 in many of his best years. On the other hand, James is a physical specimen whose freak athleticism makes him one of the best drivers to the basket in NBA history. These two players are very hard to compare as Bird unfortunately had serious health issues in his 30s and his career was cut short, while James is the most durable superstar in league’s history, whose longevity helped bolster his cumulative stats and numbers to the point where he has close to no competition. So, in order to compare these two, I’ll only consider their careers until the age of 30. It’s also key to mention that James came to the league straight out of college at the age of 18, while Bird had a successful spell in college and played his first season in the NBA at age 23. Now, let’s see who, if anyone, had the edge up until they turned 30:

Birds Rookie Season

In Bird’s rookie season (1979–1980), he immediately transformed the Celtics into a title contender. The team previously had only 29 wins and they improved on that by 32, enough for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. He led the league in defensive win shares (5.6), was third in 3-point percentage (40.6%), and finished 10th in rebounding (10.4 boards per game). He averaged both team high in points (21.3) and steals (1.7). These numbers earned him his first of 12 All-Star selections, and he was later named to the All-NBA first team. Most importantly, he was chosen as the rookie of the year, ahead of his lifetime rival Magic Johnson.

LeBrons Rookie Season

No player had the type of hype around him coming into the league as LeBron James did, having been announced as the chosen one on the cover of Sports Illustrated. However, he showed no signs of fear, even deciding to put more pressure on himself by wearing Jordan’s 23. So, an 18 year old with as much scrutiny as any rookie has ever had coming into the league, LeBron casually put up the following statline:

  • 25 pts (12/20 FGs)
  • 6 rbs
  • 9 ast
  • 4 stl

He would average 20.9 points, 5.9 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.6 steals in 39.5 for the season, finishing as the Eastern Conference’s top rookie every single month. Even though Carmelo Anthony matched him with six Rookie of the Month awards, there was little surprise when the younger LeBron received twice as many first-place votes for Rookie of the Year.

Bird as MVP

In his late 20s which were the prime of his career, Bird achieved something only Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain managed before him, and that was to win three consecutive MVP awards. These are his MVP finishes until the age of 30:

SeasonWinsMVP voting
79-80614th
80-81622nd
81-82632nd
82-83562nd
83-84621st
84-85631st
85-86671st
86-87592nd

As you can see, apart from the rookie, he was top 2 every single season of his prime days. These were his averages in the 3 MVP seasons:

  • 26.2 PTS
  • 6.7 AST
  • 10 REB
  • 1.8 STL
  • 50% FG
  • 39% 3PT
  • 89% FT

LeBron as MVP

James won four MVP’s until the age of 30 (only Russell and Kareem did the same), 2 with Cavs and 2 with the Heat. In Cleveland, he was a lone superstar who had to play unbelievable every night in order to drag that team deep in the playoffs where they ultimately just couldn’t matchup with more complete rosters.

 First MVP came in the 2008/09 season when he led a subpar Cavaliers roster to a franchise-high 66 win season. Against all odds, they finished the season as the number one seed in the East. Unfortunately they lost to Howard and the Magic in 6 in ECF. His stats during the season were:

  • 28.4 PTS
  • 7.6 REB
  • 7.2 AST
  • 1.1 STL
  • 1.1 BLK
  • 48% FG

Next season (2009/10) was pretty much the same story. Again he led them to 60+ wins and the first seed, only to exit the playoffs in devastating fashion, this time to the Celtics. His stats were even more impressive this season:

  • 29.7 PTS
  • 7.3 REB
  • 8.6 AST
  • 1.6 STL
  • 1 BLK
  • 50% FG

In the offseason, LeBron famously left the Cavs for Miami in free agency, a move that changed the course of player movement and power balance in the league. Forming the big three with Bosh and Wade raised expectations to new levels, and James delivered more often than not. When you look back in retrospective, it’s hard to argue that the Miami version of LeBron wasn’t the best one yet, as he played the most complete basketball with the Heat. He won 2 MVP’s in the seasons where he went all the way to the title and added finals MVP’s too. His stats in Miami were:

  • 26.9 PTS
  • 7.6 REB
  • 6.7 AST
  • 1.7 STL
  • 0.7 BLK
  • 54% FG

These numbers are a little lower than the ones in Cleveland, but he was more efficient, more mature and played better defence and overall winning basketball.

Larry Bird Rings

Bird made the playoffs in every single season of his career in Boston.He won three championships, 1981, 1984, and 1986, during his career. The Celtics beat the Rockets two times and the Lakers once. But those championships do not tell the whole story. Bird’s rivalry with Magic Johnson was so important to the sport, as those years saw the league truly take off and become global. With those 3 titles, Bird also lost on two occasions in the finals, both times to LA. His stats in all 5 finals were:

 31 Finals Games

  • 23 PTS
  • 11.6 REB
  • 6 AST
  • 2 STL
  • 0.7 BLK
  • 45.7 FG%
  • 42.2 3PT%

LeBron James Rings

Until the age of 30, LeBron competed in 5 finals, the same as Larry Bird, winning one less title. Having said that, he was completely outmatched in the 2007 finals against the Spurs and even getting there was a huge achievement.  In Miami, he went to 4 straight finals, winning two and only underachieving in the 2011 loss to Dallas. His stats were:

49 Finals Games (these include his years over 30)

  • 28.2 PTS
  • 10 REB
  • 7.7 AST
  • 1.7 STL
  • 0.8 BLK
  • 47.2 FG%
  • 34.2 3PT%

Lebron v James Comparison

Larry Bird (first 7 seasons):                                                           

  • 24.4 PTS
  • 10.4 REB
  • 6.1 AST
  • 1.8 STL
  • 0.9 BLK
  • 50% FG
  • 37% 3PT
  • 88% FT

LeBron James( first 11 seasons):

  • 27.3 PTS
  • 7.1 REB
  • 6.9 AST
  • 1.7 STL
  • 0.8 BLK
  • 50% FG
  • 34% 3PT
  • 75% FT

LeBron is way more athletic, a slightly better passer and a better defender in his prime. Bird was the better shooter and a more consistent one, but LeBron is the better driver.

Bird was also arguably the more clutch of the two and had greater killer instinct, but the talent gap between them probably outweighs that.

If Bird managed to stay healthy, who knows how many more rings he would have added and would that put him higher in the all time discussions. As things stand, in their entire careers, LeBron gets the better of him because of durability and longevity. If you only consider their years until the age of 30, it’s a coin toss, and looking at every parameter in this article clearly indicates that, as they are all pretty similar. One thing remains certain, these two are the most dominant and complete small forwards of all time.

James

A basketball court was built in my local park and at 15 years of age I fell in love with basketball. A late joiner to the game, I have played every season since. Some Indiana friends bought me some Pacers gear for my 17th birthday, and I have supported them ever since (who wants to follow the crowd). I love American sports apparel and the presentation of sports, they do it so well (bar all the advert breaks).

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