"I always hear my name mentioned in connection with Larry Bird's. People are always saying, 'That Scott Hastings, he's sure no Larry Bird.' "
Scott Hastings, 1988
Full disclosure: When it comes to Larry Bird, I'm as biased as it gets.
I'm talking Dan Rather biased. I'm talking Ordway defending Belichick biased. Are we getting the picture? Biased.
Every kid had his hero, and Larry Bird sure was mine. Bedroom full of Bird posters (my favorite? The 1987 Converse "Three-Letter Man" with all three MVP trophies), closet full of Bird T-shirts (served as my wardrobe throughout junior high and high school, which goes a long way in explaining why I spent a lot of Saturday nights going to the movies with my grandmother), hundreds of VHS tapes full of games and thousands of Bird vs. Magic vs. and Bird vs. Jordan debates.
On the court, I made sure to wipe both my sneakers, look up to the rafters (or as close as the Winchester High School gym had to rafters) during the national anthem (which was played on a boombox), dive for loose balls, try and make every no-look pass I could and even toss up the occasional 15-foot lefty jumper.
I faked back injuries so I could lie on my stomach while I was on the bench. There were failed attempts at growing whispy moustaches and adopting an Indiana twang.
So I take the preservation of being able to claim Larry Bird as the best forward in NBA history seriously (it's an east fit, really: I've conceded that Jordan is the best player of all time -- though I'll take the 1986 Bird over anyone for a single season -- and the best forward ever title keeps him away from Magic, Russell and Wilt). Really hasn't been even a hint of challenge since Bird retired in 1992.
This has been the playoffs of Dirk Nowitzki. No one -- not the Lakers, not the Thunder -- has been close to being the boss of Dirk. Already a first-ballot Hall of Famer before the postseason began, he's made an almost unprecedented leap at age 32 (he'll be 33 in June). Usually you are where you are on a historical level at this point of an NBA career (Hakeem Olajuwon jumps out as an exception), but Nowitzki is making people -- smart NBA folks, even -- re-examine where it is he stands among the highest level of all-timers.
Some -- not most, but some -- are even asking if Nowitzki can be looked at as an equal to Larry Legend himself.
I know, I know. I feel the same way. Dirk Nowitzki? A guy with no NBA titles, just one MVP, no floor burns, never the subject of a documentary narrated by Daniel Stern, being compared to Larry Bird? As a shooter, OK, we might all be on board with that, but as an overall player?
Let's dig in, take off our Bird shoes (no other weapon to choose in my mind) and try and take as close a bias-free look as we can at Dirk vs. Larry …
Two of the, what, 10 best shooters we've ever seen? Without question the two best "Big Men" shooters -- and I'm not talking about Bill Laimbeer-types, either, guys who stood at the top of the key and benefitted from drive-and-kick guards. Bird and Nowitzki are guys who could come off screens and score (Bird coming off a Parish screen and hitting a 17-foot jumper on a pass from Dennis Johnson was one of the staples of the Celtics in the 1980s) and create shots off the dribble (though I'd give Dirk the slight edge in that category -- most of Bird's scoring came off the post with that little fallaway).
But listen, I don't think anyone who watched Bird closely and has seen plenty of Nowitzki over the last 13 years can make an authoritative claim that one is a better shooter than the other. The numbers don't tell us much. Bird has a career shooting percentage of 49.6, Nowitzki 47.6. When you compare the shooting percentages of the respective eras, though, it comes out to a push. Free throw shooting? Bird, 88.6 (10th all-time), Dirk 87.7 (14th all-time). Three-point shooting? Bird, 37.6, Dirk 38.1 (and has 1,418 more 3-point attempts than Bird, which of course factors in overall field-goal percentage).
Larry Bird averaged 10 rebounds a game in his career. Dirk Nowitzki has never averaged 10 rebounds a game in any season. Nowitzki gets slapped with the soft label -- and I get why -- but the reality is he has finished in the top 10 in the league in rebounding three times and has averaged 13.1, 11.5, 11.7, 11.7 and 11.3 in different playoff seasons.
Bird finished in the top 10 in rebounding seven times and -- unlike Dirk, who has seen his rebounds per game average drop in each of his last six seasons (all the way down to 7.0 in 2010-11) -- remained a solid rebounder past his prime, averaging 9.6 a game in his final season (while spending a couple of hours a day in traction thanks to a back injury that began when he was shoveling stone for a driveway at his mother's house -- think that'll happen to LeBron at Gloria's house?)
Put it this way: A "Dirk Nowitzki passing" search yields no direct matches on YouTube. Do the same for Bird and get ready to spend a good five hours in the nostalgia machine.
Take your pick, but I've always been a Bird over Magic guy in the passing department. Magic was better on the fast break, but I'll take Bird passing into the post (was able to get ball to McHale without fail even when he was being fronted), Bird as an inbounds passer, Bird going deep after a made basket (Don Casey once called him "the best over the wave passer in history"), Bird out of the post and Bird with the left hand.
(Let me put my Andy Rooney assless chaps on for a moment as I act like a bitter old man and wonder how it's possible that the very thing that Magic and Bird did best -- spectacular passing -- has had zero sphere of influence on today's NBA game. It just never crossed over to the next generation, pretty much died when the two retired. I guess the combination of Michael Jordan -- not by any stretch an imaginative passer -- and the ESPN buffet of slam dunks was too powerful a foe for the no-look pass.)
Bird was simply a revelation as Larry Bird in Space Jam, Blue Chips and There Will Be Blood. Dirk has no screen appearances (see how easily it is to pretend that 2002's Like Mike never happened?) but is a dead ringer for the bad guy in American Flyers and also kind of gives off a seven-foot German version of a Winklevoss vibe.
Bird was always defined as a team defender, which was a nice way of saying he was the guy who guarded Tree Rollins and Mychal Thompson while McHale had to chase after Dominique Wilkins and James Worthy. But the numbers tell something different: He led the NBA in Defensive Win Shares four times and finished in the top 10 in each of his first eight seasons. He was also three times a second-team All-Defense, but that was largely a reputation pick.
Nowitzki entered the league as a terrible defender (the early joke was that he should be called Irk because he had no D) and -- with most of the credit going to Avery Johnson -- has developed into at least an average defensive player. If you care about Defensive Win Shares -- and I'm not so sure I do -- he has finished in the top 10 twice in his career, sixth in 2003 and 2005.
Slight Edge: Bird
Bird played virtually his entire career with a top 30 all-time player (Kevin McHale) and a top 50-60 all-timer (Robert Parish) next to him in the frontcourt (easily the best frontcourt in history, peaking with a 1987 season that saw them average a combined 72 points and 30 rebounds). Throw in DJ and Ainge and Cedric Maxwell and even Bill Walton in 1986 and it's fair to say that -- as great as Bird was -- he had some serious A-list help. And I don't care if you are Jordan or Russell or Kareem, you need that kind of boost to win multiple titles. That's why I never had a problem with LeBron jumping to Miami. What was he supposed to do, sit around with Mo Williams and J.J. Hickson and lose to the Celtics every year?
Nowitzki was the best player on a team that made the NBA Finals in 2006. The second-best player was probably Jason Terry (has never made an All-Star team) and the next-best guy was Josh Howard (one All-Star team). Marquis Daniels averaged 28.5 minutes a game for the 2005-06 Mavericks. Take Bird away from the 1986 Celtics and Dirk away from the 2006 Mavericks and have the two teams play a seven-game series. Any doubt the 1986 Celtics sweep?
And now Dirk is back in the Finals, and he's again doing it without a sidekick playing at an All-Star level (Jason Kidd, while still a force at age 38, isn't what he was a half-decade ago). To me, getting to a couple of NBA finals (and some would say he would already have a title were it not for the whistling disgrace that is Bennett Salvatore) without another All-Star is the best case for Nowitzki as an all-time great.
I was pretty sure Nowitzki would come up short here, and he does. Not a knock on Nowitzki, we are talking about an absolutely brutal standard. There is no way any list of the best six or seven best players in history cannot have Bird on it. Nowitzki is somewhere in the top two dozen or so, with room to move up a little if he wins a title this year. But Bird is a better passer, rebounder, defender, at least even as a shooter (and I hate puling out the clutch card, because it's impossible to define, but if your life was on the line who are you taking to make an 18-footer?) and has three MVPs and three NBA titles.
Dirk is great, and he's never been greater than during this postseason.
But Larry Bird is an immortal.
No bias needed to come to that conclusion.