A lot of the basketball world considers LeBron James to be a top-two basketball player of all-time, let alone the consensus best “Small Forward” ever, but what is the basis for that? I guess it really depends on an individuals’ definition of the best player of all time. Some people consider stats and accolades alone, while others consider the way a player affects his teammates or what skills he possesses.
In my opinion, there needs to be a blend of everything. In order to be considered the best of all time, there obviously have to be stats and accolades present. But it is important to consider how they are accumulated; are the stats considered to be empty and have no impact on winning, or are they a major contribution to the teams’ success?
As far as skill goes, that’s a major component for me. Rebounding and blocking shots due to excessive size and athletic ability for example, is great, but how about collecting rebounds or blocking shots due to tremendous technique, positioning, and honing the craft? In my opinion, a high degree of skill beyond sheer athleticism is required to be considered as one of the best to ever play.
With this criteria in mind, why is LeBron universally accepted as a better player than Larry Bird was? The following analysis will help shed light on who is actually a better basketball player.
Looking at LeBron’s career statistics, the least assists he has averaged in an NBA season was 5.9 per game, coming in his rookie season. Due to this, he has earned a reputation as being a phenomenal passer, even being mentioned as potentially the best passer ever at any position. But does anybody really believe that he has to do extra work to get his teammates open? He is a 6’9”, 250 pound freight train who is nearly unstoppable if he gets a head of steam, so he gets double teamed frequently as a result.
It’s not like his teammates are poor shooters either. He’s played with Danny Green, Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes, James Jones, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, JR Smith, Shane Battier, Mo Williams, Ray Allen, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Chris Bosh, and other great, if not elite shooters throughout his career. Maybe he did have to work a little extra to get his assists in his first stint in Cleveland, but it’s foolish to act like it’s difficult to rack up assists as the primary ball-handler given his situations in Miami, Cleveland the second time around, and LA currently.
Compared to LeBron’s career 7.4 assists per game, Bird averaged 6.3 for his career. It’s hard to argue that LeBron’s teammates were better than Bird’s, seeing that he played with Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson, Dave Cowens, and Bill Walton just to name a few Hall of Famers, but I have trouble giving LeBron an edge here. Bird wasn’t the daunting physical presence that LeBron is. Of course, he was always a scoring threat, but it was because of his polished offensive skills (shooting range, shooting touch, craftiness) rather than his athletic ability. Thus, I think that if Larry was the same kind of threat to blow by you or bully his way through you like LeBron does, he would have picked up considerably more assists than he did due to the additional defensive help he would’ve drawn.
Now let’s look at scoring. LeBron has averaged 27.1 points per game, shooting 50.4% from the field, 34.4% from the 3-point line, and 73.5 % from the free-throw line. Bird averaged 24.3 points per game and shot 49.6% from the field, 37.6% from 3, and 88.6% from the free-throw line. Looking at the numbers here, they are essentially even. LeBron takes two categories while Bird takes two categories.
The tiebreaker in my opinion for determining who is the better player is the manner in which they score. Just a disclaimer, I am not trying to state that LeBron doesn’t shoot any 3’s or jumpers and Bird doesn’t ever get to the basket. But my point is that LeBron’s baskets do seem to rely a lot upon his size, strength, and athleticism, while Bird scored from any spot he felt like at a given moment. He used his high IQ, confidence, and psychological warfare to score from all over the court with high efficiency. LeBron has improved his shooting ability over time, but I still don’t view him as a sound shooter, and I have trouble putting him on the same pedestal everybody else does because of it.
The rebounding department is another blow to LeBron. For his career, he has averaged 7.4 rebounds per game, while Bird averaged 10 per game in his career. I really think that gap is far too big considering they are the same height and that LeBron is much more athletic all around. Rebounding is a skill that involves positioning, hustle, and work ethic. I don’t see much of an excuse in LeBron’s case given that Larry played with multiple Hall of Fame centers and power forwards, but still managed to record double-digit rebounds throughout his career.
I can concede a slight edge to LeBron in career accolades. He has been an all-star more times than the amount of seasons Bird played (due to injury). They have a proportionate amount of MVPs compared to the number of seasons they each played. Although, they do have the same amount of championships with Bird playing fewer seasons. Nevertheless, LeBron just has more accolades in general and that can’t be disputed.
Their career steals and blocks are pretty identical, but I can also give a defensive edge to LeBron. I do think that Bird hustled more and even had more grit than LeBron, but it really just comes down to him being a little slower. With that said, he was able to come up with ample steals due to his ability to read passing lanes.
I could probably break down the comparison even more and look into more areas, but I am noticing a common theme in most areas so far. I don’t think it is really disputable that LeBron is a far superior physical athlete. He came into the league with a tremendous vertical leap, speed, and quickness, all of which are still intact, in addition to the strength he has gained over the years.
Given my criteria that stats/accolades and a high degree of skill beyond athleticism needs to be present when in consideration as the best ever, why is Bird just discounted like LeBron is lightyears better? His only major stats that are higher than Birds are points per game and assists, which I have already highlighted the circumstances for. His accolades are superior, which I conceded, but he has had more healthy seasons and thus more opportunities to rack them up. I think LeBron is obviously a great basketball player and has learned to become a winner, but I would argue that he is a much better athlete than a basketball player. If not for his athletic abilities, this comparison wouldn’t even be close.