Monday, January 12, 2009

LeBron: Better Than Bird?

What a great time to be an NBA fan, with so many future Hall of Famers active. Among them, it is in my opinion most exhilarating to watch LeBron James, just turned 24, and Chris Paul, turns 24 in May, as young players who are already mounting a charge up the list of the game's all-time greatest players. How high can they go?

Well, both players raised the bar yet again last week with brilliant displays in big games. On Tuesday, CP3 turned in this beauty of a line in the Hornets' 116-105 win over the Lakers at Staples Center:
32 pts, 15 ast, 3 stl, 0 TO.

It was the first time a player had gone for 30+ pts and 15+ ast with 0 TO in a game since John Stockton did it back in 1989. (It's worth noting that David West [40 pts/11 reb] and Kobe Bryant [39 pts/7 ast/6 3pt] were also outstanding in a very entertaining game.) CP3 was everywhere, controlling the game as usual with his penetration and decision-making, and knocking down a variety of floaters.

Still, nothing we saw on Tuesday was comparable to the gauntlet LeBron laid down on Friday, in Cleveland's 98-83 showdown win over the Celtics:
38 pts (on 13-25 / 3-7 / 9-9 shooting), 7 reb, 6 ast, 4 stl, 3 blk.

It was an outright tour de force from LeBron, one of the best all-around games I've seen from him, mainly because those defensive numbers indeed reflect the disruption he caused on that end of the floor, an increasingly common complement to LBJ's production on offense.

On the ESPN broadcast, Jeff Van Gundy noted at one point that a defensive play James made was "Pippen-like" and that Scottie Pippen was the best help defender he'd seen (I agree). If LeBron's D becomes Pippen-like on a consistent basis, this is just going to get scary.

At one point, there was a graphic listing the top 3 MVP choices to date from both Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. Jax had LeBron-Kobe-D-Wade, while JVG was a bit daft with LeBron-Joe Johnson-D. Howard. Action Jackson and play-by-play man Dan Shulman teased JVG a little and there was some banter about the choices. Then Shulman asked if, despite the differences on their ballots, both men thought that LeBron was the clear no. 1 choice for MVP.

Neither analyst hesitated. Jax: "Clearly." JVG: "Clearly."

It amazes me how quickly the question "Who is the best player in the NBA?" has been rendered moot, after a few seasons where there's been legitimate debate among a few players (although Mssrs. Dwyer and Hollinger were ahead of the curve on this one, as usual...).

I'm sure that there are plenty of Kobe true-believers out there who beg to differ, but I'm sorry, the best player in the world is LeBron, and there's no question, and barring some sort of catastrophe, it will be that way well into the next decade.

Although there is no question in my mind that LeBron is currently the best player, I still found myself startled by how the on-air conversation continued after the MVP discussion.

Jackson said that, at age 24, LeBron is the best SF other than Larry Bird.

Van Gundy replied by saying, very simply, "Better than Bird."


It was a little bit confusing as it was unclear if they were talking about the best SF at age 24 or the best SF, period. It seemed like they meant "best SF at age 24", as Jackson indicated that he thought LBJ would be the best SF when all was said and done (there was no argument from Van Gundy).

Let's take a look at LeBron v. Bird stats at age 24. The biggest difference is that it is already LeBron's 6th season, while Bird was in just his 2nd season (1980-81) at age 24 b/c he had bounced around from Indiana to Indiana State and played his full four years of college:

LeBron: 35 36.6 .508 .302 .788 2.0 1.3 6.6 6.6 27.7 32.4
L Bird: 82 39.5 .478 .270 .863 2.0 0.8 10.9 5.5 21.2 19.9

Statistically, there is no question that LeBron is better at 24. The main question from here is whether LeBron can match the championship that Larry won at age 24 in 1980-81. Increasingly, the odds seem to be in his favor.

Again, it just kind of amazes me how quickly the discussion has seemed to evolve from "LeBron the prodigy with the great potential" to "LeBron is on track to be better than Bird."

And it's startling because, if you take a step back and remember that Bird is considered a top-10 player at least, a top-5 player by many, then how high up the list is LeBron going to go?

Certainly, it's nearly impossible to argue that LeBron is better, period, at this point simply b/c he has neither the 3 championships nor the 3 MVPs on his resume.

But, do I think LeBron is going to be considered better than Bird when all is said and done? I have to say I do.

Both are extraordinary passers for their size, Bird was a better rebounder and outside shooter, while LeBron finishes at the basket like few ever have.

I think LeBron has moved up the charts so quickly in part b/c he has answered the bell in two key categories:

1. Defense. This was cited by Van Gundy, who noted that the defensive improvements being exhibited by LBJ this season put him on a different level than Bird on that end. Larry was an underrated help defender who had very good anticipation, but LeBron offers unmatched athletic gifts on top of those traits.

2. Clutch Play. Of course, Larry Bird is considered one of the great clutch players ever, and a couple years ago, LeBron started taking a lot of heat for the perception that he was not a strong clutch player. I think he started to put those thoughts to rest with his 48-point performance in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, and in the last couple seasons he has been exceptional in clutch situations. tracks "clutch" statistics (defined as "4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points") and LeBron has been downright ridiculous this season, averaging 67.4 pts, 20.2 reb, 10.1 asts per 48 minutes in those situations, easily the leading scorer, and the 3rd leading rebounder.

It's a small sample size of 28 minutes (mainly b/c Cleveland has played so few close games), but it's consistent with his 2007-08 numbers in the clutch and the "super-clutch" (4th quarter or overtime, less than 2 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 3 points) - LeBron and Kobe stood out beyond all others in both of those categories.

All the talk about being clutch or not being clutch gets a little ridiculous - people wondered about Jordan's ability to deliver in the clutch as late as Game 1 of the 1991 Finals, when Chicago lost in the final seconds, for crying out loud. Still, LeBron is going to have to prove it once and for all in the Finals.


I had the opportunity to see LeBron play in person in high school. After the game, I e-mailed to a friend that the only question was "whether he goes down as one of the top 20 or so players of all-time or one of the top 2."

Increasingly, I lean toward the latter rather than the former: I think LeBron James has a chance to end up as one of the top 2 players of all time. (I'm not yet willing to go further than that!)

The beat goes on this week, folks: we've got Lakers-Spurs on Wednesday, and then an ESPN doubleheader on Friday with four of the top five players in the league, as well as four of the top five teams in the league: Hornets/CP3 v Cavs/LBJ and Magic/D-12 v Lakers/Kobe.

Savor it. Who needs football?


At 9:48 AM, Anonymous JG said...

That 32.4 PER is notable as well - the top season mark of all time is 31.8 (Wilt twice).

At 2:24 PM, Blogger Falconbeach said...

What about the 6.9 to's that he has in the clutch?

At 10:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to say that talking about LeBron or Kobe at all as how they rank all time is silly. Kobe less so but silly. We really need to view their career as a whole before we can make those kind of judgments about them. LeBron is an amazing player and is exceptionally talented...but we do not know what the future holds for him.

I will say regarding clutch play: When LeBron James starts telling opponents out of timeouts where he is going to shoot the game winning shot and how..and then goes and does it, I'll be willing to listen to talk about them being more clutch then Larry Legend. Not before. :)

At 9:51 AM, Blogger FreeCashFlow said...

There seems to be a disconnect between judging a player's abilities versus judging their accomplishments as a player.

Is Larry Bird a more accomplished player than Lebron? No doubt.

Was Larry Bird a better player than Lebron? NO way.

Come to think of it, was Larry Bird a better player than Kobe? Probably not.

At 9:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that there is a direct connection between the way people talk about LeBron James this year and Kobe Bryant winning his MVP award last season. It seems to me that it is "okay" for people to speculate that LeBron is better than Kobe now since Kobe has won his life time achievement MVP award. That is really the only difference to me. I am in the "ahead of the curve" group with Hollinger (who by the way is one of the few people who is actually objective in the media). I have always thought LeBron is better than Kobe, especially in the new style of Basketball that is played today. Also after watching him will his way to victory over the Pistions was more than enough for me.

At 10:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Big Laker fan, and big Kobe guy here, and I'll say this: Kobe is the more skilled player and gets every last bit out of his talent. But Kobe's at or near his ceiling, LeBron is about 50% of the way there. Barring injury, he'll be on the short list of all-timers with MJ and Wilt.

At 12:21 PM, Anonymous Phuckyew said...

Get off Lebrons NUTZ. Let this man grow and please stop comparing him to alltime greats. No one is comparing Joe Flacco to Dan Marino just becuase his team is still in the playoffs. People didnt compare Tom Brady to Joe Montana until he won his 3rd superbowl.

At 3:26 PM, Anonymous bird/ray said...

LeBron's dominance over a game against Boston was deeper than anything I have seen and comparable only to MJ and Kobe. I consider Bird a top-5 all time player, possibly the smartest, but their were ways to limit him. LeBron's strength and speed are unparalleled. LeBron and four nobodies would beat Bird and four nobodies. Larry Legend won 3 titles. We'll all watch Lebron's team (Let it not be the Knicks.)

At 4:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a Lakers fan. LBJ is the best NBA player at this moment - and it's not even close.

Last season? I'd give MVP to Chris Paul, Kobe has got it for "career achievements".

However in this season finals I like Lakers - they are much deeper. But Cavs a scary.

At 4:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's funny how before people write what they are going to say about Kobe they write "I'm a lakers/kobe fan." This is the internet. It doesn't give anymore credence to what you are writing. If you are objective then there is no need to state what fan you are. Saying Kobe's mvp award last year was a "lifetime achievement" is a joke.

At 5:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LeBron being ridiculous at stats is quite scary... but still we have Big O who did better on the "all-around" category. KG was even better than LeBron at that category before he teamed up with other future hall-of-famers to win a championship.

MJ, Bird and Magic (probably Shaq and Duncan at present) can claim the top of the ranks because they can WILL to win championships.

Kobe still has to prove it, so does LeBron.

Its not just winning games, its winning championships. and some of the top rank players even have the ability to change the landscape of the game itself.

LeBron and Kobe just need to show first that they can win championships at will... not just games.

Though LeBron is not in his prime yet... actually thats the scary part.

At 8:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You guys should give Lebron's penis a little bit of room.
The amount of cock-jocking in this post is staggering.
Lebron is very dominant, yes; statistically he's unmatched in the NBA. But he's NOT the best player because he can fill a stat sheet and because you've quoted some BS stats from (not to mention Lebron playing the least "clutch" minutes of any player in the top 25).
Let's not forget that Lebron was incredibly subpar in last year's playoffs (including shooting an all-time worst 18% in the first 3-4 games vs. Boston) apart from a game or two, while the other top players in the NBA (eg. Kobe, Wade) have been big time players in the playoffs.

Until someone knocks him off, Kobe is still hands down the best player in the NBA, and someone playing against subpar opponents to pad their stats isn't going to change that.

At 6:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is to answer the guy clutching Lebron's dick in the bottom and is asking for more room so he can get his lips around it:

Lebron and the sorry ass excuses for teammates he had last year took the Celtics to the brink in the ECF.

Kobe, with TWO all-stars AND a deeper bench bent over and got took it in their collective be-hinds from the Leprechaun's team.

'nuff said LMAO

At 10:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just wondering who those two all-stars are that Kobe played with last year? Odom and Gasol? All-stars last year? Really? This year? Really?

How about 2006, when Kwame, Brian Cook, and SMush Parker were often starting for the Lakers, three players who are barely in the NBA today, and Kobe took them to Game 7 of the playoffs and 45 wins in the West.

Painted, you should probably get your knees checked sometime soon. They gotta be sore after being on them this long in front of LeBron.

I'm trying to imagine what people would be saying if LeBron OUTSCORED an entire team in three quarters, as Kobe's done (and he's nearly done this twice: other time was against Memphis in 2002, he trailed 58-56 after 3). Or what people would say if LeBron scored, you know, 81 in a game. The internet would blow up on itself. But with Kobe it was basically taken for granted. That Celtics game was impressive, but good lord, there have been hundreds of games by players that have been just as good.

At 10:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And now we're listening to Van Gundy as gospel? The man has Joe Johnson as an MVP candidate. He's the new Bill Walton, making outrageous comments.

And what about the Olympics last year? The gold medal game? When, as Simmons, said, never before has the best player argument been decided so dramatically, when it was Kobe who took over and wouldn't let them lose. Yeah, LeBron was better during the course of the games, but when it mattered, it was Kobe.

At 12:43 PM, Anonymous bird/ray said...

good point there on the Gold Medal Game. Kobe was an ice-cold killer in that game. but this is like Bird/Magic all over again. Both guys are indefensible weapons. If they meet in mid-air, the winner is determined for that year. (Bird and Magic met on the ground...and in the Finals.) I love the Celts, but Kobe and LeBron in the Finals is the new Bird-Magic.

At 6:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'm a super lebron fan..but the championship rings should decide all the speculations. if lebron have achieved atleast 1 championship ring, he would be the best player

At 7:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your statistical comparison between Bird and LeBron is problematic, because LeBron enjoys the benefit of the handchecking rules. LeBron's entire game is predicated on using his superior strength, quickness, and leaping ability to drive to the basket and finish. If opposing players were allowed to handcheck him as they were during Bird's time, he would have a much harder time getting to the basket. He'd be forced to shoot more from outside, which is a weakness for him. So I would take the PER comparison with a grain of salt.

Also, when discussing their relative strengths, you observe that Bird is a better shooter than LeBron. That's like saying Pavarotti is a better singer than Eddie Money. Bird is not just a "better shooter" -- he's the greatest long-range shooter of all-time. Worth noting.

Don't get me wrong -- I think LeBron will go down on the short list of the best players ever. But recognize that if the 24-year-old versions of Bird and LeBron switched eras, the statistics would look much different.

At 9:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LeBron hasn't won a single Finals GAME yet. Larry Bird would do whatever it took to win. LeBron has a style HE likes to play---and if it doesn't benefit the TEAM best, so be it. Why doesn't LeBron post up more? He doesn't wanna. He likes to shoot from the outside, where he is streaky and sometimes awful. LeBron is a more TALENTED player than Bird. Bird is more SKILLED, arguably----and Bird uses his skills more efficiently, to the betterment of the TEAM. Larry Bird at this point is CLEARLY a greater player than LeBron James.

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