Old School vs New: Larry Legend vs King James

When LeBron James entered the league, there was a debate of whether he was more like Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson.  He had Michael’s athleticism, scoring ability and wow factor but he was built more like Magic and seemed to be a natural passer as well.  While these comparisons may have some relevance stylistically, statistically LeBron looks a lot more like another ‘80s Legend that came to define the small forward position.  A 6-9 small forward that could score from everywhere, rebound like a power forward and pass like a guard...that description would have fit Larry Bird before LeBron James was even born.  But how do they compare, according to the stats?  Let’s compare the Legend’s first six seasons with the King’s to see how LeBron stacks up to the consensus best small forward ever.

Raw Box Scores:

Bird: 479 games, 38.2 min, 23.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.9 blocks, 3.2 TOs, 49.6% FG, 86.3% FT

James: 450 games, 40.7 min, 27.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.9 blocks, 3.3 TOs, 47.0% FG, 73.4% FT

LeBron still has 23 games left in his sixth season, which helps explain why Bird has 29 more games played.  Bird has a big advantage in rebounds and shooting percentages, but LeBron has thus far been the more dominant point-producer.  Considering that the 80s Celtics played at a much faster pace than the present-day Cavs, LeBron’s scoring/assist rates are even more impressive than the raw stats show.

PER: Bird 23.0, James 25.9

I may have to write a blog soon on true shooting percentage and usage, because those terms are needed to concisely explain why LeBron matches Bird’s efficiency despite Bird’s better percentages and lower turnover rate.  Crib notes version, because LeBron gets to the line so much more frequently (7.7 FTA vs 4.7 FTA for Bird) and makes more treys than early Bird (1.2 treys/game vs. 0.4 for Bird) he scores just as many points per shot as Bird did despite the lower percentages (reflected in their almost identical true shooting percentages of 55.5% (Bird) and 55.3% (James)).  Also, because LeBron uses more possessions than Bird (scores, assists, shots and turnovers) but produces similar numbers of turnovers, his turnover rate is actually lower than Birds.

What does all of that mean?  It means that LeBron has matched Bird's efficiency while also being slightly more productive, which combines with the effects of competition level to give LeBron the higher PER average over their first six seasons.

Ratings and Win Shares

Offensive Rating and Offensive Win Shares: Bird 113 ORTG/ 43.7 OWS, James 113 ORTG/ 51.6 OWS
Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares: Bird 100 DRTG/ 33.7 DWS, James 103 ORTG/26.0 DWS
Net Rating and Total Win Shares: Bird +13 Net Rating/ 77.4 WS, James +10 Net Rating/77.3 WS

The offensive rating and offensive win share results further support the conclusion in the above paragraph, namely that Bird and James have been similarly efficient on offense but that James has been a bit more productive with respect to his peers than Bird was with respect to his.  On defense, though, it has been a different story.  The 80s Celtics were a few points/game better on defense with Bird on the court than the current Cavs have been with LeBron on the court.  Many experts feel that Bird was an underrated defender despite his athleticism issues, and that LeBron was not the defender that his athleticism would allow him to be until recently.  These stats support those notions, though it’s important to note that these defensive stats do have teammate bias in them and Bird played with some excellent defensive teammates.  On the whole, Bird had the slightly higher Net Rating but James the better Win Share numbers (considering he has played in 29 fewer games), indicating that in these stats they are too close to call.

Wins Produced

Bird 1979 – 80 (rookie): 18.8 wins, 0.305 WP48
Bird 1984-85 (year 6): 27.6 wins produced, 0.419 WP48 

James year 3: 20.4 wins, 0.292 WP48, not quite 50 wins through first three seasons
James year 4: 13.2 wins, 0.210 WP48
James year 5: 20.2 wins, 0.321 WP48
James year 6: 9.7 wins/0.409 WP48 after 32 games, 25.6 wins projected

I don’t have access to the Wins Produced data for all of the six seasons covered, but I do have enough to make the point.  According to this stat, Bird produced 18.8 wins on 0.305 WP48 as a rookie, a mark that LeBron didn’t top until either his third (20.4 wins produced) or his fifth (0.321 WP48) season.  Likewise, Bird’s 27.6 wins produced in 1985 is higher than in any season of LeBron’s career, though through the first half of this season LeBron was on-pace to almost match those lofty numbers.  It looks to me like Bird wins this category, which heavily weights both offensive and defensive efficiency as well as rebounds. 

Conclusion: By the stats, this is an extremely close match-up through six seasons.  If we step outside of the stats, both sides can strengthen their cases.  By the end of his sixth season, Bird had two NBA titles and two MVP trophies while LeBron is thus far 0-fer on both fronts.  On the other hand, Bird was playing with Hall-of-Famers while LeBron was playing with Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden.  Plus, Bird was 23 years old as a rookie and LeBron was still 23 at the start of his sixth season which puts him pretty far ahead of the game.  Overall, it looks like the King’s first six seasons are roughly a draw with the Legend…which is an incredible accomplishment that just emphasizes how bright the future looks for #23 out of Cleveland.

See Also: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs Shaquille O'Neal and Isiah Thomas vs Chris Paul

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Basketball Reference, the Basketball Database, and Wages of Wins for the stats cited here.

Disclaimer: This is not (nor is it meant to be) a definitive argument for one player being better on the court than another, as it is impossible to truly compare across era...we're just comparing some stats.  Also, because +/- stats are a new invention, we don’t have any of that data from before the new millennium and even the stats we do have only go back to 1977 (apologies to the old school greats).  That said, comparing all-time greats is always fun and stats can add a new layer or two to water cooler debates.


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