Prime Larry Bird Better Than Prime LeBron James? Doug Gottlieb Thinks So | Why He’s Wrong And Why We Need To Stop Comparing Eras

(Photo: PB)

So there are people who think prime Larry Bird is a better player than prime LeBron James. It’s true. Fox Sports analyst Doug Gottlieb thinks so. If you know anything about Doug, this tracks, and we’ll leave it there. This is an absurd debate because there isn’t one. LeBron might be the greatest player of all time, Bird isn’t even top 5.

At one time Bird was among the five greatest players ever, but time moves on, and great players come after and reorder the list. Before we break this down, comparing players across eras is admittedly a fool’s errand. The game was played very differently than it is today.

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In Bird’s prime years the game was played from about 18 feet and in. Take a look at the tape. The spacing was horrible. LeBron’s prime has stretched over the era now known as pace and space. The amount of skilled basketball players during LeBron’s prime and Bird’s isn’t close.

Not to mention the players during LeBron’s prime are far more athletic. Sorry guys, that matters.

Ok, let’s get into this. When we say who was the “better” player we aren’t talking about who is more accomplished. So we aren’t counting MVPs, titles, All-Star, All-NBA or any of those accolades. But if you’re keeping score LeBron wins in all those categories.

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We are talking straight-up a game of basketball which player on the floor is better. LeBron is the superior athlete. He is the superior scorer, whether you’re talking career points per game or per 36 minutes.

Bird is a better rebounder both in rebounds per game and rebound rate. LeBron is the better passer both in terms of assists per game and assist rate. Bird was an incredible passer, but LeBron is better. His athleticism combined with his IQ allows him to make passes Bird couldn’t.

Bird was a very good team defender and played with elite defenders in Dennis Johnson and Kevin McHale. LeBron at his best is a shutdown, switchy defensive dynamo. Bird can’t reach that level defensively.

Then there is shooting.

Your eyes or memory may tell you that Bird is the superior shooter. But that’s not what the numbers say. Career field goal percentage: Bird 49.6%, LeBron 50.5%. Career three-point percentage: Bird 37.6% LeBron 34.5%. Career FT%: Bird 88.6% LeBron 73.4%.

That settles, right? Not quite …

Career eFG%, which adjusts for the fact that a three is worth more than two: Bird 51.4% LeBron 54.4%. Career TS%, which measures shooting efficiency on threes, twos and free throws: Bird 56.4% LeBron 58.7%.

What now? The one category Bird acolytes are convinced he’s superior in isn’t so cut and dried.

You want to talk impact on winning? Offensive win shares, defensive win shares, total win shares, win shares per 48, offensive box plus minus, defensive box plus minus, and box plus minus all favor LeBron and by wide margins.

Saying LeBron is better doesn’t mean Bird isn’t a great player. He’s just not on the level LeBron is.

LeBron, Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the three men that can claim GOAT status, Bird is a notch or two below. There is no shame in that.

But we really need to stop comparing players across different eras. The game isn’t played the same, and the quality of play and athleticism isn’t the same.


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