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Monday, February 04, 2008

The Pantheon: An Examination of Basketball Greatness, Part IV

Although many people would probably define the 1980s NBA by the Bird-Magic rivalry, it is worth noting that for the first part of the decade Bird's biggest rival was actually another Pantheon member, Julius Erving. Bird and Erving played the same position and their teams annually battled for Eastern Conference supremacy while they competed for MVP honors. Bird and Magic only faced each other twice a year until the Celtics and Lakers met in the 1984 NBA Finals. The next season, Jordan entered the league and as Erving's career drew to a close a new triangle of elite players formed, culminating in 1987 when Magic won the MVP, Jordan finished second and Bird finished third; the next year, Jordan won his first MVP, Bird finished second and Magic finished third.

Chamberlain-Russell, Ali-Frazier and Yankees-Red Sox are great rivalries but few names in sports are more inextricably linked than Bird-Magic. They first battled each other in the 1979 NCAA Championship Game, when Magic Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans defeated Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores, 75-64. Magic scored 24 points on 8-15 field goal shooting, grabbed seven rebounds and had five assists. Bird led Indiana State with 19 points and a game-high 13 rebounds but he shot just 7-21 from the field and only passed for two assists.

Even though Bird and Magic joined the NBA together the next season, Bird is actually almost three years older than Magic; Bird did not play as a freshman at Indiana, sat out one year after transferring to Indiana State and then played three collegiate seasons, while Magic turned pro after his sophomore year. It is surely the NBA’s good fortune that fate conspired to bring them together in such a heralded NCAA Championship Game right before their rookie seasons. Bird won the 1979-80 Rookie of the Year award after playing a major role in helping the Boston Celtics improve from 29-53 to 61-21. Bird averaged 21.3 ppg (16th in the NBA), 10.4 rpg (10th in the NBA) and ranked third in the league in three point field goal percentage (.406) in the first year that the NBA used the home run ball that had been popularized years earlier by the ABA. The L.A. Lakers were already good before Magic arrived (47-35 in 1978-79) but he turned them into bona fide title contenders who went 60-22, the best record in the West. Magic averaged 18.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 7.3 apg (sixth in the NBA) and 2.4 spg (fifth in the NBA).

It looked like the 1980 NBA Finals might become a rematch of the previous year’s NCAA Championship Game. Magic and the Lakers did their part, breezing through the Western Conference playoffs, but in the East Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers had other ideas, routing the Celtics in five games in the Eastern Conference finals. Erving made one of the most spectacular shots in NBA history during the Finals, his famous reverse layup in game four that has been replayed countless times and never ceases to amaze, but the Lakers prevailed in six games. Lakers’ center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the regular season MVP and averaged 33.4 ppg and 13.6 rpg in the first five games of the Finals, but he sprained his ankle late in game five and was unable to play in game six. That set the stage for the most famous performance of Magic’s career: he jumped center, played every position and had 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists as the Lakers routed the 76ers 123-107 in Philadelphia. It has been suggested that the initial Finals MVP vote by the media went to Abdul-Jabbar but with the Lakers’ center convalescing thousands of miles away that CBS strongly urged that the honor instead go to Magic so that the network could present the award on air. Magic averaged 21.5 ppg, 11.2 rpg and 8.7 rpg during the series, ranking second on the team in scoring and rebounding to Abdul-Jabbar while leading the Lakers in assists.

In his first several seasons, Bird was a slightly different player than the one who fans probably most clearly recall from the mid-1980s. Other than his rookie year, he rarely utilized the three point shot from 1981-84 (attempting less than one three pointer per game in each of those four seasons) and he did not shoot it accurately, connecting at less than a .300 rate each of those years. He was a very good scorer but not the elite level (25-plus ppg) one that he became in 1985-88. Bird averaged fewer than six apg in each of his first four seasons and at least six apg in each of the subsequent five seasons. His free throw shooting steadily improved from .836 as a rookie to .888 by 1984, when he led the league in that department for the first of four times. Bird never shot worse than .882 after that season. Perhaps the most consistent part of his game during his first six seasons was rebounding: Bird averaged at least 10.1 rpg in each of those seasons and he averaged at least 11.0 rpg in each of his first five playoff appearances. Bird’s supposed lack of athleticism was extremely overstated; his anticipation and hand eye coordination were unparalleled and, though he lacked broad jumping ability, his vertical leap was more than adequate, as indicated not only by his rebounding prowess but also by the fact that he blocked 755 shots in 897 regular season games, more than renowned high flyers Clyde Drexler (719 blocks in 1086 games) and Dominique Wilkins (642 blocked shots in 1074 games).

Magic’s game also evolved. His free throw percentage steadily improved, peaking at a league-best .911 in 1988-89. He was never considered a great defender but he did lead the NBA in steals in his second and third seasons. From his second to fourth seasons he averaged at least 8.6 rpg and 8.6 apg each year, coming closer to averaging a triple double than anyone had since Oscar Robertson did it in 1961-62; in 1981-82, Magic averaged 18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 9.5 apg. Magic shot at least .522 from the field in each of his first eight seasons. Later in his career, he attempted three pointers with much greater frequency, becoming an adequate if not exceptional shooter from that range; those long distance attempts pulled down his overall field goal percentage. Magic did not average double digit assists in his first three seasons and then averaged at least 10.5 apg for nine straight years, winning four assists titles in a five season span before John Stockton became the perennial leader in that department. Other than an injury-shortened second season, Magic did not average 20 ppg until 1986-87 but then he did it three times in four years while scoring 19.6 ppg in the other season; that was just a matter of gradually picking up the slack as Abdul-Jabbar’s role decreased.

Although in retrospect people focus on the Bird-Magic rivalry when thinking about the NBA during the 1980s, Bird’s biggest rivalry for his first four NBA seasons was with Erving, who played the same position and whose team annually battled the Celtics for Eastern Conference supremacy. The 76ers or the Celtics represented the East in the NBA Finals every year from 1980-1987 and Bird and Erving squared off in the Eastern Conference Finals four times (1980-82, 1985), winning two times each. Bird and Erving also annually battled for the MVP award, with Erving placing second, first, third, fifth and sixth from 1980-84, while Bird finished fourth, second, second, second and first.

After Magic won his first championship at Erving’s expense, Bird and the Celtics responded in 1981 by beating Erving and the 76ers in a thrilling seven game Eastern Conference finals in 1981. However, Magic missed more than half of that season due to a knee injury and the Houston Rockets upset the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. The Celtics beat the Rockets in six games in the NBA Finals. Bird played well in the decisive game (26 points on 11-20 field goal shooting, 13 rebounds, five assists) but he shot just 39-93 from the field (.419) in the series and only averaged 15.3 ppg, second on the team to Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell (17.7 ppg) and barely ahead of Robert Parish (15.0 ppg), each of whom shot much better than Bird did. As I mentioned, Bird’s strong suit at that time was rebounding and during the series he nearly matched Houston center Moses Malone, that season’s rebounding leader; Malone averaged 16.3 rpg in the Finals, while Bird averaged 15.3 rpg.

The 1982 season was essentially a replay of 1980 in terms of the Erving-Bird-Magic triangle: Erving’s Sixers beat Bird’s Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals only to lose to Magic’s Lakers in six games in the NBA Finals. Magic had 13 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists in the clinching game, earning his second Finals MVP. In 1982-83, the Sixers acquired Moses Malone and stormed to a 65-17 regular season record. The Milwaukee Bucks upset the Celtics in the playoffs but nothing would have stopped the Sixers that year: they went 12-1 in the playoffs, sweeping the Lakers in the Finals.

The Bird-Magic NBA rivalry did not really kick into gear—at least from the standpoint of head to head matchups--until their fifth season. Prior to the 1984 NBA Finals, Bird and Magic faced each other just twice a year in the regular season. In 1984, the New Jersey Nets stunned the defending champion Sixers in the first round, helping to pave the way for the much anticipated Bird-Magic Finals showdown. Both players excelled, with Bird averaging 27.4 ppg, 14.0 rpg and 3.6 apg and Magic averaging 18.1 ppg, 13.6 apg and 7.7 rpg. Game four in Los Angeles turned out to be pivotal: the Lakers missed several golden opportunities to take a 3-1 series lead and Boston’s eventual 129-125 victory regained home court advantage for the Celtics, who won the series in seven games. Bird received his first Finals MVP to go along with his first regular season MVP.

Bird and Magic made up for lost time by facing each other again in the 1985 and 1987 Finals (Boston won the 1986 championship against the Rockets after Houston upset the Lakers in the playoffs for the second time in the decade). The Lakers won both of those matchups, with Abdul-Jabbar becoming the oldest Finals MVP (38 in 1985) and Magic winning his then-record third Finals MVP in 1987. The Lakers became the first NBA team in two decades to repeat as champions by winning the 1988 title over the Detroit Pistons, who beat the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. Bird never made it back to the NBA Finals, while Magic returned once more in 1991, his final full season, when the Lakers lost to the Chicago Bulls.

Bird’s peak value season was probably 1984-85, when he won the second of his three straight MVPs, averaging 28.7 ppg (second in the NBA), 10.5 rpg (eighth in the NBA) and 6.6 apg while shooting .522 from the field and .427 from three point range (second in the NBA). Magic’s peak value season was probably 1986-87, when he won the first of his three MVPs in a four season span, averaging a career-high 23.9 ppg (10th in the NBA), 12.2 apg (first in the NBA) and 6.3 rpg. I say “probably” in both cases because there are many other excellent seasons to choose from for both players. Bird and Magic both displayed excellent durability as elite players; each made the All-NBA First Team nine times. In the currency that matters the most to such competitors, Magic came out ahead, winning five NBA championships and three Finals MVPs compared to Bird’s three championships and two Finals MVPs.

When Michael Jordan entered the NBA in 1984-85, Bird and Magic were at the absolute height of their powers; in fact, that was the only season in which they finished 1-2 in the MVP voting. Jordan finished sixth in the balloting, a very impressive showing for a rookie on a mediocre (38-44) Chicago Bulls team—but Jordan was no ordinary rookie: he averaged 28.2 ppg (third in the NBA) while leading the Bulls in rebounding (6.5 rpg) and assists (5.9 apg) from the shooting guard position. He also ranked fourth in the NBA in steals (2.4 spg).

Jordan missed most of his second season due to a broken foot but he came back in time to play in a first round playoff series against Bird and the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics. This is when Jordan began to establish that he was not just a very good player but that he was destined to be an all-time great. Jordan scored 49 points in a 123-104 game one loss but that was just a prelude to his game two masterpiece, when he set the all-time single-game playoff record by scoring 63 points in a 135-131 double overtime loss. The Bulls were completely overmatched but Jordan almost led them to victory anyway. This performance prompted Bird to utter his famous tribute saying that it was “God disguised as Michael Jordan.” Jordan only scored 19 points in game three as the Celtics won 122-104 to sweep the series but Jordan was already on his way to becoming a transcendent figure not just in the NBA but globally.

Jordan’s encore to his playoff heroics was a season-long assault on the NBA record book. In 1986-87, while the high flying Erving embarked on his “Farewell Tour,” Jordan posted the highest non-Wilt Chamberlain single season scoring average in NBA history, 37.1 ppg. He shot .482 from the field, .857 from the free throw line and also averaged 5.2 rpg and 4.6 apg while getting 236 steals and 125 blocked shots, the first of his two 200-100 seasons; he is the only player to ever have two 200-100 campaigns (the ABA started officially tracking those numbers in 1972-73 and the NBA followed suit a year later). Jordan finished second to Magic in the MVP voting and he never again ranked lower than third in MVP voting after a full season of play until he came out of retirement to play for the Washington Wizards. In 1988, Jordan captured his first MVP as he, Bird and Magic finished 1-2-3 in the voting; that year, Jordan won the scoring title and the Defensive Player of the Year award, something that had never been done before and has not been accomplished since.

Although Jordan is now almost reflexively referred to as the greatest player of all-time, in the mid to late 1980s many people seriously entertained the notion that he shot too much to ever lead a team to a championship. Of course, the real problem in Chicago was that his supporting cast was much weaker than the ones on the championship teams from L.A. and Boston—or, as Jordan indelicately put it whenever it was suggested that he did not make his teammates better the way that Bird and Magic did, “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken (bleep).” The arrival and quick maturation of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant meant that the “chicken (bleep)” days were over in Chicago. The Bulls lost some epic battles with the Detroit Pistons before sweeping them aside in the 1991 playoffs en route to a 4-1 Finals victory over Magic’s Lakers. Jordan beat out Magic for regular season MVP honors and after he defeated him to win his first championship it was clear that the torch had been passed. The Jordan-Pippen duo, ably coached by Phil Jackson, went on to put together two “three-peats” wrapped around Jordan’s first retirement.

Jordan won six championships, one more than Magic and twice as many as Bird. He won five MVPs and could easily have won a couple more that went to Charles Barkley and Karl Malone when it seemed like the voters had tired of simply giving Jordan the award every year. Jordan won 10 scoring titles, shattering Wilt Chamberlain’s record (seven), and he made the Alll-NBA First team 10 times. Jordan’s durability as an elite player is self evident and picking a peak value season for him is simply a matter of taste: you could go with his 37.1 ppg campaign or perhaps you prefer his MVP/DPoY double or maybe you favor one of the four seasons in which he won the regular season and Finals MVPs, including 1995-96, when the Bulls set a single-season record by going 72-10. Bird and Magic had set a new standard for basketball greatness but then Jordan came along and surpassed them not only in individual accomplishments but also as a winner. Whether or not Jordan was really a greater player than Russell, Chamberlain, Robertson or the other Pantheon members is a fascinating question to discuss but one thing is clear: any conversation about the greatest basketball player ever has to include his name.

Part V will discuss which active players are most likely to earn their way into the Pantheon.

Links:

1) Part I of this series can be found here, Part II is here and Part III is here.

2) This article adapts and slightly modifies ideas that I first explored in the following two posts:

The Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time, Part I

The Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time, Part II

3) The NBA 50th Anniversary Team, including the list of voters and links to biographies of each player:

http://www.nba.com/history/players/50greatest.html

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:46 PM

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