Bird vs. Johnson: Who Was the Better Player?

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The road to NBA’s ascent always goes through Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Without them, the NBA would probably be what it was in the 1970s– a second-rate professional sports league mired in trouble on and off the court. The rivalry between Bird and Johnson was the savior, thanks to their individual and team successes. But solely based on their abilities, who’s the better player in the Bird vs. Johnson debate?

Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson_ Career OverviewLarry Bird vs. Magic Johnson: Career Overview

The 80s NBA is pretty much Larry Bird and Magic Johnson’s playground. They have similar career arcs, faced off in the most-watched NCAA Finals game, entered the NBA in the same year, and easily became the most popular players in the decade.

Magic joined the Lakers and made noise right away. Along with some shrewd personnel moves in the offseason and adding Johnson as the first pick overall 1979 NBA Draft, the Lakers had a 13-game improvement. They went from 47 wins to 60, enough to secure the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

Even though Bird won Rookie of the Year over Johnson, 1980 was Magic’s year. The Lakers went all the way to the NBA Finals with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as its best player. However, Kareem sustained an injury in Game 5 that prevented him from playing in Game 6. This was when Magic Johnson introduced himself as a serious force to be reckoned with.

Johnson put up a legendary performance while starting at the center position in place of the fallen Abdul-Jabbar. He recorded 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, and three steals while essentially manning all positions. Due to that magical game, Johnson became the only rookie to win the Finals MVP.

But it wasn’t all roses for Johnson. Even after winning a championship, he had to face the stigma of not being a “clutch” player. He was derisively nicknamed “Tragic” Johnson for his playoff mishaps, including getting outplayed by Bird in the 1984 Finals. Magic developed a reputation as a choker despite already winning two championships.

After falling to Bird’s Celtics in ‘84, Magic began a redemption arc by winning the championship for the third time in 1985. Even though they lost to the Celtics again the following year, Johnson captured the MVP in 1987 and capped the season off by winning a fourth championship ring, followed by a repeat in 1988.

Johnson won MVP two more times (1989 and 1990) and led a young, new-look Lakers to the championship in 1991. They eventually lost to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. After announcing he had HIV, Johnson retired from the NBA, only to return in the 1995-96 season. He retired for good from the league after averaging 14.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 6.9 assists in 32 games, mostly coming off the bench.

In many respects, Bird arguably had the same impact as Johnson for the Celtics. He never missed the playoffs in 12 years and was the last person to win three consecutive league MVPs. The others were Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

Like Johnson, Bird has transformed the Celtics into perennial contenders just by wearing the uniform. They won the championship in 1981 and began his string of MVPs from 1984 to 1986, winning rings in the even years

Bird has developed a reputation as a premiere clutch player who can score at will but always puts his teammates first. He was also the inaugural winner of the three-point contest in 1986 and continued his reign as the NBA’s three-point king in 1987 and 1988. He famously won the 1988 contest with his warmups on, raising his finger as if to announce his conquest, even before he sank the last shot.

Unfortunately, Larry developed back problems starting in 1985. It was partially due to his playstyle and partially because of an accident while he was doing manual labor building a driveway for his mother. The back issues have gotten so bad that Bird had to lie on his stomach during games because of the pain. His stats did not suffer much when he was on the floor, but he had to miss a good chunk of games consistently after the 1988-89 season. Bird retired in 1992 because of back complications.

How Does Larry Bird Compare to Magic JohnsonHow Does Larry Bird Compare to Magic Johnson?

As basketball players, the two are neck and neck. That is reflected in their individual and team success, with neither having a clear, far-and-away advantage. Check out how their accomplishments stack up against each other:

Johnson’s Accomplishments

  • Magic played in nine NBA Finals and won 5. Ironically, he ended up having a losing record of 24 wins and 27 losses in the biggest stage, primarily because of two sweeps and the 1-4 loss to the Bulls in 1991.
  • Johnson won three NBA MVP awards and three Finals MVPs.
  • Apart from an injury-plagued 1981 season, Magic made the All-Star team in all of his prime years. Johnson also made 10 All-NBA teams, nine on the first team and one on the second team. He was a 12-time NBA All-Star and won the ASG MVP twice. 

Bird’s Accomplishments

  • Larry Bird took part in 5 NBA Finals and won 3. Three of those are against Magic Johnson’s Lakers. His overall record in Finals games is 16 wins and 15 losses.
  • As mentioned, Bird was the last person to win three straight MVP awards. Michael Jordan never accomplished that, nor did LeBron James or Magic Johnson.
  • Bird was selected as an All-Star every year except in the injury-riddled 1989 season. He only played six games. Like Johnson, he was named to nine First Team All-NBA and one Second Team All-NBA. On top of that, Larry Legend was a member of three All-Defense second teams.
  • Bird was named the Rookie of the Year in 1980 over Magic. He was also the All-Star game MVP in 1982.

Bird’s Stats Compared to JohnsonBird’s Stats Compared to Johnson

In a Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson comparison, stats are a big part of the conversation. They are essentially the same player with different specialties– Bird is a better scorer, while Johnson is a better facilitator. 

Here is the Bird vs. Johnson stats side-by-side comparison in the regular season:

  Larry Bird Magic Johnson
Points Per Game 24.3 19.5
Rebounds Per Game 10.0 7.2
Assists Per Game 6.3 11.2
Steals Per Game 1.7 1.9
Blocks Per Game 0.8 0.4
Career FG% .496 .520
Career FT% .886 .848
Career 3FG% .376 .303

As you can see, Bird had the advantage in scoring, rebounding, and blocks while shooting better from the free throw line and behind the arc. Johnson was a better passer and had a slight edge in steals and overall field goal shooting.

How about a Bird vs. Johnson stats comparison in the playoffs? Here are the numbers: 

  Larry Bird Magic Johnson
Points Per Game 23.8 19.5
Rebounds Per Game 10.3 7.7
Assists Per Game 6.5 12.3
Steals Per Game 1.8 1.9
Blocks Per Game 0.9 0.3
FG% .472 .506
FT% .890 .838
3FG% .321 .241

Like their career regular season stats, their career playoff averages follow a similar pattern. Bird was the better scorer and rebounder, while Johnson was far and away the better facilitator. 

Larry Bird’s Impact on the NBA

Bird was one of the most clutch players in the NBA, someone who performed his best and usually delivered when the game was on the line. When Michael Jordan was once asked who, apart from himself, he would trust to take the last shot, he said it was Larry Bird.

Larry Legend was also the coldest trash-talker in the history of basketball. He was known to tell opposing players how he’d beat them. Bird’s trash talk stories are legends in themselves and are one of the favorite topics in basketball circles.

Once, he told Sonics forward Xavier McDaniel where he’d shoot the game-winner and that he’d surely make it. After a timeout, it all turned out the way Bird described, including burying the jumper. Larry turned to McDaniel and said: “I didn’t mean to leave two seconds in the clock.”

When Bird starts talking trash, everyone is fair game. He’ll let opposing coaches know, tell somebody he’s incapable of stopping him, and so forth. He famously looked around in the locker room before the three-point contest and said: “I hope all you guys in here are thinking about second place because I’m winning this.” In the following year, he was just as cold: “There’s no need to talk this time. We all know who’s going to win.” Larry Bird walked the walk and talked the talk.

Overall, Bird was remembered as a stone-cold assassin with supreme confidence in his skills. He was not the quickest and definitely not the highest jumper, but he worked on his craft tirelessly so that he had no holes in his game. He was one of the few earliest people who had the stepback jumper consistently in their arsenal.

He did not shoot threes in volume, but he would likely hit them when it mattered the most. Bird can post up, attack the rim, and find an open teammate. He was fearless in big moments and was never afraid to sacrifice his body. These characteristics endeared him to many fans but, at the same time, made him a fearsome figure to his opponents.

Magic Johnson’s Impact on the NBA

Johnson literally revolutionized the game from his position. Until then, no one as big and tall as Magic played the point guard position. Oscar Robertson was 6-foot-5 and dominated statistically, but Johnson was a legitimate 6-foot-9 with excellent handles and elite passing ability. He used his size to his advantage, grabbing rebounds over shorter matchups and often mixing it up inside on offense.

Unlike Bird’s blue-collar approach, Johnson’s game was both gorgeous and spectacular. He was the “show” in the Lakers’ Showtime, leading the break and feeding his teammates with beautiful passes. Johnson knew how to keep everyone involved and happy, so he always got the best out of everybody. 

While Bird “only” had five NBA Finals appearances, Magic had almost twice as many. The “Tragic” nickname was primarily because of a couple of mishaps, which was unfair, but Johnson was genuinely one of the greatest winners in NBA history. He could easily have six rings if not for a series-ending hamstring issue and an injury to Byron Scott. 

Throughout his career, Johnson has shown the world that a fun, fast-paced style of basketball can be the foundational formula for winning. He is the greatest playmaker ever, and no one else ever came close.

Bird vs. Johnson DebateBird vs. Johnson Debate

Basketball experts sometimes avoid comparing players from different eras since doing so prevents them from making a subjective conclusion. But even with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson’s career overlapping, it’s still impossible to pick who’s the better player. Was Bird better than Magic, or is it the other way around?

The Bird vs. Johnson debate usually ends in a stalemate. Your pick basically represents your bias– you probably like Bird if you value scoring and clutch shooting more and probably lean towards Magic if you like fastbreak basketball and fancy playmaking. 

Johnson’s teams were generally considered better with another top 10 players of all-time in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a Hall of Famer in James Worthy. Magic’s ability to elevate his teammates’ play was the reason why the Lakers won more championships, but it’s not like Larry was a slouch in that department, either.

Larry’s advantage over Magic was his scoring and shotmaking. He was the type of player you could dump the ball into and get out of his way, a very helpful attribute during the end of tight games. Bird rarely ever missed in crunch time. 

He was also a better individual and team defender than Magic ever was, even though Johnson averaged more steals per game. Bird made three All-Defense teams, and one of the highlights of his career was the game-winning steal and pass against Isiah Thomas in the 1987 East Finals.

However, you look at it, choosing between Bird and Johnson seemed like a trick question. To an extent, they were similar players, both fierce competitors, and winners. Individually, Bird was more versatile and complete, but since basketball is a team sport, Magic’s championship rings should count as much, if not more.

Wrapping Things Up: Bird vs. Johnson: Who Was the Better Player?

The NBA wouldn’t have been what it is today in popularity and excitement if not for Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Their rivalry in the 80s sparked worldwide interest, but as with any other clash in sports, fans are left asking who’s the better player.

The answer is not as easy as anyone thought. Comparing Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird stats does not help cement a conclusion, either. For example, Johnson averaged more assists than Bird, but Larry averaged more points and rebounds. Overall shooting efficiency favors Bird, but Johnson’s legendary playmaking immeasurably elevates his teammates’ play.

The last attribute is probably why Magic was more successful in a team context than Bird. Johnson appeared in nine NBA Finals, winning five, while Bird went three out of five. One can argue Johnson could have won more if not for unfortunate and untimely injuries in the Finals.

So, in the Bird vs. Johnson debate, it’s virtually impossible to conclude who’s the better player. In a rhetorical situation, a team who needs a point guard will probably fare better with Magic, while a group that needs a scoring injection should tap Larry Bird. Whatever the case, there is no wrong answer to the question, and all boils down to personal preferences.

We hope you enjoyed this post! If you did, be sure to check out our other basketball FAQ articles here.

Explore more NBA player comparison articles below:

> Tim Duncan vs. Dirk Nowitzki: Who Was the Better Power Forward?

> Allen Iverson vs. Dwyane Wade: Who is Better Shooting Guard?

> Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard: Who is the Better Small Forward?

> Kobe Bryant vs. Lebron James: Who is Better?

> Wilt vs. Kareem: Who is the Greatest Center of All Time?

> Shaq vs. Hakeem: Who Was the Better Center?

> Stephen Curry vs. Damian Lillard: Who is the Best Shooter in the NBA?

> Russell Westbrook vs. James Harden: Who is the Better Point Guard?

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