1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson

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1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#1 » by 70sFan » Sun Oct 11, 2020 6:03 pm

Let's make this debate finished here ;)

Who do you think was better player overall and why? Include whole 5 years season for that comparison.

I have my favorite here, but I'd like to hear arguments from both sides.
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#2 » by 1993Playoffs » Sun Oct 11, 2020 6:10 pm

Definitely Magic. Better playoffs performer in most prime year and usually outplayed Bird.
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#3 » by Dutchball97 » Sun Oct 11, 2020 7:38 pm

I think peak Bird is quite a bit better than peak Magic and I doubt it'd be as much of a discussion if Bird's career wasn't cut short by injury.
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#4 » by SNPA » Sun Oct 11, 2020 7:43 pm

Since defense exists this is comfortably Bird. But, in the Magic/Bird debate that is generally ignored. :nonono:

Bird is also the better shooter and rebounder and every bit the passer...so tough to make a case for Magic one on one. You can add team elements to boost Magic though, which is the approach you'll see in this thread.
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#5 » by 70sFan » Sun Oct 11, 2020 8:43 pm

Dutchball97 wrote:I think peak Bird is quite a bit better than peak Magic and I doubt it'd be as much of a discussion if Bird's career wasn't cut short by injury.

Well, I think that peak Magic was better and it wouldn't be any doubts without AIDS retirement...
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#6 » by 70sFan » Sun Oct 11, 2020 8:49 pm

SNPA wrote:Since defense exists this is comfortably Bird. But, in the Magic/Bird debate that is generally ignored. :nonono:

Bird is also the better shooter and rebounder and every bit the passer...so tough to make a case for Magic one on one. You can add team elements to boost Magic though, which is the approach you'll see in this thread.

I don't think there is significant difference on defense to be honest. I used to think that Magic was clearly worse defensively but after watching around 30 games from 1990, I think that Magic was underrated defensively and his main weaknesses (lack of rim protection and lateral quickness) are identical to Bird's shortcomings.

Magic was much better ball-handler, which made him better playmaker overall. He was also more agressive offensive player, consistently hunting for missmatches. Bird didn't pressure defense with the ball in his hands to the same degree. It's also clear that Magic was more resiliant against top tier defenses in postseason.

It's one thing to believe that Bird was better, but saying there is no case for Magic isn't backed up by facts. I think that a lot of people believe that Bird was much better because Larry peaked earlier than Magic (he was older after all). When you look at seasons when both were at their bests (1985-88), Bird didn't make clear separation over him (to be honest, I only have Bird higher in 1986).
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#7 » by SNPA » Sun Oct 11, 2020 8:59 pm

70sFan wrote:
SNPA wrote:Since defense exists this is comfortably Bird. But, in the Magic/Bird debate that is generally ignored. :nonono:

Bird is also the better shooter and rebounder and every bit the passer...so tough to make a case for Magic one on one. You can add team elements to boost Magic though, which is the approach you'll see in this thread.

I don't think there is significant difference on defense to be honest. I used to think that Magic was clearly worse defensively but after watching around 30 games from 1990, I think that Magic was underrated defensively and his main weaknesses (lack of rim protection and lateral quickness) are identical to Bird's shortcomings.

Magic was much better ball-handler, which made him better playmaker overall. He was also more agressive offensive player, consistently hunting for missmatches. Bird didn't pressure defense with the ball in his hands to the same degree. It's also clear that Magic was more resiliant against top tier defenses in postseason.

It's one thing to believe that Bird was better, but saying there is no case for Magic isn't backed up by facts. I think that a lot of people believe that Bird was much better because Larry peaked earlier than Magic (he was older after all). When you look at seasons when both were at their bests (1985-88), Bird didn't make clear separation over him (to be honest, I only have Bird higher in 1986).

Can’t agree on defense. Bird is a defensive genius, Magic isn’t.

Didn’t say no case, said it’s tough to make a case. Everything you wrote doesn’t change the underlining facts that Bird is the better shooter, rebounder, defender and an equal in passing wizardry. He’s also bigger, stronger and tougher. To me there is a noticeable gap once you get past Magic’s flash.
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#8 » by Cavsfansince84 » Sun Oct 11, 2020 9:08 pm

I see it as so close that it doesn't really matter which guy you favor. I think there's strengths and weaknesses to both sides. Bird's overall health and decline in the playoffs works against him. His shooting and portability I think helps him. Magic's playoff numbers and rings favor him. I see them as basically equals. I slightly favor Bird overall because I think his shooting was that good which makes up for whatever gap probably exists in playmaking/slashing.
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#9 » by Dutchball97 » Sun Oct 11, 2020 9:11 pm

70sFan wrote:
Dutchball97 wrote:I think peak Bird is quite a bit better than peak Magic and I doubt it'd be as much of a discussion if Bird's career wasn't cut short by injury.

Well, I think that peak Magic was better and it wouldn't be any doubts without AIDS retirement...


Hey, you asked us what we thought. I think Bird's 84 and 86 play-off runs are the best between them with Magic's 87 play-offs closely following. Besides that I think Magic wasn't as consistent as Bird in the regular season over these 5 year peaks.

As to the retirements. Bird was done as a top guy after 88, while Magic played till 91 and it's still close imo. I think that if Bird didn't injure his back and played a potential 3 more seasons at elite level he'd be the consensus pick over Magic. Of course if Magic didn't retire and played a couple more years it'd be the same for him but year by year I prefer Bird.
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#10 » by 70sFan » Sun Oct 11, 2020 9:15 pm

SNPA wrote:Can’t agree on defense. Bird is a defensive genius, Magic isn’t.

Bird isn't defensive genius and even at his best he struggled as a man defender and had always poor lateral quickness.

Magic was excellent at reading offense, he played extremely well as a help defender. I don't see any huge difference in either way between them.

Didn’t say no case, said it’s tough to make a case. Everything you wrote doesn’t change the underlining facts that Bird is the better shooter, rebounder, defender and an equal in passing wizardry. He’s also bigger, stronger and tougher. To me there is a noticeable gap once you get past Magic’s flash.

Tougher? Based on what? When did Magic lack anything in toughness?
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#11 » by Odinn21 » Sun Oct 11, 2020 9:39 pm

I think Bird was the better player definitely.

Magic's ability to create and lead an offense is almost non-rivaled. Bird was a good defender overall, a great one at help defense. Magic was also pretty good at help defense but not as much as Bird. Also Magic on defensive matchup was a challenge to be solved in general.

Even though Magic proved that he could compete on the same level as before when the West had gotten tougher after 1989, Bird still had it way tougher.

I mean the Celtics in the '80s have a reputation for being a powerhouse, which they were, still there's little but important details that should stand out.
For example 1984 version wasn't that strong and Bird's carry job was on the same level as 1994 Olajuwon or 2003 Duncan or 2012 James, you name it. But Bird having one of the biggest carry job usually gets overlooked.
In 1985 Bird himself wasn't properly healthy.
1986 was the only season which all came together for the Celtics.
In 1987, the Celtics didn't have any depth in their roster. It was their starting 5 and some other names filling in for those 5 to rest. And 1988 wasn't different from 1987.

And the East was way tougher than the West.

The Lakers had it easier in their conference until 1990. And I'd say even though the Lakers were going through changes over the time, it was more like an evolution rather than losing out on depth constantly.

This is what I wrote a week ago about Magic playing through the weakest conference for a superstar of his calibre;
Spoiler:
Odinn21 wrote:Look at strength of schedule numbers the Lakers had in the '80s;
-0.51 in 1980, 2nd worst in league
-0.57 in 1981, 3rd worst
-0.50 in 1982, 2nd worst
-0.49 in 1983, 2nd worst
-0.44 in 1984, the worst
-0.87 in 1985, the worst
-0.91 in 1986, the worst
-0.99 in 1987, the worst
-1.03 in 1988, the worst
-0.79 in 1989, 3rd worst
-0.04 in 1990, 11th worst
-0.01 in 1991, right on the middle.

4 of the worst 11 SOS values in the three point era belongs to the Lakers, from 1984-85 to 1987-88.

Look at their playoff competition after the 1st rounds on average in the WC from 1985 to 1989;
10 playoffs series
47.2 win
47.5 expected win
7.3 expected win rank
+2.10 SRS
8.0 SRS rank
1 time they played against a team with -2.0 or worse SRS.
1 time they played against a team with +4.0 or better SRS.
2 times they played against a team that was top 5 in SRS ranking.

Number for the Celtics from 1984 to 1988 for comparison;
10 playoffs series
51.4 win
51.6 expected win
4.4 expected win rank
+4.30 SRS
3.8 SRS rank
0 times they played against a team with -2.0 or worse SRS.
6 times they played against a team with +4.0 or better SRS.
8 times they played against a team that was top 5 in SRS ranking.

I'm definitely not saying Magic should get stick for this. I'm saying Bird should get an edge based on context.

Going back to aspects, even though Magic was the better offensive player and one of the major candidates for the goat offensive player, I find Bird's edge on defense was bigger and Bird's 1984 playoff run stays the best run of the 2.

As for Magic being the better playoff performer;
Magic from '86 to '90 had 6.9 obpm in r. season and 6.8 obpm in playoffs
Bird from '84 to '88 had 6.8 obpm in r. season and 6.3 obpm in playoffs
And looking at the teams they faced, I don't see anything clearly favouring one over the over.
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#12 » by LakerLegend » Sun Oct 11, 2020 11:06 pm

Magic's numbers crush Birds in head to head Finals.
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#13 » by LukaTheGOAT » Mon Oct 12, 2020 6:41 am

Maybe I'll do a stat deep -dive later but I think the thing with Bird and Magic's defense is interesting. Bird's peak defensively is MUCH better than Magic and it isn't even remotely arguable. Sure he wasn't the best rim protector, but he had a knack at stripping the ball away from someone before they could elevate to their apex, which was his best form of rim protection. Bird's motor was higher on D and I believe he was quicker reacting. Bird's weakness was man defense against quick guards but he was truly a spectacular help defender and helped close lanes.

However, I do not think Bird's offensive and defensive peaks overlapped. I think that 86 or 87 Bird is his offensive peak, however, his defensive was only a positive and not all-NBA level like it had been. I think Bird's overall peak though in 86 is probably good enough to edge Magic, especially when you note how much easily he can play off the ball and the fact that I do think his defense was meaningfully better.

However, over the time periods you choose, I would pick Magic because he was more consistent in the PS to me. Bird had a hand injury in 85 that I am sure didn't help, but Bird's scoring really isn't more impressive than Magic during these runs, and Magic was created much more open shots do to better penetration. The drop from Bird on offense in some of these years is concerning enough, that depending on the year, that I would not want him as my #1 guy depending on the year. It is arguable, but I just value PS a bit too much.

That is enough of a difference to me, because Magic was leading GOAT level offenses for the time in the PS, while Boston wasn't near them in this regard (some of this due to Bird's drop-off). It is hard for me to pass up on someone who can consistently guarantee me a GOAT level offense for the time period, while not really hurting me on the defensive end.

This opinion might be controversial, so I'll probably have to back up my opinion a bit later with stats, which is fine by me.
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#14 » by TheBomb81 » Mon Oct 12, 2020 7:12 am

Larry Bird.
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#15 » by frica » Mon Oct 12, 2020 7:34 am

70sFan wrote:
Dutchball97 wrote:I think peak Bird is quite a bit better than peak Magic and I doubt it'd be as much of a discussion if Bird's career wasn't cut short by injury.

Well, I think that peak Magic was better and it wouldn't be any doubts without AIDS retirement...

Judging by the quality of Magic's 95-96 comeback (although small sample size) he probably would have retired as the then GOAT without HIV retirement. He showed that his game was resistant to aging.

The debate could have been Jabbar, Magic, Michael or Lebron.
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#16 » by LukaTheGOAT » Mon Oct 12, 2020 10:24 am

LukaTheGOAT wrote:Maybe I'll do a stat deep -dive later but I think the thing with Bird and Magic's defense is interesting. Bird's peak defensively is MUCH better than Magic and it isn't even remotely arguable. Sure he wasn't the best rim protector, but he had a knack at stripping the ball away from someone before they could elevate to their apex, which was his best form of rim protection. Bird's motor was higher on D and I believe he was quicker reacting. Bird's weakness was man defense against quick guards but he was truly a spectacular help defender and helped close lanes.

However, I do not think Bird's offensive and defensive peaks overlapped. I think that 86 or 87 Bird is his offensive peak, however, his defensive was only a positive and not all-NBA level like it had been. I think Bird's overall peak though in 86 is probably good enough to edge Magic, especially when you note how much easily he can play off the ball and the fact that I do think his defense was meaningfully better.

However, over the time periods you choose, I would pick Magic because he was more consistent in the PS to me. Bird had a hand injury in 85 that I am sure didn't help, but Bird's scoring really isn't more impressive than Magic during these runs, and Magic was created much more open shots do to better penetration. The drop from Bird on offense in some of these years is concerning enough, that depending on the year, that I would not want him as my #1 guy depending on the year. It is arguable, but I just value PS a bit too much.

That is enough of a difference to me, because Magic was leading GOAT level offenses for the time in the PS, while Boston wasn't near them in this regard (some of this due to Bird's drop-off). It is hard for me to pass up on someone who can consistently guarantee me a GOAT level offense for the time period, while not really hurting me on the defensive end.

This opinion might be controversial, so I'll probably have to back up my opinion a bit later with stats, which is fine by me.


Okay so here comes the numbers (Figures are rounded):

Larry Bird's PS from 84- 88:

84-88: PER-22.79
WS/48- .191
BPM- 7.86
Backpicks BPM-7.01

Boston's PS Offenses (relative rating)-
84: 6.4
85: 3.9
86: 8.3
87: 8.7
88: 4.2


Magic Johnson's PS from 86-90: PER-24.46
WS/48- .229
BPM- 8.23
Backpicks BPM- 7.17

LA's PS Offenses (relative rating)-
86: 8.6
87: 10.7 (PS Record until 17 Cavs)
88: 8.3
89: 9.3
90: 8.4

From the numbers, it is clear it is close between them (I didn't expect it to be this close myself). Magic has a small lead in averages in all these metrics albeit he played 79 games to Bird's 101...

The reason why Magic has the edge in these averages isn't because he was necessarily a better player. But he was more consistent than Bird. Bird had the greater highs, while Magic never necessarily had a poor postseason performance and was pretty steady all the way through. Magic's game didn't really rely on making difficult jumpers that can be highly variable, but rather hitting open jumpers when the defense gave it to him. And all in all, it is pretty much nigh-impossible to take away everything Magic does as a playmaker. Therefore we also see more consistency with the PS offenses as well. The Celtic's defenses were a little better during this period, but the difference between their PS offenses is very large.

Depending on what you like, and how you value Bird's D (which might be underrated a bit by these stats), it can go either way. But I appreciate the security and consistency that Magic gives me. Also I feel confident that Magic can get me a near GOAT level offense with any cast I suppose, and I can surround him with defensive guys. That is hard to beat. With Bird, it is much more vital I feel for him to have another playmaker/secondary playmaker by his side because I do not believe he gets good enough penetration as a driver consistently.

Also take a look at this graphic via his Backpicks write-up:
Read on Twitter


Magic is creating many more shots (and turning the ball over at about the same rate) and is much more efficient in his role in the PS per the years given. Magic simply seemed to be better at what he did compared to what Bird was tasked to do.


The final thing I will pick out from that Backpicks article is this quote: "All told, when Bird was “healthy” during the playoffs, from 1984-88, he averaged 27.2 points per game on 59 percent true shooting. In the 15 games after the bar fight, and in games he fought through shin splints, he averaged 21.3 points per game on 49 percent true shooting. This could be normal variance or great defensive work, but the inconsistency in his scoring strongly correlated with these injuries." Simply put, Bird would look like 2 totally different players during the PS and that is potentially due to injuries. But I think you can see what I mean when I say that Bird didn't have as much consistency with what he does.
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#17 » by SNPA » Tue Oct 13, 2020 4:21 am

SNPA wrote:Since defense exists this is comfortably Bird. But, in the Magic/Bird debate that is generally ignored. :nonono:

Bird is also the better shooter and rebounder and every bit the passer...so tough to make a case for Magic one on one. You can add team elements to boost Magic though, which is the approach you'll see in this thread.

8-)
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#18 » by therealbig3 » Tue Oct 13, 2020 4:48 am

I'm more impressed with Bird's defense than Magic's when I watch them. Bird was an excellent team defender with great hands and instincts, and just seemed superior to Magic in that regard. Was also a clearly superior defensive rebounder.

Offensively, I get that Magic put up prettier numbers, but he also had the ball in his hands a lot more. Bird was much more of an off-ball player. I understand that a lot of that is due to Magic's superior ability to handle the ball relative to Bird, but we shouldn't underrate the value of an elite off-ball player like Bird just because he's not putting up the same kind of assists numbers. If you think about his skillset (his movement and motor in addition to his elite shooting and passing), he's the PERFECT player for any era, and is basically the poster boy for "portability". There isn't a single team where his impact would be all that diminished, because he adds to every situation. For example, say you're lucky enough to already have a LeBron James on your squad. I'm taking Larry Bird over Magic Johnson 100/100 times to pair with him, because Magic duplicates a lot of what James gives you, but Bird does not, Bird adds to it. That's not to say Johnson couldn't play next to another ball dominant player, I realize he was still great early in his career even though he shared the ball in the backcourt with Norm Nixon, but he's not Bird-level in that respect. I don't think anyone is, tbh.

So for me, I see them both as comparable offensive players. Magic is better in a more ball-dominant role and can probably get more out of lower level teammates than Bird, like in 91 when Magic carried that team into the Finals and stole game 1...but Bird's value becomes more and more noticeable when you start adding good talent around him.

And defensively, I give a clear edge to Bird. So for me, Bird had the better peak. Magic with better longevity. Overall, pretty much at the same level all-time. I would have both behind the great bigs (Russell/Wilt/Hakeem/Shaq/Kareem/Duncan/Garnett) and the GOAT-level wings (Jordan/LeBron). I have them in the same tier as Dirk/Kobe/Oscar/West/Erving/Robinson/K. Malone.
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#19 » by SNPA » Tue Oct 13, 2020 5:09 am

therealbig3 wrote:I'm more impressed with Bird's defense than Magic's when I watch them. Bird was an excellent team defender with great hands and instincts, and just seemed superior to Magic in that regard. Was also a clearly superior defensive rebounder.

Offensively, I get that Magic put up prettier numbers, but he also had the ball in his hands a lot more. Bird was much more of an off-ball player. I understand that a lot of that is due to Magic's superior ability to handle the ball relative to Bird, but we shouldn't underrate the value of an elite off-ball player like Bird just because he's not putting up the same kind of assists numbers. If you think about his skillset (his movement and motor in addition to his elite shooting and passing), he's the PERFECT player for any era, and is basically the poster boy for "portability". There isn't a single team where his impact would be all that diminished, because he adds to every situation. For example, say you're lucky enough to already have a LeBron James on your squad. I'm taking Larry Bird over Magic Johnson 100/100 times to pair with him, because Magic duplicates a lot of what James gives you, but Bird does not, Bird adds to it. That's not to say Johnson couldn't play next to another ball dominant player, I realize he was still great early in his career even though he shared the ball in the backcourt with Norm Nixon, but he's not Bird-level in that respect. I don't think anyone is, tbh.

So for me, I see them both as comparable offensive players. Magic is better in a more ball-dominant role and can probably get more out of lower level teammates than Bird, like in 91 when Magic carried that team into the Finals and stole game 1...but Bird's value becomes more and more noticeable when you start adding good talent around him.

And defensively, I give a clear edge to Bird. So for me, Bird had the better peak. Magic with better longevity. Overall, pretty much at the same level all-time. I would have both behind the great bigs (Russell/Wilt/Hakeem/Shaq/Kareem/Duncan/Garnett) and the GOAT-level wings (Jordan/LeBron). I have them in the same tier as Dirk/Kobe/Oscar/West/Erving/Robinson/K. Malone.

Wow. This was a great post, until you got to the last part of the last paragraph and crapped all over it. Bird in the same tier as Kobe? :crazy:
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Re: 1984-88 Larry Bird vs 1986-90 Magic Johnson 

Post#20 » by HeartBreakKid » Tue Oct 13, 2020 8:52 am

LakerLegend wrote:Magic's numbers crush Birds in head to head Finals.

What about non- head to head finals?


Not to mention Bird isn't a stat stuffer, he has some of the modest numbers for an MVP type of player. Not his game.

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