Magic was way more important than Bird: Meet the NBA All-1980s team
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The Magic-Bird rivalry ushered in the modern era of the NBA, but that framing makes them seem like equals when the Lakers star really accomplished more.
It's rare that the era of Magic Johnson is discussed independent of the era of Larry Bird. Perhaps this is different in circles of Lakers fans; I do my level best to avoid proximity to such communities. In the moment, of course Magic and Bird were intertwined, given the storied 1979 NCAA championship game, the personal rivalry in the press, the three NBA Finals series they played and the total of eight titles they won in the 1980s. (It strikes me that the 76ers should always be in that rivalry conversation, though, given Philadelphia's battles against both squads.)
In retrospect, in the quantitative history of the 1980s, though, the persistent enjambment of the two, of Magic and Bird, in a way cheapens the excellence of Johnson. Because let's face it: Magic was better than Bird. He was more important. He achieved more. Substantially more. Bird was his chief rival and the second best NBA player of the 1980s. But placing him on the marquee with Magic detracts from the fact that this was Magic's era.
Five championships. (Bird won three.) Magic's Lakers went to the Finals eight times in the '80s. (Boston went to five.) And Magic famously led the Lakers to the rubber match victory in '87, giving L.A. a 2-1 record against the Celtics in the decade. Beyond this, while Bird renewed old passions in New England and rejuvenated the Celtics franchise for another decade, Magic helped turned the Lakers into a behemoth franchise. With Jerry Buss' vision, Pat Riley's style and Magic's excellence, the Lakers became Showtime, an attitude and persona that turned the Lakers logo into a private mint and turned the team's games into cultural touchstones well beyond the departure of the three. Bird made the Boston Garden throb again; Magic had a major hand in making the Lakers important.
Magic has additional cultural and sociopolitical relevance as the face of HIV and of the importance of safe sex. But leaving it all on the court, Magic was just more impactful. If we insist on discussing their eras as one, we should at least make sure to list Magic first. It's the way it should be.
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The engine of those wonderful 76ers teams as well as the pre-Dream Rockets clubs. Moses was the best rebounder of his era, maybe the second best rebounder ever adjusting for era. (Dennis Rodman was better.) He was also a powerful scorer, averaging 31 for the '82 Houston squad. He drew a ton of fouls, averaging 10 free throws per game for six straight seasons in the decade and hitting better than 75 percent of them.
The other thing that stands out about Malone's career writ large is what an incredible load he bore. He famously played 21 seasons between the two leagues, and played as many as 2,500 minutes up to age 36. He averaged 40 minutes per game in the playoffs for his career, and in Houston's futile Finals run in '81, he played 21 games and averaged 45 minutes per contest. He played 955 minutes in that run, which was all of six weeks long. And this is a center ...
The essay above aside, Bird was greatness. One of the major inspirations for the hordes of do-it-all, tough-as-nails small forwards who would follow, up to and including LeBron. There's the old joke that he had to carry McHale and Parish up the court all those years and it's kind of true. While Magic was leading an aging Kareem and a bevy of young bodies to great heights, Bird had to match that with relatively stiff co-stars. Parish and McHale were incredibly reliable of course, and the latter was damn good. Bird could have been the best scorer in the NBA if he didn't enjoy setting up those guys and his guards so much. (Shockingly enough, Bird never won the scoring title. He also never averaged below five assists per game after his rookie season, or below six per game after '83.) He also set every shooting standard in the book, and opened up the deep ball to bigger humans.
Nique is a substantial step down from Bird, for sure. But who isn't? Wilkins was named The Human Highlight Film for a reason, and he carried the ball that Dr. J and David Thompson had introduced for the back half of the '80s and front of the '90s. He's inarguably the most ABA player who arrived too late for the ABA. Wilkins never won a title or competed for the MVP, but in slightly different circumstances (i.e. not Atlanta) things could have been different. As it is, he gave the Hawks their most successful era in decades (prior or after).
PROFESSOR FLANNERY DISSENTS: I have McHale on my first team and 'Nique on the third and I don't think it's that much of a debate. While Wilkins was a dominant scorer and a solid rebounder, he was not nearly on par with McHale as a defender. McHale doesn't get his due in this regard because he was gangly and goofy, but he routinely guarded the best opposing forward (to save Bird the trouble) and was a first team All-Defense player three times. He was also an absolute monster in the post, which made him remarkably efficient. At one point during the mid 80s it was whispered that Kevin was actually playing better than Larry. ... That didn't last, which says a lot about Bird's priorities, and McHale's, as well.
More than that, McHale was a perennial All-Star on a team that won three titles. Dominique was the best player on a team that never made it out of the second round. That has to matter.
See above. The best of the decade, a top-two point guard ever (Oscar).
Led the league in total points as a rookie and never looked back. Three scoring titles by age 25, a master defender from roughly Year 3, a very good passer from the very beginning. He played five seasons in the '80s, one of them wrecked by injury. In those five years: five All-Star nods, four first team All-NBA mentions and one second team nod, a Defensive Player of the Year award, those three scoring titles, an MVP (and two No. 2 finishes), two All-Defense team nods and ... zero championships. If only he could win the big one ...
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Like Moses, Kareem stayed great into his older years. Abdul-Jabbar was an integral piece of the Lakers' run and an underrated pressure release for Magic. He made All-Star teams all the way up to age 41. At age 40 in '88, he played a remarkable 2,300 minutes in the regular season, and played them well.
Erving had faded by 1986, and to be honest, after Bird there is a long line of forwards (including Wilkins) that in a way run together in terms of quality and impact. But Dr. J was still DR. J early in the '80s, as evidenced by the Sixers' 1983 title. He won the league MVP (his only one in the NBA) in 1981 and reeled off four straight first team All-NBA nods to start the decade. He's also largely responsible for the last two pro basketball championships for New York (in the ABA) and Philadelphia. His imprint remains.
And here's the guy who took over for Dr. J in Philly, then bolted when things got tough. Attitude and drama aside, Barkley was a revelation when he hit the league as the Round Mound of Rebound. Here he was, the polar opposite of where the league had been heading with svelte, cerebral flyers. Barkley was surprisingly athletic (like Kevin Love in that way), but earned his keep exactly as you'd expect by looking at him: hitting opponents first and living at the rim. Sir Charles had the league's best two-point field goal percentage for five of his first seven years, but for some odd reason bricked a bunch of threes each season. (He's the worst three-point shooter in NBA history, statistically speaking.) He led the league in rebounding in '87 and averaged 28 points per game the following season.
The most important thing about Barkley is that while he could have been a perennial All-Star as he came into the league, he developed his all-around skills and reached MVP-level in the '90s.
The best small guard of the modern era, Zeke led the Pistons to back-to-back titles (one of which counts for this decade exercise) and set the tone for one nasty, league-altering mini-dynasty. Thomas' stats were Cousyian: he scored plenty despite his reputation as a pass-first PG. (Chris Paul is currently experiencing this type of career.) He made the All-Star team every season he played in the '90s and had three first team All-NBA nods, but never came close to sniffing the league MVP.
FLANNERY WEIGHS IN: I was accused of disrespecting the Pistons in my '80s essay, which was odd in that the purpose of that piece was to highlight the teams that didn't win.
In the interest of fairness, let me state that the Pistons were way ahead of their time and forced the league to counter (and also embrace) defensive-minded teams. They did that while still being really good offensively, and Isiah was the most important piece of that puzzle. His playmaking expertly set up the likes of Bill Laimbeer and James Edwards (shoutout to Buddha) and he and Joe Dumars were an ace backcourt. He also brought in Mark Aguirre in a controversial, and necessary, move. Isiah had power and influence, and he used both to his advantage.
Most importantly, when the game was on the line, Zeke was a stone-cold killer. It's his and their bad luck that the Pistons were often overshadowed by the other luminaries in this decade, but their legacy is safe and secure.
Iceman played until '86 and won scoring titles in 1980 and 1982. (He averaged 25 shots per game that season. The early '80s, everyone!) Gervin put up good postseason numbers in the '80s, too, but the Spurs never did much damage. Gervin's baptism in the league(s) was so electric that he's considered more of a '70s star, but he was damn good in the early '80s, too.
Hakeem Olajuwon: We'll see The Dream again in this project. He inherited the Rockets from Moses and made all five All-Star teams he was eligible for in the '80s. He also made two first-team All Defense and three first-team All NBA squads in those first five seasons. He was ridiculous from the jump.
Kevin McHale: I have McHale lower than most would; his numbers are essentially indistinguishable from those of Adrian Dantley and are actually not as gleaming as those of Alex English (who won a scoring title and who we'll get to in a moment). But the titles matter, the anachronistic style was memorable and defense matters. McHale was a perennial entry on the All-Defense teams and finished fourth in the '87 MVP race.
I'm sympathetic to the Professor's arguments in favor of McHale over Wilkins above. My one quibble: crediting McHale for team playoff success at the expense of Nique when McHale had Larry Bird and Nique was Bird's rival is unfair. I'm all in favor of honoring great sidekicks (as we'll see in the '90s) but I feel like WINNING TEAM credit goes both ways. You swap McHale and Wilkins and Nique is winning some titles too. I'm not sure McHale on those Atlanta teams gets out of the first round.
Adrian Dantley: As noted above, all these forwards beyond Bird are barely separable. Dantley's career was excellent, and nearly all of the magic happened in the '80s for the Jazz and Pistons. He won two scoring titles in the decade and shot ridiculously efficiently for a 6'5 forward who didn't take threes. His career True Shooting percentage is .617, which is No. 6 all time. I'd better move on before I rejigger my entire list here ...
Sidney Moncrief: The Bucks star didn't put up gaudy numbers, but he was perhaps the best defensive guard of the era and a really good scorer thanks to his ability to draw fouls. Five All-Star nods and two Defensive Player of the Year awards. Nice work, Sid.
FLANNERY: If only his knees held out, this would be a very different list.
Clyde Drexler: Drexler's six seasons in the '80s included three All-Star nods and an All-NBA second team nod. Those are not overwhelming credentials, but he was the engine on some good-not-great Blazers teams that became great immediately in the '90s, so I'm offering a bit of extra credit. John Stockton easily could have gone here, and I considered Joe Dumars heavily.
Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Robert Parish, Bernard King, James Worthy, Alex English, Buck Williams, Larry Nance, Joe Dumars, Maurice Cheeks, Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma, Terry Cummings, Mark Aguirre, Jeff Malone, Jamaal Wilkes, Bill Laimbeer, Tom Chambers, Alvin Robertson.
A WORD ABOUT ALEX ENGLISH
Man, that guy's numbers are incredible! I had him as my second first-team forward for a while. What dropped him in favor of McHale, Dantley and Barkley? A lack of contemporary honors. He was a perennial All-Star, but had three second-team All NBA honors and never hit the top five in MVP balloting. That's why he's down here and those guys are up there. Man was Alex English good, though.
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PROFESSOR FLANNERY RESPONDS
I feel like Ziller is baiting me here as the de-facto guy on staff who lives in the Boston area (for the last time, I grew up in Jersey!) and I am now obligated to say something about the Magic-Bird thing. Well, here goes.
Magic had a better career. He won more titles, his career lasted longer and as Tom points out, the Showtime era had a greater impact on the Laker franchise than Bird's Big 3 run had on the Celtics as a historical entity. Magic's Lakers also won two of the three times they played, including 1987 when his baby sky hook trumped Bird's corner three in the most dramatic and meaningful game I ever saw.
I think it's impossible to separate Bird and Magic from each other in any context. They were each other's foil from the day they faced each other in the 1979 NCAA championship to the day they retired. There is no Magic without Bird and vice-versa. Would Bird and Magic have been great without each other as contemporaries? Of course. Would they have pushed themselves beyond their limits without their rival's presence? We'll never know, but it's an integral part of their story.*
*We're not talking about Michael Jordan yet, but it's worth pointing out here that Jordan pushed himself to GOAT status without an obvious natural rival to fuel his legendary fire. He simply laid waste to the rest of the field, an accomplishment that might be his greatest lifetime achievement.*
Additionally, Bird and Magic happened to come along at the exact right moment in history and brought with them a thirst for winning above all else that became the model for other superstars to emulate. They did it through unconventional means -- a 6'9 point guard and a versatile corner forward -- and they did it for the two most iconic franchises in the sport. One wonders if their impact would have been as great if they had played for, say, the Nuggets and Cavaliers.
You can make the very sane and rational argument that Magic was better, but to suggest that Bird's Celtics were mere supporting characters in Magic's decade is akin to suggesting that Wilt was just another guy Russell always beat. It also diminishes the impact the Celtics had on the Pistons and to a lesser extent, Jordan. Together, Bird and Magic elevated the league from flailing non-entity to global superpower and together, Magic and Bird will always be part of the same sentence.
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