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Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird – Who is Better?

By Elad De Piccioto
 Getty / Mike Powell
*Updated 2019
During the late 80`s, there was one major rivalry in the NBA. It was between the star team from LA, the “Showtime Lakers,” and the hard-working tough gang from Beantown, the Boston Celtics. These two dynasties were led by Magic Johnson of the LA Lakers and Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. The debate about which legend was better has remained a popular one ever since. With Magic’s recent resignation as president of the LA Lakers, fans and critics alike reminisce about his years on the court, which can’t be complete without comparisons to Larry Bird.
Here are three reasons why Magic was the better player and three why Bird was:


Team Magic


Magic`s style of play is incomparable

There are few basketball players who are as memorable as Magic Johnson. Magic was a one-of-a-kind basketball genius: a 6-foot 9-inch Point Guard (PG), with amazing offensive capabilities. He was known for his absolute control of the ball, his brilliant passes and, especially, for his trademark “no-look” passes (video to follow).

His flashy, “street-ball” style of play was artistic and inspirational. Even today, he is considered one of the most gifted players in the history of the game. Magic put the showtime in the “Showtime Lakers” of the 80`s. They were one of the most fascinating and mythical teams, mostly due to Magic`s style.


Magic’s playoff stats are better

Magic’s regular season stats are fantastic but don’t differ significantly from Larry Bird`s stats. Per game, Bird scored 24.3 points, picked 10 rebounds, and delivered 6.3 assists. In comparison, Magic`s stats are 19.5, 7.2 and 11.2, respectively. However, Magic’s playoff stats are better. During the playoffs, while Bird scored 0.5 less points per game, Magic delivered one more assist and picked 0.5 more rebounds per game. Meaning, Magic always performed better during playoff time, when the money was on the table, as proven in game 6 of his rookie season. This is why he has two more championships over Bird.


Magic changed the game

Bird may have been an amazing small forward, but he was a rather conventional one. Magic, on the other hand, revolutionized the point guard position and the game itself. Back in those days, the dichotomy was clear: If you`re a tall player, you`re a forward and play like a forward, meaning that you play closer to the rim, concentrate on rebounding, and rarely dribble. Magic changed that: He was a tall all-around point guard who handled the ball with great talent, passed it perfectly, took it to the rim, and rebounded. He paved the way for today’s all-around players, like Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Moreover, Magic marked the transformation of the game from a solid half-court game to one played on a full court, on the run, and above the rim.



Team Bird


Bird had less to work with

Larry Bird played with a group of players whose collective talent was no way near the talent level of Magic`s teammates. Magic played with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, arguably the best center to have ever played the game, and with James Worthy, a No. 1 draft pick, three-time NBA champion, and one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. 

Bird, himself, is what made the Celtics great. With Bird, the Celtics shot from 29 wins to 60 wins in a regular season. His spirit and mentality positively affected the entire team. This is not to say that his teammates were bad players, but Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Cedric Maxwell, to mention a few, were not as talented as the Lakers’ players at that time. Bird had less to work with, and without him, the Celtics would probably be a mediocre team, which cannot be said about Magic.


Bird was a more complete player

Stats prove that both players were complete players, meaning both did well in most aspects of the game (such as scoring, rebounding, assists), each in his own way. For instance, Magic with fewer points and rebounds on average, Bird with fewer assists. The only aspect of the game in which the two truly differ was defense. Bird`s cutthroat competitive drive made him one of the best defensive players of his times. He was chosen three times for the NBA All-Defensive Team (while Magic was never chosen) and was considered as a tough and relentless defender.


The things that are not in the stats

Hustle Statistics refer to the intangible actions taken by a player during games. It quantifies the effort-based activities in basketball, in both defense and offense. Action like drawing, charging from the opponent, jumping for loose balls, contesting an opponent’s shots, and more, are considered hustle plays.

Bird is one of the greatest hustle players to ever play the game. He was an inspirational hustle player, whose smarts and immeasurable intangibles augmented his fantastic tangibles. So, although Magic’s and Bird`s stats slightly differ, Bird’s hustle plays put him on top.


The Bottom Line: The debate about Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird is a question of style rather than a question of quality. So which team are you? The team of flashy, Showtime Magic or the disciplined, hard-working Bird?

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