Author Jeff Morris

Bird vs Magic

Why I Would Pick Bird Over Magic (Just Barely)

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were both rookies during the 1979-80 NBA season. However, they were not both in the 1979 NBA Draft. Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics had drafted Bird in the 1978 Draft as a “junior-eligible” knowing that they would have to wait a year to have him join the Celtics. Magic was drafted by the Lakers with the first pick of the 1979 draft after winning a coin flip prior to the draft.

Imagine if we could go back to June 25, 1979 and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were both eligible to be selected in the NBA Draft. Both were coming off spectacular college seasons. Bird led Indiana St to a perfect regular season and a runner-up finish to Magic and the Michigan St. Spartans. If you were assured their NBA careers would be similar to what actually happened (multiple MVPs, NBA titles and first ballot Hall of Famers), who would you pick? Bird or Magic? Magic or Bird?

It is a tough question, but I would take Larry Legend, just barely, over Magic…. and here is why.

The 1978-79 College Season

Many people will simply say Magic was better in the 78-79 season because his team won it all and MSU beat Indiana St 75-64 in the NCAA Final. That is true, but let’s take a deeper look at that season. Both teams had great seasons. MSU finished 26-6 playing in a much tougher conference in the Big Ten while ISU was 33-1 in the Missouri Valley.

However, Magic had much more talent around him than Bird. Magic had Greg Kelser and Jay Vincent, who would both go on to have solid careers in the NBA. Bird had only one teammate, Carl Nix, who went on to the NBA and he had limited success.

Both were clearly the best players and leaders on their teams. Bird averaged 28.6ppg/14.9rpg/5.5apg for the season. Magic averaged a very respectable 17.1/7.3/8.4. However, in 34 games that season, Bird was the leading scorer for ISU thirty-two times and he led the team in rebounding thirty-one times. The only two times Bird was not the team’s leading scorer was the season opening blowout win and in a late season game against Bradley when he had just four points. In that game, Bradley’s coach, Dick Versace, decided to double team Bird even when he did not have the ball and Bird just stood on the side while his teammates played 4 on 3. ISU won in a blowout and Bird still led them in rebounding.

On the other hand, Greg Kelser was the leading scorer and rebounder for MSU for the season with 18.8/8.7 with Magic second in both scoring and rebounding. In thirty-two games, Magic led MSU in scoring fourteen times and was the leading rebounder eight times. Even though MSU was clearly the better team, Bird had to carry a much bigger load for ISU during the entire 78-79 season.

Bird and Magic’s Rookie Seasons

Bird and Magic both had terrific rookie seasons. Bird averaged 21.3/10.4/4.5 for the season was named Rookie of the Year in a landslide vote over Magic. Magic averaged 18.0/7.7/7.3 and led the Lakers to the 1980 NBA Title with an all-time performance against the Sixers in Game 6. Kareem was hurt and Magic finished with 42/15/7 while playing center in Kareem’s place. Of course, a lot of people forget that Jamaal “Silk” Wilkes dropped 37 points to help Magic and the Lakers finish off my beloved Sixers and Dr. J.

Once again, let’s look closer at the teams Bird and Magic joined in 1979. Magic joined a team that finished 47-35 in 1978-79 and had perhaps the best player in the NBA in Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. The 1979-80 Lakers, with essentially the same roster, went 60-22. They improved by thirteen games and won the title. I would argue that Magic was not even the best player on the Lakers that season. Kareem led the Lakers with 24.8/10.2 for the season and won the 1980 NBA MVP. In addition to Kareem, Jamaal Wilkes was the second leading scorer for the Lakers with 20 ppg and Norm Nixon was fourth at 17.8. I will admit that Magic probably saved Kareem’s career and helped him learn to love playing basketball again after a few angry seasons as a Laker pre-Magic (Kareem’s role as Roger Murdock in the movie Airplane helped people see a happier Kareem as well).

By contrast, Bird joined the Celtics in 1979 after they had finished one of their worst seasons in team history. In 1978-79, the Celtics finished 29-53 and were near the bottom of the Eastern Conference in the NBA. In 1979-80, the Celtics finished 61-21 for the season and lost to the Sixers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Bird led the Celtics in scoring and rebounding and was second in assists. Once again, with essentially the same roster, Bird’s supporting cast included Tiny Archibald, Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell, and an aging Dave Cowens. With Larry Legend as their best player, the Celtics improved by thirty-two games over the previous season. Although Magic had a great rookie season, led his team to the NBA Title, and won the 1980 Finals’ MVP (which Kareem wins if he does not get hurt), Bird was the better player playing with lesser talent and was clearly the best player on the Celtics during his rookie year.

Bird vs Magic in the NBA

Let’s compare Bird and Magic’s overall NBA careers…….

Bird Magic
897 Regular Season Games


164 Playoff Games


3 NBA Titles

5 NBA Finals

10x All-Star

3x MVP

1980 ROY

2x Finals MVP

All-NBA 1st Team 9 Times

2nd Team 1 Time

All-Defense 3 Times

Naismith HOF

#33 Retired w/Celtics

Career Hi Points 60

40+ Points in a Game 53 Times*

*Includes regular season and playoffs

906 Games


190 Playoff Games


5 NBA Titles

9 NBA Finals

12x All-Star

3x MVP

1980 NBA All-Rookie Team

3x Finals MVP

All-NBA 1st Team 9 Times

2nd Team 1 Time

NBA Assists Leader 4x

NBA Steals Leader 2x

Naismith HOF

#32 Retired w/Lakers

Career High Points 46

40+ Points in a Game 11 Times*

Obviously, both Bird and Magic had stellar NBA careers and trying to pick between the two of them is like picking between a Mercedes and a BMW (I would take the Mercedes). Both were similar athletically in that neither were exceptionally quick or great leapers. Neither was a great “on the ball” defender. I doubt K.C. Jones or Par Riley ever went into a game thinking that either was going to shut down other teams best player.

Magic was probably a bit faster with the basketball in his hands, but Bird was a better scorer and rebounder. Both were great leaders who made their teammates better and cared about one thing…. Winning!!!!

Magic had more team success than Bird. Five NBA Titles to Bird’s three. Nine Finals appearances for Magic to five for Bird. But during Bird’s entire career with the Celtics, he was clearly their best player. Magic only became the Lakers’ best player once Kareem was in the last years of his career. I would also add that when Bird won three MVP’s in a row from 84-86, there was no question that he was the best player in the NBA. I believe that Magic was awarded his first because it was “Magic’s time” to win the award. Similar to Charles Barkley and Karl Malone winning their MVPs in the 90s. The reality is that Michael Jordan should have won every MVP from 87-93 and 96-98….. but that is a discussion for another time.

Game 4 NBA Finals June 9, 1987

My final reason for taking Bird over Magic is a sequence of two plays in Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals. On June 9, 1987, the Lakers and Celtics played one of the great NBA Finals’ games in the old Boston Garden. The Lakers had Magic, Kareem, “Big Game” James Worthy, and the Celtics had Bird, McHale, “DJ”, and “Chief”. Seven future Naismith Hall of Famers!!!!

The game came down to the final seconds and the Lakers had the ball under their own basket with seven seconds left and behind 106-105. In the NBA, coaches tend to go to their best player when the need a basket to win the game. This game was no different.

The first play was drawn up by Lakers’ coach, Pat Riley. Riley chose to go to his best offensive player to win the game that day, but it was not Magic. Riley drew up a play to go to his 40-year-old center, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Kareem was running on fumes, but Riley knew he could count on “The Captain” for one more skyhook to win the game. Both plays can be viewed below starting at about 7:30 into the video.

If you watch the play closely, Magic gets the ball and is trying to go to Kareem on the block. But, McHale switched and his length made it hard to get the ball inside. Magic made and all-time great play by making his “baby sky hook” over Parish and McHale to give the Lakers the lead, but it was a broken play. Riley did not call the play for Magic. He called it for Kareem. Similar to when the Bulls beat the Jazz in 1997. Steve Kerr hit the game winner, but MJ was supposed to take the game winner.

Once Magic gave his team the lead, the game was not over. Boston had two seconds and the ball at the center line to get a shot to win the game. The end of the video shows that K.C. Jones drew up a final play for Larry Bird. Everyone in the Garden knew Bird was getting the ball. Pat Riley knew it. Magic knew. Even James Worthy knew it. Bird got the ball and had a wide-open look to win and nobody was more surprised he missed than he was.

Even though Magic made the game winner and Bird missed, the point is that Magic was seldom the guy his coaches looked to for a game winning shot. Bird was always “the guy” and everyone knew it. Most of the time, Bird would make that shot.

That one sequence of plays is the essence of why I would draft Larry Bird over Magic if I had the chance.

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