Backpicks GOAT: #11 Larry Bird

Key stats and trends

  • Led some of the top offenses of all time with elite combo of scoring and creation
  • Marginal efficiency in some years, scoring drop in postseason in other years
  • Injuries dented career value, limited longevity

Scouting Report

Bird was the greatest touch-for-touch passer in NBA history. There have been entire highlight videos devoted to this, so I won’t spend too much time on it, other than to illustrate his unparalleled combination of vision, anticipation and aggression. He was the master of the touch pass, a nod to his all-time level court awareness, where he knew what was going to happen long before everyone else. A simple, but typical, example:

Bird was abnormally aggressive with his passing. Because of this, so many of his dishes unearthed high-percentage offense for teammates that few players could ever find, even when nothing seemed to be there. Behold:

He was a master of fitting the ball into these tight windows and possessed this laser vision from Day One. Yet, for a creator of his proficiency, he protected the ball well; his ’84-88 turnover frequency places him in the 78th percentile among comparable creators.1 Here’s another Bird tendency, where he realizes there is an outlet opportunity, and is ready to throw it before he even grabs the ball:

They’ve never tracked “outlet layup assists,” but if they did, I imagine Bird would be near the top of the leader board. This passing, combined with strong scoring, made him a top-notch creator for his time — his Box Creation seasons land him between the 95th and 98th percentile historically, despite individual creation being less prominent in the early ’80s.

Bird was also the best off-ball forward ever, so much so that I’d classify his game as primarily off-ball. Watching him without the rock, particularly in the first (1980-83) and second trimester (1984-88) of his career is a study in advantageous positioning. Here’s a 30-second sample of Bird spinning, cutting, banging, boxing and constantly threatening the defense with his high-motor perpetual motion:

This helped him as a rebounder as well; on possessions that ran through his teammates, Bird often sealed inside position on his man (as he did countless times in the previous clip). Among the 1,000 best scoring rates in history, Bird’s offensive rebounding among players who took at least 100 3s — players who didn’t camp under the hoop — peaked in the 91st percentile.2 All of this movement (and rebounding) created value without the ball.

Boston constantly featured him in a stacked set like this one:

We usually associate this kind of action with Reggie Miller types, but a huge chunk of Bird’s game was flying off screens, even as a 6-foot-9 “power” forward. For many of his early years, he was either in the post, or flaring out/curling off of multiple picks for catch-and-shoots:

And boy were young Bird’s actions decisive. Even when he didn’t catch-and-shoot, he’d use the momentum of the play to transition into a dribble attack:

Although in his early seasons, his quick decisions occasionally led to poor shot selection. There were plenty of these back then:

Bird’s propensity for outside shooting and crafty scoring limited his free throw attempts. While he frequently operated in the mid and low-post, his tendency, even on drives, was to shoot runners, floaters or fadeaways. In this area, his lack of explosive athleticism betrayed him; he wasn’t dangerous enough on rim attacks to constantly draw fouls, instead opting for plenty of these:

His free throw rate (a ratio of shots to free throws attempts) during his best seasons ranks in just the 22nd percentile among 20-point per game players. Free throws spike efficiency, and Bird’s inability to generate them hurt him relative to other great scorers. Despite his shooting skill, his long jumpers yielded only a moderate return on investment in all likelihood. While clearly a great shooter, he wasn’t great enough for his bombs to offset his lack of easy scores. Of course, Bird counteracted this by bending defenses with his movement and post-ups, which only played into his hands as a creator.

Offensively, he peaked during his second trimester, improving his overall shooting, shot selection and incorporating the 3-pointer more. But his defense changed radically over these periods. When he entered the league, he combined that perpetual motion, unparalleled court awareness and large frame to produce a fringe all-defensive player. His rotations and positioning jump off the film, as his 360-degree vision made for quick reactions like these when a teammate needed help:

And in his first few years, Bird had the quickness to contest shots around the rim or even block them. Here, per usual, he instantly moves into position and jabs Kareem’s shot away:

Young Bird was also extremely active around the hoop, challenging or blocking shots in all kinds of ways:

The anticipation that guided his passing made him an excellent disruptor of passing lanes. Here, Kareem thinks he has Magic for a layup because most defenders wouldn’t jump this pass — Bird is “supposed” to flare out with his assignment — but Bird reads the whole thing and makes it look like he was the intended receiver on the play:

This foresight, along with his relentless motor, made him an elite rebounder in those years. He would frequently outmaneuver his man while anticipating the flight of the ball:

Bird’s defensive rebounding rates in his first few years place him near the 80th percentile historically and closer to the 90th percentile in the postseason. But his athleticism and energy started to wane in the second act of his career. He maintained his clairvoyance — reading passing lanes and seemingly always positioning himself in the right place — but his foot speed and leaping faded, and so did some his defensive efficacy. Here’s a play from the ’84 Finals where he switched to deny Kareem, then considered Magic, then recovered to play Rambis well.

I wonder if a younger Bird would have been quick enough to outright steal that pass. At that point, his foot speed impacted his change of directions, leading to off-balance plays that prevented a good challenge, even when he managed to maintain guarding position:

Under the right conditions — in help defense or against slower post players — plays like this were still common in the mid-’80s:

As Bird grew older, he became more vulnerable to quicker perimeter opponents. Fortunately, he played most of his career as a defensive power forward, and even in later years, when Boston went with its big frontline of McHale and Parish, Bird checked the opposing big forward on most occasions. But in those final three seasons, all that was left was anticipation, good hands, and sound positioning.3

Impact Evaluation

Before losing his mobility, Bird was a key cog on premium defenses for much of his prime. His scoring and table-setting powered some of the best offenses the league had ever seen, although Boston’s postseason attacks lagged while Bird struggled to score at high efficiency (or stay healthy) during the playoffs. At the same time, the Celtics were impervious to key injuries over the years as long as Bird played.

He entered the league as a polished, 22-year old rookie, spearheading one of the biggest turnarounds ever (a 32-win improvement). It wasn’t all Larry — Boston brought in a new coach (Bill Fitch), Tiny Archibald’s health improved and poor-rep players like Marvin Barnes and Bob McAdoo were replaced on the bench.4 But it all centered around Bird. He took 19 percent of the team’s scoring attempts, the exact same number as MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in LA.5 He handled the brunt of the creation and the result was an offense 4.2 points better than league average (rORtg), the 15th-best ever at that point in time.

Dave Cowens — not the same player from his MVP-candidate years — missed 15 games during the season. With Cowens and a full-strength lineup, Boston played like a 60-win team (7.1 SRS). Without him, they were even better, clocking along at a spectacular 67-win pace (10.0 SRS). Archibald played well at the point, and Cedric Maxwell added a hyper-efficient post up game.6

Bird’s passing was so good out of the gate that Rick Barry — a great distributor himself — called him the best passer in the league during one telecast. Longtime AP basketball columnist Alex Sachare wrote this at the end of the ’80 season:

“In Boston, the key man in the Celtics’ remarkable turnaround has been Larry Bird. His passing game helped the Celtics more than double last year’s 29 victories…While his scoring and rebounding certainly helped, the attitude he instilled was the most vital factor in the Celtics’ renaissance.

[An MVP vote] for either Erving or Bird would certainly be reasonable.”

Pressuring the defense starts with the threat to score, and Bird certainly did that. However, his scoring itself was not elite in his first few years, occasionally rushing shots and avoiding contact (per the scouting report). It wasn’t until he cleaned up his shot selection and used the 3-pointer more that he became topflight in this area:

Still, all-time level passing is perhaps the most additive and scalable skill in basketball. The worst offense Bird ever played on was about 2 points better than league average. After 1984, all of his teams were at least 4 points better than average on offense with him in the lineup (87th percentile in the 3-point era). He led the NBA in estimated creation in 19807 and his combination of scoring and playmaking pegs him as one of the greatest offensive weapons ever. Below are all of the 22 point per 75 players between 1978 and 1990, plotted by efficiency and creation:

Bird’s trifecta of volume, efficiency and creation was only matched a handful of times in the first 10 years of the 3-point line; by Magic (although his volume was lower, dropping him off this chart in some seasons) and by Jordan (with higher volume). Bird provided additional benefits over both of them as an off-ball threat and court-spacer — he was a big forward who didn’t need to occupy the post and could capitalize on his teammates’ creation with outside shooting.

As the team around Bird changed, his impact seemed to remain. In 1981, the Celtics played at a 58-win pace (6.1 SRS) en route to the title. In 1983, Archibald missed 16 games and Boston played at a 56-win pace (5.2 SRS) with and without Tiny. And in 1986, McHale missed 14 games and the team played at a 61-win pace (7.3 SRS) without him.

The ’82 and ’83 Celtics were playoff disappoints, transitioning from Bird’s early years into a team with Dennis Johnson at the point and Kevin McHale playing a more prominent role. Coach Bill Fitch, who largely eschewed the 3-point shot, was replaced by KC Jones.8

Meanwhile, Boston’s offense improved, commensurate with Bird’s individual growth. The ’85 and ’86 teams were just under 5 points better than league average offensively.9 In ’87 and ’88, Boston posted a staggering +7.3 rORtg in 148 games with Bird and McHale. Bird was the cornerstone of two of the 25-best offenses in league history, including the 1988 squad, the best of all time to that point, surpassing even the ’87 Lakers in regular season efficiency. Boston’s true shooting percentage was 58.8 percent that year, a record that would stand until the 2016 Warriors shot 59 percent in their 73-win season.

When Bird missed most of 1989, the Celtics fell back to earth. After five consecutive years playing at a 60-win pace or better, Boston dropped to a 45-win clip (1.3 SRS) under new coach Jimmy Rodgers, although there were other notable lineup changes as well that season:

Bird’s injuries were the black mark on his career, preventing him from ascending even higher on this list. There were a few small hiccups in the early days — an elbow injury and a mistimed flu in the 1983 playoffs — but Bird dented some of his best seasons by himself. In 1985, he was in a bar fight in the middle of the postseason, and his performance declined after his hand injury. That summer, he injured his back repaving his mother’s driveway in Indiana. In 1988, shin splints took their toll as the playoffs progressed and Bird struggled in the Eastern Finals against Detroit’s swarming defense. This ate at some of Bird’s value and led to an overall decline in playoff scoring. And while Boston’s postseason offenses were excellent, they fell further behind LA’s in most years.10

We can further examine the impact of Bird’s injury on his teammates, who played 40 full-strength games without him in 1989 before Danny Ainge was traded. Reggie Lewis, a fringe All-Star caliber player that year, essentially “replaced” Bird in the Celtics lineup, Robert Parish upped his scoring 4 points per game, but the offense still tumbled from historically good to slightly above average. The chart below reflects Bird’s effect as a creator and passer — every single teammate declined substantially in scoring efficiency without him, particularly McHale:

The back injury also limited Bird in the ’91 playoffs and render him nearly useless in the ’92 postseason. These were critical years for him to provide value to his team that were either completely lost or marginalized thanks to his breaking body. Although, even in those last few seasons, he provided an enormous lift to the Celtics, another indicator of how valuable his passing, spacing and shooting were.11 And despite his limited mobility (per the scouting report), the only season in Bird’s entire career in which he played on a below average defense was in 1988 (with nearly every season from ’80-86 landing near the top of the league).

If there’s a knock on his statistical resume, it was a lack of high-end efficiency in the postseason. Below, I’ve scaled the “Big 4” offensive box components of scoring, efficiency, creation and turnovers for him and some contemporaries; each axis represents the span of the metric across all post-merger seasons, so Magic’s scoring rate of 20.1 per 75 is about 42 percent of the way from the qualifying low (10.5) to Jordan’s best (33.2). Here’s how Bird compares:12

Given Boston’s balanced roster and Bird’s lack of ball-dominance, lower scoring rates weren’t an issue, per se, especially on such efficacious teams. However, his failure to spike efficiency while reducing volume was likely a byproduct of his low free throw rate and inability to burn opponents as a slasher. This limitation is picking nits — those postseason offenses were, after all, some of the best on record — but it’s the difference between Bird peaking as one of the five-best offensive players in history and the best ever.

While Bird’s prime WOWYR score (which includes 1990-92) is a good distance from the all-time best, other historical regressions suggest that he was likely having superstar impact.13 The version of that regression that I ran up until 1983 actually had Bird No. 1, inline with many of the impressive WOWY results he registered. These studies are consistent with the seismic shift in Boston when he joined in 1980 and the drop-off without him in 1989.

In total, Bird has the imprint of a GOAT-level offensive player with a clear case as a strong defensive factor early in his career. However, like so many other superstars, his offensive peak didn’t coincide with his best defensive seasons, making it less likely that he was a top-5 peak player ever. By my valuations, Bird’s first eight years are MVP-worthy, including one of the best two-year apexes in NBA history with an argument for the best post-merger rookie season. I do wonder how much credit to give his non-traditional offensive traits, but either way, minor adjustments up or down don’t move Bird much on the list. With a phenomenal peak and problematic longevity, he lands here, barely behind No. 10.