Who is the most underrated NBA player of all time?
When asked who are the greatest NBA players of all time you usually tend to hear the usual names- Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Julius Erving, and a host of other old and young players. But there’s a poster child many, especially from the up and coming generation of NBA fans, seem to be forgetting. What about Larry Bird?
Larry Bird played in one of the hardest and toughest eras in NBA history. To make a name for yourself in the 1980s was no small task. In the 1978 season, the Boston Celtics were a laughing stock and were in the process of rebuilding. That year the Celtics’ regular season record was only 29-53. The following season and the year Bird was drafted and started consistently, Boston improved to 61-21. The most shocking part of this statistic is that Larry Bird was the only change in the Starting 5. He himself, a rookie, made a 32-game improvement in one season. This may not be enough to prove how eventful his career was yet, so let’s look at some of his career headlining accomplishments.
Bird made it to the playoffs 12 of his 13 years in the league. To put that into perspective- despite battling injuries and playing in a physical league- he never missed the playoffs from age 23 to 35. He made the NBA All-Star game 12 TIMES (the only season he didn’t make it was the year he only played 6 games). He won 3 CONSECUTIVE MVPs and 2 Finals MVPs. He was selected to the All-NBA 1st Team 9 times and the All-Defensive Team 3 times. To put those numbers in perspective- LeBron James has made 12 All-NBA 1st Teams, Kobe and Karl Malone have made 11, and 6 players, including the likes of Michael Jordan and Kareem, sit at 10.
He became only the third player (and the first non-center) to win three consecutive NBA Most Valuable Player Awards. Furthermore, Bird led the league in free-throw percentage four times. That ties him with Steph Curry for 4th all-time, and only Bill Sharman (7), Rick Barry (6), and Reggie Miller (5) did it more times than Bird. He was also a part of the 50-40-90 club. Meaning he shot 50% from the field, 40% from the 3-point line, and 90% from the free throw line for a whole season.
You may not be familiar with his career statistics either, which truly are outstanding. During his career, he averaged 24 points,10 rebounds, 6 assists, 1.7 steals, and 1 block per game. He averaged 50% from the field, 30% from three, and 89% from the free throw line. And while these are clearly solid, Hall of Fame caliber numbers, they still not scream “GOAT”. But do not forget about the defensive rules that were still equipped during that time. The league wasn’t sensitized to physicality. Larry was guarded by some of the GREATEST PLAYERS OF ALL TIME, including Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Charles Barkley, Julius Erving, Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon and James Worthy.
And perhaps lesser known to fans is the extent of Larry’s back injuries that he played through throughout his career- causing him to miss many games and not play with as much energy, enthusiasm or hustle as he did prior. He gave everything he had until he physically couldn’t. In the ’88-’89 season he only played 6 games, and yet he still had a stat line of 19-6-5. Despite his impressive career numbers, if you take away his final 4 years, his numbers would look even better when compared to the all-time greats. And that’s not to say he was a liability in the 90s- in his final season (’91-’92) he averaged 20-10-7, which aren’t exactly pre-retirement stats. Unfortunately, as most players tend to peak at around age 29-31 (i.e. Kobe and LeBron), Bird’s body was beginning to succumb to the strains of a physical and tireless career.
The year BEFORE he got injured, Larry averaged 30 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists. If you shave off the past 4 years of his career he averaged nearly 30 points per game. Only Michael Jordan (30.12) and Wilt Chamberlin (30.07) are in the career 30ppg club. Bird also averaged these stats while taking around 19 shot attempts per game. In comparison, Michael Jordan took 26 shot attempts per game while averaging nearly the same amount of points. He also won ALL 6 playoff games against Michael Jordan, albeit with a big-3 of Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. He played 200 less games than Jordan and had more rebounds, assists and either equal or better numbers in FG%, 3P% and FT%.
Let’s not forget about how he was a very well-rounded player. He ranks 38th on the all-time scoring list. Which may not be very high, but let’s not forget he only played 10 GOOD years due to back injury. Additionally, he ranks 37th all time in steals. If you take his stats and multiply them by 2 (since he had 4 bad years at an average decline for an typical NBA player), he would exceed 1st place by 4,000 points. You can’t say it wouldn’t have happened either at that rate of scoring. Bird also had 4- 50 point playoff games in his shortened career- ranking him 14th of all time in that stat.
The greatest part of Larry Bird was his team- they were great because HE made THEM great. He took a laughing stock of a team and lead them to 3 championship rings while making hardly any changes to the lineup over the course of a decade. Bird jumped onto the scene in his first year- winning rookie of the year. NBA historians don’t give him the praise that they give MJ, despite regularly disregarding Jordan’s early playoff troubles in the 80s due to age. In that regard, the Bird-Boston Celtics have a Golden State Warriors feel in that their players were homegrown and largely stayed intact for a stretch (of course ignoring KD and now Demarcus Cousins.
Larry Bird was the definition of leader and hustle. To this day he is widely underrated and was arguably the greatest player to ever star in the NBA. He just needed more time and a healthy back.