Sunday, January 10, 2010
Dirk vs Bird: Enough Already
Sparky Anderson was once asked to compare Thurman Munson to Johnny Bench. Sparky replied "Don't embarrass any catcher by asking me to compare him to Bench." This wasn't a slap at Munson, it was just the truth. Bench was the best, and no catcher was going to compare.
I feel the same way when I hear the constant comparisons of Dirk Nowitzki to Larry Bird. In fact, it may be the sports topic that most makes me want to end my 25 year non-vomit streak (and I grew up hating the Celtics!).
The subject is, in fact, the reason that I started this blog. I was listening to BAD Radio one day, and heard the King of Blogging, Bob Sturm, utter the phrase "Put Dirk on those Celtics teams with Parrish and McHale and he would probably have a couple of rings." After calling a wrecker service to come and tow my car out of the ditch that I had driven into upon hearing that, I emailed Bob. I love Bob. Bob's sports brain is huge (quickly). But I told him that I thought his comment gave too much credit to Dirk, and not nearly enough to Bird. I told him I had many thoughts on this topic, and that I should probably start a blog so that I could get all of my thoughts on this subject out in a way that I can't do on our radio show. A few weeks later, voila--I'm blogging! Oh crap! What have I done?
Disclaimers before launching into this comparison (or non-comparison): Dirk is greatness. Dirk is the best Euro ever. Dirk is the best shooting 7-footer ever. Dirk is one of the most unique NBA'ers ever. Dirk is approaching Roger Staubach in the "Most Beloved Metroplex Athlete Ever" category. Dirk is a nice guy. Dirk is THE reason that the Mavs have been a 50+ win team for a decade (even though he does have a fatal flaw that I will detail in a later blog posting). I love watching Dirk play. But he is not Larry Bird. Not even close. Just like Josh Howard is not Michael Jordan (OK, I admit that there is a much bigger gap between Josh and MJ than between Dirk and Bird. I just wanted to write that line to solicit some groans from basketball fans). The purpose of this post is not to take shots at Dirk, but to remind everyone of Bird's greatness, which time has caused many to diminish.
So, let's get into it.
HOW THEY ARE ALIKE
They are both tall. They are both white. They are both blonde. They are both great outside shooters. They both have funny accents.
HOW THEY ARE NOT ALIKE
(Insert unfair photographic evidence to help my argument)
1. THEIR BACKGROUNDS
When Larry Bird was 20 years old, he was leaving the University of Indiana because he felt out of place. He started working on a road crew for the state, working in ditches and bad weather, repairing potholes and such. He already had a huge chip on his shoulder, and this time period between IU and eventually enrolling at Indiana State just made him hate us all a bit more.
Also during this time, his alcoholic father committed suicide. His family was dirt-poor. Bird has said that his rough upbringing motivated him throughout his career.
Conversely, when Dirk was 20, he was drafted and signed a multi-million dollar deal in the NBA. He was a golden child, and now a wealthy NBA prospect--a German who was learning how to enjoy our Western ways and our American women. No chip. No ditch digging. No poor, broken family. He didn't hate anyone. The world was his oyster (I've never really known what that saying means, but that hasn't stopped me from using it).
This difference can't be underestimated. Bird always felt like he had something to prove. Bird was driven by that chip on his shoulder. Bird was bitter. Not that Dirk didn't work at his game early on (although not nearly as much as he has worked on it the last few years), but traveling and drinking with Steve Nash occupied a lot of his time.
Hungry athletes are usually better competitors. Especially those that don't get full after one great meal.
2. THEIR NUMBERS
In "The Book of Basketball" (a must read for any NBA fan), author Bill Simmons points out that Dirk's 2006-07 MVP season was statistically not as good as Bird's NINE best seasons. Think about that.
During each player's prime years, Bird was better in just about every individual category. Points per game (Bird averaged more than 28 per game three different times, Dirk never has averaged more than 26.5 per game), field goal percentage (Bird was over 50% five times, Dirk once), rebounds (Bird averaged 10+ per game six times, Dirk zero), and assists and steals (not even close--advantage Bird). Their career 3pt shooting, free throw shooting, and blocked shot numbers are a draw. Dirk has no advantage in any category.
3. THEIR GAMES
Bird was superior to Dirk in every area of the game, except for pure shooting, where I would call it even. Bird was three inches shorter than Dirk, but a better rebounder--he knew where to be and how to box out. Bird was 100 times the passer than Dirk is--he saw lanes and angles that few ever did. How often did you hear someone say "Bird must have eyes in the back of his head!". Do they ever say that about Dirk?
Defensively, Bird wins again. This area is Dirk's biggest downfall. Bird was not a superior defender, but he wasn't a liability. He out-thought the opponent. He outworked the opponent. Defense is not always about athletic ability, but about smarts and hustle. Bird had smarts and he hustled. You could never go to sleep on Bird when he was defending you. He wasn't a shut-down guy, but he would make you pay if you gave him a chance. He played the passing lanes well.
If you want to see what kind of a defender Dirk isn't, just watch any of last year's playoff series with Denver. You'll understand.
4. THEIR LEADERSHIP
As if Bird didn't have a large enough lead in the comparison, this is where it turns into a rout. The two players who demanded the most out of their teammates in the history of the league were Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. We have never seen competitors like those two.
To Bob's original point: If you replaced Larry Bird with Dirk Nowitzki on those 80's Celtics teams, they would not have one a single title. I really believe that. Bird was the ultimate glue player. Dirk is not a glue player. Bird was the ultimate hard-ass on his teammates. Dirk is not a hard-ass. Bird's game was tailor-made to bring out the best in McHale and Parrish and the rest of those Celtics. Dirk's is not. Not to mention how awkward it would be to play Dirk at small forward on that Boston team (you weren't really thinking about benching McHale, were you?).
I'm the all-time George Gervin homer, but I wouldn't make the argument that if you replaced Kobe with Ice that the Lakers would have won four titles in the last decade. In fact, I don't think they would have won any, even with Shaq. Gervin was great, just not in a Kobe way. The same way Dirk is great, just not in a Bird way.
Flip it around: Put Bird on the 2005-06 Mavs, and there is no way in hell they lose that series to Miami. There is a zero percent chance that up 2-0 and up 16 points in the 3rd quarter of game three that Bird would have let that team lose that series. Never, ever, ever. Dirk was taken out of his game by the Heat in that series. Nobody on that Miami team would have taken Bird out of his game, especially when spotting him a nearly insurmountable lead. I'm sorry, I just can't see Udonis Haslem or James Posey getting to Larry Legend.
Three rings for Bird, none for Dirk. And if you take a trip to Bizarro World, where their career paths would be flipped, I would imagine that the title count would be the same. Dirk still has a chance to win one--but that window is closing fast. Had it happened in '06, the comparison would be somewhat valid. Somewhat. It didn't, though--and that falls directly on Dirk's shoulders. Just like the 80's Celtics successes are a credit first and foremost to Bird.
5. THEIR PERSONALITIES
The reason Bird was such a great leader (and as a result, a great champion) was his personality. He was always the first to gym. In fact, he would routinely get to the Garden so early that the floor wasn't down yet for that night's game--so instead of shooting he would run laps around the concourse. Once the floor was down, he would shoot for hours. Dirk is a gym rat, too, but not to the degree that Bird was.
Bird would not accept anything less than 100% effort from his teammates. Dirk is a quiet, peace-loving guy. Bird would yell at a teammate. Bird would shove a teammate. Bird would make his teammates better. Dirk, in turn, only yells at his teammates indirectly, and usually when a game or series is already lost.
Bird was a trash talker, an intimidator. Dirk is neither. I've always loved the story of Bird telling Chuck Person before a Christmas Eve game that he had a present for him. Then, during the game, Bird launched a three pointer from right in front of the Pacers bench. Before the ball went through the net, he turned to Person (who was sitting on the bench) and said "Merry Fucking Christmas" as the ball then swished behind him. DAMN! I wouldn't want to play that guy! There are no stories like that about Dirk. Not that you have to be a prick to lead a team to a title--it's just another example of how Dirk is not Bird.
(There is another item worth discussing, but I don't have the issue completely fleshed out. It's the idea that a white Euro or Eurasian dude playing a North American sport just doesn't have the same killer instinct that a North American--i.e. American or Canadian--does. I hear this all the time about the Euro hockey players. The theory centers around Euros seeing Olympic Gold as their ultimate sports dream, where North Americans see winning a Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, World Series or NBA title as their ultimate sports dream. I've heard it before about Dirk, but I'm not sure it applies. I think Dirk may have that killer instinct even though he's very white and very Euro. But I'm not sure. It's certainly not the psycho-killer instinct that Bird had, so again, advantage Bird. Still--an interesting topic that will be explored in a future blog posting on this very site.)
LET'S ALL AGREE TO GIVE DIRK A BREAK
Stop doing this to Dirk. Stop comparing him to Bird. I even heard Rick Carlisle tip-toe into the subject not too long ago--and he played with Bird! I understand it's a coach's job to pump up his players to hyperbolic proportions. But come on. I feel bad for Dirk every time someone tries to compare the two, because I know that there is no way Dirk will ever live up to being Bird. Can't we all just be happy with the incredible career that Dirk has put together? Let's just compare him to other Mavericks. He wins there. Let's compare him to other Euros. He wins there. Let's compare him to his peers in today's game. He wins a lot of those battles. But let's stop comparing him to Larry Bird. There is no comparison.
Plus, I want to try to run my non-vomit streak to 50 years. I have a better chance if I never hear "Dirk" and "Bird" in the same sentence again (after, of course, this sentence).