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).




Amen.



15 comments:

  1. Nice blog Junior. I'm most impressed that you
    made it through an entire entry without mentioning
    Tim Duncan. Congratulations.

    And I totally agree with everything you say.
    Let's not compare Dirk to anyone.
    Let's just be thankful that for the last eleven
    years we've been luck enough to watch our little
    Dirk develop into a tough minded, team leader.
    He's a pleasure to watch when he's on a roll.
    He's one of the best players in the NBA right
    now, by any metric other than championships,
    no need to compare him to those in the past.
    And hopefully we can all agree that he is
    the greatest Dallas Maverick of all time.

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  2. Junior, I enjoyed reading your comments on the Dirk/Bird comparison. It can be argued that comparing any player to Bird is a losing situation, not just Dirk. As far as Dirk winning a championship with Dallas, I think it's not very likely (and not his fault). When you have teams like the Lakers and Celtics as stacked as they are with talent, there aren't enough GREAT players to go around. For the Mavs to compete with the likes of those two teams they need at least one more GREAT player to play alongside Dirk. For them to beat teams like those, they need at least two more GREAT players to play alongside Dirk. Or they need to get lucky AND hot at just the right time. But as you know, the NBA, more than any other league, is a game of matchups. If you can expose a teams weak link and protect yours, you'll have a better chance of winning. The Mavs have more weak links than the teams like the Lakers and Celtics. But it sure is fun to watch and pray!

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  3. I certainly feel that my argument has been stretched slightly, but that is what happens. My discussion was more about circumstance. It is the Troy Aikman v Dan Marino debate. Could Marino have won 3 Super Bowls in Dallas? Very possible. Could Aikman have won 3 Super Bowls if he was in Miami with Marino's cast? I highly doubt it. But, Dale Hansen swore to me the rings would go with Aikman and avoid Marino because Aikman knew how to win the big game and that he wasn't all about the stats.

    I wonder how much things depend on something each player has nothing to do with: dumb luck of where the NBA meat grinder spits you out. Dirk goes to a hopeless franchise that featured about 5,000 fans for his first game at Reunion. The best player he ever played with was Steve Nash - another great player who was only great on one end.

    Bird went to a perfect place. Played with a great guard in Dennis Johnson, and not 1, not 2, but 3 of the best big men of the entire generation in Parrish, McHale, and Walton - although Walton's contribution was minimal for sure.

    So, my discussion was based on Dirk's ability to take over a game, and to develop into being almost unguardable at this stage of his career. He also has the ability to grab double-digit rebounds which should not be sneezed at, and plays reasonable defense now.

    Let's just say the Celtics take young 19-year old Dirk in 1979 and put him around a legit center, a player-of-the year defender at forward, and a backcourt that is strong.

    I am not asking him to be Larry, or better than Larry. But are you telling me Dirk at 26 years old in 1986 couldn't help McHale, Parrish, Johnson, Ainge, and Walton beat the Rockets?

    Seriously?

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  4. Yes, that's what I'm saying. That year, Bird led Boston in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and Basketball IQ. Would Dirk have done that? Take away the best scorer, passer, rebounder, and steals guy from that team--are they the same? Not to mention, take away the smartest guy, the guy with the killer instinct, and the heart and soul of that team--still the same? Dirk replaces all of those qualities? No way.

    More proof: 2006. Dirk couldn't lead Dallas to the title over an average Miami after being spotted a massive lead. Not much on his resume that indicates he could fill Bird's shoes in 1986 to the tune of a title.

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  5. I should add, because upon second glance I see that you had Boston taking him in '79 and grooming him: My bottom line is that, even with that grooming, he and Bird are not the same players--not the same people (which I outlined in the post). Not the same position, not the same instincts (which can't be groomed--you either have them or you don't). Just not the same. So to expect the same result is a stretch, methinks.

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  6. Junior well stated points and bob response only provides more ammo to your points. The reason why I enjoy your viewpoints on alot of topics (sports and non-sports) is because you think your positions out. So many of the guys on the ticket are great sports talk personalities. They say this to generate buzz, interest and then when it is cross checked in to the boards now they want to clarify their point. Hopefully you will rub off on two of the worst offender BS and GD. Interesting initials huh?

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  7. AW--Thanks for commenting. I would say, however, that my Ticket buds almost always do a good job of thinking things through. All you have to do is read a Bob blog to know that he's very thorough.

    On the subject: I've got even more thoughts about Dirk vs Bird. I think I may do a follow-up post. It will deal with the "You can't just replace a Hall of Famer with another Hall of Famer of the same size and expect the same results" theory. Kind of like I said in the blog--replacing Kobe with Gervin just doesn't work, or replacing Magic with Gervin wouldn't have worked. Replacing Bird with Dirk wouldn't have worked, because they don't have the same basketball DNA.

    I also will address how important it is to have a top 15 all-time player as your lead horse (Bird or Duncan) as oppossed to just having a top 50 all-time player as your lead horse (Dirk or Robinson). I'll try to get that posted this week.

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  8. Junior, enjoyed the article. However, I believe that you may have slightly overblown the amount that Dirk gets compared to Bird. Maybe during the 2006 run and the MVP regular season those comparisons were thrown around on a regular basis, but I have not noticed them since. Here are my thoughts on your post, for no particular reason other than I’m an unabashed Dirk supporter.

    Comparing Dirk to Larry Bid is like comparing him to Kobe, Lebron, or Duncan. His basketball resume and/or skill level (which includes basketball IQ and every other measurable or intangible measuring) is not at the "pyramid level" of current or past NBA stars.

    However, Dirk can be described as the following:

    -Franchise Player
    -First Ballot Hall of Famer
    -Former MVP
    -One of the best players of the past decade

    Most importantly, he has evolved as a player and continues to play at an elite level which gives the Mavericks a chance to compete for an NBA championship. I hope he gets that elusive ring which will validate his career in the eyes of many. He is not Larry Bird, but there are only a handful of players that that ever reach Bird’s level of greatness.

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  9. I would like to propose a chat where we can query each other's positions for further clarity if you are up for it for an hour sometime. I guess I have a hard time fully processing 2 things even inside my own mind:

    1) - Does the setting of one's career really affect the outcome? If Dirk is developed by someone other than Nellie, does it change is game? And if so, how much? Does Nellie's lack of concern of defense shape his projects for their full career long after he is gone (Nash and DIrk)?

    2) - Should any player be judged based on the "best player he played with theory"? If so, how do we reconcile Parrish/McHale/DJ with Dirk's cast? And who would go down as the 2nd best player on the '06 Mavs? And if they had won the title, would it have been one of the great "solo missions" in the recent NBA? Josh Howard? Jason Terry? There is nobody of enduring relevance on that entire roster. Shouldn't we consider that?

    My real issue is if Dirk had 2 more legit in-their-prime top 50 players with him, wouldn't he have his basketball immortality cemented? And if yes, than doesn't Larry get judged the same way?

    And, as Simmons points out, would Bird have a chance in the 2009 NBA to be anywhere near the force? He did play when forwards were not long, athletic, and defensive. Nowhere near what Dirk deals with.

    My final thought (for now): If Larry Bird was drafted by Golden State or Indiana back then, is he more remembered than George Gervin or Sidney Moncrief? I am not asking if he was greater, I am asking is he "Larry Legend" - and a man with no shortcomings - including rings.

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  10. All great points and great hypotheticals. However, I think we have to draw the line somewhere. I think we leave it at comparing Dirk in his prime to Bird in his prime. If we start changing the hypothetical (what if Dirk played with these guys and what if Dirk didn't have the bad Nellie influence early) then it becomes a different debate or topic. Why not ask "What if Dirk were born black, in North Carolina, with an insane competitive drive, and with great hops and wore number 23?" At some point the hypothetical gets pushed to where it's not even the same question. If you have Dirk taken by Boston, or not coached by Nellie, or not raised in Germany, then he's not Dirk. If you have Bird coming from Europe, or a comfy home life, or landing in Golden State, then he's not Bird. It becomes a different conversation.

    As far as the supporting cast, I think it's about which player has it in his DNA to make those around him better. Bird had it. Dirk? I don't know. But I think if Bird played with the '06 Mavs, we would think more highly of that cast, because Bird would have made them better. If Bird had never landed in Boston, I'm not sure we look at McHale and Parrish and DJ and Ainge the same way we look at them now. If it had been Dirk, or Gervin, or Robinson, or anyone outside the top 20 all-time players that had landed in Boston instead of Bird, I don't think they raise those other guys to the level of champions.

    If I had to answer the what if Bird landed in Golden State would he have made them great question, I say yes. Heck, he landed at Indiana State and took them to the title game--with zero supporting cast! That speaks volumes.

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  11. Also consider that Bird, as rookie, without Parrish or McHale or DJ or Ainge, changed Boston from a 29 win team to a 61 win team. A rookie, with a supporting cast that won 29 before him, made them a 61 win, Conference Finalist team. Amazing. That's how good he was.

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  12. Great discussion, fellas. I don't want to get directly into the discussion, because I didn't watch much basketball during Bird's prime, but I have a problem comparing stats from the '80s to the '00s. Wouldn't that be like comparing pitching stats from the '60s and '90s or receiving stats from the '70s and today?

    NBA games in the '80s had many more shots and possessions than games today, leading to more points, more rebounds, more steals, etc. It would be a more fair statistical analysis to compare each player's percentage of the team's totals in those categories. I'm not sure, but I would think Dirk measures much more favorably statistically than Junior gives him credit for if you grade both players on era-adjusted curves.

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  13. Very valid point, Brent. I am all for slight stat adjustments when comparing 80's numbers to 00's numbers. In the end, I don't think it changes the argument. It's much more about DNA and intangibles than about numbers. But valid in that maybe Dirk would have had a couple of seasons slightly over 10 rebounds per game, and maybe an extra point or two added to the scoring average. I don't think it would change the other stats significantly.

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  14. I'm sure one of the Sturminator minions could perform the conversion. It would be interesting.

    I've voted for Musers in the Morning for 15 years, but this blog adds a whole new dimension as a hard-hitting sports nerd. Keep up the bloggy goodness.

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  15. The Pace factor, which is # of possessions per 48 suggests that Dirk in his prime vs Larry is his Prime shows a team with a pace factor under 90 vs a team with a pace factor over 100. Your looking at about a 12% difference. Add 12% to Dirks numbers and compare them to Birds. He would have been over 28 5 times to Birds 3.

    You not Dirk has only gotten to 26.5 once in the regular season, though he has surpasses that FIVE times in the playoffs. Larry legend, only twice. In fact Dirk averages a full 2 PPG more than Bird in the playoffs. You also note Dirk scores 3 more ppg on average in the playoffs over his career average, while Bird scores a point less. You should also check his shooting percentage, Bird shot 2.5% lower overall and 5% lower from 3. Dirks FG % drops 1.5% while his 3PT% actually improved.

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