Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dirk vs Bird Part 2

Since there was a lot of good feedback on the first Dirk-Bird blog, and since I have even more thoughts about this topic, I thought I would present the sequel and explore some of what has come up since the blockbuster original posting.


I think some players have it in their DNA to be great, to be leaders, to be killers, to be champions. Bird had it. Dirk? Not so sure. Duncan has it. Robinson? Don't think so. Magic had it. Gervin? No. This is the backbone of my argument.

The Sturminator thinks that if Dirk had played on the '86 Celtics in place of Bird that they would have won the title. Well, on paper that looks great. You replace one HOF'er with another. You replace one great forward with another. One great shooter with another. Why wouldn't it work? Because of the DNA factor.

On the '86 Celtics, Bird led the team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, 3 pt shooting, Basketball IQ, leadership, drive, kicking ass, and everything else. Dirk would have led the team in scoring and 3 pt shooting, but what else? It was in Bird's DNA to drive a team, to get after teammates, to make those around him better. Would Dirk have been the straw that stirred that drink? I don't think so. Would Dirk have led that team in assists or steals? No way. Take the greatest passing forward ever off of that team and they are still champs? I don't see that.

I see Dirk and David Robinson as comparable in many ways. Both HOF'ers. Both were unguardable in their primes (Robinson won a scoring title and scored 71 points in a game). Both physical freaks--Robinson the best running 7 footer ever, Dirk the best shooting 7 footer ever). But I don't think that if you replaced Bird with Robinson that Boston wins the '86 title. They would have a better chance, maybe, because Robinson was such a great defender, but it wasn't in Robinson's DNA to be the difference maker. Duncan filled that roll for Robinson.

Bird = Duncan. Dirk = Robinson. It's about having it in your DNA to make others around you better. Bird took Indiana State (who??) to the NCAA title game. Bird, in his rookie year in Boston, without McHale or Parrish or Johnson or Ainge, made a 29 win Boston team a 61 win Boston team and took them to the Conference Finals. That's special. That's something you have in your DNA. Duncan has it. Magic had it. Players like Gervin or Robinson or Dirk don't have that. It's the difference between being a top 15 player and a top 50 player.


In the last 50 NBA seasons, 41 championship teams had one at least one of the top 15 all-time players on the roster. Basically, you have to have one of those once-or-twice-a-generation-players on your team to win the title. There are exceptions, or course, but it's easier to win it all with one of the true greats as opposed to having your best player being one who ranks 16th - 50th.

The consensus top 15 players in history would be (in no particular order)
Havlicek (I would also be OK with either Elgin Baylor or Dr. J at number 15--doesn't really alter the numbers or theory, so it doesn't really matter. I guess it's the top 14 that really matter, but since that's not a nice, round number, let's just roll with Hondo)

At least one of these guys were members of 41 of the last 50 champions. Recently, at least one of these names appeared on 17 of the last 19 title team rosters. In other words: you better have a transcendent player on your team or your title odds get a lot longer.

Bird, without question, is a top 15 guy. Dirk is a top 50 guy, but not a top 15 guy. Put Dirk alongside a top 15 guy, and he would be golden. Like putting Robinson (top 50) alongside Duncan (top 15) made him golden.

The theory is that you just can't take someone from outside the top 15, swap them with someone inside the top 15, and get the same result. Swap Dirk for Bird, and suddenly the '86 Celtics don't have a top 15 guy on their team, making their championship odds much longer. But, swap Bird for Dirk on the '06 Mavs, and suddenly they have a much greater chance of winning it all.

Top 15 guys are almost always glue guys. Guys who have winning and leading and delivering in their DNA. Wilt may be the one exception, but he was so supremely talented and physically dominant that by osmosis he got a couple of titles along the way.

In the end you can play all of the "what if" games you want, but that doesn't obscure that the greatest of the great in NBA history were blessed with "it"--that elusive quality that is sometimes hard to understand or quantify. And if your favorite player wasn't born with "it", that's OK, and that's the point of the Dirk vs Bird blog post. My favorite player was Gervin, but he didn't have "it". He was a guard, like Magic. He was tall, like Magic. He was black, like Magic. But I don't pretend that you could swap Gervin for Magic and still win 5 titles--or even one title--with those 80's Lakers. Gervin and Magic were both HOF'ers, but their games were different--their hoops DNA was different. Bird and Dirk are both HOF'ers, but their games are different--their hoops DNA is different. It just doesn't make sense to think you could swap those players and get the same results.


Since Bird, we have had to endure hearing about "the next Bird" every few years. Tom Gugliotta, Keith Van Horn, Adam Morrison, Danny Ferry, Detlef Schrempf--and Dirk. In fairness, Dirk is WAY better than all of those guys put together. But he's not Bird. Dirk's game and Bird's game don't even resemble each other, so why the comparisons? As P1 Tom put it: "If there were a black guy with Dirk's game, would they compare that black guy to Bird?" The answer, of course, is no. But since Bird, everyone has been falling all over themselves to find the next Bird. And the two prerequisites seem to be that the player must be white, and must be a shooter. No need to look beyond that!


So Bird had a great supporting cast in Boston and Dirk had nothing to work with in Dallas? How do we know? It's my theory that supporting casts, in many cases, are only as good as the star player makes them.

For example: How was Bird's supporting cast his rookie season? It was the same roster that went 29-53 the year before. Bird won 61 with them--as a rookie! How was Bird's supporting cast at Indiana State? It's pretty clear that Bird had that rare ability to make something out of nothing.

Robert Parrish was good at Golden State. Then he started playing with Bird, and became an HOF'er. Kevin McHale probably would have been great anywhere, but he was drafted by Boston and had his game lifted by Bird from the start. Would he have been an HOF'er if he had been drafted by Cleveland? Don't know. But if you flip it, you can certainly see that if Bird had been drafted by Cleveland, somehow he would have won titles there because he would have lifted them like he did Indiana State and the '80 Celtics. Or put Bird on the '06 Mavs--does he make Harris and Howard and Stack and Terry and Damp better? I would say yes, because that's what Bird was all about. I can't see Bird letting Howard get away with his crap, especially in '08. Can you imagine Bird's reaction if Howard had handed him an invitation to his birthday party during the New Orleans series?

Dirk makes those around him better, for sure. But he doesn't raise his teammates level the way a Bird or Magic did. That's just not his game. His game is: Being an unstoppable offensive force, a nightmare offensive matchup for other teams, a 7 footer that does things we've never seen 7 footers do, a good rebounder, and an overcusser (especially early when he learned English cuss words). It took me a while, but I've finally come to terms with who he is, and that's more than enough for me. I don't need to try to make him Larry Bird, and neither should you.

And yes, Bob, I would be happy to discuss this on your show one day. However, since we were both born with Got-To-Be-Rightus in our DNA, I'm pretty sure we will either end in a stalemate or come to blows. Or both.


  1. As a Spurs fan that's been in Dallas for 10 years this has been a great back and forth between you and Mr. Sturm.

    And I really did feel for the Mavs fans when they lost that finals against the Heat. But, Junior is right, Bird doesn't let that happen. Of course I didn't think that Avery would let that happen either.

    One thing about your top 15 list though Junior. LeBron, I would argue, can't be on that list until he wins. And I mean it all. Losing one lopsided finals doesn't help him much. LeBron may or may not win a championship. Most people think he will. But, until he does he's on the same level as Dirk and a pre-Duncan Robinson. In fact, right now at this point in his champioship-less career LeBron = Charles Barkley or Pistol Pete Maravich.

  2. I guess I put LeBron in the top 15 based on his ridiculous ability (Magic, Bird and Jordan rolled into one) and his early assult on the record books. The last two spots are very fluid--you could put Dr J and Elgin in place of Havlicek and LeBron and I don't have a problem with that at all, and it won't upset the theory.

  3. Junior, one other thought, what about applying your theory to the NFL. Can you? Especially given that there are so many more players that impact a game in the NFL versus the NBA. If your theory can be and is applied to the NFL, who is better, Aikman or Marino? Aikman or Young?

    You see where I'm going with this. As a Cowboys fan I get tired of hearing how Aikman benifited from his surrounding cast and the system like he's closer to a Trent Dilfer than a Joe Montana.

    If you theory applies to the NFL what does it say about NFL QB's, for example?

  4. JG--Great question, and one that I've been thinking about since Bob's post on my last blog (about Marino/Aikman). With 21 other guys on the team, plus kickers, helping shape the outcome, I'm not sure the same theories apply. If they do, it would be at QB. But I think one great player can influence a basketball team way more than one great player can influence a football team--just simple math. Maybe a future blog topic...

  5. Perhaps you can comment on the Tonto theory?

    Jordan didn't win until Pippen came along.
    Robinson needed Duncan
    Shaq needed Kobe
    Wade needed Shaq
    Kobe needed Gasol
    Garnett needed Allen needed Pierce

    All of these are examples of SuperStars who
    toiled in mediocrity until their Tonto, or
    Robin, arrived.

    The Lakers were a .500 team when Gasol arrived.
    One player can make that big of an impact.

    I do believe that Dirk can win a championship
    by adding Chris Bosh to the Mavs.

  6. What if LeBron has a career ending injury tomorrow. Is he still top 15? 20 years from now where do you think he'd rank?