Dirk Nowitzki nudged aside Larry Bird last night as the best playoff free throw shooter ever, giving sports columnists everywhere the idea to compare these seemingly dissimilar players for the first time. They’re saying–get this–that Bird and Nowitzki have a few qualities in common on the basketball court. Why haven’t we heard this discussion before, is what I want to know!
Yes, the Dirk vs. Larry narrative is almost as old as it is dumb at this point. It’s entirely constructed around the fact that both players have terrible hair (also they are both white). Every single article making the comparison acknowledges that their whiteness motivates the discussion, and yet every article goes boldy forth in making the comparison anyway. “It’s inevitable,” a lot of them say.
It’s pretty dang evitable, actually. There’s the fact that, you know, their games are not at all similar. Bird was an all-around basketball genius. He played every position on the court at the same time. He’s the all-time greatest creator of offense at his position, until we have to start admitting that LeBron is. Dirk is a perfectly decent passer, but he’s not in same building as Bird in this department.
Bird was also a better rebounder than Dirk at three inches shorter and a substantially better defender. Even if you allow that Dirk is a better scorer than Bird was (which he probably is, sorry) the fact remains that Bird was a better and much more impactful player.
There’s another major point in Bird’s favor that I have yet to see enter the discussion. Yes, Bird and Dirk have both played 13 years in the NBA, but Bird entered the league at 23, which would make him the oldest player drafted today by like eight years. That’s Wes Johnson old.
Dirk, meanwhile, was 20 when he played his first NBA game. So Dirk’s measured period is from 20 to 32, while Bird’s is from 23 to 35. That gives Dirk A) three years of learning the league while Bird would still have been in college and B) the last three years of his prime stacked up against Bird’s twilight. Evidence not admissible in court. Case dismissed.
I see it. I absolutely get the comparison. Multiple times throughout this series and these playoffs, I’ve looked at Dirk and seen Larry.
In the end, the connection between these players comes down to the specific quality by which each is most strongly identified: there is not a shot on the court they can’t make. Range for days, weeks even. Defense not a factor. Shots that would come out of any other set of hands as a gamble are, for them, absolute fact.
Dirk and Bird share a supernatural understanding of their relationship to the net, and exactly what to do with their hands to get the ball in there from anywhere on the court. They also make shots in crunch time, sure, but it’s a little misleading to argue that they “elevate their game” in “big moments”: better to say that the moment doesn’t affect them at all. They are, in all moments, the greatest shooter on the floor.
It’s tempting to compare their clutchness to Kobe’s, but it’s not quite the same. Kobe will take any shot given to him by the defense, under the (not totally mistaken) impression that he can hit anything. Bird and Dirk both put in work to maximize their advantage before they shoot: Dirk shuffling his feet and bobbing his torso around, Bird on the move, either with or without the ball.
Again, it’s about the images we have of them. The hundreds of off-balance fadeaways Dirk has flushed with an inch-fraction of clearance over outstretched fingers. The threes Bird occasionally threw up with his legs splayed out behind him and his arms shoving the ball toward the rim, made all the more incredible when you remembered that his shooting form was perfect when he wanted it to be. They invented ways to put the ball with each game.
All this is basically the reason Bird said he was “honored” to be compared to Dirk. He sees himself. Are you going to tell him he’s wrong?