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Bird vs. Dirk: The Annoying Truth

 

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.

Larry Bird has never made this face.

BUT

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?

  • jpbl1976

    The real comparison should be Bird v. Lebron as the greatest SF ever — and until Lebron wins 3 titles as the best player on his team (in the Finals thus far, it's been Wade), Bird is is undoubtedly the better player.

    • http://www.twitter.com/jdotd @JdotD

      I'd argue LeBron has been by far the most important player. Wade has done the same thing he's always done, score in droves, but much of it is just volume scoring and on another fuller team that would be filled by other players. It's the few key plays + baskets from LeBron, who is playing at an entirely higher level than he ever has before, that is winning games for the Heat.

      • Batman

        Wade also has an easier matchup. Kidd is a good defender but is too slow to stop wade from driving into the paint.

        • Batman

          meanwhile lebron has marion on him

    • czdp

      You don't know basketball, son.

      • Batman

        you talking to me? please tell me how I don't know basketball
        because i defend lebron? ok

  • skeeds

    Well spotted, the only thing connecting those two is their "f^&*ck the defence" attitude when they want to score the ball. They simply make the shot. For different reasons though. Dirk has a very wide arsenal of moves, back to the basket, spin, pump fake, the things he does in the last 1 second before he shoots are enough to fill a 1 hour instructional video. He is a nightmare to cover, especially against players his height.

    Bird, was more straightforward, I'm coming, I'm goona shoot, it's gonna go in. come at me.

    • yuckabuck

      Actually, Bird had "a very wide arsenal of moves, back to the basket, spin, pump fake, the things he does in the last 1 second before he shoots are enough to fill a 1 hour instructional video." I have yet to see Dirk hit a shot that I hadn't already seen Bird hit. That's one of the reasons the comparisons come out: Dirk's use of fakes and spins along with his use of the set shot over the more traditional jump shot (like say, Ray Allen) are very reminiscent of Bird. I have yet to see Dirk hit anything with his left hand outside of lay-ups. Bird hit left handed jump hooks in play-off games (87 ECF, game 7 against Detroit). I'm not trying to take away from Dirk here, but this is simply not true about Larry Bird. Trust me, I have the DVDs and VHS cassettes to prove it.

      • skeeds

        you misunderstood me dude. Offcourse Bird had the moves, he probably invented some too. He had a knack for making the game look simple though. Even the worst looking shot he just made it.

        Dirk plays differently. He's a PF. Tries to establish room close to the paint, against a constant double team, so he posts up a lot, and close to the paint. His vocabulary has as many similarities to Bird, as it has to Hakeem.

  • kricky

    Let's just hope that Dirk can channel his inner Larry and pull out a few wins to deny Lebron and co. the title.

    I shudder to think how obnoxious a Heat victory celebration would be.

  • janos

    Hi Haynes, is Janos.
    Very nice photoshopping on picture, Larry body but other guy face! Awesome one!

    Can be hard to judge player across timetable, even as short as 20 years difference. For player today, nutrition and train knowing, is very high. If we have oldentime player with good work ethic, no telling how good they could be in today now. Maybe more better? Is most fun of sport to make a compare, but is never argument settle. I tell my son that if I have his easy way of life then I make a more success than he do. Lazy son. But lazy dirk, not so much. Still Larry is legend, is best, both NBA player and NBA whiteman. Go Celtic!

  • Bill Cross

    Anybody remember Bird shooting a reverse layup without looking at the basket–he had moves, and made the most of them. The only defender to ever bother him was Michael Cooper, and somehow the Celtics won one of Bird's three championships over Cooper's LA team.

  • Balla

    The annoying Truth is that Bird was a winner and while I think Dirk is probably a better player than him, when you do it on a big stage that's when it counts to most critics…so I guess that would mean Robert Horry is better than Lebron.

    • duggyfresh88

      If you think Dirk is a better player than you really don't know much. Not even going to bother elaborating, not worth it.

    • skeeds

      I don't think Dirk is better, but then again I have a rule about comparing players from different eras. It makes no sence. Dirk's last couple of performances on "big stages" smell a lot like Lary Legend though… Especially those last 6-7 possesions against the Heat in game 2…

  • dig

    dirk's not on the same planet as Bird, that doesn't mean he isn't a great player because when you're a decent rebounder, decent passer, decent defender and a great shooter, you have the whole package. Take that and a 7' frame and you're out of reach of most defenders, but in every way shape and form, Bird is better than Dirk (including scoring< I don't know where the author got his info on this one). Bird avg-24.3 ppg career, Dirk avg less (maybe due to less possessions and minutes). Either way-Bird won 3 LMVP's, 3 NBA titles and a ROY plus 3 D-teams in his first 7 years and Dirk? 1 LMVP, and 2 finals appearances (it'd be great if he won it this year, but that's a long shot) in 13 seasons (that's Bird's entire career, half of which he spent writhing in back pain), nuff said.

  • Renato Afonso

    Similarities: they're white, they have bad hair and they shoot extremely well, period. One can argue that Dirk might be a better shooter, but Bird all-around game is from another level and against other type of defense (way more rough). I do not believe that finals MVP, league MVP or number of titles should be a comparison. The teams around each player are not the same, the pace is not the same and the voters are borderline stupid sometimes (Kobe getting Finals MVP last year, Nash winning two years in a row while Kobe got robbed in the 81point season, and we could go on and on).

    Trust the individual numbers to some extent but also trust what you saw with your own eyes. Bird is better than Dirk due to is other qualities: court vision, grit, leadership, etc. Argue that Dirk might be the best shooting big man ever (even that Bird), but don't compare them, ever. No knock on Dirk, who's an excellent basketball player with a game that everyone should watch because probably there won't be another like him, but don't fall for the media hype…

  • Paul

    Dirk looks and plays a lot like Bird, especially when he does his iso/fadeaway. Also when he draws the foul on the three. It's just obvious. The difference is that Bird did a lot more.

  • Sirikaaafai

    HEY! I kinda Like Dirk's hair……..

  • ElRoz

    As I wrote about 1 or 2 months ago: Bird was a much better rebounder – while being shorter – and a much better passer-playmaker. Nice to see the Hub follow me on this.

    As for Dirk being a better scorer: what? Please, please see their career stats as of now and you will see that Bird, even with his last three years when he was below his usual self, stil. – and has averaged more points and at higher shooting percentage than Dirk – and had MORE ASSISTS PER GAME at the same time. That seems like a clearly better offensive player.
    Their field goal, free throw, and 3-point shooting percentages are pretty even – some higher, some lower. With all respect to Dirk, Bird had also a lot of game winners or game tying shots.
    Nowhere are there numbers hsowing that Dirk will be a better scorer when his career is over. If people want to just compare Dirk's best 2-3 years, well, compare them to Bird's 1984-85, 1986-87, and 1987-88

  • Isnuks

    "It’s tempting to compare their clutchness to Kobe’s"

    …excuse me, you're tempted to compare Bird to Kobe's clutchness? I know this is about Bird & Dirk but this line is kind of misleading. If you've written MJ instead of Kobe, I can live with that.

  • Morpheus

    Dirk and Paul drafted in 98, 9th and 10th respectively. Milwaukee made the biggest boo boo, possibly in the entire draft history by trading Dirk for Tractor Traylor.

    Both players are now captains on contenders. Only 2 players in that draft who have both, contenders and captains. Just a little OT trivia for thee day.

  • Hoops

    Bird is one of the best passers of all time, which obviously gives him the edge over Dirk, who is his equal as a shooter and nearly as good a rebounder. The fact the Bird's career stats started at a later age actually helps him in the comparison — Dirk's first two seasons weren't very good, since he was still learning the game.

    Compare their career playoff stats, and except for assists, they are eerily similar. I would argue that playoff stats are the better comparison anyway –they were against tougher competition, and the Mavs didn't make the playoffs until Dirk was an All-Star type player.

  • Lashandra Vonruden

    There seems to be a gazebo for virtually every application!ChristianLeadership is a Choice

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