It might be a little unfair to Julius Erving, but when most people talk about the best small forwards of all time they usually bring up two names – Larry Bird and LeBron James.
Yes, Dr. J had an enormous impact on the game, so he deserves all the recognition in the world for that. Nevertheless, the “Greatest Small Forward Of All Time” title has come down to two names.
So we’ll start this series off with the most obvious difference between LeBron and Bird. No, not skin color – defense.
First, a review of their career defensive honors.
Larry Bird (13 seasons):
1981-82 NBA All-Defensive (2nd team)
1982-83 NBA All-Defensive (2nd team)
1983-84 NBA All-Defensive (2nd team)
LeBron James (11 seasons):
2008-09 NBA All-Defensive (1st team) – 2nd in DPOY
2009-10 NBA All-Defensive (1st team) – 4th in DPOY
2010-11 NBA All-Defensive (1st team) – 9th in DPOY
2011-12 NBA All-Defensive (1st team) – 4th in DPOY
2012-13 NBA All-Defensive (1st team) – 2nd in DPOY
2013-14 NBA All-Defensive (2nd team) – 6th in DPOY
I could stop here if I wanted to. That’s fairly convincing. James has been considered one of the very best defenders in the league for years now. He was a legitimate candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in 3 or 4 seasons, and he finished in the top 10 in DPOY voting in each of the last six seasons. Bird, on the other hand, has never even been considered the best defender at his own position, and he hasn’t been anywhere near the Defensive Player of the Year award in terms of votes.
Now, of course, Bird was considered a good enough defensive player to earn the title of history’s greatest all-around player in about 1986. He was said to have covered every facet of the game better than anyone else – even Oscar Robertson. What that seems to mean, though, is that Bird took his defense up to a level that hadn’t been reached by any other offensively gifted all around player before him i.e. to the All-Defensive 2nd Team. Later all-around players like Michael Jordan and LeBron James would take their defense to an even higher level.
But there are always people who will argue that Bird is an underrated defender. His supporters may cite him leading the league in Defensive Win Share (something Josh Smith recently did) or they may talk about Bird’s Defensive Rating (FYI: Defensive Win Share is based on Defensive Rating). That’s expected. But I will say again: Defensive Rating/Defensive Win Share is only for general reference and has never been considered an accurate gauge of a player’s individual defensive ability – it is too reliant on Team Defensive Efficiency, on teammate estimates, on blocks and steals, on games played, and on, frankly, rebounding.
For example, Kevin Love is known as a poor defender, but because of his defensive rebounding and the amount of games he played, he led the Timberwolves in Defensive Win Share. Kevin Love is not anywhere close to being the best defender on Minnesota.
Another interesting quirk of this stat – if a perimeter player is playing in front of a very good defensive front court, they can garner good defensive ratings without having to be a good defender. Ray Allen – certainly not known for his defense – set his career highs in Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Share while playing in front of Kevin Garnett. If you go by Defensive Win Share then 35 year old Ray Allen (4.2) was a better defender than 29 year old LeBron James (3.7). Yeah… so, no.
Bird played in front of Kevin McHale, who was an all-time great All-Defensive 1st Team caliber defender.
So is Bird an underrated defender? I don’t think so. I think he gets the respect that he deserves and he’s properly rated at about a tier or two below LeBron James defensively.
In other words, there wasn’t a year in Bird’s career where anyone was arguing that he was the best defender in the league. Obviously that is not the case with James.
Quotes On Bird’s Defensive Prowess
As long as Bird is around I will only be the second-worst defensive player in basketball.
Quotes On LeBron’s Defensive Prowess
Jeff Van Gundy:
James is one of the top 10 perimeter defenders of all time.
Berry Tramel, The Oklahoman:
LeBron is a better defender than Michael Jordan.
He’s the only player in the history of this game that can play all 5 positions offensively and defensively and play them well.
Everybody knows LeBron’s the best player in the league… he’s the best defensive player in the league as well.
LeBron was once a bad defender but is now the league’s best wing defender.
The versatility of LeBron defensively is just incredible; I don’t think we’ve ever seen someone with that defensive range. Scottie Pippen probably comes closest, but LeBron is stronger than Scottie when guarding post up players like Al Jefferson.
I don’t think we’ve quite seen anybody play his position who can do what LeBron can do. We’ve seen scorers, we’ve seen rebounders, we’ve seen defenders, but to have the total package… he’s just spectacular.
As a final note, it’s telling that in 1986 when Sports Illustrated decided to publish an article on Larry Bird titled “As Nearly Perfect As You Can Get”, declaring that he “may be the NBA’s best player of all time” while lauding his complete game, they listed his strengths as such:
- PUMP FAKES AND STEP-BACKS
- PERFORMING IN THE CLUTCH
- PLAYING HARD
- THE MENTAL GAME
Hmmm. Something seems to be missing.
Being that LeBron is such a celebrated & utterly complete offensive force, we probably could end the SF argument here just based on how far ahead James is as a defender. But I know that won’t suffice for the average reader. We will dive deeper into into this matchup in further installments, but this serves well as an opening salvo.