Analytics Across Ages Pt. 1: Bird vs. ‘Bron

“Once you are labeled ‘the best’ you want to stay up there, and you can’t do it by loafing around. If I don’t keep changing. I’m history.”

– Larry Bird

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In the 80s, it was Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson. In the 90s, it was Michael Jordan vs. Hakeem Olajuwon, then Karl Malone, and then Charles Barkley.  This past decade, it was Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James – and that argument is still relevant and brought up to this day.

It’s difficult to compare players from the same era, as there are not as many star talents which compare statistically and in terms of playing style.  Instead, many basketball aficionados attempt to compare players across different eras – whether by 10 years or 25 years – to develop an idea of how great one player is, all time.

Unfortunately, advanced basketball stats are a fairly new idea – only within the past 15 years, have stats like offensive and defensive Box Plus/Minus, Win Shares, True Shooting Percentage, and Value Over Replacement developed in an attempt to provide context to any given player’s performance.

Some of the most surprisingly comparable stars of NBA history have common characteristics beyond counting stats like points per game, assists, steals, blocks, and field goal percentage.  Getting too wrapped up in the raw, uncontextualized data ignores the pace of a team, or the effect of players on their teammate’s stats.

A new age of basketball philosophy has emerged – the new age of APBRmetrics – and it is leading many analysts to judge a player’s “base stats” and especially advanced metrics per 100 possessions.

Consider the challenge in evaluating Steph Curry’s impact vs. Kyrie’s impact on an average NBA game:

 A.) Stephen Curry plays 34.2 minutes a game, and Kyrie Irving plays only 31.5 minutes a game (2015-16 season); to judge the player’s stats on a “per game” basis is inaccurate because that doesn’t factor the actual amount of time each player had to play in a game.

B.) Now let’s say, one were to look at “per 36” minutes or per “48” minutes to decide who really had better mean stats.  Another glaring hole appears: not all teams play at the same speed or pace!  On average, the Golden State Warriors had a league leading 101.6 possessions every game, whereas the Cleveland Cavaliers averaged 95.5 possessions a game. This creates a situation where Stephen Curry not only had more time, but also had more chances, to score and collect box score stats.

Comparing one player to another is a tricky business, but there’s a consistent factor at play – the effect the team around has on the individual player. The last time I saw an effective comparison was in the following video. 

Just kidding.

Hopefully.

Many metricians and analysts have turned to using the average of “Per 100 Possessions”: not only is this a way to take away the effect a team’s pace has on a player’s stats, it completely negates the variables of “per game” or “per 48 minutes” and their biases in regards team play.

Below, are 3 player comparisons from different generations: by using Per 100 Possessions along with advance metrics, a whole new light is shed on these player’s overall game and ability.

Larry Bird to LeBron James:

Career Averages Per 100 Possessions in the Regular Season

Points Ass. RB Steals TO TS% PER WS VORP BPM
LJ 36.9 9.4 9.7 2.3 4.6 .581 27.7 14.8 8.35 9.2
LB 30.3 7.9 12.5 2.2 3.9 .564 23.5 11.2 6.13 7.2

Career Averages Per 100 Possessions in the Postseason

Points Ass RB Steals TO TS% PER WS VORP BPM
LJ 36.4 8.8 11.5 2.3 4.6 .567 27.7 N/A N/A 10.7
LB 28.0 7.6 12.1 2.1 3.6 .551 21.4 N/A N/A 6.9

Larry Bird wasn’t nearly the player LeBron James is.  Just on base stats alone, James is a better scorer and a better playmaker, although those who watched Bird beg to differ.  In the playoffs, he’s nearly the rebounder Bird was as well.

Nevertheless, older NBA fans, like Coach Nick from BBall Breakdown, think Bird was way more ‘mentally tough’ than LeBron.

This tweet still boggles my mind…. Moving on.

In Bird’s defense, in his last 5 or so years, his play on the court was subpar to his standards, dragging down his career averages compared to the averages he posted during his prime – this is as opposed to LeBron, who has yet to enter his twilight years. 

In terms of True Shooting percentage, which takes Field Goal, 3 Point, and Free Throw percentage into account for what actual point values they provide, Bird was only .015% away from LeBron in true shooting in the playoffs, which shows that Bird was as efficient of a scorer as LeBron is, though he wasn’t quite as proficient: LeBron is averaging around 6.5 more points per 100 than Bird did.

Bird allowed a combined 1.7 turnovers less on average during the playoffs and regular season, as he didn’t put the ball on the floor or force tight passes in the same way that LeBron often does.

Bird’s average Box Plus/Minus in the Playoffs are substantially lower than LeBron’s: only twice – in the ’84 playoffs and then again in the ’86 playoffs (both years in which the Boston Celtics won the NBA Finals both years) – Larry Bird averaged a BPM above 10.

LeBron James, however, has averaged over 10 BPM in the playoffs for the past 9 years, excluding only 2010-11. His two highest averages, both in Cleveland, were in 2008-09 with an 18.2 BPM, and this past year’s 13.1.

To put this into perspective, Michael Jordan had 8 straight Playoffs (not including 1991-92), in which he had a 10+ BPM, his highest being 14.3 in the 1990 playoffs and 13.8 in the 1991 playoffs.

Advanced statistics indicate that LeBron James is clearly a better overall player than Larry Bird; however, both played similar playing styles, and excluding the rate of points Per 100 and BPM, both are fairly comparable.

By Austin Hutchinson