Larry Bird vs. LeBron James At Age 30: Who Was Really Better?

This graphic has been making the rounds on Facebook. It’s a collection of cherry-picked counting stats without context about Larry Bird and LeBron James.

In case that’s not showing up in detail on your mobile device:
Bird: 28.1 pts/9.2 reb/7.6 ast/52.2 FG%/26.4 PER.
LeBron: 25.3 pts/6.0 reb/7.4 ast/48.8 FG%/25.8 PER.

The moral of the story, such as it seems to be, is that Bird soundly beats LeBron, and if you go by counting stats, at age 30 that’s absolutely the case.

Things fall apart in a hurry when you start into Advanced Stats 101. We begin by breaking down those stats per 36 minutes.

Bird: 24.9 pts/8.2 reb/6.8 ast/9.4-17.9 FGM-FGA
LeBron: 25.2 pts/6.0 reb/7.4 ast/9.0-18.5 FGM-FGA

You’ll notice this was a big dropoff for Bird and hardly a move at all for LeBron; that’s due to Bird playing 40.1 minutes per game in ’87 while Bron played 36.1 in ’15.

And, as if that weren’t enough, the 1986-87 season was one of the highest-flying, fastest-paced seasons the league’s ever seen. 2014-15, while not played at the grinding snail’s pace of the late 1990s and early 2000s, was still massively slower than the Johnson/Bird/Young Jordan days.

So let’s shoot over to per 100 possessions and really put the nail in the coffin of this meme:

Bird: 33.6 pts/11.0 reb/9.2 ast/12.7-24.2 FGM-FGA
LeBron: 36.3 pts/8.7 reb/10.7 ast/13.0-26.7 FGM-FGA

You’ll notice that LeBron’s output goes way up; this is due to relative usage rate. Bird used 27.5 percent of the Celtics’ possessions; LeBron used 32.5 percent of Cleveland’s possessions.

So we’ve taught the troglodytes one important lesson. Don’t just spew counting stats out if you want to make a credible argument. People who actually know basketball will take you apart.

Just for fun, there’s something else to consider: 1986-87 was Larry Bird’s eighth season in the league. 2014-15 was LeBron’s twelfth. Bird had played 24,406 regular-season and 5,413 playoff minutes and was in his last season before he started to slow down as his odometer passed 30,000 minutes.

LeBron? By the time he had his age-30 season, he’d played in three Olympics, logged 35,769 minutes in the regular season, 7,561 in the playoffs, and had gone to five consecutive NBA Finals plus an Olympic appearance in 2012 that ensured that he would effectively have no offseason between his ninth and tenth seasons in the league; seasons in which his Miami Heat teams won titles. That is nearly two years of constant basketball

Larry Bird, in his age 30 season, nearly averaged a triple double per 100 possessions. LeBron James, in his age 30 season, nearly averaged one as well. The original Facebook post used the numbers to support the narrative that Bird was somehow vastly superior to LeBron. The stats for smart fans say it’s pretty much a toss-up, and you’re left asking yourself if Bird’s 3-2 Finals record at that point in his career beats LeBron’s 2-4 record at that point in his.

Because this is ultimately about which of those two guys starts if you’ve got “Space Jam With A Time Machine” and need a small forward. Bird only played 12 full seasons, 897 NBA games, and won three rings. LeBron has played 13 full seasons (and is in his 14th), 1012 NBA games…and he’s still managing to average 27.1 points per game for his career, having scored a good 6,000 more than the Hick from French Lick.

So thank you, random Facebook NBA ignoramus, for making exactly the opposite of your case; if you start with the assumption that Larry Bird was the greatest NBA player of all time at the small forward position (and it’s him or Scottie Pippen in the clubhouse, and we’ll get to Scottie later), then you have to yield that crown to King James.

Friends don’t let friends use counting stats to finish arguments. Only to start them.

This piece originally appeared on December 23, 2016.