NBA Time Machine: Magic and Bird

by June 10, 2014

by Steven Davis

Face it. At some point in your basketball-playing life you have said to yourself, “I wish I grew up in the 50s, I could have totally played in the NBA.” It is how we all think. We watch the grainy black and white videos of the NBA of old and just assume that because no one could go left, we were good enough to play. It’s an age-old discussion that we have with ourselves and our friends all the time. Even more, we love to talk about old guys playing now and visa versa. “What if LeBron played in the 60s or Kareem played now? How would they do?” Well, we have no idea…. until now.

I have created an NBA time machine in hopes of accomplishing two things: Bringing back star players to see how they stack up against the current NBA, and taking today’s stars back to the NBA of old to see if they would be as dominant as we all think they would be.

First up into the “NBA Time Machine,” well, is me. I am going back to October 31, 1946. The day before the first official NBA game. Be right back.

(Insert magical noises and imagery into your mind for full effect)

OK, I’m back. And let me tell you, they really couldn’t go left. The day before the game I convinced the coach of the New York Knickerbockers to let me play, and it somehow worked. I think I convinced him when I dribbled between my legs. I got into the game and actually held my own for a bit. Coach was yelling at me for shooting from so far. Kept telling me, “It’s two points even from out there!” I couldn’t help it. The game ended and we had won 68-66. After the game I spoke to the guys and let them know who I was and what I was doing and they asked me if they could come back to the future. I told them that I already had set my mind on two NBA legends to bring into the machine for its first “real use.” I told them I was going to get Magic and Bird. They responded, “There is a guy named is Magic?” I laughed, and jumped back into the machine and set the date for March 26, 1979. The destination? Salt Lake City, the site of the 1979 NCAA Men’s National Championship Game, of course. Magic’s Michigan State Spartans had just beaten Larry Bird’s Indiana State team to claim the National Championship.

After the game ended, I managed to get a hold of Magic and Larry to discuss what my mission was, and believe it or not, they both obliged. I told them people in 2014 didn’t think they would be as good in the future. They both laughed and jumped in the machine. I did have to make one promise to them; to make sure they played on opposing teams that hated each other.

With that, we jumped back into the time machine. We are going to June 26, 2014.

Commissioner Silver: “With the sixth pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics select… Larry Bird, out of Indiana State University.” (CROWD GOES WILD!!!)

Jay Bilas: “It’s about time! This is a great pick. This kid can do it all. LOVE THIS PICK! The Celtics are moving in the right direction, everybody. It’s not often you get a chance to draft an impact player like this. This kid breathes basketball. Lights out shooter, the heart of a lion and quite honestly, I’m not sure there is anyone who understands the game the way he does. I expect great things out of him. He will bring Boston back to the top.”

Jeff Van Gundy: “Jay, I agree with almost everything you said, but have you seen this guy run or jump? He isn’t the most athletic guy out there, and our league is all about athleticism. That being said, he does have the knack to be in the right place at the right time and I can’t deny that. I want to compare him to someone in the league but I can’t figure it out. This guy will write his own legacy.”

Jay: “Jeff, you may be right, but if I’m the Celtics the only thing I’m focused on is winning and Larry has been a winner his whole life. I don’t care that everybody thinks he isn’t athletic. This guy is much, much, more.”

Jeff: “Next pick coming up.”

Commissioner Silver: “With the seventh pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Lakers select (pause) Earvin Johnson out of Michigan State University.” (CROWD GOES WILD!!!)

Jeff: “Finally! I mean, I can’t tell you how confused I am by how long this guy sat. Are you people crazy? This is the guy. He is a 6-9 point guard! C’mon! I’m speechless how he landed with the Lakers at seven! The Basketball Gods love LA, it is official.”

Jay: “Can’t argue anything here. This is the guy. Imagine this, LeBron James, a little slower, but a better passer; a little less strong but a better decision maker; a little less of an ability to jump out of the gym, but smarter. Overall, imagine if LeBron was less athletic but a better basketball player. Now, no knock on LeBron, he is the best player in the game, bar none. But where as he could use his pure strength and athleticism to win games, Johnson who is athletic as well, can also use his eyes and mind.

Jeff: “How about just saying a 6-9 CP3? Just flat out unstoppable.”


So there it is, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson drafted into today’s NBA.

Now, let us dive a little deeper into what we know about Bird and Magic from their first run in the NBA and really try to understand their games.

Understanding Larry Bird’s Game:

Over his career Larry Bird averaged 24 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists and 1.7 steals. He was a baller.

Bird stood 6-9 and weighed 220 lbs. At the small forward position, that puts him right in the mix in terms of size of current NBA players. The default argument is to say is that the players of today’s game are so much more athletic than those from the 80’s. But that, my friends, is so far from the truth. The NBA in the 80s and early 90s featured players like Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Clyde Drexler, Michael Cooper, Scottie Pippen and James Worthy, all of whom were athletic freaks. Bird faced up against players that could just as easily jump out of the gym or run the length of the court with blinding speed as players today. The 80’s were the start of the athletic NBA revolution and Larry thrived in it.

Bird was a master at putting the ball through the hoop. His offensive game was limitless. Post-ups, off-balance shots, mid-range jumpers, pull-up threes or the occasional dunk. You name it, Bird had it in his arsenal and no one could stop him. Bird was to the NBA what that guy at the Local YMCA is to all of us. You know, the guy who doesn’t miss when he absolutely should. The guy whose pump fakes fool everyone regardless of how good they are on defense. Yes, everybody fell for Bird’s pump fakes. Also, Larry was a mover. If you guarded him, you had to keep your eye on him at all times as he would move without the ball in ways that would make Ray Allen and Rip Hamilton envious.

Larry was not athletically gifted, there is no denying it. Often times, he was somewhat of a liability on defense as one would expect. But his defensive skills and knowledge were often overlooked. What Bird may have lacked in quickness or jumping ability he made up in positioning and by reading plays. The argument that he was a poor defender is shut down by his 1.7 steals per game. Some of Larry’s greatest moments were on the defensive end, namely in the 1987 playoffs.

Understanding Magic Johnson’s Game:

Magic Johnson’s career was nothing short of spectacular; five championships and an unimaginable amount of records broken. Over his career Magic averaged 19.5 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds, and almost 2 steals per game, and that includes 32 games played in the ’95-96 season post-HIV retirement.  Magic Johnson was the prototypical basketball player, before the idea of a prototypical basketball player existed. He was the creator of the Showtime, run and gun, offense and never frowned on the basketball court.

At 6-8 and 215 pounds, Magic was and may forever be known as the biggest true point guard the League has ever seen. Magic was a pass first point guard who was blessed with the ability to see things that no one else could. When was the last time you saw a highlight reel where Magic just made a regular bounce pass? Magic also brought something to the table that is such an important part of understanding just how good he was. He brought excitement and enthusiasm to his teammates. You know when you go play at the park and there is that one guy who always hits you when you cut, or always makes the outlet pass when you sprint down court? Well, that was Magic. He fed his teammates and his teammates worked their tails off to get open because they knew Magic would find them.

He let his teammates could do plenty of the scoring, but don’t think he couldn’t get buckets himself. I direct you to Game 7 of the 1980 NBA finals, where Magic Johnson scored 42 points in a game that was full of future Hall of Fames. Did I mention he was a rookie, and that he started the game at the center position? Magic is second all time in career triple doubles with 138. BALLER!

So how would Magic and Larry do in today’s NBA?

If Magic and Larry played today, their statistics would be just as good and maybe even a little better.

To understand how Larry Bird would thrive in today’s NBA you need to look at four NBA players: Dirk Nowitzki, Ray Allen, Kevin Love and Shane Battier. Then add some sugar on top.

Bird has the shot making ability of Nowitzki, the ability to move without the ball and hit shots off the pass like Ray Allen, the defensive mind and determination of Battier and the rebounding ability of Kevin Love. No, I am not saying he would average 14 rebounds per game, I am saying that he would average more rebounds than the average SF because of his ability to track the ball and box out.

Overall, Bird would have a field day in today’s NBA. His one weakness, a general weakness of most NBA players in today’s league, is that he can’t keep anyone in front of him. Thankfully for him, zone defense may allow for him to have help at the rim. If not, his basketball knowledge would make him an absolute terror in the passing lanes, and the leader is charges drawn every year he played. Yes, he may not have the strength to guard guys like LeBron but he would never admit it. He’d work his butt off drawing fouls on LeBron with an assortment of pump fakes. Bird would be the king of putting people in foul trouble in today’s game.

Oh and if you don’t think he would be able to score because guys are more athletic I remind you that at the end of his career he averaged 25.9 points per game in his fourteen career games against Scottie Pippen. SCOTTIE PIPPEN.

Bird didn’t play in a league full of weak-sauce players. He played and dominated in a league full of athletic, determined, hard-nosed, strong, mean, head-hunting beasts. And he won. A lot.

Would Magic succeed in today’s game? HECK YES. How he succeeded would depend on the team that was around him. Unlike Bird, Magic’s style of play relies so heavily on who he plays with. If Magic plays on a team full of scorers he can be the triple double machine that we all know. If he is on a team that needed an offensive leader, he could do that as well, just on post-up sky hooks alone.

Magic, in today’s game, would be a thing of beauty to watch. Magic would be a combination of LeBron James and Chris Paul. He would bring Lob City 2.0 to wherever he went. The comparison to LeBron may seem easy as both Magic and LeBron are 6-8 and act like point guards. The difference is, Magic IS a point guard. His vision and ability to thread the needle puts him in the same category as CP3 and Steve Nash. The difference between Magic and the much smaller point guard is that Magic can and will finish at the rim if no one picks him up. Magic, if need be, could also be a scoring leader. He could post up the smaller guards and blow by anyone who is close to him in size. He’d give CP3, Stephen Curry and the rest of the bunch nightmares.

X factors to Magic and Larry’s Success.

The physical nature of the NBA is nowhere near what it was in the 1980s. Magic and Larry frequented the paint often and have career free throw averages of 6.5 and 5 attempts, respectively. Compare that with LeBron James whose career average is 8.6 free throw attempts per game. Magic and Larry would go to the line more nowadays and would in turn score more points. The physical nature that Larry and Magic played is in incomparable to anything that players face now and the fact that Larry and Magic could produce in a league that was out for blood makes it clear that they could produce in a league that sometimes seems it is out for fines.

They are old school. 

Magic and Larry are old school. They wouldn’t tweet at other NBA players, unless it was to talk real trash. They wouldn’t go to each other’s birthdays, unless it was to ruin the surprise. Larry Bird most definitely would not wear pink pants to a press conference. They would still hate each other as much as anyone else they played against. It’s just the way they are, and that would give each of them a mental edge over their opponents.

So what kind of numbers would they average over a career if they started playing now?

So to determine this we need to quickly jump into the time machine and go to the year 2030.

(Insert magical sounds)

OK, I am back. What I saw there was remarkable. Both Magic and Larry had ridiculous careers.

In a league full of foul calls and 4-point plays, Larry Bird was as good of a scorer as it gets. He consistently was in the 40/50/90 club. His passing ability translated perfectly as he was consistently passing out of double-teams and when he was in the post. Luckily for him, the Celtics drafted a bunch of blue collared players that mimicked his 80s teammates. They weren’t quite as good and in turn, his assist numbers dropped. Additionally, his desire to win and be gritty ensured his rebounding numbers were high.

Bird averaged 26.8 points, 9.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 1 block per game.

Magic too benefited highly from the frequent foul calls that went his way. Additionally, Magic was able to utilize his size and quickness to wreak havoc on just about all teams. His assist numbers were very high. How high? Well it varied from season to season depending on who his teammates were. He did however put up higher scoring numbers that we expected since he didn’t have the same talent that he did in the 80s.

Magic averaged 22.1 points, 10.1 rebounds, 10.7 assists, 2 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. Yes I said it, he averaged a triple double.

How many rings did they win?

Larry Bird won two rings, Magic won four. Both of their teams were absolutely stacked with all-stars and Hall of Famers. In the 80s players usually stayed with the team that drafted them. That is no longer the league that they play in. Everyone wanted to play with either Bird or Magic. Even they would join forces in Indiana to bring the ever elusive championship to Larry’s hometown Indiana Pacers. Bringing their totals to three rings for Larry and five for Magic.

In conclusion: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were good, are good and will always be good.

photos courtesy of USA Today and / Editing by Steven Davis