One of the biggest issues we run into when trying to compare two different players is the question of how some may have benefited more given the situations they were placed in. Perhaps the reason Kobe Bryant became a top-10 player All-Time was because he was able to play alongside Shaq for the first seven years of his career. Perhaps Tracy McGrady does just as much if not more if put in Kobe’s position. Perhaps Bryant wins multiple MVPs playing for a trash Orlando Magic squad but never wins a ring.
We’ll never know, but it’s always interesting to consider the possibilities.
One particular comparison that has been a point of conversation for nearly 30 years is the Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird rivalry. These players dominated their era to the tune of 6 combined MVP awards, 8 total championships, and 5 Finals MVPs. It certainly would take a lot of mental juggling, but I’d like to take a run at projecting what would have transpired if you swapped them for each other.
In other words, what would have happened if the Boston Celtics drafted Magic in 1978 and if the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Bird in 1979? Let’s assume that they still both enter the league in 1979.
*For the sake of brevity I’ll limit my analysis to 1979-1984, the span of years it took for both players to win at least two titles.*
In actual history, Magic helped lead the Lakers to their 2nd championship in L.A., capping off the season with a “magical” game six of the NBA Finals without regular season MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Johnson was named Finals MVP; would Bird have fared just as well?
The 6’9” Larry Bird would have joined a Lakers lineup of Norm Nixon, Michael Cooper, Jamaal Wilkes, Jim Chones, and Kareem. Though he was the same height as Magic, the fact that he played PF early in his career leads me to believe he would have joined Kareem in the post and Chones would have slid to the bench, allowing Cooper to start at SG.
I’m inclined to think that Bird would still have contended for Rookie of the Year due to natural talent, but his role would have been drastically different. The Celtics relied on him as a number one option on offense, but the Lakers leaned heavily on Kareem in the post. Nevertheless, his versatility leads me to believe the Lakers still win at least 55 games and reach the Finals after dominating a weak Western Conference.
The biggest question, though, is does Bird pull off a “magical” game of his own without Kareem in game six? I truly doubt he jumps center in place of Cap, but his instinctive scoring means he probably still drops 40+ and helps win that title. But would they have been playing the 76ers?
With Boston, Magic would have been joining a lineup of Tiny Archibald, Chris Ford, Cedric Maxwell, and Dave Cowens. His 6’9” frame fits perfectly at forward next to Maxwell, and the Celtics had a fairly deep bench. The problem I’m anticipating, however, is that Tiny, Ford, and Cowens are in the twilight of their respective careers. Magic was one of the best in history at elevating his teammates’ level of play, but I truly doubt he brings more out of these guys than we actually saw given that they were well past their primes.
For this reason, I think the Celtics win fewer than 61 games. They probably still could have reached the Eastern Conference Finals, but the actual 1980 Boston team bowed out in five. I think Magic and the Celtics would have been lucky to win a game. Our duo’s eventual Finals meeting will have to wait.
Now something occurred at the beginning of the season that we cannot overlook, as it has major implications. The Celtics in reality traded Bob McAdoo for the draft picks they would then flip to Golden State for Robert Parish and the draft pick that became Kevin McHale. With Magic instead of Bird, it’s entirely possible if not likely that Boston would have kept McAdoo for his scoring, in which case Parish and McHale never join the Celtics. To avoid a bizarre and tangential projection, let’s assume, however, that Boston still makes the trade.
This was the year that Bird, fueled by jealousy of Magic’s title, leads the Celtics to 62 wins and an NBA title. Does the same happen for Johnson if he was forced to watch Larry win a title in L.A.?
The acquisitions of McHale and Parish provided ample post depth and a young starting center to replace Cowens. Once again, the question is whether Magic can thrive as the number one option in Boston, but I believe a year of filling that role prepares him well. Let’s assume Johnson taps into the MVP potential he reached around 1987 and never misses half the season to injury, and let’s assume their motivation drives the Celtics to beat the 76ers in the ECF.
Boston was clearly the better team when the beat the Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals, but would they have been playing against that overachieving Houston team if Bird was in L.A.? Let’s consider the situation in California:
Coming off a title, I think Bird and the Lakers win more than 54 games. Also, Larry’s back problems didn’t start until well later in his career, so I’m going to say he stays healthy all year and helps lead the team to another #1 overall seed. This would slide the Phoenix Suns down to #3 and force them to play soon-to-be MVP Moses Malone in the first round.
I’ll give Malone the benefit of the doubt and say he still leads Houston to the Western Conference Finals, but I think the Lakers easily dispatch the Kings and reach the same round much more in sync, injury-free, and ready to capitalize on a tired Moses. Bird is able to compensate for Kareem’s struggles, and we are treated to our first taste of Magic/Bird in the Finals, three years sooner than reality.
Here we have to consider the supporting casts, and Boston’s is far deeper if Cooper is needed to start at SG. With the better record (like the later in meeting in 1984), I think the Celtics have the advantage over Los Angeles, but I think the Lakers are still good enough to push the series to seven games. My pick, however, would be for Boston to win their 14th title, and they continue their reign over the Lakers.
At the beginning of the 1982 season we have another crucial acquisition to consider. The Lakers signed Mitch Kupchak (and later Kurt Rambis) to fill in at power forward. This probably never happens if Bird is your starting PF, so Los Angeles likely would have looked to pick up a guard instead. Again, for the sake of staying on course, let’s say Larry’s versatility allows him to move to SG so the team still signs Kupchak, Rambis, and eventually Bob McAdoo.
This was the year that the 76ers outlasted the Celtics in the ECF – “Beat L.A.” chants at Boston Garden – but Philadelphia still fell to Magic and the Lakers for the second time in three years. What transpires if we are coming off our first taste of Magic/Bird?
Their rivalry was fueled by an envious, relentless drive to match and beat each other’s accomplishments. Larry would have been furious after losing on the biggest stage for the second time (counting college). In reality, the Lakers again dominated a weak west and went 8-0 on the way to the Finals. My bet is that this still happens, and Los Angeles reaches their third straight championship series.
On the east coast, the Celtics are riding high off their title, and though a 63-win season might be pushing it, they probably still finish ahead of the 76ers to claim the #1 seed. The divisional rivals likely still meet in the ECF for a third straight year.
There’s no way to anticipate that Andrew Toney would have been unconscious shooting for the 76ers, and Philly might still pull off three straight wins to go up 3-1. Bird’s poor shooting in games 5 through 7 really hurt the Celtics’ chances of advancing, and I don’t think Magic’s presence would have differed, not to mention that Johnson would have struggled to slow down last season’s MVP Julius Erving, and Boston probably misses the Finals still.
Though disappointed at the prospect of missing out on a chance to avenge himself against his rival, Bird probably still helps to fuel a Lakers win over the 76ers in the NBA Finals. With two titles and possibly one or two Finals MVPs, Larry thrives pretty well in his early career in place of Magic.
Yet another critical pick-up occurs before the 1983 season. In reality, Ted Stepien’s ineptitude gave the Lakers the #1 overall pick in the draft, and they took James Worthy out of North Carolina. What we have to consider is whether they make the same pick if they already have Bird on the perimeter. With Larry comfortable at SG, do they maybe take a PF like Terry Cummings, or do they still draft Worthy with the need to eventually replace an aging Wilkes at SF? Let’s assume Big Game still comes to L.A.
Of these five seasons, this is the only one where either Boston or Los Angeles didn’t win the NBA championship. Coming off an MVP season and a disappointing season in Houston, Moses Malone left to join the 76ers who had been stymied twice in the NBA Finals by now. Forming one of the best teams in history, Philadelphia reeled off 65 regular season wins and were able to avoid the Celtics en route to the championship round.
At this point, the Lakers have a firm grasp on the Western Conference crown, and Bird’s presence makes it all the more likely that they still reach the Finals in 1983. The team is even deeper now, with Worthy providing depth in the frontcourt, although his injury probably still comes as a heavy blow to Los Angeles, especially considering Philadelphia’s run in the east.
By losing in the 1982 ECF, the Celtics have now matched real history and only made 1/3 NBA Finals in their star’s early career. A motivated Magic is one of the best players of All-Time, but even he couldn’t stop the juggernaut that is the 1983 76ers. My bet is that Boston isn’t swept by the Bucks in the semifinals, but they can’t handle Philadelphia and lose in the ECF for the second straight season. Malone finishes off his “fo’, fi’, fo’” by dominating Kareem and giving Bird his first Finals loss.
Both the Celtics and Lakers made acquisitions in the offseason that would have to be reevaluated if history played out differently. Boston managed to trade for former Finals MVP Dennis Johnson and inserted him at guard to start alongside Gerald Henderson. I think it’s highly likely this still happens with Magic on the team, as it gives him more offensive weapons to pass to.
Los Angeles, however, traded Nixon to Clippers for the draft rights to Byron Scott, intending to give Johnson more time on the ball at point guard. If Bird is in L.A., though, his ability to play the wing and off ball makes it all the more likely that the Lakers don’t pull the trigger. Norm led the league in assists in his first season in San Diego, and I think Worthy’s insertion into the starting lineup makes the Lakers even more deadly if they keep Nixon.
The Lakers had now made four straight NBA Finals, but the west is so weak that they are the only team to win over 50 games. Los Angeles cake-walks over the sub-.500 Kings in the expanded playoffs, and a lackadaisical, five-win semifinals pits them against the Suns in the WCF. In reality, the series took six games and in our new scenario Los Angeles probably still wins in no more than seven, advancing to their fifth straight NBA Finals and becoming the first team to do so since the Celtics in the 1960s.
On the other side of the continent, Boston has retooled and runs away with the east behind 62 wins. They struggled in the semifinals against the Knicks and needed seven to dispatch the underdog from New York, but given the fact that the home team won every game, I’m disinclined to give the upset real consideration. The Bucks knock off the defending champion 76ers, and the Celtics manhandle Milwaukee in five games to reach the NBA Finals.
This was actually the first season that Larry Bird won the MVP, and though I doubt that he would have won it in Los Angeles with the spotlight to share with Kareem, I have to wonder if Magic also wins it in 1984. There’s no denying that he was a top player by this point, but I think Erving and Malone still win MVP from 1981-1983. But if Boston still runs away with the #1 seed and Johnson is the catalyst, he probably wins his first MVP with the Celtics in 1984 too.
And so we are treated to our second Magic/Bird NBA Finals, still occurring in 1984, but now Bird has more to prove having lost in college and in the 1981 NBA Finals. The Lakers are exhausted, and the Showtime offense looks a lot different without Johnson at the helm. I believe it’s less likely that Los Angeles steals game one, and Worthy’s boneheaded pass still calls game two into question, but Bird probably doesn’t dribble out the clock and hits a statement game-winner. Heading back to California we’re probably still tied 1-1.
Game three is far from a blowout, but the Lakers are soaring after Bird’s game-winner and still go up 2-1. Larry again refuses to give in to the gravity of the moment and avoids the “Tragic Johnson” errors late in game four to put Los Angeles up 3-1. With three bites at the apple, I think the Lakers win their second championship of the decade in six at home, finally defeating the Celtics and giving Bird his third title and likely second Finals MVP.
This is where our scenario diverges from reality, giving us our first different NBA champion of the five years. Fueled again by loss, Magic probably returns in 1985 to win another MVP and championship while the Lakers probably finally miss the Finals due to honest fatigue. Maybe they still reach the championship round, but Johnson earns his revenge and second title.
What I can say decisively about this “what-if?” is that the teammate Magic would miss the most is James Worthy, his Showtime running-mate. A great player in his own right, Johnson could lead the team in scoring but was more suited to set up others, and none of the guys in Boston would have thrived in a fast-paced offense.
Contrastingly, I don’t think Bird is necessarily better by any stretch of the imagination, but any top-10 All-Time non-center would flourish playing next to Kareem and in a high-scoring system. The Lakers stranglehold on the west made it that much easier to reach the Finals all but two years in the ‘80s, and I think Larry’s love and aptitude for shooting makes it less likely that he chokes in 1984.
In summation, both players are top-10 All-Time, and they both win multiple titles if their positions were reversed, but the timing and circumstances certainly vary if you put Magic Johnson on the Celtics and Larry Bird on the Lakers. I think the only absolute I can insert in the scenario is that Bird never wears #33…that’s Cap’s number.