Who is the greatest small forward in NBA history?
Larry Bird? Julius Erving? Dominque Wilkins? Scottie Pippen? Elgin Baylor? John Havlicek?
Rick Barry (who could be in that discussion as well) says we are seeing the greatest right now: LeBron James.
“I think LeBron is the greatest three to ever play the game. And as great as he is, he still has room for improvement. If that was ever to happen and he really refined his game more, they may have to outlaw him, he’s so good. He’s an anomaly, I mean he really is. There’s never been anybody like him with his size, his athleticism, his feel for the game.”
I was on a Boston radio station Tuesday talking NBA Finals when Berry’s comments came up, and for obvious reasons they are partial to Larry Bird. Deservedly so — this is a guy who, along with Magic Johnson, helped change the trajectory of the NBA. LeBron is not the international star he is now without Bird.
But LeBron is the better player.
LeBron is not as good at trash talking, not as good a pure shooter, but in terms of the overall game he is better. If you want to argue that today Bird has a better legacy — three titles in particular — than LeBron, you can make that case. But when LeBron hangs them up that argument will be different.
Part of what makes these finals interesting is LeBron James is in legacy mode.
That’s part of why he is back in Cleveland — bringing the first professional sports title to Cleveland since the Lyndon B. Johnson administration helps that legacy. It’s why he is constantly compared to Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant — we need to measure LeBron against the other all-time greats, that’s where he is in his career.
That’s why Bird is in the conversation.
But Rick Barry is right.