Is Paul Pierce as talented as Larry Bird?
I’ve resisted applying my talent grading system to historical players for a few reasons. For one, I consider my system useful to separate talents into tiers, but not evaluate players in the same tier against each other. If a player has a score of 30 in my grading and another a score of 32, that difference is small enough that it played little to no role in their careers, not to mention within the range of subjectivity.
Secondly, ranking players’ talents before my time has its difficulties.
However in my private rankings of players, a player who’s score stands out to me as against conventional wisdom and against my previous opinion of him, is Larry Bird. Bird grades as a superstar talent, but there are around 30 players who’d grade higher than him. Certainly this seems low for a player in everyone’s top 10 players of all time. To be fair, even a top 30 or 40 talent in the NBA is a freaking awesome player. Furthermore talent is not production and it’s reasonable to argue Bird outperformed his raw talent level to become of the top 10 or 15 players of all time.
So why does Bird grade lower than expected? Noteably, in the skill impact and feel for the game categories, Bird cruises to perfect scores of 11. He’s arguably the greatest of all time in both categories, not just for small forwards but for any position. His shooting, shot creation, passing, post skills are otherworldly – and he’s a definitive example of a basketball genius instinctively.
Where Bird slips is his physical impact on the game. In regards to explosiveness and attacking players off the dribble, he is average for the small forward position. Part of the evidence for this Bird usually putting up 5 to 6 free throw attempts a game, mediocre for a high volume scorer. Bird is not a player who overwhelmed players physically, just like Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash and post surgery Chris Paul didn’t/don’t have to in modern day. To his credit, one way Bird impacts the game physically is his excellent rebounding numbers for a small forward, albeit I’d give more credit for his rebounding to his instincts and feel than physical tools.
It’s hard for me to justify giving Bird more than a 5 or 6 in physical impact on the game. When added to his skill and feel for the game, his total grade is 27 or 28. This is well past the range I consider a perennial all-star threshold (23-24) and typical for some other superstars, so it’s nothing to sniff at, just not as high as expected.
I find it interesting to compare him to Paul Pierce. Now, conventional wisdom says Larry Bird is on a different plane of talent than Pierce. One is transcendent and the other, very good.
But Pierce rates well against Bird. Like Larry, Pierce’s most noticeable trait is his supernatural feel for the game. He’s one of the first players that come to mind for the term, Pierce has the ultimate “old man’s game” in his natural smoothness, ability to make his game look slower than it is and instincts. Pierce’s skill impact is also one of the best of his generation for a wing player. He’s a terrific 3pt and midrange shooter and shot creator, with an array of post abilities and moves. He’s also a great passer. In regards to skill plays, Pierce can do just about everything he wants. Pierce isn’t at Larry’s level as a perimeter shooter and passer, but he’s not far off. For these categories, I like a grade of 11 in feel for the game for Pierce and 10 in skill impact.
On the other hand, Pierce’s physical impact impresses me more than Bird. Pierce especially in his younger days had deceptively great explosiveness and slashing ability, as evidenced by much greater free throw attempt numbers than Bird, peaking at 8-9 attempts a game. Helping his slashing is that Pierce is such a great ballhandler, that it helped him penetrate and attack even if other players were more athletic. In regards to slashing off the dribble, Pierce isn’t at the level of freakish wings like Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Tracy McGrady, but he’s above average. I’ll give him a grade of 7 or 8 in the category.
When added together, this gives Pierce a score of 28 or 29. This puts him in the conversation for top 30-35 most talented players in history, which I believe is fair.
All in all, it’s hard for me to see where Bird separates himself in talent from Pierce. He’s the more skilled perimeter player, but Pierce is more talented at slashing and physically imposing himself on the game.
Part of this isn’t so much about Bird, as it is Pierce’s talent being underrated, perhaps. The guy has a fantastic and unique skillset, one of the best pure scorers and most intelligent players in history. One wonders if Pierce had found himself anchoring 60 win teams at the same point Dirk Nowitzki was, if Pierce would’ve also made the leap to widely considered MVP caliber player. I don’t believe in either talent or statistics, the difference between Pierce and a Dirk Nowitzki is significant.
For this reasons, Bird being called “only” as talented as Pierce, is not that large of an insult. Bird is a fantastic talent who’s will, work ethic and confidence helped his maximize his talent level and have one of the best careers ever. But I don’t consider the gap between him and Pierce to be as significant, as others do.