Kevin Durant vs. Larry Bird: Who's Higher on the All-Time SF List?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistAugust 19, 2019

Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers Thursday, April 4, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Contrary to the opinion of plenty of 1980s-era NBA fans, LeBron James took the "NBA's greatest small forward" mantle from Larry Bird some time ago. Now, another modern 3 may be nipping at Bird's heels.

Midway through the 2015-16 season, ESPN compiled a ranking of the greatest 3s ever. At that time, which was before Kevin Durant's Golden State Warriors stint, the top five read: LeBron, Bird, Julius Erving, KD and Elgin Baylor.

Over the last three years, Durant has added an awful lot of legacy points. In discussions about where he stands in the history of the game, supporters can point to two NBA titles and two Finals MVPs.

But is that enough for him to leapfrog Bird on the all-time small forward list?

Statistically, there's an argument he already has. In a blind poll that presented the career numbers of Bird and Durant free of context, the latter edged the former:

The voting gap widened regarding their five-year peaks:

Is this just a case of "points-per-game Twitter" overwhelming the rest of the voters? Or, are we in an era when shooting efficiency is valued more than ever? Or, are the voters right? Maybe Durant is just better.

Of course, that take can't be backed up with just a blind poll. To truly determine who's higher on the all-time small forward ladder, we'll have to dig deeper into five categories: scoring, shooting, playmaking, defense and accolades.

Grabs electronic shovel. Let's do this.

               

Scoring

Through the end of Bird's final NBA season, 1991-92, his scoring average of 24.3 ranked 12th all time. His career relative scoring average (points per game minus the league average for individual points per game at the time) was plus-12.2.

Bird was undoubtedly one of the best scorers ever. But his game was more than just numbers:

The level of bravado it takes to both say that and go out and do it is hard to find anywhere else—and it was far from a one-time thing. Bird's trash-talking exploits are legendary.

His teammate, Kevin McHale, told The Dan Patrick Show the following story about a game in which the Celtics had relinquished a big fourth-quarter lead (h/t USA Today):

"So we have an out-of-bounds play, I'm taking it out and Larry says 'I'm going to bust off the play and I'm just going to shoot a three.'

We're down two. I'm like 'no, don't do that. Let's shoot a two, please. Go to the hole, try to get fouled. Let's just get into overtime, see if we can't win this game.'

And Larry says 'nah, I'm just going to bust a three on them.' I'm like 'oh my God.' So he tells the Phoenix bench, tells the coaches 'yeah, I'm just fixing to bust a three on you guys and just go home. I'm tired of this.'

And he gets the ball, jumps out, busts the play, gets the ball at the slot, shoots the ball. As the ball is in the air, he kind of turns toward the Phoenix bench and yells 'told you so,' and starts running to the locker room. It went in."

Confidence is a huge part of scoring. Bird had it in spades, and he had a way of leveraging it to take over games in a way few had before him.

Through 1991-92, Bird's 52 games of at least 40 points ranked 11th all-time (five of those games came in the playoffs). And in one of those regular-season contests, he dropped 60.

One of his opponents that night, Atlanta Hawks big man Scott Hastings, described the experience to the Boston Globe's Chad Finn.

"Larry was so on fire, and there was nothing we could do. I'll [bet] you eight different members of our team guarded him. In fact, after the game, a bunch of us were having a beer in the French Quarter and trying to add up how many he got on each one of us. 'He only got 14 on me blah-blah-blah, yeah, he got just 12 on me.' We totaled it up after everybody talked and I think it came out to 32, so how it got to 60, we never solved that one."

Legends like that will surely be memorialized for Durant as well. Perhaps 20 to 30 years from now, one of his exploits as a scorer will require its own oral history.

Durant's scoring average of 27.0 points ranks fifth all-time, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain (30.1), Michael Jordan (30.1), Elgin Baylor (27.4) and LeBron (27.2). His relative scoring average is plus-15.8.

What may be most impressive about Durant's scoring is the consistency. He's played 988 total games in the regular season and playoffs combined. He's scored at least 20 in 847 of those games. Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James and Karl Malone are the only players who had more through their first 12 seasons.

Think about that. In nearly nine out of every 10 games Durant has played in the NBA, he's gotten to at least 20 points.

That level of consistency somehow gets better in the biggest moments. KD has reached 20 in 14 of the 15 NBA Finals games he's played. He got to 25 in 13 of those games.

The only time he failed to reach 20 was Game 5 against the Toronto Raptors a couple of months ago. He played 12 minutes in that contest before leaving with a ruptured Achilles.

There's no telling what will happen with KD's remarkable consistency upon his return from that injury. But to this point, Durant isn't just the best scorer in this comparison, he's also arguably the best scorer ever.

He can score from all three levels in a variety of ways. Jumpers, floaters, post moves, thunderous dunks, slashing. You name it, he's got it. And what really sets him apart is the efficiency.

But before we dig into that, let's tally this category for KD.

Durant 1, Bird 0

            

Shooting

In terms of career numbers, Durant tops Bird in two-point percentage (53.2 to 50.9) and three-point percentage (38.1 to 37.6). Bird has the edge in free-throw percentage (88.6 to 88.3).

But an apples-to-apples comparison may not be fair. The game has changed so much in the last 30 years, and Bird was ahead of the curve on threes.

ESPN's J.A. Adande called him "the NBA's top three-point threat in his day," and the numbers back it up.

The league-average three-point percentage during Bird's career was 30.5, giving him a relative three-point percentage of plus-7.1. Durant's relative three-point percentage is plus-2.4.

Bird's relative two-point percentage is plus-1.7. Durant's is plus-4.0.

That again could be a symptom of the era in which Durant plays. Analysis of the game is sharper than ever, and most players emphasize the most efficient shots.

Durant is one of the few who offers pushback, though. Over the course of his career, over half his shot attempts have come from between the three-point line and three feet from the rim. He's hit 44.7 percent of those attempts.

Again, Durant can do it from anywhere.

And while we shouldn't penalize Bird for playing in an era with less information, we also shouldn't hold it against Durant for thriving in his.

It's natural in all sports for players to get better as we move forward in history. That's true of shooters and basketball. And it's true of KD.

Bird may have a significant edge in relative three-point percentage, but Durant's lead in relative true shooting percentage (which accounts for twos, threes and free throws and is seen in the polls above) is impossible to ignore.

Durant 2, Bird 0

             

Playmaking

Playmaking and passing is an aspect of Durant's game that might be a little underrated. Among 6'9"-plus players with at least 5,000 minutes, KD's assist percentage ranks 10th.

He's averaged at least five assists in four separate seasons, including each of the last two.

But Bird, along with Magic Johnson, was one of the pioneers of the point forward position, and Bird is among the best passing forwards of all time.

He's fourth on the same list of 6'9"-plus players in assist percentage, trailing only Magic, Ben Simmons and Nikola Jokic.

"He anticipated what teammates and opponents alike were going to do before they themselves knew," ESPN's Bradford Doolittle wrote. Or, as my nephew once put it, "Larry Bird is a criminal genius."

Durant's a solid passer, but he's not in the same league as Bird.

Durant 2, Bird 1

        

Defense

This is the category that will inevitably ruffle the most feathers. I'm just warning you now.

Bird was never anywhere near the athlete Durant is or was during his prime. But defense is about far more than athleticism. Bird's basketball IQ, craftiness and anticipation more than made up for his lack of lateral quickness or vertical explosiveness.

Back to our group of 6'9"-plus players: Bird is 16th among them in career steal percentage. Durant is 129th.

After running a regression on the predictive ability of box score stats, FiveThirtyEight's Benjamin Morris wrote the following about steals:

"Yes, this pretty much means a steal is 'worth' as much as nine points. To put it more precisely: A marginal steal is weighted nine times more heavily when predicting a player's impact than a marginal point.

For example, a player who averages 16 points and two steals per game is predicted (assuming all else is equal) to have a similar impact on his team's success as one who averages 25 points but only one steal. If these players were on different teams and were both injured at the same time, we would expect their teams to have similar decreases in performance (on average)."

Bird also has a comfortable edge in defensive rebounding percentage, 22.4 to 18.5. Finishing off a defensive possession with a rebound has value.

So do blocks, and Durant's edge there is sizable. In terms of blocks per game, Durant's 1.1 doesn't sound a whole lot more than Bird's 0.8. But in terms of percentage, Durant nearly doubles Bird's number, 2.3 to 1.2.

This isn't as simple as just tallying up steals, defensive rebounds and blocks, though.

In basketball, defense has always been harder to measure than offense. Nowadays, that end of the floor is sort of the last stand for the eye test.

One manifestation of who might ace that test is the league's All-Defensive teams. Bird made three All-Defensive second teams. Durant has yet to make one.

Although defensive box plus/minus' flaws have been well documented, Bird's 2.2-to-0.3 lead there can serve as the cherry on top of this category.

Durant 2, Bird 2

        

Accolades

Bird's list of accolades is a mighty long one. In 13 seasons, he racked up the following:

  • 12 All-Star appearances
  • 10 All-NBA selections (nine of which were 1st Team)
  • All-Rookie selection
  • Two Finals MVPs
  • Rookie of the Year
  • Three NBA titles
  • Three All-Defensive selections
  • One All-Star MVP
  • Three league MVPs

Durant's accomplishments are a screenful, as well:

  • 10 All-Star selections
  • Nine All-NBA selections (six of which were 1st Team)
  • All-Rookie selection
  • Two Finals MVPs;
  • Rookie of the Year
  • Two NBA titles
  • Two All-Star MVPs
  • One league MVP

Durant deserves a little extra credit for playing in an era with more teams and talent, but not enough to make up the overall gap in this category.

Durant 2, Bird 3

          

Who Ya Got?

Durant's the better scorer, but there's a lot more to basketball than that. Bird was the better overall player.

His approach to the game, which he talked about in the oral history referenced above, was part of why he was so good:

"Sixty points is a lot, don't get me wrong. I made shots against the Hawks that game I can't recall making in any other time. It's not easy to do. But there was a game from a little earlier that season where I had a triple-double and a bunch of steals in around 30 minutes against the Jazz. That had it all. That was what I'd call a great game. If you wanna talk about that one…"

No one in NBA history matched or exceeded all of Bird's averages for points (24.3), rebounds (10.0), assists (6.3), steals (1.7) and blocks (0.8) per game.

For over a decade, he was one of the game's most dominant forces—and because of much more than scoring.

Durant was indeed gaining on Bird before his injury. His passing numbers had become particularly interesting in the years with the Warriors. Another title or two would certainly make the accolades comparison more interesting.

But now, the specter of the dreaded Achilles recovery looms over the remainder of KD's career. If he can make it all the way back, or even 90 to 95 percent of the way back, there's a chance he'll move into the No. 2 spot on the game's all-time small forward list.

If not, Bird may be able to hang on.

     

All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference.

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