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.
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
In terms of career numbers, Durant tops Bird in two-point percentage (53.2 to 50.9) and t