People remember Celtics Hall-of-Famer Larry Bird for his offense, but he was good on defense as well. Bird had great awareness and instincts on the defensive end and played strong team defense. Bird was named to the NBA All-Defensive 2nd team three times before injuries slowed him towards the end of his career.
What do stats say about Larry Bird on defense?
Advanced statistics strongly support that Larry Legend was a good defender. Basketball Reference lists five defensive statistics in its advanced section. The per 100 section also including defensive rating. Defensive rating attempts to measure a player’s defensive effectiveness per 100 possessions.
|Statistic||Larry Bird||Career NBA Rank|
|Defensive Rebounding %||22.4%||71|
|Defensive Rating (lower is better)||101||63rd|
|Defensive Box +/-||1.8||37th|
|Defensive Win Shares||59.0||30th|
Blocks, Steal & Rebounds
Bird ranks among the all time NBA leaders for all six statistical categories. He barely makes the top 250 list in block percentage ranking 242nd at 1.2%. But any appearance by Bird on this list might surprise some. His athleticism, especially in his younger years, is underrated. But Bird was never known as a great leaper.
Larry Legend ranks a little higher in steal percentage finishing 132nd on the all time list with a 2.2% career steal percentage. This statistic is probably a little less surprising as Bird’s most famous single play was the steal in game 5 of the 1987 conference finals. Bird was not John Stockton, but his instincts and feel for the game helped him to pile up a good number of steals.
Larry Bird was generally considered a strong rebounder, so his 71st all-time ranking for defensive rebounding percentage at 22.4% is expected.
Overall defensive statistics
The fact that Bird ranks 63rd all time with a 101 defensive rating and 37th in defensive box plus/minus at 1.8 is probably less in line with expectations. Defensive rating is complicated but it measures how many baskets a player gives up per 100 possessions. That Bird is not that many spots behind Kawhi Leonard on the all time list is a bit of a surprise and speaks to his strong defensive abilities.
Defensive box plus/minus is an estimate of how many points a player gave up per possession when compared to a league average player & team. Again, Bird ranks very highly just a tiny bit behind noted lock-down defender Scottie Pippen.
Bird ranks 33rd all time in defensive win shares with 59 for his career – ahead of outstanding defenders Dennis Rodman and Chris Paul. While win shares are a complicated stat, they attempt to measure how much a player contributes to his team while on the floor. Paul still has time to add to his win shares, but, again, this is impressive company for Larry Legend.
The fact that Bird led the league in defensive win shares four times, and continues to rank so highly on the all time list, points to him being a highly effective defensive player.
Using modern advanced statistical tools can give us a picture of how good a player really was. They have their limits. Advanced stats are still less effective at measuring defense than offense for sure. But when you look into what they say about Larry Bird, it is clear: he was a good, if not great, defender.
Was Larry Bird considered good on defense when he was playing?
While statistics have a lot to offer, many people believe watching a player is the only way to really know how good they are on defense. Larry Bird passed the eye test on defense for most observers.
All NBA Defense
His 3 appearances on the All NBA Defensive 2nd team make this case most strongly. The media covering the league at the time thought he was a good defender. The award alone does not mean Bird was one of the very best defenders in the league.
The writers can sometimes demonstrate flawed thinking with these postseason honors. But making all-defensive teams repeatedly makes it quite likely Bird was at least a good defender. The voters might mistakenly overstate a player’s prowess a bit, but they usually don’t just make it up completely!
As a young Celtic, Bird had the athleticism to compete well on defense. He always lacked the high end lateral quickness to cover fast forwards one-on-one. And he was never a lock down, one-on-one stopper type of defender like a Dennis Rodman.
But in those earlier years Bird was more than quick and dynamic enough to handle himself on the defense. This underrated athleticism combined with otherworldly instincts to make him a strong defender in his first years in the league. These were the years he made all three of his All Defensive teams: 1982, 1983 & 1984.
As the 80s went on, the Celtics surrounded Bird with strong defenders including Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson. But even in the Big 3 Era, Bird was viewed by most as one of the strong defenders on the team, not as any kind of liability.
When McHale became the starter alongside Bird at forward, he was assigned to chase the quicker, smaller forward while Larry banged down low with the bigger power forward.
The Hick from French Lick did well in this role. He was a good post defender. Bird used his instincts and awareness to provide good help defense and to swoop in for steals.
Larry Legend was also a very strong defensive rebounder who got the break going with quick outlet passes. Bird’s role on defense changed as the years went by, but up until his last few seasons, most observers considered him a positive force on the defensive end.
If you watch the video below, you’ll see some highlights of BIrd at his peak as a defender in the early 80s.
Why do many people think Larry Bird was bad at defense?
It is likely that many people remember Bird from the end of his career when his back injury robbed him of most of his athleticism. His shooting, passing and rebounding still made him a force.
But his movement was limited and his defensive capability faded. The Larry Bird of these years had to lay on the ground when taken out of the game to make sure his back didn’t tighten up.
He also had surgery on both heels to remove bone spurs. Bird became fairly immobile at that point. These are the last images of him that many fans carried with them as he left the game.
Younger fans likely couldn’t picture this broken down Bird flying around the court as he could in his youngest years. And even older fans who saw him in those years have to fight past these last images of a slowed legend to remember his younger defensive prowess.
When you combine the way he appeared at the end of his career with the fact that he had a unique profile for a good defender earlier in his career, it’s easy to understand how many fans can’t remember that Larry Bird was good on defense.
Was Larry Bird better on defense than Magic Johnson?
Bird was a better defender than his chief rival Magic Johnson. Larry Bird had better ratings for every advanced defensive statistic except one. Bird had a lower defensive rating (which means better with this stat), higher defensive rebounding and block percentages and more defensive win shares.
Magic had a higher steal percentage, but that is closer than you might think given that Johnson led the league in steals a couple of times early in his career. While advanced stats are not perfect at capturing players’ effectiveness on D, they offer insight that stories can’t.
In this case, when nearly all of them say Bird was better, it is hard to ignore.
|Def.Reb. %||22.4% (71st)||15.8% (233rd)|
|Block %||1.22% (242)||.6 %(NR)|
|Steal %||2.16% (132)||2.46%(68th)|
(lower is better)
|101 (63)||105 (195th)|
|Def. Box +/-||1.8 (37)||1.6 (49th)|
|Def.Win Shares||59.0 (30)||45.2 (64th)|
The stats match the stories in this case as well. Most observers saw Magic as an adequate defender who had a lot to learn on the defensive side when he entered the league.
Magic had some of the same liabilities as Bird in the areas of lateral quickness and dynamic athleticism. He did offer a unique challenge as a 6’9 point guard.
Almost no guards could score on him inside. And that size gave him a level of versatility few possessed as he famously filled in at center in game 6 of the 1980 finals. But Magic’s size also meant many quick guards could get past him and they often did.
Ultimately, Magic did not offer the same defensive impact as Bird and he was never named to an all NBA defensive team. Larry Bird’s all-defense selections combined with his better defensive stats show that he was a better defensive player than Magic Johnson.
Larry Bird was a good, bordering on very good, defensive player. He made 3 all NBA Defensive second teams early in his career and had very strong career defensive statistics. He was never a defensive stopper but he used his anticipation and feel for the game to have a positive impact on defense.
I have been a Boston sports fan for more than forty years. I write about games, players and seasons from the past.