Larry Bird’s prime years were the seasons between 1984 and 1986 when he was the MVP of the NBA all three years and won two league championships. If you extend Bird’s prime out to a longer stretch, you could say it started his first year in the NBA and went until the end of his ninth season. During that time he was 1st Team All-NBA every season and won three NBA titles.
When do NBA players usually have their primes?Embed from Getty Images
While there is no definite age that every NBA player will peak, there is a consensus that typical NBA players have their best years in the 27-28 year old range.
An analysis done by Dartmouth Sports Analytics looked at average ages for NBA MVPs and All-Stars and found that the typical peak for NBA players was around 27-28.
The same analysis showed that this can vary depending on the player’s strongest traits. Players who dominate with physical athleticism tend to peak at younger ages. Players who rely more on skill tend to peak at slightly older ages.
In Larry Bird’s case, he was known more for his skill and that would put him in the second group. You would expect Larry Bird to peak around the age of 28 if he were typical.
When was Larry Bird’s prime?Embed from Getty Images
There are two ways to look at Larry Bird’s prime: the short prime or the long prime. We’ll break them down below.
You can look at an NBA player’s prime in many different ways. Very few people would say a “prime” was one year. So a player’s prime would be at least multiple seasons. Many would agree that a prime would be a player’s three best seasons.
Using this definition, Larry Bird’s prime was the three straight seasons he won the NBA’s MVP award: 1983-1984, 1984-1985 & 1985-1986. Those were Bird’s 27, 28 & 29 year-old seasons.
In addition to being the MVP all three seasons, Bird was 1st Team All-NBA all three seasons and was 2nd Team NBA All-Defense the first two years as well.
It might surprise you that Bird was a fairly well-regarded defender the first half of his career. The first article I wrote for this site dealt extensively with Bird’s underrated defense. You can read it HERE.
This shorter prime also included two of Larry Bird’s three NBA titles. You can read my article on Bird’s Finals Record here.
The Celtics won in 1984 over the Showtime Lakers featuring Magic and Kareem.
They then defeated the Houston Rockets in 1986. The Rockets starred the twin towers of Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon.
If you accept the shorter prime idea, Bird had a monster prime winning two out of three NBA titles and all three MVP awards during his peak.
But that leads to one of the major criticisms of the shorter prime theory: Bird was clearly the best player on an NBA title team in 1981 and by this definition that victory came outside his prime.
Longer PrimeEmbed from Getty Images
Another way to look at a player’s prime is not their absolute peak seasons but the time period where they were at their best.
This would generally come after their first few seasons as they adjust to the NBA but before their decline in their later career. Larry Legend is an exception to the idea that players usually need a few seasons to get used to the NBA as we’ll discuss below.
Looked at from this perspective, Bird’s peak could have started as early as his first season in the NBA: 1979-1980. I wrote an article detailing that magical season here.
Larry Bird was an old rookie by today’s standards at age 23. He was ready for the league after spending five years in college because of his transfer from Indiana to Indiana State.
Bird hit the ground running in the NBA. He transformed the Celtics from a team that won 29 games the year before he arrived to 61 wins in his rookie campaign.
Bird made 1st Team All-NBA that season and led his team to the Eastern Conference Finals.
He went on to make the All-NBA 1st Team his first 9 seasons in the league. He won his first NBA title his second season in the league in 1981 when his Celtics defeated Moses Malone and the Houston Rockets.
In the nine NBA seasons from 1979-1980 until 1987-1988 Bird was 1st Team All-NBA every season. His teams won three NBA titles spread out during that stretch and he won three NBA MVPs. Looked at from the longer-peak perspective, those nine seasons are Bird’s prime.
How good was Larry Bird in his prime?
Larry Bird was an absolute killer in his prime. Whether you view his peak three seasons or his first nine years to be his prime, Bird was absolutely dominant during it.
He made the All-Star team all nine seasons but also made 1st-Team All-NBA for all of them. Bird was the MVP of the league for his three most dominant years from ‘84-’86.
Bird was also underrated defensively, making 2nd Team All-NBA Defensive teams from 1982-1984.
He was the best player on championship teams in 1981, 1984 and 1986. That last 1986 Celtics championship team is at least in the discussion for greatest team in NBA history.
When you add it all up: underrated defender, 3x MVP, 9x 1st Team All-NBA, 3x Champion, you get a pretty incredible prime for Larry Bird.
Ben Taylor writes great articles and makes great videos about basketball. I really respect his opinions on the sport and the way he thinks. In the video above, he rates Bird quite highly.
In his video series “Greatest NBA Peaks” he ranks the ten best two-year peaks for NBA players since the ABA merger. Taylor puts Bird’s ‘85 & ‘86 seasons fifth behind only the two best years for LeBron, MJ, Olajuwon and Shaq. That is pretty good company.
I suspect if you spread it out to the best nine-year stretch, Bird might rank even higher.
Summary: Larry Bird’s Prime
Larry Bird’s prime was the years from 1984 to 1986 when he won three straight MVP awards and two NBA championships. Bird was also dominant if you extend his prime years out to his first nine seasons when he won three total NBA Championships and was 1st Team All-NBA every season.
Featured Image Photo Credit: Adapted from: “Bernard Cardinal Law, Larry Bird and Mayor Raymond L. Flynn” by Boston City Archives is licensed under CC BY 2.0
I have been a Boston sports fan for more than forty years. I write about games, players and seasons from the past.