Larry Bird vs. Lebron James

The following Power BI dataset and report has been developed to help compare basketball greats Larry Bird and Lebron James across team and individual statistics:

Bird vs. James

The report contains the following six pages:

  1. Team Win %: The impact in terms of regular season winning % after joining their teams
  2. Team Playoff Finish: How their teams fared in the post season
  3. Shooting: Field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and three point percentage
  4. Rebounds: Offensive, defensive, and total rebounds on a per game and total basis
  5. Assists and Turnovers: Plays which created field goals and which lost possession
  6. Steals and Blocks: Defensive plays to re-take possession or force a missed a field goal

Solution Design

Dimensional Model
  • Many DAX measures are written against these two fact tables, particularly Player Seasons
    • Almost all of these measures are simple.
    • A few of the measures, such as those that use inline ranking to compute each of the top 4 3 Pt % shooting seasons for each player are a bit more advanced and I’ll share details on this in a future post.
  • Tooltips are used throughout the report pages to provide additional context
    • Hover over the bar(s) of the charts to see additional metrics for the given filter context
  • There’s custom page navigation via a slicer dropdown in to the top-right of each page

Assumptions

  • To evaluate the impact each player had on his team upon entering the NBA, the first seven (7) years are used for the Boston Celtics (Larry Bird, 1979 to 1986) and Cleveland Cavaliers (Lebron James, 2003 to 2010).
    • Lebron James left Cleveland for the Miami Heat in his 8th year to form a ‘super team’ with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, another incoming all star. As anyone would expect, this team won at a high percentage but this success wouldn’t be an apples-to-apples comparison.
  • To compare Larry Bird versus Lebron James in individual statistics, the first nine (9) seasons in the NBA are used for both players.
    • Bird suffered a serious injury after his 9th season (1987-88) that he was never able to fully recover from. Therefore, the statistics for Bird’s final few seasons don’t reflect Bird in his prime – the intent is compare Larry and Lebron in the prime of their careers.
    • You could argue it’s unfair to include Lebron’s rookie season since he came to the NBA directly from high school.
      • I considered starting Lebron at his 2nd or 3rd year in the league to compensate for his age disadvantage but I concluded that Larry had to adjust to the NBA too (albeit at age 23).

Bird vs James Conclusions

In sharing these conclusions let me briefly mention that A) I’m not an expert on basketball and B) there are many additional and potentially more useful measurements of basketball impact and skill not included in this particular analysis. Therefore, if you’re a Lebron James fan or if, for some reason you don’t like Larry Bird or the Boston Celtics just remember that this is a BI technology blog and I have no agenda in convincing anyone of anything in terms of sports.

Team Success

  • Bird had a significantly greater impact on the Boston Celtics than Lebron had on the Cavaliers
    • The Celtics win % increased 39% in his rookie year compared to 22% for the Cavs’
    • The Celtics win % in Bird’s first 7 years was significantly higher than Lebron’s Cavs (75.6% versus 60.8%)
    • There was only 1 season out of 7 in which Lebron’s team had a higher winning % than the Celtics
  • Bird delivered greater playoff success to Boston than Lebron to Cleveland
    • Per Team Playoff Finish, the Celtics won three NBA championships in Bird’s first 7 seasons compared to no titles for Lebron and the Cavs
    • Lebron didn’t even elevate the Cavaliers to the playoffs until his third year whereas the Celtics were always title contenders in each of Bird’s first 7 years
  • You could argue that Bird had better players around him than Lebron but a counter-argument to this might be that Larry had to face an almost unbeatable Los Angeles Lakers team and a very tough Philadelphia 76ers team in the 1980s.

Shooting

  • Larry Bird made a higher % of his shot attempts than Lebron James across all shot types:
    • Two-point baskets, Three-point baskets, Free Throws
  • Lebron James improved significantly after his rookie year but in seven (7) out of the nine (9) years of comparison Bird had the higher field goal %
  • Larry Bird had several seasons in which he shot in the high 80s or low 90s in terms of free throw percentage relative to James’ 75%
  • Larry Bird is one of the best three-point shooters of all time as evidence by several seasons with above 40%.

Rebounds

  • Bird produced significantly more rebounds than Lebron, both offensive and defensive rebounds per the Rebounds report page.
    • This is remarkable when you consider that Larry Bird was not that athletic, certainly not relative to Lebron James.
    • However, this could also somewhat reflect the different positions/roles each player had on their teams.
  • The combination of superior shooting and rebounding could be drivers of the greater team success of the Celtics versus the Cavaliers

Assists and Turnovers

  • Lebron produced marginally more assists per game (6.9 to 6.14) but he also turned the ball over more than Bird (3.3 to 3.1).
  • Like rebounds, this statistic is somewhat driven by the different roles/positions with Lebron spending more time with the ball in his hands on the perimeter.
  • With such a small variance and given their different positions/roles this topic is essentially a tie.

Steals and Blocks

  • Bird produced more steals per game than James and the same volume of blocked shots.
    • Like rebounds, this defies expectations given the superior athletic ability of James.
    • Bird somehow seemed to know where the ball was going and thus was able to position himself to make plays on offense and defense.

Final Takeaways

Prior to assuming Lebron James is the best or 2nd best basketball player of all time, particularly when you’re in the presence of someone from Boston, you may first try to prove (with data) that he’s better than Larry Bird. Given this simple analysis, it seems Larry Bird is objectively a better player across almost all primary statistics. Most importantly, Bird elevated his teams to significantly greater levels of success than Lebron.

We may also consider that Larry Bird played in an era in which the 3-point shot wasn’t utilized like today. If Bird were playing today, his shooting ability would be magnified by modern offensive gameplans built around floor spacing and the 3-point shot.

Wrapping Up

Thanks for visiting Insight Quest and I hope you found this sample interesting. In near-future posts I’ll share more of the code and design considerations that make it work (or could make it better). You can subscribe to this blog if interested in email notification of future posts.

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