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Seeing Larry Legend in Luka Doncic

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CelticsBlog’s basketball historian sees a lot of Larry Bird in the Mavericks point guard.

Boston Celtics Portraits
Rookie phenom Larry Bird, flanked by Celtic head coach Bill Fitch and franchise patriarch Red Auerbach. Bird was the rare rookie who actually managed to exceed a massive publicity build-up. The 1980 Rookie of the Year led Boston from a 29-53 record (second-worst in the NBA) to a league-best 61-21 in his first year, a league single-season record for wins improvement.
Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Young Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic is the closest thing to Larry Bird since the real thing walked off the court in Barcelona with a gold medal around his neck.

Earvin Johnson said at Larry’s retirement in 1993 at Boston Garden, “there will never, ever, ever be another Larry Bird.”

It is worth noting that Bird humbly disagreed with his nemesis, but he never saw his potential doppelganger coming from half a world away and thirty years into the future.

Almost three decades after his retirement following the 1992 Olympics, a great young player from Slovenia seems to have channeled more of Bird than anyone #33 hung up his Converse for good.

Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

Luka Doncic has so many of the myriad of skills and qualities Bird also possessed: great self-confidence, superb body control, creativity, excellent court vision and passing ability, and unshakeable competitiveness. He is a fine rebounder, a solid defender, and relishes taking the big shot. He is a big shot maker and a great decision maker with the ball. Both are physically tough, focused, and very driven to succeed with very high wills to win.

Bird and Doncic both won the Rookie of the Year award, 39 years apart. Larry was First Team All-NBA that year and in each of his first nine seasons before Achilles surgeries ended his 1988-89 campaign just six game into the season.

Their individual rookie per game averages are pretty similar, particularly in scoring:

Bird: 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 47.4 FG%, 40.6 3-pt%, 83.6 FT%, 1.7 steals

Doncic: 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 6 asssists, 42.7 FG%, 32.7 3-pt%, 71.3 FT%, 1.1 steals

Luka improved virtually all his numbers in 2019-20: 28.8 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 8.8 apg, 46.3 FG%, 75.8 FT% as Dallas went 43-32, a big improvement from the 33-49 season before.

Bird led Boston to an NBA all-time record 32-win improvement (from 29-53 to a league-best 61-21) during his phenomenal rookie season, and then to their 14th title in Year Two with 62 wins.

Both are triple-double machines. Luka isn’t quite as good a rebounder and not as creative as a passer, but is a better dribbler and driver off the bounce. He is not as good a shooter, especially from the foul line. Bird was also a better post-up player and offensive rebounder.

Larry rarely made a mental mistake or bad decision on where to pass the ball, and maximized his teammates abilities with his unselfish, accurate passing and ability to read them as people. He was a master of post entry passing, a lost art today. Doncic makes more turnovers but has the ball far more as a guard. Bird really did not dribble much and was a true forward.

In his early seasons, waterbug quick guard Nate Archibald dribbled and monoplolized the ball quite a bit, and Bird might go multiple possessions in a row without touching the ball. Luka rarely goes a possession without the ball.

Like a great scout, Bird could quickly size up the ability and tendencies of teammates and opponents. He would then go to work on helping make his teammates better while exploiting the weaknesses of his foes with a seemingly bottomless tool kit of drive, smarts and skills.

Having played high-level European basketball since he was 14, Luka also developed a similar basketball savant sense. Like Larry he was not one to beat opponents with great leaping ability and speed, so each learned to win with his basketball smarts and extremely high skills, as well as great competitiveness.

Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images and Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

They also share a coach/teammate. Luka’s Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle was Larry’s heady teammate on a championship team and three NBA Finalists from 1985-87. Larry thought so highly of Rick that he made him his assistant with the Indiana Pacers from 1997-2000, and tabbed him as Pacers head coach in 2003.

Carlisle made Indiana a contender and later guided Dallas to the 2011 NBA title over Miami’s Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh behind Dirk Nowitzki. Even as the terrific Teutonic seven-footer was winning Finals MVP honors, he downplayed his comparisons to Bird.

Dirk noted that as a kid he used to get up in the middle of the night in Europe to watch Bird inthe NBA Playoffs. He humbly said he was not in Larry’s class, pointing out that Bird was more ambidextrous and greater in all phases of the game.

Carlisle now has the chance to mentor another Euro superstar in Doncic. Just 21, he has already been playing pro ball for seven years, and like Bird, is seen as a basketball genius - even the legendary Jerry West has called him such.

The one area of the game the 6’7 Doncic is superior to Larry in is ballhandling. Basically a big guard, Luka can create off the dribble for himself or others like Bird. He can finish at the rim without explosive dunks by using his strength, body control and brain to create space and angles like Larry. Once he gets his shoulder past you, it is very hard to stop him without fouling. Comparatively, Bird used his effective left hand far more to finish on drives, however, and was a more creative driver.

At the same age or NBA experience, Luka is stronger and wider than Bird, who was very slender growing up and still growing into his 6’9 frame as a young NBA star. Larry grew six inches one summer in high school to go from a 6’1 local college guard prospect to a 6’7 monster seemingly overnight.

Bird took his guard skills, great basketball IQ, and unsurpassed hand-eye coordination to another level with his enlarged frame and competitive drive. He channeled all the angst of his poverty-stricken upbringing in basketball-mad Indiana and used all the doubters as extra motivation to become the best player in the world.

Unlike what many think he possessed underrated athleticism (he was a better leaper and faster before back and Achilles injuries) and was highly creative with his passing and shotmaking, as well as a ruggedly determined rebounder.

Having a great nose for anticipation and the passing lanes, Larry was also a great team or help defender, good enough to make three All-Defense Second Teams back when the coaches voted on the award, not the media. Doncic is probably a better one-on-one defender at this early stage of their careers.

Right now, Doncic is not nearly as ambidextrous. Bird once scored 20 points in a game at Portland - left-handed - and usually made a few baskets and outlet passes as a southpaw.

One way in which they differ at this stage is vocally. Luka is much more demonstrative, emotional, and unafraid to boss his older teammates around. Bird was very introverted and poker-faced, and rarely complained.

Boston Celtics Vs. Los Angeles Lakers
A couple of Hall of Fame number 33’s battled under the boards during three championship series showdowns in the mid 1980s. Larry Bird grabbed 21 rebounds in two different games vs. the Lakers in the epic 1984 Finals, which Boston won in seven. Game four also saw Jabbar elbow Bird in the face on a rebound, sparking a face-to-face confrontation between the top tier Hall of Famers.
Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Larry became known as a trash talker later in his career, but at Indiana State and early on in the NBA he was very quiet. His ISU teammate Bob Heaton has said he does not understand where all the Bird legend of talking trash comes from. He said when he played with Bird, he barely spoke. Bird took an F in an English class in high school because he refused to speak in front of his classmates.

On the other hand, Luka talks a lot (to the refs, teammates, and opponents), is friendlier and smiles much more on court than the taciturn Bird.

Partly because he handles the ball so much as the initiator of offense, Doncic gets fouled hard even more than Bird did. But both took a lot of punishment and got tested a lot by opponents early in their careers. Both players are very hard-nosed and not afraid to stick that nose in there and get dirty. Bulls center Artis Gilmore, a friend of Larry’s, warned him early in his NBA career that he better quit mopping up the court with his body (i.e. diving so much on the floor) or he wouldn’t last.

“I thought, well he’s crazy, that’s just how you play this game,” said Bird several years later in his career. “But now I know what he meant, and my body has paid a price for playing that way. But I wouldn’t do it any other way.”

Opponents realized that it was very unwise to make Bird angry, because he would make you pay dearly for any transgressions. Larry suffered a fractured cheekbone in 1982 when Bucks backup center Harvey Catchings elbowed him in the face. He missed several games, ironically in the midst of a club-record 18-game win streak.

In the 1984 NBA Finals while jostling with Bird for position in the contentious fourth game, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar elbowed Bird in the face intentionally with a backswing after grabbing a defensive rebound, starting a memorable face-to-face argument between the two legendary #33’s.

Bird responded by drawing Jabbar’s sixth foul in the game’s waning seconds on a defensive rebound. With Boston down two in the final seconds, he sank two clutch foul shots to force overtime. Then in OT, he hit the game-winning shot on a fadeaway over Earvin Johnson to cap a 29-points, 21-rebound masterpiece to clinch a 129-125 victory.

In Game 2 of that series, Lakers Bob McAdoo smacked Bird in the face (no call) as the ball went out of bounds. On the ensuing in-bounds play, he then drove the line only to see the tough as nails Bird waiting for him to take the charge as he hesitated slightly before hitting him in the groin with a raised knee drive.

Earlier in Game 6 of the 1984 Playoffs at New York, Bird stole the ball and drove coast-to-coast for a layup late in the fourth period. Knick guards Ray Williams and Rory Sparrow gang-tackled Bird from behind as he neared the hoop, slamming him out of bounds and cutting him as one of them took a swing at his head. Today such a vicious foul would probably mean suspensions for both Knicks. Sparrow was ejected and Bird never said a word. He simply got up and while slightly bleeding, made both free throws.

In Game 3 of the vicious 1987 Eastern Conference finals at Detroit’s Silverdome, Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman also double-teamed Bird with what could have been a career-ending foul under the basket (especially for someone with a balky back) after a good head fake by Larry got the Pistons rookie in the air.

Faked out, Rodman landed on Bird’s back and flipped over him but Laimbeer hammered Larry with a forearm to the throat/face and followed through by taking him down very hard in a heap of three bodies. Ironically, Bird was ejected for throwing a ball at Laimbeer moments later.

Today that extremely hard foul - especially on the reigning three-time MVP - would likely result in a long suspension for Laimbeer, and a short one for Rodman. But none was forthcoming in 1987.

Dallas Mavericks v Los Angeles Clippers - Game One
As a young player, Bird rarely spoke to opponents or complained to the officials. Doncic displays his emotions much more and gestures a lot with his hands, likely a remnant of soccer’s huge popularity in his native Europe. Perhaps his only recourse to get more protection (if the rough defense on him persists) from referees is to threaten to return home. The NBA cannot afford to have one of its greatest players leave the league.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Doncic complains about calls or non-calls quite a bit, usually with valid arguments. He gestures frequently with his hands as well, something Bird rarely if ever did, especially as a young player earning his spurs.

But Luka take a lot of punishment as Carlisle noted in the post-game press conference following his step back three-pointer at the buzzer that beat the Clippers in Game 4 of their 2020 first round series.

LeBron James elbowed Doncic in the chin on purpose while disingenuously acting as if it was an accident in a November 1st, 2019 game where the Lakers rallied late to win an epic game in overtime.

But Doncic didn’t complain and showed he had improved on his great rookie year with a 31-point, 13-rebound, 15-assist performance to announce himself as a second-season superstar.

In the first round series vs. the rugged Clippers, LA tried several players on Doncic to try and slow him down unsuccessfully. He hurt his leg on an early drive to the basket where he hit the floor, and was repeatedly bumped, crowded, and shoved on drives.

In his first-ever playoff game, he poured in 42 points, dished out nine assists, grabbed seven rebounds and had three steals. It was a record for points in a playoff debut, accomplished on 13 of 21 field goal shooting (2-6 on threes) and 14 of 15 free throw accuracy.

Of course he followed that up with the buzzer-beating step back triple to win Game 4 to cap a 43-point, 17-rebound, and 13-assist tour de force - all with a sprained left ankle.

In the third period of Game 5, Marcus Morris added insult to injury when under the basket, away from the ball on a potential rebound, he appeared to clearly step intentionally on the injured left ankle of Doncic. Despite hollow post-game claims he did not do it on purpose, he was skewered elsewhere. The shoe of Doncic came off as he stumbled off the floor.

Then, in Game 6, Morris karate-chopped Doncic twice in the head - HARD - on a drive to the basket. Morris was ejected.

After the game, Luka said he hoped it was not intentional, but added that Morris had been “saying some pretty bad things to me.”

One can take the Bird/Doncic comparison even a step further. Harrell’s insult was reminiscent of the racially charged Rodman/Thomas comments after Detroit’s Game 7 playoff loss to Boston in 1987.

Spewing sour grapes, the no-filter Rodman opined that Bird (the reigning three-time MVP and two-time Finals MVP at the time, no less) was somehow overrated because he was white and was later echoed and expanded upon by an angry Isiah Thomas.

Bird admirably took Thomas off the hook and dismissed Rodman’s comments as those of a rookie. His handling of the dicey situation elevated his status as the league’s ambassador.

Like Bird, Luka does not back down from any challenges. He takes a lot of physical punishment nightly and keeps coming back for more. Bird never backed down from a challenge, something that probably shortened his career as it helped wear him down over 13 years.

I think in the end, even though it is tempting to do so and has been for over 25 years, it is not fair to really compare anyone to Bird, who is arguably the greatest all-around player ever.

Doncic has many similarities to Bird, and could be an all-time NBA great in due time. He has already accomplished many things few if ever have, statistically, especially at his young age. Doncic is one of the top five all-around players in the NBA already at just age 21. By comparison, Bird was two months shy of 23 when he played his first game as a rookie since he was a fifth-year senior when he led Indiana State to the 1979 NCAA finals. However, Larry was the best all-around player in the NBA from his rookie season until injuries finally began to take him down in 1988.