Whatever Larry Bird says about basketball, I consider to be the Absolute Revealed Truth. So, Friday night, it seemed worthy of note when Bird (reclined upon a ball bag with ice on two ankles and one elbow after the Boston Celtics beat the Bullets for their 10th straight victory) mentioned that, since high school, he'd had a simple statistical system for rating all players.
Bird is usually the inarticulate embodiment of the inexpressible. Neither he, nor anyone else, can explain how someone who can't run, can't jump, has a pot stomach and goofy pulpy legs can do almost everything on a basketball court better than almost anyone else.
Cliched as the comparison seems, Bird brings Zen principles to hardwood games. Mostly, his eyes move. Seeing more than others, he moves less. When he does act, it is with a deliberate sort of suddenness, too precise to be called quick. No player is so in tune with so many fundamental truths of this sport.
Every few seconds, he makes a correct instantaneous decision, often before anyone else recognizes the pattern of future events. And he never stops making these correct evaluations until he has made another open jumper, tipped another rebound to himself, passed behind his neck to a teammate or dived to slap a loose ball out of bounds off the knee of a startled foe.
Bird hardly could bear to discuss his little system since "there's so much it doesn't include." Like what, Larry? "Oh, the pass that leads to the pass that sets up a basket. Or which direction you tip a loose ball so the other team doesn't get an easy basket. I had to talk to Bill Walton about that when he got here. He hadn't thought much about it. Or maybe how well you block out a good rebounder. You can't measure leadership, either."
As we see, the Bird System is surely no more than 99 percent pure. It just can't measure which way you tip those vital loose balls.
So, exalted teacher, what's the deal?
Give a player one point for: every point he scores and every rebound, assist, steal or blocked shot he gets. Then subtract one point for: every missed shot or missed free throw, every personal foul and every turnover.
Then, of course, work out the player's average rating by dividing by the number of games he has played.
No theoretical justification for this system will be offered here. For two reasons. 1) Bird endorses it. 2) The results it gives aren't good; they're nearly perfect.
Actually, Bird's method already is familiar to quality coaches from Morgan Wootten to Lefty Driesell. What's fascinating is that nobody bothers to use it to rate the NBA's stars.
Let's look at this year's midseason ratings of the NBA's best. What other statistic gives such satisfactory and illuminating conclusions?
First team: Magic Johnson (plus 28), Bird (26.3), Akeem Olajuwon (24), Kevin McHale (23.3), Adrian Dantley (23), Dominique Wilkins (22), Larry Nance (22), Charles Barkley (21), Alex English (20.9) and Isiah Thomas (20.7).
Second team: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (20.3), Moses Malone (20.3), Jeff Ruland (20), Orlando Woolridge (19.1), Bill Laimbeer (19), Marques Johnson (19), James Worthy (18.7), Maurice Cheeks (18.7), Clyde Drexler (18.7) and Robert Parish (18.5).
Third team: Jack Sikma (18.5), Sidney Moncrief (18.3), Buck Williams (18.1), Andre Robertson (17.8), Patrick Ewing (17.7), Ralph Sampson (17.6), Purvis Short (17.4), Sleepy Floyd (17.3), Mark Aguirre (17.2) and Artis Gilmore (16.9).
For comparison, last season's top five were (in order): Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan (now injured), Moses Malone and Bernard King (now injured).
The first thought that leaps to mind is that next Sunday's NBA All-Star Game is going to begin with several semi-frauds in the starting lineups.
Except for the Magic Man, the fans picked the entire West team wrong.
Olajuwon, the heart of the .700 Rockets, has passed Abdul-Jabbar in total value at center. Once upon a time, 10 years ago, Abdul-Jabbar rated at the fantasy level of 36.9, a quantum leap above anybody now. But that's history.
Sampson can't approach Dantley's level at forward, even if he is a foot taller. Dantley, a fabulously efficient scorer who does everything else decently, never gets his due. Sampson, flawed by turnovers and fouls, blocks few shots and misses foul shots.
Nance, unsung in Phoenix, scores as well as Worthy and he rebounds and passes better. True, West guards aren't great, but Portland's Drexler might be a better shock-starter than the equally anonymous Robertson of San Antonio.
Sad to say, Julius Erving is no longer the Doc. In his prime, he was a 24 or 25, just a notch below Bird. Now, he's an old 15.4. You don't want to know all the folks (such as Cliff Robinson, 16.1) who contribute more. The fellow who should start in his place is McHale -- the most underrated player today. The Celtic can score (22.5) and shoot a high percentage (55) while rebounding and blocking shots with the best forwards.
The game's rising stars all appear here. The ferocious Round Mound of Rebound -- Barkley -- already is part thief and part bully and could get even better. The breathtaking Human Highlight Film -- Wilkins -- can move up to the Erving level if he polishes his shot selection, passing and shot blocking.
It's nice to report that the only teams with three players on the top 30 are the Lakers, Celtics and 76ers -- still probably the game's cream.
Also, as might be assumed in any Bird Rating, one-dimensional gunners are slaughtered here. Our Overrated Team of players high among the scoring leaders who have no other significant skills include: Mike Mitchell (13), Jeff Malone (14.2), World B. Free (15.4) and Kiki Vandeweghe (16.3).
At this point, of course, the quiet voice of history calls us. If this statistic's so hot, what does it say about the certified all-timers?
Unfortunately, the NBA didn't kept records of blocked shots, steals and turnovers until recent years. So a lot of guesstimating is needed.
Nonetheless, gentlemen named Elgin Baylor and Jerry West rise near the top at about the plus-25 level. Oscar Robertson flirted with a career mark of 30. And Bill Russell, the most successful, and probably the best player ever, would have been even higher -- about 32 or 33.
So we have the ideal basketball number at last.
Forgot Wilt Chamberlain.
A plus 40 for his whole career.
Sorry, nothing's perfect.