Here is an NBA Open Court episode where the panel pick the top 5 players of each decade.
I used to have these arguments all the time when i was a kid playing basketball with my brothers and my friends in the playgrounds. That was the time of the great Celtic, 76ers and Lakers teams and Bird, Magic, Erving and Jordan were at their prime. That was how I learned to argue and debate. When we would argue about who was the better player or who was the better team, we would back it up with stats and who had more diverse talents. When I reflect on it years later, these guys would’ve done great in high school speech and debate class if they could debate about politics the way they debate about sports. I had a lot of fun getting into those debates and arguments. We would argue, but we would also laugh a lot.
In the early 1980s, my brothers and I were Boston Celtic fans and everyone else were fans of the 76ers. I don’t remember anyone being a Lakers fan until the mid 1980s when Doctor J and the 76ers began to decline after 1983. I got into a ton of debates about who was the greater player: in the early 1980s, it was Bird vs Erving; the mid 1980s it was Bird vs Magic; then in the late 1980s until Bird had his heel injury it was Bird vs Magic vs Jordan.
For my money, the best player of the early 1980s until 1986 was Larry Bird. He was at his peak and he was a better rebounder and shooter than Magic. Magic was a better ballhandler at the fast break, but I don’t think he equaled Bird until around 1987 when he developed a set shot and the jump hook that gave him an outside game that expanded his offense. Bird was the undeniable leader of the Celtics and his passing made his teammates better.
In 1987 and 1988 Magic was the best player in the league. He took greater control of the offense as Kareem began to decline, was a great clutch player, and was his absolute best as a shooter, passer, and rebounder. He was his absolute best at making his teammates better players.
If you were to compare Bird, Magic and Jordan, the 1988 season would be the season to compare them. Bird, Magic and Jordan were all at their primes and that was the last time Bird had a healthy season before injuries took their toll. Bird was the better shooter and rebounder, Magic and Bird were the better passers. Jordan was the greater one-on-one player. Early in their careers, Bird and Magic were more natural team leaders than Jordan. Jordan was a great player, but he had to grow into being a team leader as his career went on.
I think the 1988 and 1989 season was when Jordan took the mantle from Bird and Magic as being the best player in the league. Jordan was learning to be a team leader who can make his teammates better players. He was unstoppable on offense. You can make an argument where Bird and Magic could equal Jordan on offense.
But Jordan was vastly superior to Bird and Magic on defense. Jordan was just as good on defense as he was on offense. Bird and Magic were good help defenders, but neither were good one-on-one defenders. On the Celtics, McHale and Maxwell would guard the scoring forwards while Bird would wind up guarding Tree Rollins or Kurt Rambis. On the Lakers, Byron Scott and Michael Cooper would defend the quick point guards and Magic would defend a nonscoring threat.
Arguing about sports is very similar about arguing about politics and religion. The big difference though is that when I’ve argued about sports in the playgrounds, it was always done in fun and would bring people together. Many times, after a debate on sports, someone would offer to buy soft drinks for everyone from the 7-11 that was always near the basketball court. I was a mediocre player, but I loved playing. That was a great time.