Updated: May 28
During the 80s Johnson and Bird were the two best powerhouses to play. Both Magic and Larry in the 80s won 3 MVP awards and appeared in the all star game 9 times. Magic was a great facilitator for the Lakers which helped him and Kareem win so many titles. Bird on the other hand was a dominant offensive threat with limitless range at a time where it was unheard of to be shooting that much. They both in their own ways changed the game.
Why Magic was the best: Magic has been a dominant player ever since his rookie year averaging 16+ points and 7+ assists during his first stint with the Lakers. In his rookie season he led the Lakers to a 60-22 record and then won the NBA Finals in 6 games against Dr. J and his Sixers. One year later after his injury, he went on to play 4 consecutive NBA Finals, winning two of them. He both won and lost against the Sixers and Larry Bird's Celtics.
Magic was also a very versatile player. As a 6'9 PG he can play really every position except for C. He was a triple-double machine back then which was a lot less rare than it is today. His 138 career triple-doubles rank third to Russell Westbrook and Oscar Robertson’s 181. Magic, on his career averages the most assists of all time (11.2 APG). Other players have dished out more career assists, including John Stockton, Jason Kidd and Mark Jackson. Yet, that doesn’t mean their numbers are more impressive as each has played in many more games than Johnson. For example, Mark Jackson had to play 400 more games than Magic in order to have 200 more total assists than him.
Magic's height played a huge role in helping him average so many assists. Standing at 6'9 the average height of a point guard at that time was around 6'3. Magic would use this to his advantage as he would thread the needle between defenders.
Why Bird is better: Larry Bird was an all star during his first 9 seasons of his career. He won MVP from 1984-1986, becoming the 2nd ever to accomplish the three-peat for MVPs. The only player to do this was 11-time NBA Champion, Bill Russell. He won 3 championships in 1981,1984,1986 during his career, defeating HOF's Calvin Murphy and Moses Malone's Rockets, Magic and Kareem's Lakers.
Bird brought greatness to the game of basketball. He may not be as athletic as MJ or Dominque Wilkins. But what he lacks in athleticism, he makes up for in his genius-level basketball IQ.
The answer really comes down to this. Who was the better defensive player? Their offensive games are so dominant in their own ways that this is the only real indication on who is better.
Birds defensive game was very good and was put on the All-Defensive team 3 times. He would wreak havoc on passing lanes, resulting in 2 2+ SPG seasons. His steals would help his offense transition into the fast break as well.
Magic was also a ball-hawk. He lead the league in steals twice, averaging 3.4 steals during the 1980-1981 season. He was never put on an all-defensive team despite average 2+ steals a game 5 times.
Overall, you cant get much better than these two. Larry and Magic played alone or against eachother in every single NBA Finals during the 80s. They both played with many HOF's that would help them achieve their wins as well. With near identical stats and accolades choosing one over the other is a very tough descion, but in my opinion Magic Johnson was the better player during the 80s.