The Greatest PG Of the Modern Era: Magic Johnson
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For those not old enough to remember Magic’s playing career, you can get an idea of how dominant he was by looking at his numbers. Johnson managed a jaw dropping TS% of 61.0, the 7th highest in the 3-point era. He contributed in multiple areas, averaging 11.0 assists, 7.1 rebounds, and 19.2 points per 36 minutes. Magic was a three time MVP and a three time Finals MVP. Johnson was so skilled that he came out of retirement as a 36 year old and still managed good production in a partial season (PER 21.1) despite being away from the game for 5 years and putting on a few dozen pounds.
Prior to his arrival the Lakers had been an average team, their last championship had been Wilt’s 1972 team. During Magic’s tenure the team averaged 59 wins per season, and he was critical to the team’s success. In his rookie season, Johnson stepped in at center for an injured Kareem in the Finals. He scored 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, and dished out 7 assists bringing home the Laker’s first title in 8 years. When Jordan retired the first time, the Bulls still won 55 games the year after. After Magic hung them up, the Lakers only managed 43 wins. While the Lakers of the 1980s were a deep team, without Magic Johnson they weren’t a title contender.
For those who are fortunate to witness Johnson play, it’s hard to believe he was so efficient given his flashy style. Magic featured no look passes, going behind his back, spin moves, and long bounce passes. Usually players of that sort suffer from falling in love with the spectacular move that they loose track of how inefficient these kinds of plays are. But not Johnson. He was seemingly omniscient in the half court and lethal in transition. Johnson always found a way to get the ball to the open man and was the engine that fueled the offense. Additionally Magic brought a million dollar smile and a joie de vivre to the game, which made him likable on a national level.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about Magic’s career is how unlikely it was. A 6-8 point guard without three point range is unthinkable today. If you had to construct Magic from today’s players, you’d take Joe Johnson (minus the three point shot), give him Steve Nash’s passing and efficient scoring, add Ronnie Brewer’s steals, combine LeBron’s rebounding, and sprinkle a little of White Chocolate’s flash (from his Sacramento days). Just an unbelievable mix of attributes, and a truly unique athlete.
The Reserves: Nash, Stockton, Kidd, Payton
Young possibilities: Chris Paul
Stockton was almost as efficient with regards to scoring, was just as good a passer, and was a better defender. But he only averaged 3.1 reb/36 and 14.9 pts/36, and was never considered one of the best players in the league. Stockton’s longevity is a positive, but guys with a higher peak are more important to winning championships than those that stick around a few more seasons. Nash, a two time MVP, is 13th all time in TS%, but lags slightly behind the others in passing and much more so on defense. You could make a good case for Gary Payton as the #2 guy, especially when you consider how good of a defender he was. Both he and Kidd suffer from from inefficient scoring. Payton’s had only 4 years where his TS% was good (1995-1998) while Kidd only achieved this recently in Dallas. Meanwhile Chris Paul has gotten off to a great start, but I think we need a few more seasons from him to put his career into perspective.