Posted by Justin Kubatko on February 17, 2009
One of our commenters suggested that Kevin Johnson would be a good candidate to run through the Keltner List. Well, loyal reader, here you go...
Drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1st round (7th pick, 7th overall) of the 1987 NBA draft.
1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in basketball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in basketball?
No and no.
2. Was he the best player on his team?
Johnson was the best player on the pre-Barkley Suns and he was the best player on the first Suns team post-Barkley. In other words, KJ was the best player on the Suns in half of his ten full seasons in Phoenix.
3. Was he the best player in basketball at his position?
No, early in KJ's career Magic Johnson was the NBA's best point guard, and after Magic's departure John Stockton was arguably the best. Johnson was probably included in the discussion after Magic's first retirement, but he had to compete with the likes of the aforementioned Stockton, plus Tim Hardaway, Gary Payton, and Mark Price.
4. Did he have an impact on a number of NBA Finals or Conference Finals?
Nothing that stands out. Johnson was a member of three Phoenix Suns teams that made the Western Conference Finals, in 1989, 1990, and 1993. In 1989 the Suns were swept by the Los Angeles Lakers, and in 1990 they lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in six games. However, in 1993 the Suns beat the Seattle Supersonics in seven games, eventually losing to the Chicago Bulls in six games in the NBA Finals. KJ was arguably the top playoff performer for both the 1989 and 1990 teams, but in 1993 the team was led by league MVP Charles Barkley.
5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?
Yes and no. KJ retired after the 1997-98 season at the age of 32. He attempted to make a comeback at the end of the 1999-00 season, playing six regular season and nine playoff games with the Suns. While he was effective in his limited regular season stint (PER of 17.3 in 113 minutes), he was terrible in the playoffs, shooting 32.4% from the field and turning the ball over on almost 25% of his plays. Johnson retired for the second and final time at the end of the 2000 playoffs.
6. Is he the very best (eligible) basketball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
No, that would be Artis Gilmore.
7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?
In his prime Johnson was a 20 point-10 assist threat every night. He had three different seasons where he averaged at least 20 points and 10 assists per game, and two other near misses (20.0 PPG and 9.5 APG in 1993-94 and 20.1 PPG and 9.3 APG in 1996-97). The only other players in NBA history with at least three 20-10 seasons are Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas, and Magic Johnson, and all of them have been elected to the Hall of Fame. KJ also had seven seasons in which he averaged at least 18 points and 9 assists per game; only Robertson (9) and Magic Johnson (8) had more.
For his career, Johnson averaged 17.9 points and 9.1 assists per game. Only four other players in NBA history (minimum 400 games) have averaged at least 16 points and 8 assists per game for their career: Tim Hardaway, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, and Isiah Thomas. Hardaway will be eligible for the Hall of Fame for the first time this year; the other three are, as previously noted, in the Hall.
8. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
Johnson's Hall of Fame probability is 39.1%, which would probably place him in the category of "possible, but not likely."
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
No. Solid defenders are usually the players that get short-changed the most by traditional statistics, but there is no anecdotal evidence that suggests that Johnson was a stellar defensive player.
10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame?
Through last year's voting, KJ was probably the best eligible point guard in NBA history who had not been elected to the Hall of Fame.
11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
Johnson received MVP votes in five different seasons, although he never finished higher than 7th in the voting. He also never received a first place vote.
12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the players who played in this many All-Star games go into the Hall of Fame?
Johnson was selected to play in only three All-Star Games, an extremely low total for a Hall of Famer. There are only two players in the Hall of Fame who were selected to play in exactly three All-Star Games: Clyde Lovellette and Maurice Stokes. (Stokes is not an apt comparison, as he was selected to play in the All-Star Game his first three years in the league before suffering a career-ending brain injury at the age of 24.)
While KJ was selected to only three All-Star teams, he was selected to five All-NBA teams (four 2nd team selections and one 3rd team selection). There are seven other guards with exactly five All-NBA selections: Tiny Archibald, Clyde Drexler, Tim Hardaway, Bill Sharman, Sidney Moncrief, Mitch Richmond, and Isiah Thomas. Archibald, Drexler, Sharman, and Thomas are in the Hall of Fame; Moncrief and Richmond are not; and Hardaway is not yet eligible.
13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win an NBA title?
Not likely, but possible. Johnson was the best player on the two Suns teams that reached the Western Conference Finals in 1989 and 1990. While neither of those teams advanced to the Finals, the fact that those teams were in that position was in large part due to KJ.
14. What impact did the player have on basketball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way? Was his college and/or international career especially noteworthy?
KJ was a member of the 1994 US National Team that won the FIBA World Championship, but other than that there is nothing especially noteworthy.
I would be inclined to vote for KJ. Here are the top ten eligible guards for the Hall of Fame in 2009 based on Win Shares:
+-----------------+------+-------+-------+ | Player | G | WS | WS/82 | +-----------------+------+-------+-------+ | Michael Jordan | 1072 | 208.5 | 15.9 | | John Stockton | 1504 | 205.3 | 11.2 | | Terry Porter | 1274 | 112.7 | 7.3 | | Jeff Hornacek | 1077 | 109.5 | 8.3 | | Maurice Cheeks | 1101 | 102.4 | 7.6 | | Kevin Johnson | 735 | 95.2 | 10.6 | | Hersey Hawkins | 983 | 90.1 | 7.5 | | Sidney Moncrief | 767 | 89.0 | 9.5 | | Tim Hardaway | 867 | 85.8 | 8.1 | | Derek Harper | 1199 | 84.9 | 5.8 | +-----------------+------+-------+-------+
Jordan and Stockton are obviously going to be elected this year, and after them I think KJ is the next best candidate.