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Keltner List: Kevin Johnson

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...

Position: Guard
Height: 6-1  Weight: 180 lbs.
Born: March 4, 1966 in Sacramento, California
High School: Sacramento in Sacramento, California
College: University of California

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.

The Verdict:

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.

13 Responses to “Keltner List: Kevin Johnson”

  1. Chris Says:

    Just an FYI - KJ went to Cal Berkeley not U of A.

  2. Justin Kubatko Says:

    Oops, you're right. Thanks for noticing the error. I've corrected it.

  3. Kevin Pelton Says:

    I find it bizarre that KJ was selected to more All-NBA teams than All-Star teams. I guess the top point guards were disproportionately in the West in the late '80s/early '90s (Johnson/Stockton/Porter/Hardaway). Justin, can you look up how many guys have pulled that off?

  4. Justin Kubatko Says:

    Kevin, since 1951 (the year of the first NBA All-Star Game) there have been eight players with more All-NBA selections than All-Star Game selections:

    | Player          | All-Star | All-NBA |
    | Derrick Coleman |        1 |       2 | 
    | Phil Ford       |        0 |       1 | 
    | Kevin Johnson   |        3 |       5 | 
    | Drazen Petrovic |        0 |       1 | 
    | John Stockton   |       10 |      11 | 
    | Rod Strickland  |        0 |       1 | 
    | Ben Wallace     |        4 |       5 | 
    | Deron Williams  |        0 |       1 | 

    As you can see, KJ is the only player with a difference greater than one.

  5. steve norris Says:

    that dunk on the dream alone should put him in.

  6. josh Says:

    Could you briefly comment on who you believe to be the best PG in Suns history?
    Thank you.

  7. parker Says:

    Here's another question? How many guys have made all nba 5 times and are not in the hall of fame?

  8. Justin Kubatko Says:

    Parker, this was in the post:

    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.

  9. parker Says:

    Those are guards, how about other players?

  10. Justin Kubatko Says:

    Josh, why do I get the feeling you're asking me to step into a minefield? :-)

  11. Kiran Rasaretnam Says:

    I'm a big fan of KJ both as a basketball player and as a person - went to school with him (he was 2 years ahead of me). He used to come out and watch the Cal tennis team all the time, and he would attend the same church. He is now mayor of Sacramento (I live in a suburb of Sacramento). Anyhow, here are my observations.

    I didn't realize how "close" according to the Keltner list he would be in terms of getting into the Hall of Fame.
    All-Star selections shouldn't be a criteria in my opinion as they are simply popularity contests
    All-NBA selections, although more worthy of consideration, are also somewhat popularity contests
    There really isn't a "true" measure of who should be in versus out.

    A great example of this will be Allen Iverson. He has got to be one of the most over-rated basketball players of ALL TIME. He will probably get into the Hall of Fame. My opinion of AI was confirmed when I read Wages of Wins by D Berri. I'd love to see the Keltner List done on AI (assuming that he as actually eligible today - he is not likely to affect his should/should not be in status by what he does in the future - in other words, one can easily form that opinion today).

    Thanks - and keep up the great work

  12. Romain Says:

    You're saying that KJ was the best player among the Suns before Barkley showed up in 1992 as if this were not even something that needed to be argued. Yet in 1988/89 and 1989/90 Tom Chambers averaged respectively 25.7 PPG + 8.4 RPG and 27.2 PPG + 7.0 RPG. Don't get me wrong I'm not saying that Chambers was better than KJ. All I'm saying is that you should have mentioned the guy. In your recent post on Allen Iverson HoA probability, you wrote that anytime you average 26+ PPG in a season, you're going to get major MVP consideration. Yet these stats don't seem enough for Chambers to get at least some consideration as best player on his team?

  13. Ricardo Says:

    Speaking of old Suns, how about Alvan Adams? Or one of his contemporaries, Jack Sikma?