Is Kevin Johnson a Hall of Famer?
Breaking down the Hall-of-Fame case for Kevin Johnson.
Although the system was designed to evaluate baseball players, with a few minor tweaks it can also be used to assess the Hall-worthiness of basketball players. In this piece I will examine Kevin Johnson’s case for the Basketball Hall of Fame.
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. Johnson’s prime coincided with Michael Jordan’s prime, and no one from that time would have ever considered placing KJ ahead of MJ.
Was he the best player on his team?
Johnson was the best player on the Suns BC (Before Charles) and he was also the best player on the first Suns team AB (After Barkley). In other words, Johnson was the best player on the Suns in half of his 10 full seasons in Phoenix.
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. KJ deserved to be 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.
Did he have an impact on a number of NBA Finals or conference finals?
Nothing that stands out, although he generally played well. Johnson was a member of three Suns teams that made the Western Conference Finals:
In 1989 the Suns were swept by the Lakers, with Johnson averaging 23.3 PPG and 12.8 APG in the series.
In 1990 the Suns lost to the Trail Blazers in six games. Johnson averaged 21.8 PPG and 11.3 APG for the series.
In 1993 the Suns beat the Sonics in seven games and advanced to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Bulls in a thrilling six-game series. Johnson averaged 15.9 PPG and 7.0 APG in the conference finals, then averaged 17.2 PPG and 6.5 PPG in the NBA Finals.
All told, in 23 conference finals or NBA Finals games he averaged 19.0 PPG and 9.0 APG with 48.4/37.5/84.5 shooting percentages.
Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?
The end came rather quickly for Johnson. After averaging 20.1 PPG and 9.3 in 1996-97, Johnson suffered through an injury-riddled 1997-98 season and abruptly retired at the age of 32. Johnson attempted a comeback near the end of the 1999–00 season, appearing in six regular-season and nine postseason games with the Suns. He retired for the second and final time following the 2000 NBA Playoffs.
Is he the very best (eligible) basketball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
I think it’s somewhat close between KJ and Chauncey Billups, but I would choose Billups primarily due to his (a) longevity and (b) superior postseason performance.
Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?
Johnson had three seasons in which he averaged at least 20 PPG and 10 APG, and two other near misses (20.0/9.5 in 1993–94 and 20.1/9.3 in 1996–97). The only other Hall-of-Fame-eligible players in NBA history with at least three such seasons are Oscar Robertson (five), Isiah Thomas (four), and Magic Johnson (three), and all of them have been elected to the Hall of Fame.
KJ also had seven seasons in which he averaged at least 18 PPG and 9 APG . Only Robertson (nine) and Magic Johnson (eight) have recorded more such seasons among Hall-of-Fame-eligible players.
If we compare Johnson’s top-seven seasons (based on Player Efficiency Rating; minimum 2,000 minutes) to the top-seven seasons of every other eligible player, here are his 10 most similar* players:
* Note that the word “similar” here does not refer to style of play. Rather, it is a reference to similarity in terms of overall value.
All of these players are in the Hall of Fame. I think it’s safe to say that Johnson, at his peak, was definitely a Hall-of-Fame-level player.
Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
Johnson's Hall of Fame Probability is 19.0%, which is quite low. The primary reason for his low score is his three All-Star selections, a paltry total compared to other Hall of Famers (more on that below).
Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
Not really. Good defenders are usually the players who get shortchanged the most by traditional statistics, but there is no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, that suggests Johnson was a stellar defensive player.
Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame?
No. As I mentioned above, I think Chauncey Billups is the best eligible point guard who has not been elected to the Hall of Fame.
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 seventh in the voting and never received a single first-place vote.
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?
As previously mentioned, Johnson had only three All-Star selections, an extremely low total for a Hall of Famer. There are only four players in the Hall of Fame who were selected to play in exactly three All-Star Games: Maurice Stokes, Charlie Scott, George McGinnis, and Jamaal Wilkes.
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.
Scott and McGinnis are not great comparisons, either, as both players were multi-time ABA All-Star selections.
While Johnson was selected to only three All-Star teams, he was selected to five All-NBA teams (four Second Team and one Third Team). There are eight other eligible players with exactly five All-NBA selections as a guard:
* McGrady also earned two All-NBA selections as a forward.
All eight of those players have been elected to the Hall of Fame.
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 Suns teams that reached the Western Conference Finals in 1989 and 1990. While neither of those teams advanced to the NBA Finals, the fact that they were in that position was in large part due to Johnson.
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?
Johnson was a member of the 1994 U.S. National Team that won the FIBA World Championship. The 6-foot-1 Johnson also did this to 7-foot Hakeem Olajuwon:
Other than that, there is nothing especially noteworthy.
KJ would get my vote. Although his career was not especially long, Johnson was an All-NBA selection in exactly half of his 10 full seasons with the Suns. That peak, to me, outweighs the absence of longevity.