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Is Marques Johnson a Hall of Famer?
Breaking down the Hall-of-Fame case for Marques 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 post I will examine Marques Johnson’s case for the Basketball Hall of Fame.
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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?
Johnson was a very good player, but nobody ever reasonably suggested he was the best player in the NBA.
Was he the best player on his team?
Johnson was the best player on the Milwaukee Bucks from his rookie season (1977-78) through his fourth season (1980-81). For the remainder of his tenure with the Bucks, though, Sidney Moncrief was the team’s best player.
Johnson had a poor season (for him) in 1984-85 after being traded to the Los Angeles Clippers, then bounced back to be the team’s best player the following season. Unfortunately, early in the 1986-87 season he suffered a serious neck injury that effectively ended his playing career at the age of 30.
To summarize, I would say Johnson was his team’s best player in five of his nine full seasons.
Was he the best player in basketball at his position?
It depends how you classify Larry Bird. Early in his career, Bird’s role probably better fit the description of power forward rather than small forward, so let’s call Bird a power forward for sake of this discussion.
From 1977-78 through 1983-84, Johnson was certainly in the discussion for best small forward in the game. For the period as whole, I would put Julius Erving ahead of him, although there were single seasons where Johnson was probably the NBA’s best small forward.
Did he have an impact on a number of NBA Finals or conference finals?
Johnson’s only appearance in the conference finals came in 1984, when the Bucks were eliminated in five games by the Boston Celtics. Johnson led the team in points (107), rebounds (39), and assists (22) in that series, but there was nothing especially noteworthy about his performance.
Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?
Probably, but we’ll never know because of his neck injury.
Is he the very best (eligible) basketball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
No, I don’t believe that he is, but he’s not that far down the list.
Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?
An efficient scorer, Johnson averaged 20.1 PPG with a career field goal percentage of 51.8%. He’s one of only 19 Hall-of-Fame-eligible players to post a career scoring average of at least 20 PPG on 50% shooting from the field:
Johnson is the only player on this list who is not in the Hall of Fame. To be fair, Johnson has the second-fewest number of games played in this group (691), and his career scoring average almost surely would have dropped below 20 PPG had his career not come to a premature halt.
Let’s look at a more comprehensive statistic like individualized wins* (iW). Johnson has 91.1 career iW, which currently places him 143rd on the all-time list. The five players immediately above and below him on that list are:
World B. Free
This is a mixed bag. Dumars, Moncrief, Archibald, Gallatin, and Cheeks are Hall of Famers; the others are not.
* This is my replacement for another statistic I created, win shares. Win shares, in my opinion, overrates low-usage/high-efficiency players and underrates high-usage/low-efficiency players. I’ll have to write up the details for individualized wins at some point.
Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
Johnson's Hall of Fame Probability is 25.2%, which is rather low. Then again, if you look at the five players directly above and below him you’ll find six Hall of Famers.
Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
Yes and no. Johnson’s career came to a rather abrupt end, which denied him the chance of reaching an eye-catching milestone such as 20,000 career points.
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?
Yes, I believe Johnson has the best resume of any eligible small forward.
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 (1977-78, 1980-81 to 1983-84). His best finish came in 1980-81, when he was sixth in the balloting. He received one first-place vote apiece in 1977-78 and 1980-81.
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 five All-Star Games, a good but not overly impressive total. There are 25 eligible players with exactly five All-Star selections; 18 of them are Hall of Famers and seven are not. The seven who are not are:
Embry (Contributor) and Tomjanovich (Coach) are actually in the Hall of Fame, but neither was elected for their playing career.
If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win an NBA title?
No, not without a lot of supporting help.
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 had a noteworthy collegiate career at UCLA, where he won a national championship in 1975 and won the Wooden Award as the nation’s top collegiate basketball player in 1977. His number 54 was retired by UCLA in 1996.
Johnson’s case is a tough one.
For the first seven years of his career, Johnson was one of the best small forwards in the game, and even though his game had slipped a bit he was still an All-Star selection in his last full season before the injury.
Johnson’s injury occurred after his best seasons, so while his peak value is not affected by this unfortunate event, his career value is.
In the end, I don’t feel comfortable punishing a player for failing to beef up his career totals due to circumstances beyond his control. In those cases, I feel that if his peak value was high enough then he should be a Hall of Famer.
So that’s the key question for me: Was Johnson’s peak value high enough?
There are any number of ways one could attempt to answer this, and the truth is there is no “right” method. That said, I looked at this two different ways.
Get total iW for all eligible players in their top seven seasons.
Order them from highest to lowest.
Johnson ranks 59th using this method, and he’s surrounded by Hall of Famers. If you look at the nine players on either side of him (i..e, players ranked 50th-58th and 60th-68th), you’ll find 16 Hall of Famers (88.9%). For the record, the non-Hall-of-Famers are Glen Rice and Kiki VanDeWeghe.
Get Johnson’s top seven seasons based on iW.
Order them from highest to lowest.
Repeat this for all eligible players and find the 10 players with the most similar pattern to Johnson (note that the word “similar” here refers to value, not style of play).
Here are those players, in order of similarity:
Kevin Johnson is the only player in this group who is not a Hall of Famer. That’s interesting, because I’ve already made the argument that KJ’s relatively short career should not be held against him, as his peak value was very high. If that logic worked for Kevin Johnson, it should work for Marques Johnson as well. I’d vote “yes” on Marques Johnson.