“It’s not right. I think it's all of our jobs to rectify this travesty.”
— Bill Walton on Dennis Johnson not being elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006
And that’s always how I’ve felt about Dennis Johnson and the Hall of Fame.
I mean, this is DJ we are talking about. He’s got the resume that reads perfectly on a Hall of Fame bust, right? A Finals MVP, three championships, five All-Star Games and on the Mount Rushmore of great defensive guards. What am I missing?
With the announcement last week that DJ was a finalist for the Class of 2010, I decided to take a closer look at the case for Dennis Johnson. So I dusted off the Keltner List, a set of 14 questions that has been used mostly to determine if a player deserves to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, it translates fairly well to basketball, so let’s take a gander.
1. Has he ever been regarded as the best player in basketball? Has anyone ever suggested that he was the best player in basketball?
Well, no. But that's a really tough standard. During his career (1976-90), the title of Best Player in Basketball was held, at one time or another, by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. All-time all-timers. But how many Hall of Famers were never near the best player in the league? Joe Dumars played 14 seasons in the NBA and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting once (and that was 10th, in 1993). James Worthy finished 12th in MVP voting in 1986, and that was the only season in his career when he received any votes at all. Lots of guys like that in Springfield. But Dennis Johnson finished fifth in MVP voting in 1980 and eighth in 1981. So for three years or so he was a top seven or eight player in the league. But no, I don't think anyone ever suggested that DJ was the best player in basketball. If those were the only guys you let into the Hall of Fame there would be about 20 players enshrined.
2. Was he the best player on his team?
Sure he was. With the Supersonics he was a second-team All-NBA player in 1980. And he was MVP of the Finals in 1979. Gus Williams and Jack Sikma (the owner of a top five all-time perm) were good players, but I think most people thought that DJ was the best player on those teams. And that first season in Phoenix was his first-team All-NBA year.
(Here's every retired player that has won a Finals MVP award and been named to an All-NBA first team.
Hakeem Abdul Olajuwon
With the exception of DJ, every player on that list is in the Hall of Fame. In fact, except for Rick Barry, every other player was elected on the first ballot. And everyone but DJ was named as one of the NBA's 50 best players in 1996. And although A.C. Green is not on this list, it should be noted that from 1958-2002 he and Wilt Chamberlain combined to sleep with over 20,000 women. Seemed as a good a place as any to mention that.)
3. Has he ever been the best player in basketball at his position?
You could make a case for DJ as the best guard in the NBA during the two years before Magic took over the title. Here's the All-NBA first team of 1981:
Again, a bunch of guys in the Hall of Fame and D.J. I'm not sure how to compare DJ and The Iceman. Gervin led the league in scoring four times in a five-year stretch from 1978-82 but played absolutely no defense. By all accounts he was the kind of guy that would rather score 50 and lose than 14 and win. Well, we know that wasn't DJ I'm OK with DJ as the best "all-around" guard in the league at that time. Nearly 20 points a game plus the best defensive player at his position. But I'll allow that we aren't exactly talking about the golden age of guard play.
4. Has he had an impact on a number of NBA Finals or conference finals?
This, as we all know, might be Dennis Johnson's best argument for the Hall of Fame.
The Sonics do not win the NBA title in 1979 without DJ. The Celtics do not win the NBA title in 1984 without DJ. How many players not in the Hall of Fame can claim that they were the difference for two title winners? Just look at these playoff moments from his years with the Celtics:
1) The Celtics were down 2-1 in the 1984 Finals (and save for Gerald Henderson would have been down 3-0) and had just lost Game 3 by 33 points when DJ was assigned to defend Magic Johnson. Four games later, the Celtics were champions (DJ averaged 18-5-3 for the series) and "Tragic" Johnson was born. Magic would later call DJ "the best defensive guard I ever played against."
2) DJ hits a jumper as time expired to give the Celtics a 107-105 win in Game 4 of the 1985 Finals, evening the series at 2-2. He averaged 16.0 points, 9.5 assists and 1.7 steals per game in the six-game series and led all players in with 247 minutes of court time.
(Think about that for a second. In an NBA Finals between the biggest of rivals, at the peak of the league, in a series that included seven Hall of Famers, the player that was on the court the most was Dennis Johnson. And we aren't talking about borderline Hall of Famers, either. Any serious list of the six or seven best players in history has to have Kareem, Bird and Magic on there. Doesn't that have to count for something?)
3) I think the 1986 Celtics would have won the title with Johnny Weir at point guard. We are talking about the best team I have ever seen in any sport. So I can't give DJ a lot of credit for this one, though he did put the clamps on Robert Reid in the Finals. And again, in a series that had five Hall of Famers, only Bird played more minutes than DJ.
4) DJ averaged 18.9 points and 8.9 assists in 23 games during the 1987 playoffs and was the Celtics' best player in the Finals (21.0 ppg, 9.3 apg, shot 48 percent from the floor and 86 percent from the line). And how many players have you seen in your lifetime of watching basketball that would have had the instinct to race to the basket as he did after Bird’s steal vs. the Pistons? When Bird called DJ “the best player I have ever played with,” THAT was the kind of stuff he had in mind. Sure, Kevin McHale was probably a better player. But DJ was cut in the Bird mold. He was the only player that Bird talked about with a little bit of awe, the way everyone else talked about Larry.
5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?
He was just OK in his last three years, but, yeah, I would count him as a serviceable NBA guard until he retired (at age 35) in 1990. He was neither a revelation nor an embarrassment during his third act.
6. Is he the very best (eligible) basketball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
Karl Malone is, but he’ll get in this year, as will Scottie Pippen. But not counting those guys (each on the ballot for the first time)?
I don’t see a single player not in the Hall of Fame (and currently eligible) that is a clear choice over Dennis Johnson. There are some guys that you could argue (Jo Jo White would be one. Very close call. Also a Finals MVP, White was a six-time All-Star and a key part of a couple of title-winners. Also second-team All-NBA twice. Gun to my head, I’d still take DJ, but I think if one gets in the other would have to as well) but there are no locks. Though I can understand the Bernard King argument. So I’d suggest that if Dennis Johnson isn’t the best player not in the Hall of Fame, he’s somewhere among the top three.
7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?
If you look at his offensive numbers, then no, not really. Some are in, but most are not. But there’s another list. How about the players in NBA history that have made the first or second All-Defensive Team at least nine times:
All those active guys are first-ballot locks. Gary Payton will get in, too. So only Bobby Jones and DJ are left out. And while Jones was a really good NBA player (and totally forgotten), he was never an All-NBA guy or Finals MVP.
8. Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
Again, they don’t jump off the basketball-reference page and hump your leg or anything, but they are plenty good enough. When he retired in 1990 he was one of just 12 players to score more than 15,000 points and collect over 5,000 assists. And you’re never going to guess what the other 11 guys have in common. Yup, all Hall of Famers.
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player is significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
In 1979-80, the Supersonics won 56 games and lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. They traded Dennis Johnson to the Suns in the offseason (for Paul Westphal) and won 34 games in 1980-81. The Suns, meanwhile, went from third to first in the Pacific Division in 1980-81, finishing three games ahead of the Magic/Kareem Lakers.
In 1982-83, the Suns won 53 games. They traded Dennis Johnson to the Celtics that offseason (for Rick Robey, of course. That’s one of those trades that would never happen today. In the Internet/talk radio/ESPN world, I mean. I get that DJ had some baggage, but a 28-year-old, four-time All-Star straight up for a guy that, if everything worked out, would maybe give you 20 minutes a night as a backup center? Is there a 2010 equivalent to this deal? Maybe Joe Johnson for Aaron Gray. That’s about right). The Suns won 41 games in 1983-84. The Celtics won 56 games in 1982-83 and were swept by the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals (despite 0.4 points per game from Robey.) In 1983-84, the Celtics won 62 games, beat the Bucks in five games in the Eastern Conference finals and went on to beat the Lakers in seven to win the NBA title.
Teams got better when DJ arrived and got worse when he left. And not just slightly in either direction. So that would be, I think, a “yes” to Question 9.
10. How many MVP-type seasons has he had? Has he ever won an MVP award? If not, how many times has he been close?
Never challenged for an MVP award. The year he finished fifth (1979-80), Kareem was a runaway winner. He was never close to winning, but as I wrote earlier, the Hall of Fame is stuffed with guys who never challenged for an MVP. You think Paul Pierce is a Hall of Fame lock, right? Well, so do I. You know how many first-place votes Pierce has received in his career? Zero. Second-place? None. Third place? One, last year. Since Pierce began his NBA career, 1,359 MVP ballots have been cast, and just one voter thought he was one of the three best players in the league for a given season. But he’ll still cruise into the Hall of Fame, probably on the first ballot. MVP voting just doesn’t mean a lot in basketball when it comes to the Hall. Unlike baseball, it’s a sport that can be dominated by a single person, and that usually is the guy that wins the MVPs. Plus, there rarely is a fluke MVP in hoops. No Zoilo Versalles or Kevin Mitchell. There isn’t an NBA MVP who isn’t in the Hall of Fame (or will be when eligible.) There are lots of baseball MVPs who haven’t even come close to Cooperstown (hello to George Bell, Jeff Burroughs and Willie Hernandez, among others.) This is the one spot where the Keltner List isn’t much help and frankly doesn’t translate well to basketball.
11. How many All-Star-type seasons has he had? How many All-Star Games has he played in? Did most of the players who played in this many All-Star Games go into the Hall of Fame?
Dennis Johnson played in five All-Star Games. There are 21 other players eligible for the Hall of Fame who have played in five All-Star Games. Nine are have been elected.
I was a little surprised to see that D.J. played in just one All-Star Game for the Celtics, but it makes sense when you consider that A) Jordan and Isiah were the starters every year and B) The Big Three made it every year.
(In case you were wondering, the stone-lock number of All-Star Game appearances you need to get into the Hall of Fame is eight. There have been 37 players eligible for the Hall of Fame that have played in eight. Only Larry Faust isn’t in Springfield. In fairness, he did kill four people in 1972, so maybe that’s why he isn’t in. Kidding, of course. But once you get to eight, you can punch the ticket.)
12. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team can win an NBA title?
Well, he was the best player on a team that won an NBA title. And you could at argue that he was the second-best player on the 1984 Celtics. Take a look at all the NBA title winners and figure out the second-best player on those teams. I’ll bet 90 percent of them are in the Hall of Fame.
13. What impact has the player had on basketball history? Has he been responsible for any rule changes? Has he introduced any new equipment? Has he changed the game in any way? Was his college and/or international career especially noteworthy?
Not much here, although he was one of the subjects of the famous “Thirteen Johnsons Playing The Game” song from the 1984 Pride And Passion NBA DVD. Come on, sing along:
Thirteen Johnsons With The Same Last Name
Thirteen Johnsons Playing The Game
All Of The Johnsons Shooting Hoop
Too Many Johnsons Spoil The Soup
That final line, by the way, has never been uttered by Nina Hartley.
So Will He Get In?
I have to confess that I thought I would need to play the intangible card with DJ. You know, look past the numbers, was a winner, all that stuff. But his numbers alone hold up pretty well. And there are just too many important lists that have only Hall of Famers and DJ. Can’t ignore that. Again, I’m not sure that he’s the very best player not in the Hall of Fame, but there aren’t five better. He absolutely deserves his day.
I don’t think he gets in this year (that’ll be Malone, Pippen and The Dream Team — I’m speaking about the 1992 Olympic squad, not the Brutus Beefcake/Greg Valentine tag duo of the late '80s) but I still believe it’ll happen sometime in the next couple of years. I bet he sneaks in during a down year.
And that’ll make the case for Jo Jo White a lot easier.