Backpicks GOAT: #10 Magic Johnson

Key Stats and Trends

  • Led an offensive dynasty, quarterbacking a number of top-50 offenses
  • Elite combination of scoring efficiency and creation
  • Average longevity — took a few years to ramp up to prime levels

Scouting Report

If there’s a single word to describe Magic’s offense, it’s exploitation. He was the best in NBA history at exposing weaknesses, constantly finding a pressure point and attacking it. Sometimes he did this in the half court, sometimes with his own scoring, but most of the time it was on the fast break. Showtime!

In his early days, Magic’s exploitation dial was set to simmer, not boil. He had yet to establish an outside shot or a post threat, and most of his scoring came from opportunities created by teammates, transition scores or the occasional foray to the hoop. When he saw an opening, he’d selectively attack like this:

He was judicious about calling his own number like this, but even in his pre-prime years he could ram the ball down your throat if you didn’t stop his momentum. Here’s a typical high-speed charge of his:

If defenses didn’t stop the ball, he made them pay dearly, advancing at full speed until someone blocked his path:

By his fourth or fifth season, Magic unleashed an uber-aggressive mode, where nearly every time LA found an odd-man advantage he would hit an open slasher for an easy finish. (He even barreled over a few defenders in his day for offensive fouls.) He seemed to always find the right guy for a layup, making the Laker break the most efficient weapon in the game.

Many of young Magic’s passes were too aggressive, leading to deflections or turnovers. He often flirted with danger, looking for small advantages to expose, and his decisions weren’t as crisp as they would become in his prime. Sometimes, a tight pass slipped through, but many of these were turnovers:

As a result, giveaways were a problem. Among high-rate passers,1 Magic’s 1984 adjusted turnover rate ranked in the 5th percentile (only 48 seasons were worse). His turnover rate over his first seven years places him around the 18th percentile, reflecting the risk-taking visible on tape. (His assist to turnover ratio wasn’t much better.) Great passers take these risks (and commit more turnovers) because they see receivers when mere mortals see blockers, but Magic was overly zealous in his early years.

He didn’t have much of an outside shot in those days either, and he certainly didn’t pull the trigger on it often. Here’s the typical amount of space defenses ceded in these sets, especially if Kareem was on the strong side:

But in ’84 and ’85, he started to rain scores from the perimeter. He called his own number a touch more, mixing drives in with his jumpers. He started to back smaller defenders into the post:

This became the foundation of Magic’s scoring arsenal. By ’86 and ’87, he completely leveled up, regularly nailing deep jumpers when his defender sagged off of him. He also used the pick-and-roll more effectively in the half court. But Magic’s ultimate weapon was still that exploitative passing.

As the years went on, he cleaned up the overly risky passes and mastered whipping bullets into spots that others wouldn’t imagine. Here’s an example from 1983, on the doorstep of his prime, where he could size up the defense like a pre-snap quarterback and manufacture easy points:

If you were watching the ball, you probably missed the open receiver. Magic started throwing these kinds of high-leverage assists nightly, catching defenders with their heads turned the wrong way. Layups materialized from the most innocuous moments, almost like…magic.

This isn’t traditional creation, where the defense responds to a scoring threat. This is straight up exploitation — give Magic an inch, he takes a mile. And as a result, his offensive efficiency was always exceptional. Technically, this means he wasn’t great at pulling defenders away from his teammates, although his Box Creation numbers capture the value in finding minute advantages and facilitating fast breaks, which is largely reflective of how easy he made life for his teammates.

On defense, Johnson was fairly mobile when he entered the league, so Los Angeles made him a roamer in their half court trap. Magic used his instincts and length to jump passing lanes and gather loose balls and steals this way. (He led the league in steals per game twice.) Other times, he’d end up in weird positions, looking for someone to harass or guard without knowing where to go, but there was a madness to this method that worked on many possessions:

He almost always guarded the weakest wing player (and the occasional power forward), a trend that would hold throughout his career. On tape, his defensive positioning was fairly sound, although I tallied a moderate number of slow or missed rotations — notice in this clip how he essentially has no reaction to the play unfolding (lower-right corner):

In the next clip, he is caught in a “looking to guard” someone mode, but completely missed helping at the rim as needed:

Even when he did provide help, it wasn’t too effective. Despite standing 6-foot-8, his ability to deter or affect shots around the hoop was largely nonexistent. Some examples:

Those were typical Magic plays near the rim. He essentially never blocked shots in this area; for players 6-foot-8 or taller, Magic’s block numbers from 1985-91 rank in about the 5th percentile.

He also had a habit of gambling for steals in the backcourt (consistent with his aggressive mentality). In tracking about eight games worth of possessions, Magic stole the ball once and whiffed six times. This often led to odd man breaks, as it did below. That blur headed for the front row was Johnson:

However, he reclaimed some defensive value with elite rebounding. Among perimeter guys, Magic was above the 92nd percentile in every season in relative defensive rebounding rate, peaking in the 99th percentile in 1989.2

As his career wore on, Magic abandoned the roamer role and played smarter defense, but his foot speed declined. His offensive aggression ramped up in the mid and late-’80s, and in his last few seasons — still very much in his prime — Magic became a more dangerous half court threat, relying on post play and strong outside shooting.

Impact Evaluation

Magic piloted one of the league’s great offensive dynasties, maintaining elite status despite the decline of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But Johnson’s impact can be hard to gauge for two reasons: First, he entered the league early and steadily improved from year-to-year, making it difficult to find a discrete, clear signal from his presence. Second, the Lakers were loaded offensively during his best seasons, so it’s hard to tease out exactly how valuable everyone was. But a closer look at the data suggests that his value increased throughout the ’80s and that he might have peaked as the greatest offensive player ever.

In 1979, LA was anchored by Abdul-Jabbar, an offensive juggernaut at the time. The Lakers were coming off of three consecutive 50-win pace seasons (when healthy), powered by good team offense. Suffice it to say, Magic joined a strong offensive club, especially since rookie coach Paul Westhead was more attack-oriented than predecessor Jerry West. Magic’s role as a rookie was tertiary and, as such, his impact doesn’t jump off the page. LA’s offense did improve to best in the league with Magic, Jim Chones and Michael Cooper on board, but the shift was only a 2-point improvement from the ’79 team. Good, but not great.

In 1981, Magic missed about the half the year with an injury, giving us insight into his early, swiss-army knife value. Without him, LA played at a 47-win pace (2.1 SRS) and with him a 54-win pace (4.7 SRS). Given the large samples, I view this as fairly reflective of his importance to that team — he gave them a solid boost, but wasn’t even LA’s primary point guard yet (the venerable Norm Nixon was). We can use game logs for a more granular view of the team’s changes with and without Magic that year:3

The Lakers were only marginally better on offense and defense without Johnson. (The negative defensive change is good.) Consistent with historical results, the best isolation player — the player least dependent on others for his offense, Jabbar — didn’t need Magic at all. (Kareem’s numbers were actually better without Johnson.) Jamaal Wilkes, another skilled scorer, didn’t miss him either.

After acquiring Bob McAdoo and installing Pat Riley as the headman, the ’82 and ’83 Lakers played at an identical 59-win pace (6.4 SRS) when healthy.4 With Nixon gone in ’84, Magic was (finally) handed the keys to the Showtime car, and was nice enough to miss a chunk of time that year that we can analyze too:

The Lakers actually shot more efficiently without Johnson. This is a small sample, so it shouldn’t be viewed as definitive, but look at what happened to James Worthy. He increased his scoring and efficiency over those 15 games without Magic, which reflects his considerable skill as a scorer. Like Kareem in ’81, Worthy didn’t need Magic for his offense and was capable of ramping up if given more touches. Cooper, the de facto backup point guard, spiked his assists by 50 percent while pinch-hitting for Magic, averaging 9.3 per 36 minutes. (Magic himself averaged 12.3 per 36 that year.)

Once Johnson hit his stride in 1985, the Lakers attack operated in rarified air. For six consecutive seasons, LA posted a top-50 offense of all-time (by relative offensive rating, or rOrtg), finishing with a relative efficiency at least 5.9 points better than average in five of the six years. No other team in history has even had five top-50 seasons in a six-year span, and only the ’90s Jazz and 2000s Mavs had four. The Lakers six-year average rORtg of +6.1 trails only the mid 2000s Mavs and Suns for most dominant offensive stretches in NBA history.5 They were one of the best, if not the best, offensive dynasty in history:

This dynastic offense correlated with Magic’s own increased load, as he bumped his scoring and creation in 1985, an indicator that he was pressuring defenses more. Over the next few years, his scoring continued to rise as his efficiency dropped off, indicating that he called his own number more. His combination of scoring, efficiency and creation paint him as one of the great offensive forces in NBA history:

While some of the players in the upper-right of that plot score far more than Magic, very few ever matched his balance of efficiency and creating. In those two areas, he’s comparable to players like Jordan, LeBron and Bird, although he lacks individual scoring when compared to those offensive engines. However, Johnson makes up ground in most comparisons with a passing edge.

In 1986, he missed nine games — a small sample for highly variable metrics like scoring efficiency or point differential, but large enough to glean something about a more stable metric, assists. As in ’84, Cooper upped his dimes without Magic, from 6.8 to 10.8 per 36, only about 2 off of Johnson’s own season average.6 Cooper was a very good passer, and could set up players in the half court (or even on the break) well enough to support their scoring skill, but there’s little to suggest that he was a hidden game-changer on offense.

Worthy’s efficiency remained the same in those nine games without Magic in ’86, although his assists increased by 30 percent while his scoring volume dropped a touch, implying that he swapped some isolation for playmaking. This pattern repeated itself in 1988, when Magic missed 10 games and Cooper missed seven, leaving LA with replacement parts at point guard (Milt Wagner or Wes Matthews). This time, Worthy upped his scoring (nearly 2 points to 21.3 per game), his efficiency (from 56.7 percent to 59.2 percent true shooting) and his assists (from 3.7 to 4.8 per game). Byron Scott, yet another talented Laker, improved his scoring (up 3 points to 24.4 per game) and increased his assists as well.

These results — LA’s offense was +1.8 in those 19 games, down from +5.9 with Magic and Cooper — imply that Johnson played with a strong offensive cast. When Magic wasn’t there, his ball-dominance was redistributed among threats like Kareem and Worthy — themselves a formidable duo — who could either create their own offense or create for others.

In ’87, Magic authored his magnus opum, leading the same rotation from ’86 to a 66-win pace (9.5 SRS) and a mind-boggling 119.9 offensive rating in the postseason, a record that would stand until Cleveland posted a 120.3 mark in the 2017 playoffs.7 The ’88 and ’89 Lakers regressed slightly and then Kareem retired. With the firepower dwindling, the results still remained — LA maintained a win pace around 60 thanks to its elite offense in ’90 and ’91 —  a testament to Magic’s floor-raising skills.

Injuries and aging complicate any analysis of Magic’s first retirement. Vlade Divac missed half of the 1992 season, and when he returned, Worthy — rapidly declining with age — missed the remainder of the year. The Lakers finished around .500, and in their only full-strength stretch (all of 11 games) they played at a 50-win pace (2.9 SRS). The offense finished right around average. Even five years after HIV abruptly ended his career, Johnson’s presence helped the ’96 team on offense (while hurting the defense): LA posted a +2.3 rORtg (51-win pace) in 38 games with Eddie Jones, and then a +7.4 rORtg (59-win pace) in 32 games when Magic suited up next to Jones.

Collectively, the film and data scream that Johnson was one of the very best offensive players in history. His WOWYR numbers are fantastic, finishing first in the 2016 results, and near the top in all regressed game-level studies. His team’s offenses were even better in the postseason, improving by a weighted average of 2.5 efficiency points. However, Magic’s defensive work dings him somewhat among the other greats, as he was likely a neutral-impact defender in the early part of his career before his defense waned in later seasons. But it’s his longevity that costs him most on this list, as HIV stole valuable prime years for him to climb up the top-10.

All told, I consider Magic’s peak just short of the all-time greats, not only due to his defense, but because his ball-dominance introduces redundancies on good teams. On the flip side, because his offenses were so good, and his style somewhat unique, I can see an outside argument for him reaching Wilt and the next block of players. Either way, what’s clear is that with two more years comparable to his ’91 campaign, he would move up multiple spots, and with three similar seasons would be pushing the top five. Instead, he narrowly edges rival Larry Bird for the 10th-most valuable career in NBA history.

  1. Players with at least 9 assists per 100 possessions and 1000 minutes played
  2. Relative defensive rebounding rate is simply a player’s rate subtracted from the league average in a given year, in order to account for strategic shifts over time.
  3. These particular game logs were courtesy of nbastats.net.
  4. Riley was installed 11 games into the ’82 season; Magic was regarded as a coach-killer after complaining about Westhead and asking to be traded.
  5. Although one could argue those teams played more small-ball, sacrificing defense for offense.
  6. Some have speculated that LA’s scorekeepers were guilty of “assist inflation” by generously awarding assists to its players at home, however, Cooper averaged more assists on the road and the effect is negligible for this analysis.
  7. Magic’s offenses dominated in the playoffs as well, with a five-year peak of +9, third-best in history. The Bulls were really the only team to stymy Magic during a series in his prime. In ’91, they held LA to a woeful 105 offensive efficiency and severely limited Magic; he averaged 14.7 points and 9.8 assists per 36, way down from his season averages.

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