The Keltner List is a series of subjective questions formulated by famed sabermetrician Bill James used to help assess whether or not a player deserves to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
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. Today I will assess the Hall of Fame chances of Kevin Johnson.
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 Suns BC (Before Charles) and he was the best player on the first Suns team after Barkley’s departure. In other words, Johnson was the best player on the Suns in half of his 10 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. 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.
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 teams that made the Western Conference Finals:
- In 1989 the Suns were swept by the Los Angeles Lakers.
- In 1990 the Suns lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in six games.
- In 1993 the Suns beat the Seattle Supersonics in seven games and advanced to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Chicago Bulls in a thrilling six-game series.
Johnson was arguably the top playoff performer for both the 1989 and 1990 teams, but in 1993 Phoenix was led by NBA MVP Charles Barkley.
5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?
Sort of. Johnson retired after the 1997-98 season at the age of 32, but he attempted a comeback near 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 — he averaged .195 win shares per 48 minutes in 113 minutes played — he was terrible in the playoffs, shooting .324 from the field and turning the ball over on almost 25 percent of his plays. Johnson retired for the second and final time following the 2000 playoffs.
6. Is he the very best (eligible) basketball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
It’s a close call between Johnson and Sidney Moncrief, but I would go with Moncrief.
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 (20.0/9.5 in 1993-94 and 20.1/9.3 in 1996-97). The only other players in NBA history with at least three 20/10 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 points and 9 assists per game; only Robertson (nine) and Magic Johnson (eight) had more.
For his career, Johnson averaged 17.9 points and 9.1 assists per game. Only three other retired players in NBA history have averaged at least 17 points and 9 assists per game for their career (minimum 400 games played): Robertson, Thomas, and Magic Johnson.
8. Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
Johnson’s Hall of Fame probability is 0.332, 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?
Not really. Good defenders are usually the players that get short-changed the most by traditional statistics, but there is no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, 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?
Yes, in my opinion Johnson is the best eligible point guard in NBA history who has 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 seventh in the voting and he never received a single 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: Maurice Stokes* 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.
While Johnson was selected to only three All-Star teams, he was selected to five All-NBA teams (four Second Team selections and one Third Team selection). There are seven other retired guards with exactly five All-NBA selections: Tiny Archibald, Clyde Drexler, Tim Hardaway, Slater Martin, Sidney Moncrief, Mitch Richmond, and Isiah Thomas. Archibald, Drexler, Martin, and Thomas are in the Hall of Fame; Moncrief, Haradaway, and Richmond are not.
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 NBA Finals, the fact that they were in that position was in large part due to Johnson.
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?
Johnson was a member of the 1994 US National Team that won the FIBA World Championship, but other than that there is nothing especially noteworthy.
Johnson should be in the Hall of Fame. While his career was not especially long, Johnson was an All-NBA selection in almost half of his seasons, a peak that, to me, outweighs the absence of longevity.