Is Marques Johnson a Hall of Famer?

February 4, 2015

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 Marques Johnson.

Here are the questions as adapted by me:

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, times two.

2. 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 career at the age of 30.

3. Was he the best player in basketball at his position?

It depends on 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. But 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.

4. Did he have an impact on a number of NBA Finals or Conference Finals?

Johnson’s first and 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 scoring in that series, but there was nothing especially noteworthy about his performance.

5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?

Probably, but we’ll never know because of his neck injury.

6. Is he the very best (eligible) basketball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

No, I believe his former teammate Sidney Moncrief is, and there are others that I would put ahead of him.

7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?

Johnson is one of just 18 eligible players to post a career scoring average of 20 or more points per game while shooting at least 50 percent from the field:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (HOF) 1560 24.6 .559
Charles Barkley (HOF) 1073 22.1 .541
Walt Bellamy (HOF) 1043 20.1 .516
Wilt Chamberlain (HOF) 1045 30.1 .540
Adrian Dantley (HOF) 955 24.3 .540
Alex English (HOF) 1193 21.5 .507
Julius Erving (HOF) 836 22.0 .507
Patrick Ewing (HOF) 1183 21.0 .504
George Gervin (HOF) 791 26.2 .511
Dan Issel (HOF) 718 20.4 .506
Marques Johnson 691 20.1 .518
Bernard King (HOF) 874 22.5 .518
Bob Lanier (HOF) 959 20.1 .514
Karl Malone (HOF) 1476 25.0 .516
Bob McAdoo (HOF) 852 22.1 .503
Hakeem Olajuwon (HOF) 1238 21.8 .512
David Robinson (HOF) 987 21.1 .518
David Thompson (HOF) 509 22.1 .504

Johnson is the only player in this group who is not in the Hall of Fame.

Then again, Johnson has the second-fewest number of games played in this group, not to mention that his career scoring average almost surely would have dropped below 20 points per game had his career not come to a premature halt.

Let’s look at a comprehensive statistic like wins above replacement (WAR). Johnson had 80.8 career WAR, which currently places him 108th on the all-time list.

Here are all of the HOF-eligible players who had between between 75 and 85 career WAR and were within 5,000 minutes of Johnson’s career total of 23,694:

Paul Arizin (HOF) 24,897 83.9 36.8
Dan Issel (HOF) 22,342 83.3 42.3
Marques Johnson 23,694 80.8 40.7
John Drew 21,828 78.1 32.9
Larry Foust 21,890 76.8 37.9
Alvan Adams 27,203 76.1 28.9
Mark Aguirre 27,730 76.0 23.3
World B. Free 26,893 75.9 24.9

* +WAA stands for positive Wins Above Average (i.e., negative seasons are zeroed out). This is an attempt to measure each player’s impact in his “big” seasons without penalizing him for seasons where he was below average.

There are eight players on this list, and just two of them are in the Hall of Fame.

8. Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

Johnson’s Hall of Fame Standards score* is 40, a score that puts him at the bottom of what I call the “viable candidate” range (40-49 points).

* Please remember that this method is designed to model the behavior of the voters and does not reflect my personal opinion.

9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

Yes, there is. Johnson’s career came to a rather abrupt end, which denied him the chance of reaching an eye-catching milestone such as 20,000 points.

10. 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.

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 (1977-78, 1980-81 to 1983-84). His best finish came in 1980-81, when he was sixth in the ballotting.

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 had six seasons that I would describe as “All-Star-type” seasons (i.e., at least 8.0 WAR). Here is a list of HOF-eligible players who had exactly six “All-Star-type” seasons:

As you can see, four of these players are in the Hall of Fame and five are not.

Moving on to All-Star Games, Johnson had five selections, a good but not overly impressive total. There are 24 HOF-eligible players with exactly five All-Star selections: 13 of them are in the Hall of Fame and 11 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?

No, not without a lot of supporting help.

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 had a noteworthy collegiate career at UCLA, where he won a national championship in 1975 and received the Wooden Award as the nation’s top collegiate basketball player in 1977. His jersey number (54) was retired by UCLA in 1996.

The Verdict

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 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” way. That said, here’s what I did:

  1. Find the player’s total WAR in his five best seasons.
  2. Find the player’s total WAR in his five best consecutive seasons.
  3. Add the WAR totals above to get the player’s peak score.

Johnson had the 37th-highest score among HOF-eligible players using this method, and 34 of the 36 players ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame.

What was most interesting to me was the player just two spots above him on the list:

Name Top 5 Top 5 Cons. Total
Kevin Johnson 61.2 54.2 115.4
Marques Johnson

58.1 54.0 112.1

Why is that interesting? Well, I’ve argued in the past that KJ’s relatively short career should not be held against him since his peak value was so high.

If that logic worked for Kevin Johnson, it should work for Marques Johnson as well. I’d vote “yes” on Marques Johnson.

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