Is Marques Johnson a Hall of Famer?

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.

11 thoughts on “Is Marques Johnson a Hall of Famer?

    1. Well, shucks, if you can put Chris Mullin in the Hall of Fame who won nothing on any significant level, you can definitely put Marques Johnson in the Hall of Fame.

  1. I think you also need to include player’s college career when factoring things in. Call it the “Ralph Sampson Score”, since Sampson obviously only had two very good to great NBA Seasons, but got into the Hall due to his years as s dominating force at Virginia.

    Johnson was the very 1st Wooden Award winner, was a key player on a national championship team, and was everybody’s all-american for two straight seasons.

    With his entire body of work as a college and pro player, you could make a much better case for Johnson’s inclusion to the HoF.

    1. I agree. Obviously, either the people that say “no” to Marques being inducted, are either too young to know, or have never seen those 35 point performances during the playoffs. If you can put Chris Mullins in the H.O.F., you can definitely put Marques there also, hands down. Noteworthy: Mullins was a great player at St. Johns, but never won anything. Marques led his U.C.L.A. team to a national championship.

  2. If you include the Ralphie factor a lot of players need to be elected. Marques, Mark Aguirre, and Wayman Tisdale all have what it takes then, even though Tisdale doesn’t have a great pro career he has Oklahoma. I like Johnson to get in partly because he played in the great SF era of the 80’s. Take him and put him in the 90’s or 70’s and he’s a lock. Same with Mark Aguirre, and both have the huge disadvantage of playing in tiny media markets. Moncrief too, Sikma. No way guys like Hardaway or Jo Jo white should be nominated but they played in huge media centres and/or during wall-to-wall coverage, so being in Oakland wasn’t a disadvantage.

  3. Is the Hall of Fame suppose to be for the best players who played in the NBA?
    Was Cris Mullin a better player then Marques Johnson? I do not think so. Johnson had a better College Career as well as NBA Career. His stats prove that.
    Mullin was an Olympic Champion
    Johnson first 7 seasons playing against n marking Larry Bird, Julius Erving, Dominque Wilkins, james Worthy, Adrian Dantley to name to few and held his own against all of them
    What do you think?

    1. Agreed, Marques was quite a bit better than Mullin, and a more all-around player. During Marques’ seven seasons in Milwaukee, Dominique and Worthy were just getting started in the NBA, and the big time gunners in the West (Dantley, Alex English, Mark Aguirre) weren’t considered team players, so the “best forward” conversation involved Doc, Bird and Marques, with Bernard King entering into it in 1983 and 1984. Wilkes from the Lakers ended up making the Hall, but he was never the best player on any of his teams, so we can count four forwards (Dantley, English, Wilkes and Dominique) who made the Hall but were not considered better than Marques in his day.

      In fact, English was Marques’ backup in the 1977-78 season. The Bucks let English go to Indiana in free agency, not because Don Nelson didn’t realize how good English was (Nellie knew) but because the Bucks couldn’t afford to keep two great young small forwards, and Marques was the greater of the two. I realize that guys like English and Dantley and Dominique played a long time and scored 20,000+ points, and that’s why they made the Hall. But the better player — Marques — should get his due.

  4. Great analysis, and I agree with the conclusion. Longevity, drug issues and the Bucks failure to make an NBA final work against Marques. Working for him are three main factors:

    1) It’s the basketball HOF, not the NBA hall (Ralph Sampson example), and he was John Wooden’s last great forward on the last Wooden championship, and he (along with David Meyers) led the team. The Wooden award in 1977 helps,too.

    2) The peak four years 1978-81 are one of the best runs ever made by a small forward. Appreciation of Marques’ suffered then and now from the fact that those are also Dr. J’s best years in the NBA, and Bird and Magic stole quite a bit of thunder from both Doc and Marques. In the months just prior to Bird and Magic’s debut in 1979, Marques was hands down the media’s top forward in the All-Pro voting, with Bobby Dandridge No. 2 — so after the 1978-79 season, it was clearly appreciated by basketball media that Marques had a better year than Doc, and the best season at the forward position.

    3) Playoffs. The Bucks swept Bird, McHale, Parish and Maxwell out of the 1983 playoffs (this is a correction to the analysis, which says the Bucks made only one East Finals appearance with Marques; they made two, 1983 and 1984). The Bucks would lose to the fo’ fi’ fo’ Sixers led by Moses Malone, and were the only team to put up a fight against that great Philly team, arguably the best team in NBA history. That’s gotta count for something, and who even dreams of sweeping the Bird-McHale-Parish-Maxwell Celtics?

    In that playoff sweep, Marques (not Moncrief) led the Bucks, as Sidney continued a string of subpar (for him anyway). In Larry Bird’s autobiography, he credits Marques “played very well” and Bob Lanier “played well” as the key contributors to the Celtics 1983 woes, but mentions no other Buck other than the coach, Don Nelson. This isn’t to discredit Moncrief, who also deserves the hall based on his great years 1982-1986, but Milwaukee Bucks playoffs belonged to Marques. His Win Shares Per 48 in the 1978 and 1981 are off the chart (.240 and .280 respectively). He outplayed Dr. J in 1981, and played a heroic game 7, only to fall short 92-91.

    The intense playoff series 1981-83 involving the Boston-Philly-Milwaukee triumvirate in the East, produced some of best basketball I’ve ever seen. It’s too bad that those pre-ESPN, pre-NBC years were easily forgotten except in relation to Larry Bird’s success, and that’s something Dr. J has complained about in his writing. The memory fog only gets thicker when it comes to Marques and his Bucks teams/

    1. Correction: Playoff Win Shares per 48 for Marques in 1978 (nine game vs. Phoenix and Denver) and 1981 (seven games vs. Philly) were .280 and .260 respectively, even better than I originally posted. Should have checked before posting, sorry.

      To relate those WS/48 numbers, Dr. J’s highest impact Win Share playoffs were 1977 and 1982, at .215 and .185 respectively.

      Bird’s best were .198 in 1981, .236 in 1984 and .263 in 1986. No surprise that those are the three Bird championship playoffs.

      Lebron James posted a .284, a .270 and a .260 for the 2012, 2013 and 2014 playoffs, the Heat winning it all in 2012 and 2013.

      I would argue that the Bucks and Marques in 1981 were good enough to win a title, and Dr. J agreed at the time after the Sixers escaped game 7 in Philly with a 92-91 victory, then ran out of gas after being up 3-1 against the Celtics. The fact of the East being loaded with great teams in Philly, Boston and Milwaukee in the early 1980s deserves an asterisk of some kind in the NBA record books, and should be taken into consideration for the Bucks (Marques and Moncrief) who have yet to make the Hall of Fame.

  5. He was great to watch played the game the way it was meant to be coached by John wooden he was so much better then Chris Mullin and reggie miller wat a joke

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