Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Appreciating The Underappreciated- Dennis Johnson

Last summer, in a 29-part series in, I selected an “All-Time Starting Five” for each NBA franchise (check out the archives from July-October 2010), based on the performances of players at each position, in the uniform of the franchise in question. Needless to say, there was no shortage of close calls or hard-luck runners-up. In numerous cases, a player whose talent and achievement ought to warrant recognition as the best ever at his position for two franchises, was passed over.

Rarer still are the greats (two come to mind) that starred (and I mean really starred) for three or more franchises without appearing in any of the 29 articles in the series. The hardest-luck star, Moses Malone, fell short at his position for an incredible four franchises, despite considerable success at each stop. An article was recently published on Hardwood Hype in recognition of his legendary career.

The other- referred to as "the best teammate I ever had" by Larry Bird in his autobiography, “Drive,” and "the greatest backcourt defender of all time" by Magic Johnson- was not only one of NBA history's most composed players, but until his untimely passing (and arguably in the years since as well), one of the most underappreciated. During his 14-year NBA career, Dennis Johnson was a pivotal part of three NBA champions- with the Seattle Supersonics' in 1978-79, in the process of which he named Finals MVP, and two more with the Boston Celtics in 1983-84 and 1985-86. Five times he was named an All-Star and was selected to an All-NBA First Team (1980-81) as well as one Second Team (1979-80). The greatest perimeter defender of his time, Johnson earned nine consecutive All-Defensive Team selections (1979-1987), six times as a member of the First Team, and three times on the Second Team.

In 1,100 career games (out of a possible 1,148) over his 14 seasons, Johnson scored 15,535 points, grabbed 4,249 rebounds, handed out 5,499 assists and swiped 1,477 steals. He retired (after the 1989-90 season) as just the fifth member of the NBA's 15,000/4,000/5,000/1,200 club- the others at the time were Magic, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving (it should be noted that steals have only been kept as a stat since 1973-74)- a list that grown to just 13 players (with the additions of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, Scottie Pippen and Clyde Drexler; LeBron's 792 assists and 161 steals away) in the two decades since Johnson's departure from the game. 

Johnson also participated in 180 playoff games (14th all-time) in his career, during which he scored 3,116 points (17th all-time), grabbed 781 rebounds, dished out 1,006 assists (8th all-time) and ranks 12th all-time with 247 career postseason steals.

As impressive as his statistical achievements are, and that's some A-list company that DJ's keeping, his impact on the game extended beyond the numbers. Not only was Johnson an all-timer at the defensive end, he evolved into one of the league's best big-game performers with a knack for making plays at key moments:

In the 1979 Finals, a year after an embarrassing 0-for-14 showing in a Sonics' loss in Game 7 of the 1978 Finals (it's worth noting that he set a Finals record for blocked shots in a game by guard in Game 3 of the series, with seven), Johnson's Sonics squared off against the Washington Bullets, the squad that defeated them the year before. This time, there was little question as to who would get the rings, as the Sonics disposed of the NBA’s best regular season team in five games, sweeping the Bullets after losing Game 1 by two points. Johnson, who averaged 20.9 points, 6.1 rebounds (2.6 offensive) and 4.1 assists in 17 postseason games, was outstanding, earning the Finals MVP award after averaging almost 23 points and 6 rebounds per game, including a 32-point outburst in a 114-112 overtime win in Game 4.

Not enough? How about totally stifling and frustrating the greatest point guard of all time in the Finals? In the spring of 1984, his first postseason appearance as a Celtic, while Johnson averaged a solid 16.6 points and 4.4 assists in 22 postseason games, he'll forever be remembered for his suffocating defense on Magic, which was vital in securing wins in Games 2, 4 and 7, and helping the Celtics to their only Finals triumph of the decade over the Lakers.

The following year, after encountering minimal difficulty in disposing of the Cavaliers, Pistons and 76ers, the Celtics and the Lakers squared off in a Finals rematch. While the Lakers succeeded in avenging not only their 1984 shortfall, but those of Lakers' past, winning the series in six games and clinching the title in Game 6 on the Boston Garden parquet, Johnson authored one of the most memorable moments of his career in the 1985 Finals. With the Lakers having won two of the series' first three games, in the dying moments of Game 4, with the score tied at 105, an aggressive double-team on Bird by Magic and Kareem seemed to have the game destined for overtime. However, Bird found an open DJ at the right elbow, and Johnson buried a buzzer-beater to even the series and ensured a return to Boston.

Two years later, as the Celtics were in the midst of their fourth consecutive Finals run, Johnson's defense and hustle came up big gain. In the 1987 Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Celtics squared off against the Bucks in a fantastic battle that went the distance. In Game 7, with 1:30 remaining, the ball (and Celtics' possession) flying out of bounds, Johnson threw the ball off of Jack Sikma while diving into the Bucks' bench, allowing the Celtics to maintain possession and seal the 119-113 win.

In the next round, Johnson was a part of one of the most memorable plays in postseason history- and the one he deemed as his all-time favorite. In the final seconds of Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals- the series tied at two games apiece and headed back to Detroit and the Celtics seemingly assured of suffering a 107-106 defeat- Larry Bird made one of the most brilliant and intuitive plays of all time, picking off Isiah Thomas' inbounds pass. However, as "the steal" took place, the final two seconds of the game were ticking down, the Celtics still trailed by a point and Bird's momentum was carrying him straight out of bounds. Enter DJ. Hovering near the top of the at the time of Thomas' pass, Johnson instinctively bolted for the basket, where Bird's pass was waiting for him, and in one of the "underrated really tough shots of all time" banked in a layup over his right shoulder that required him to not only put an inordinate amount of spin on the ball, but to clear the outstretched hand of Bill Laimbeer.

For the (almost) decade and a half in which he took the floor in the NBA, Johnson was a fixture in/near the top tier of backcourt players and put his fingerprints on several of eras most memorable postseason moments. Crunch the numbers. Queue up some film. As his peers. Without a doubt, Dennis Johnson holds a place in the upper echelon of backcourt players in NBA history. After a phenomenal career spent neither courting attention nor having it bestowed upon him unsolicited, Johnson was selected for enshrinement into the Basketball Hall of Fame on April 5, 2010, and officially inducted that summer.

Tragically, however, Johnson did not live to see his induction. On February 22, 2007, while coaching the Austin Toros of the D-League, Johnson suffered a heart attack at the Austin Convention Center following practice and could not be revived at a nearby hospital. Now four years (and a day) after his passing, I (hopefully along with some others) would like to bestow upon the late Dennis Johnson (September 18, 1954– February 22, 2007) some of the much-deserved attention he never received- outside of Boston (where his #3 hangs in the rafters) and among the fans of Seattle- during his playing career and in the 17 years he had remaining following his retirement.

Johnson starred for three franchises over the course of his 14-year career- the Seattle Supersonics, the Phoenix Suns and the Boston Celtics- first as a shooting guard, and later as a point guard. Despite accumulating three championship rings, earning five All-Star selections, nine All-Defensive selections and a pair of All-NBA nods, his greatness flew under the radar- somewhat fitting given the inauspicious way in which his career began.

Johnson grew up in Compton, CA, the eighth of 16 children. He attended Dominguez High School where, at just 5'9", he found playing time difficult to come by and was not considered a major college prospect, let alone a player with an NBA future. After high school, while working as a forklift operator, he hit a growth spurt (to 6’3”) and developed the excellent leaping ability for which he’d be known in his early years as a pro.

After seeing him play in a pick-up game, Jim White, head coach at Los Angeles Harbor College, asked Johnson to enroll in the school. At LAHC, Johnson averaged 18.3 points and 12.0 rebounds per game and led the school to a junior college state title. At the end of his junior college career, he was offered a scholarship by Pepperdine University. In 1975-76, he averaged 15.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game and earned the reputation as a lockdown defender that would endure for the remainder of his days. After a single season at Pepperdine, Johnson declared for the 1976 NBA Draft.

The 29th overall pick by the Seattle Supersonics, Johnson’s NBA career began in 1976–77, as a backup two-guard, behind the Sonics’ longtime backcourt duo of Don “Slick” Watts and Fred Brown. As a rookie, he averaged 9.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 20 minutes per game. The following season, with Watts gone and rookie center Jack Sikma now in the fold, the Sonics stumbled to a 5–17 under new coach Bob Hopkins. After that disastrous 22-game stretch, Hopkins was replaced former Sonics PG and future Hall-of-Famer Lenny Wilkens.

Upon taking over, Wilkens moved Brown to the bench and inserted the super-athletic Johnson into the starting lineup alongside newly acquired lead guard, Gus Williams. The move clearly agreed with Johnson, who averaged 12.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.5 steals and helped the Sonics to an outstanding 42-18 record in their last 60 regular season games and the fourth seed in the Western Conference.

In the playoffs, the Sonics' Cinderella run continued, as they knocked off the Lakers, the defending champion Blazers and the Denver Nuggets, who were led by David Thompson and Dan Issell. After dropping Game 1 in Denver, the Sonics won four of the next five to secure the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals, where their stellar play continued, as they came within a single win of their first-ever championship, taking a 3-2 lead against the Bullets before falling in seven hard-fought games. 

As previously mentioned, DJ was unable to come through in Game 7 against the Bullets, missing all 14 of his shots. After the game, Johnson acknowledged that he'd "choked" and vowed never to allow such a thing to happen again. Despite his atrocious performance in Game 7 shortfall, Johnson's first trip to the postseason saw him establish himself as one of the NBA's best young backcourt players and perhaps the league's best perimeter defender. In 22 postseason games, he averaged 16.1 points per game and 4.6 rebounds per game, roughly half of those coming on the offensive end.

The following season, 1978-79, the team continued its excellent play, as Johnson made good on his post-Game 7 promise. The Sonics were better than ever, cruising to a Western Conference-best 52-30 record, while Johnson, now playing 34 minutes per game, averaged 15.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists, was named to the All-Defensive First Team and earned his first All-Star selection. In the playoffs, after a first-round bye, the top-seeded Sonics again eliminated the Lakers, this time in five games, and ousted the Suns- the West’s only other 50-win team- before disposing of the Bullets, owners of the NBA’s best regular season record, in five games to secure the franchise's first (and only) championship. 

Johnson’s next season, 1979-80, his last as a Sonic, was statistically his best with the team. He averaged 19 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game, and for the second straight year was named to the All-Defensive First Team and the Western Conference All-Star team, and earned his first All-NBA selection with a spot on the Second Team . The Sonics won a then-franchise record 56 regular season games, though this was only good for the third seed in the playoffs, as the Lakers (led by Kareem and a Magical rookie) won 60 games, and teams from the same division can't be 1-2 in the playoffs. In the postseason, the Sonics struggled to get past the Blazers and the Bucks, before falling to the Lakers in five games in the conference finals. In 15 postseason games, Johnson averaged 17.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.8 steals per game. 

It was at this point that Wilkens grew tired of Johnson, with whom he'd often clashed. After the 1979-80 season, having averaged 14.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.5 steals in 323 games as a Sonic,
Johnson was traded to the Phoenix Suns, for Paul Westphal and draft picks. In a related story, Seattle's win total fell by 22 the following season.

In his three seasons as a Sun, Johnson cemented his status as one of the NBA's top guards and continued to establish himself as the premier perimeter defender of his era. In his first season in the desert he averaged 18.8 points per game- just shy of his then-career-best of 19- and 4.6 rebounds per game, and teamed with Walter Davis and Truck Robinson (each of whom averaged 18+ points as well) to lead the Suns to a then-franchise-record (and best in the West) 57 wins. As valuable as his offensive production was to the Suns, his biggest contribution to the team was as the catalyst for league's top-rated defense.

In terms of advanced statistics, 1980-81 was Johnson's best season, as he accumulated a career-best 8.4 win shares (.154 per 48 minutes), 4.4 of them attributed to his defense, with a career-low 12.6% turnover rate, despite a career-high 24.6% usage rate. Johnson's fantastic play didn't go unnoticed, as he earned his third straight All-Star nod and was selected to both the All-NBA and All-Defensive First Teams. Unfortunately for Johnson and the Suns, their season didn't end as happily as it began. Despite his efforts (averages of 19.6 points, 4.7 rebounds), lackluster showings from both Davis and Robinson led to a seven-game defeat at the hands of the Kansas City Kings in the conference semifinals (after a first-round bye).

Individually, Johnson's second season in Phoenix was outstanding as well, as he averaged career-highs in points (19.5), rebounds (5.1) and (at the time) assists (4.6), and earned his fourth consecutive selection to both the All-Star team and the All-Defensive First Team. However, the team's win total fell by 11 in 1981-82, due in part to a decline in Walter Davis' production (14.4 points per game, down from 18), as well as an extremely deep Western Conference, in which eight of 12 teams finished with winning records. The Suns' 46-36 record was only good enough to earn them the fifth seed in the playoffs. Once again, their playoff run lasted seven games- this time ending in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Lakers after defeating the Denver Nuggets in a high-scoring (240 combined points per game) best-of-three series. Again, Johnson performed admirably, with averages of 22.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists in those seven games.

Johnson's last season in Phoenix was his least productive offensively, largely due to the fact that, in the sumer of 1982, the Suns added a near-his-prime Maurice Lucas and stud rookie Larry Nance to a squad that already featured Johnson, a back-in-form Walter Davis and Alvan Adams. However, Johnson's all-around numbers remained solid (14.2- 4.4- 5) and the Suns won 53 regular season games and secured the third seed in the West. In a rematch of the previous season's first-round series, the Suns hooked up with the Nuggets, this time falling in three games.

This marked the end of Johnson's run in Phoenix. As had been the case in Seattle, he had difficulty coexisting with his coach, John MacLeod. That summer, he was traded to the Boston Celtics for Rick Robey and draft picks. In 236 regular season games as a member of the Suns, Johnson averaged 17.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists.

And thus, after seven pre-internet, cable, DVR and League Pass seasons in the (at the time) remote NBA  outposts of Seattle and Phoenix, we arrive at the only incarnation of Dennis Johnson with which most NBA fans are familiar- the cerebral vet, running the point alongside Bird's Big Three. Unfortunately for the viewing public, gone was much of the thrilling athleticism for which he'd been known in his early years. However, it was at this point- in light of being traded for the second time in his career and being labeled "difficult"- that his game matured to such a point that the idea of Johnson ever having been regarded as anything less than a consummate pro and the perfect teammate is unconscionable.

As a Laker fan growing up in the 1980s, it didn't take a lot to get me to hate the Celtics- with the notable exception of DJ. I'm not saying I actually liked him, but the coolness and composure with which he carried himself made it impossible to conjure the same level of disdain I had for Kevin McHale (yeah, he's awesome now- he's not attempting to murder Kurt Rambis) and whiny-ass Danny Ainge.

My apologies. I digress.

Anyway, heading into the 1983–84 season, the Celtics had lost in the postseason in consecutive years to the Philadelphia 76ers. This was due in large part to not having an answer on defense for the powerful and explosive Andrew Toney. Thus they decided to take a chance on Johnson, who'd clashed with each of his last two coaches, but was undeniably an elite perimeter defender. In what he called "a dream come true," Johnson joined the Celtics' star-studded cast and immediately looked as though he'd been on the roster for a decade. Johnson very quickly built a strong relationship with not only Red Auerbach, whom he referred to as "living history," but Larry Bird as well, with whom he almost immediately developed a rapport that bordered on telepathy.

In each of his first five years (1983-84 through 1987-88) as a Celtic, each of which saw the team reach the conference finals, four of which culminated in a trip to the Finals, two of them in championships, Johnson averaged no worse than 12.6 points (at least 15.6 twice) and 4.2 assists (6.8+ three times) in the regular season. During that stretch, he was selected to the All-Defensive Team four times (three Second Teams and one First) and earned the fifth and final All-Star selection of his career. In 1984–85, Johnson had arguably his best statistical campaign with the Celtics, averaging 15.7 points, 4 rebounds, 6.8 assists, which he coupled (as always) with his trademark smothering defense to help the Celtics to a 63-19 record.

He was even better in the postseason. In each season of his first half-decade in Boston, Johnson appeared in at least 17 postseason games, averaging better than 15.9 points on each occasion and three times handed out at least 7.3 assists per game. In 1987, with the Celtics plagued by injuries, most notably Kevin McHale, who was playing on a broken foot, Johnson assumed a greater share of the not only the scoring load (18.9 ppg in 23 games), but set a career-high (regular season or playoff), averaging 8.9 assists.

The next two seasons, were massively disappointing for the Celtics, who were now aging and ravaged by injury. In 1988–89, Johnson averaged just 10 points and 6.6 assists per game on a 42–40 team (Bird played just six games all year) that snuck into the playoffs as a #8 seed and was swept by the Pistons. The following season, 1989–90, was Johnson's last in the NBA. Now 35-years old, Johnson was moved to the bench, only to be recalled into starting duty when John Bagley injured his shoulder. That season, Johnson played in 75 games, starting 65, and averaged 7.1 points and 6.5 assists as the Celtics won 52 games and earned the East's #4 seed. However, the y once again failed to survive the first round of the playoffs, falling in five games to New York Knicks.

In 541 games as a Boston Celtic between 1983 and 1990, Johnson averaged 10.9 points, 3.2 rebounds and 6.4 assists. As this is hardly a fitting way in which to punctuate a celebration of the career of one of the greats, I leave you with the following- the best of DJ through the years:

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