Remembering Dennis Johnson

Dennis Johnson died last week. DJ, as he was often called, was one of the best players of his generation. He was one of an elite group of defensive guards dotting the NBA landscape of the 1980’s. Johnson was a six-time First Team All-NBA Defensive Player. He made the second team All-NBA in defense three times. For most of his career, Dennis Johnson was arguably the single best defensive guard in the league. He played on three championship teams and won an MVP award in the 1979 NBA finals. DJ won titles with the Seattle Supersonics in 1979 and with the Boston Celtics in 1984 and 1986. Johnson also led two 50-win teams in Phoenix in the early 80’s. In 1981, he was First Team All-NBA following a breakout offensive year with his new team.

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I had to think about his career from a statistical perspective because I can’t stand on memory alone. I do recall a strong, athletic guard who kept elite scorers from getting in the lane, from getting to their favorite spots on the floor, from running the offense in a manner of their choosing. Whether that guard was a point guard or shooting guard was often irrelevant because DJ had the entire package. He was also hard to guard for his opponents. In the 80’s and early 90’s, there were so many defensive guards: Sidney Moncrief, T.R. Dunn, Alvin Robertson, Paul Pressey, Micheal Ray Richardson, Michael Cooper and many others. Some were more skilled on offense than others. DJ was especially proficient at getting to the free throw line.

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Notice how ELVIN HAYES is at the left edge of both pictures.

Dwyane Wade demonstrated the value of getting to the free throw line in last year’s NBA Finals. DJ was not the offensive pearl that Wade is, but he made more free throws in the NBA than players like Kevin McHale, Mark Aguirre, Derrick Coleman, Terry Cummings and Joe Dumars. In looking back at DJ’s career, I noticed some other interesting statistics in comparing his career to that of other defensive two guards. Not surprisingly, I began my comparison with Joe Dumars.

I began with the assumption that the two players were quite similar and that Dumars, a Hall of Famer, would have considerable advantages in a number of categories. I was wrong. Dumars was much more of a perimeter player than Dennis Johnson ever was. He shot much better from deep range (not at all surprising). He was a better ball handler (not surprising). Beyond that, however, I found that DJ was a far better rebounder, shot blocker and ball hawk. I looked at career highs in different categories and the disparities are not at all what I expected.

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DJ’s season high in blocked shots: 97; Dumars: 15. Defensive rebounds? DJ: 268, Dumars 155. Offensive rebounds? DJ had six seasons over 100. Dumars’ seasons over 83: zero. Seasons with 100+ steals: DJ (7), Dumars (0). I certainly had not expected to see anything like that. Dennis Johnson was a damn good player and two of his very best seasons were played in the era when NBA games were tape delayed. Of course, many of his best games were also played on the Celtics of the 1980’s when his teammates included high-visibility players like Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Bill Walton. It’s hard to remember a 57 win Phoenix Suns team in the early 80’s. Who really remembers his teammates like Kyle Macy and Truck Robinson and post-Portland Maurice Lucas? You might remember Alvan Adams and Walter Davis because they were scoring machines. But, could you remember that DJ led his team in scoring? Probably not.

As time moves on and his career fades farther into the recesses of memory, we will forget that DJ was a guy who put some impressive numbers during his day. He won three championships on two teams. After he left Seattle, they had one more 50 win season from 1980 to the early 90’s. After he left Phoenix, the same thing happened. I haven’t argued that DJ was a better player than Joe Dumars or any other Hall of Fame players. It is obvious, however, that elite players and scorers like Magic Johnson and others had their hands full whenever DJ lined up on the opposite side of the court. I don’t know what measuring stick the voters have used to deny his entry thus far, but that stick has not captured the measure of the player, much less the measure of the man.

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2 comments

  1. I wouldn’t have put Dumars in the HOF in the first place, though because of my Detroit ties I am glad he’s there.

    But there’s no way that DJ should have been ignored for so long. Not only in the HOF (he was at least on par with Dumars) but in coaching. He had the same problem that Kareem is having.

  2. I can’t tell you how shocked I was at the numbers. 97 blocks in a season playing the two is a ton of blocks. A lot of great defensive 2’s never even came close to that number: Moncrief, Robertson, Pressey, etc. It almost makes me wonder if something happened in his career that we know nothing about…We all know what the deal is with Kareem…or should know.

    DJ didn’t have a Kermit Washington face-crushing moment, so I don’t know what the deal was…it’s not like he couldn’t score or wasn’t clutch or was sloppy with the rock or clanged free throws. I told a mutual friend of ours that people simply won’t remember the careers of guys like him because Magic-Bird have blotted out all but the most elite players from that time.

    When was the last time you heard anyone talk about guys like George McInnis or Lonnie Shelton or Alvan Adams or Otis Birdsong or Terry Tyler or Ray Williams? Those names simply do not come up anymore – except for among hardcore fans of the game. The Magic-Bird phenomenon is really interesting because it appears to have impacted a collective memory. I suppose that happens with most things.

    It took Spike Lee’s movie “Four Little Girls” for me to recall that the bombing of that church took place AFTER the March on Washington.

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