This article was originally written in February 2007, right after Dennis Johnson passed away. It examined his career and Hall of Fame prospects. I was lukewarm on DJ as a Hall of Famer but have since embraced the idea, less because I think Johnson was better than I remembered and more because I frankly think a larger Hall of Fame is better policy. In any event, here’s a look at the DJ, an interesting person and a very good player…
Unfortunately, the impetus to look back at player’s career usually comes at a final point, retirement or death. In the case of Dennis Johnson, his untimely passing has inspired plenty of writers to eulogize a great NBA player. I thought I’d look back at his career and hopefully find a few more nuggets of information that haven’t been touched upon yet.
DJ Before the NBA
Johnson was grew up in Compton, California, a ghetto that later became infamous for its tough streets by the gangster rap group N.W.A. in early 1990s. DJ was one of 16 children, born to a relatively middle class family. Johnson tried to pay ball but was short (5’9 as a high school senior), and did not make the varsity until his senior season and even then he barely played. Upon graduating high school without any prospect of a scholarship, Johnson spent the next year taking blue collar jobs and playing ball in local summer leagues. During that time, he became a great leaper and grew to 6’4. He now could guard players much taller and he made a name for himself in the playgrounds. A scout saw DJ and offered him a scholarship to the local junior college, which he took.
There were implications that Johnson was not the easiest guy to get along with. His junior college coach, Jim White, said in Peter May’s “The Last Banner” that “[w]e struggled a lot….He was averse to doing what he was supposed to do. He was never defiant; he was just a little wild and undisciplined in his life and a very emotional kid. So when things didn’t go his way, he would explode.” Johnson played well enough, however, to be placed with a small Division I school, Pepperdine. In his first and only year there, Johnson helped lead Pepperdine to a 22-6 record and the NCAA tournament, where they lost to UCLA. Johnson had played well enough to become an NBA prospect. Because DJ had spent his first year after high school working and the next two in junior college, Johnson’s high school class was eligible for the NBA draft after his first year at Pepperdine (this was back when the NBA had the old four years from high school rule). Johnson left school and was drafted by the Sonics with the twelfth pick of the second round (29th overall) in the 1976 draft.
Seattle: DJ Leads the Sonics to Contention
Johnson played immediately with the Sonics and was solid if not great rookie (9.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.5 apg in 20 mpg). DJ’s second year, 1977-78), was the famous year that the Sonics started out 5-17 and brought in Lenny Wilkens to right the ship. Wilkens put Johnson in as a starter and he helped lead the team to a 42-18 finish and the NBA Finals. Johnson first began showing his clutch reputation when he had a huge Game 4 of the Finals against the Bullets, putting up 33 points, 7 boards, 3 blocks, and sealing the game in the last few minutes with a few baskets, a key offensive rebound, and a blocked shot. The year ended poorly, however, as Johnson shot 0-14 in a close Game 7 loss. The Sonics came back the next year ended up beating the Bullets in the NBA Finals. Johnson was named to the All-Star team and, even more importantly, he was the Finals MVP, averaging 23 ppg and over 2 blocks per game.
After two straight Finals appearances, the Sonics looked to be the Western Conference favorites in 1979-80. Indeed, the three highest scorers on the 1978-79 Sonics, Johnson, Gus Williams, and Jack Sikma, were all 25 or under. The team won a then-franchise record 56 games and made it to the Western Conference Finals. The problem was that the Lakers had just picked up a rookie named Magic Johnson, who helped lead L.A. to 60 wins. The Lakers dispatched the Sonics 4-1 and went on to win the title.
Despite L.A.’s emergence, the Sonics still looked poised to be a contender in the future but it wasn’t meant to be. DJ was fighting with Wilkens and he was traded to Phoenix for Paul Westphal before the 1980-81 season. Johnson was coming off of his best year with Seattle (19 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.1 apg) and was young. So why trade him for the 30-year old Westphal? DJ said in “The Last Banner” that his relationship with Wilkens “did deteriorate a little bit. Like any player, I wanted more time, this and that, and I wanted to renegotiate my contract. They did not want to do that. Lenny was trying to help me, but I didn’t always see it that way. And we had our share of arguments.”
How Good Were The DJ Sonics?
A strong part of Dennis Johnson’s Hall of Fame case was not just his time as a key contributor to the Celtics but also that he was a star on a title-level Sonics team. Was it a truly great team? Maybe. The Sonics run was essentially three years. Here was their records and expected won-loss based upon point differential:
Year W-L Expected W-L Playoff Result
1977-78 47-35 45-37 Lost NBA Finals 4-3
1978-79 52-30 48-34 Won NBA Title 4-1
1979-80 56-26 53-29 Lost in Western Conference Finals 4-1
A good team, but nothing in this record screams dynasty. In addition, the team was deep but there isn’t a Hall of Famer on the roster–though Gus Williams and Jack Sikma have arguments. Of course titles are forever, so you can never take away that the Sonics snagged the 1978-79 title. But what kind of competition did they face?
It was my perception that the post-ABA merger years were a messy time in the NBA and there was a lack of truly dominant teams. You could chalk it up to balanced competition but from 1976-77 (the first year after the merger with the ABA) through 1978-79 (the year before Magic and Bird entered the NBA), only two teams broke 55 wins. (The 1977-78 Blazers won 58 games but lost in their first playoff series because they had lost Bill Walton to a broken foot and the 1977-78 Sixers won 55 games but were taken out by a 44-38 Bullets team in the conference finals that would go on to beat the Sonics in the Finals). In modern NBA history, though, this was one of the only times where the league didn’t offer one super dominant team in the regular season teams.
My sense is that the late 1970s was a low ebb, in terms, of NBA talent. I know the ABA had just been absorbed but the NBA was losing a ton of stars from the 1960s and early 1970s and the Sonics, to their credit, filled the void between the dynasties of the early 1970s and the Magic/Bird Years.
Who Was Their Star?
As noted, the core of this team was Dennis Johnson, Gus Williams, Jack Sikma, and Fred Brown. Sprinkle in some solid big men (John Johnson, Paul Silas, Lonnie Shelton, and Marvin Webster) and you have a good team. The interesting question is how key each member was to the team as a whole. Let’s look at the Sonics year-by-year leaders during that time:
While defense is not accounted for in the PER formula, it does show the rest of Johnson’s game to be good but not great as a Sonic (a PER of 15 is considered an average player). Williams put up the best stats for these Sonics but, interestingly, he did not make an All-Star team in any of the three years we have reviewed, while Johnson and Sikma both made the All-Star team in 1979 and again in 1980. Putting aside the stats, you do have to, some degree, take DJ’s All-Star selections over Williams as a judgment by DJ’s peers that he was a very key player on this team.
In all, it’s fair to say that the Sonics were a balanced team and that DJ was one of the top three players, and, at times, the best of the three. But you cannot unequivocally state that Johnson was ever the best player on the team for any full season during that time.
Phoenix: DJ’s Forgotten Years
Johnson came to a pretty well developed Phoenix team in 1980-81. The Suns had also won 55 games in 1979-80 (though they were also toasted 4-1 by the Lakers). Johnson’s addition was a help, as the team bumped up to 57 wins, the best record in the Western Conference. Like the Sonics, the Suns were deep and had a skilled big man (Alvan Adams) and a designated scorer (Walter Davis) to go along with DJ. In addition, the Suns even had a big post player (Truck Robinson). In that first year in Phoenix, Johnson had his best season as a pro (18.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.7 apg) but the season ended in bitter disappointment. The Lakers were upset in the first round but the Suns failed to capitalize and were knocked off in their first series by a 40-42 Kings team.
In 1981-82, the Suns slumped to 46-36 (Davis missed time with injury) and the team was smoked by the Lakers 4-0 in the second round. In 1982-83, the Suns looked to be a contender as well, going 53-29 and added a young star in Larry Nance. But the playoffs, once again, were bad news. This time, the Suns lost a mini-series to an underdog Denver team 2-1.
Why Trade DJ?
By way of background, the early 1980s Suns were run very much as they have been in more recent times. They had fun high scoring teams that weren’t particularly tough up front. And the team was run by Jerry Colangelo who was not afraid to make a splashy move. Colangelo had apparently come to the conclusion that they could replace DJ with the younger shooter Kyle Macy and wanted to parlay Johnson into another big man. But trading DJ wasn’t just about the big man issue or the fact that Kyle Macy was kind of waiting in the wings. Johnson had his worse season in as a regular in 1982-83 (14.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 5.0 apg) and he wasn’t getting along with coach John MacLeod. Here is a sampling of how a couple of books recounted DJ’s end in Phoenix:
-In “The Last Banner,” May said that Colangelo initially tried to trade Johnson for Bill Laimbeer (then a young Cavalier) and Kenny Carr but the Cavs rejected the deal. After that, “Johnson and John MacLeod, the Suns’ coach, were at odds and Phoenix felt it had no choice but to move Johnson.” What was the problem? Johnson told May that he and MacLeod “didn’t have real arguments, but I would speak up and he would do it his way. But they were lacking big men and people thought we were feuding. We had no feuds. But I was more than happy to leave because we weren’t going anywhere.” May further said that the Suns felt that Johnson couldn’t work with Walter Davis because neither was a true point guard.
This story doesn’t quite add up. May and Johnson enumerate a number of possible reasons for the deal but they don’t really give a definitive answer about what exactly happened.
-In “Breaking the Rules,” Mike Tulumello’s great book on the 1995-96 Suns, he touches on the DJ Affair: “Johnson had blossomed into an all-NBA performer and the team’s best player. But he could be moody and he wasn’t much of a practice player. MacLeod complained frequently about him to Colangelo. The Suns perennially needed another big man, and the Boston Celtics had one available in Rick Robey….Colangelo recognized the mistake almost as soon as it was made. The team’s downturn then began apace.”
-In Zander Hollander’s 1984 Pro Basketball Handbook, which was written after the 1982-83 season, they had this to say about Johnson right after the trade:
“[Johnson c]laims to be misunderstood…But he never seems to be able to stay in one place for long before making people dissatisfied….Was blamed for the fact the Suns have come up short in playoffs the last three years [in Phoenix]…Seems basically insecure and always talks big…One thing you’ve got to hand him is that he is always willing to take a clutch shot in the pressure situation.”
In any event, Johnson was traded to Boston for back up center Rick Robey and an exchange of first-rounders (that ended up favoring the Celtics). Unlike Westphal, Robey had never been a star and he wasn’t even younger than DJ. There was no reason to expect anything but mediocrity from Robey, yet Robey even disappointed on that level. He suffered a foot injury an played in only 111 more games before his career ended. In the end, both DJ trades resulted in horrible return. Here are the post-DJ trade stats for Westphal and Robey:
Celtics’ Mr. Clutch
Johnson fit in with the Celts like a glove. The team had been brow beaten by the Sixers the prior two years and had just lost in a humiliating 4-0 sweep at thehands of the Bucks in the 1982-83 playoffs. The glaring hole for the 1982-83 Celts was at the point guard position, where they were trying to get by with an old Tiny Archibald, Quinn Buckner, and Gerald Henderson, none of whom was anywhere near the player Johnson was at that time.
Though it feels like a Celtic Dynasty was a faiti accompli, in retrospect, the Sixers had been dominant in 1982-83 and it wasn’t clear that the Celtics’ backcourt would improve enough to match up with them before DJ was poached from the Suns. Johnson particularly helped against the athletic guards (Andrew Toney of Philly and Sidney Moncrief or Milwaukee) who Henderson could not guard.
Johnson’s arrival in coincided with the Celts dominant run. From 1983-84 through 1987-88, the Celts had the best record in the conference every year. Johnson did not put up superstar numbers (he made only one All-Star team) but he was the teams most important guard during that time. While the clutch label tends to be thrown around a bit too loosely, there was a demonstrated pattern of DJ stepping up in the playoffs for the Celts. Here are his regular season and playoff averages each year for the Celts:
Outside of 1988-89, the year Bird sat out for back surgery and were swept in the first round by the Pistons, DJ raised his stats every playoffs as a Celt. And this trend wasn’t only as a Celt. DJ never averaged less than 16.1 ppg in the playoffs outside of his Celtic years, three times scoring over 19.6 ppg in the playoffs. I’m generally agnostic about whether a player can truly be defined as clutch. Players have clutch moments but very few can fairly be said to almost always play well when the heat is on. Still, you have to think that Johnson, between his Sonics and Celtic moments, falls into that category.
The Hall of Fame?
I’ve often felt that the Hall of Fame too often put in role players from great teams, who really would not have been in but for the fact that they filled their role on great teams. I have my doubts about whether some good role players (K.C. Jones, Frank Ramsey, Bill Bradley) really were better than the stars on lesser teams. Johnson, however, is a perfect border candidate. He was a really good role player on a great Celtic team and he was a very good featured player on title team in Seattle. Still, DJ’s stats never bowl you over. In short, he lies pretty much on the borderline of enshrinement. I wouldn’t have had a problem with him getting in or not getting in. If he does get in, however, it will be shame that it has to happen posthumously. In the end, whether DJ is honored by a bunch of voters in Springfield really doesn’t change what Johnson did on the court. He was a truly unique player who will be missed.