Looking Back At The Marques Johnson Trade

On the heels of our deep dive into retired numbers, the Bucks announced they would retire Marques Johnson’s numbers.  My initial reaction was that Johnson was a great player but I wasn’t sure he was good enough or beloved enough in Milwaukee to get the honor.  I vaguely recalled that his departure from the Bucks was a complicated story.  I thought it would be fun to take a look back at Johnson’s Milwaukee tenure and assess if the detailed reviewed of his career and trade all these years later yields any new conclusions.

Marques as a Buck

Johnson was drafted by the Bucks third overall out of UCLA in 1977.  GM Wayne Embry wrote in his biography “The Inside Game,” that “[n]ormally, in this situation, we would have taken a center, and Indiana’s Kent Benson was the best available.  But I did not think he would have as much impact as Marques.”   Embry was right.  As a rookie in 1977-78, Johnson made an immediate impact (19.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 21.4 PER, 10.6 WS, 3.4 BPM, 3.7 VORP).   Johnson’s presence helped the Bucks jump from 30-52 to 44-38, as he was quickly Milwaukee’s best player.  He would finish second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Phoenix’s Walter Davis (the two players were basically a push stat-wise but Davis’ routed him 49 to 10 in the vote).

Johnson continued to play well for the Bucks, making four All-Star teams and scoring as much as 25.6 ppg and raising his assists (he never rebounded quite as well as he did as a rookie).   The Bucks won 49 or more games ever year from 1979-80 to 1983-84, which would be Johnson’s final year in Milwaukee before a surprising trade.

Despite this nice run, there were not many defining for Johnson on the Bucks.  The best remembered part of his time was a bitter holdout in 1981-82 to get a big contract.  During the holdout, the Milwaukee Journal wrote that the dispute “will likely leave indelible scars in the relationship between Johnson, the Bucks, and, perhaps most important, the basketball public….Despite Johnson’s attempts to portray money as the primary issue of this holdout, there is the growing suspicion that the city of Milwaukee is an equally strong—or stronger—factor….[s]ome of Johnson’s closest friends feel strongly that Johnson’s main gripe is having to play and live in Milwaukee for another two seasons.”

The Trade to The Clippers On The Merits

Before the 1984-85 season, the Bucks surprisingly traded Johnson to the San Diego Clippers and mainstays Junior Bridgeman and Harvey Catchings for youngsters Terry Cummings, Craig Hodges, and Ricky Pierce.   On paper, this was a trade of youth for experience.  Here’s how the tale of the tape of the players’ stats from the 1983-84 season:

-Johnson: age 27, 36.7 mpg, 20.7 ppg, .502 FG%, 6.5 rpg, 4.3 apg, 19.4 PER, 8.6 WS, 3.8 BPM, 4.0 VORP

-Bridgeman: age 30, 30.0 mpg, 15.1 ppg, .465 FG%, 4.1 rpg, 3.3 apg, 14.3 PER, 5.1 WS, -1.0 BPM, 0.6 VORP

-Catchings: age 32, 16.8 mpg, 2.1 ppg, .399 FG%, 3.9 rpg, 0.6 apg, 6.7 PER, 1.3 WS, -1.0 BPM, 0.3 VORP

-Cummings: age 22, 35.9 mpg, 22.9 ppg, .494 FG%, 9.6 RPG, 1.7 apg, 19.8 PER, 7.5 WS, 0.9 BPM, 2.2 VORP

-Hodges: age 23, 20.7 mpg, 7.8 ppg, .450 FG%,  1.1 rpg, 1.5 apg, 8.7 PER, 0.5 WS, -3.9 BPM, -0.8 VORP

-Pierce: age 24, 18.6 mpg, 9.9 ppg, .470 FG%, 2.0 rpg, 0.9 apg, 13.2 PER, 1.8 WS, -3.7 BPM, -0.5 VORP

Johnson and Cummings had similar stats but Cummings was five years younger.  Bridgeman was a solid averageish guard ( and Catchings was a lumbering old shot blocker).  Hodges and Pierce were young but didn’t look like real breakout candidates.  The strange aspect of the trade is the team that took the experience.  The 1983-84 Clippers were 30-52 also rans, while the Bucks were 50-32 contenders.

Why would the Clipps want older players for a team that was probably not going to be good anyway?  Presumably, the Clipps wanted immediate help because they were just moving to Los Angeles and the hope was that a vet core of Johnson, recently acquired Norm  Nixon, and Bill Walton (who was perpetually injured), could make that happen.  On top of that, Cummings had an irregular heartbeat and teams were worried that this could end his career prematurely.  It wasn’t a great plan but you could understand the logic.

On the Bucks end, they got a cheaper, younger player in Cummings, who would likely be better than Johnson within a couple of years.  The Bucks had gathered enough other weapons to wait on Cummings to develop (Paul Pressey and Sidney Moncrief) and to replace Bridgeman’s adequacy.  If either Hodges or Pierce somehow developed,  that would just be gravy.  It wasn’t riskless for Milwaukee but if the Cummings heart issue was manageable, they were likely to win the trade.

Reaction To The Trade

In a January 27, 1985 article in the Los Angeles Times, Mike Kupper wrote “[t]hat the Bucks would trade Johnson at all surprised some people. He has been one of the league’s premier small forwards, and the Bucks could trace much of their recent success directly to him.”  Kupper blamed the trade on Johnson’s holdout at the start of the 1981-82 season, which netted him a large escalating contract that started at $900,000.  Kupper quoted Bucks coach Don Nelson as saying “[w]e knew when we renegotiated that there would be a time when we couldn’t afford Marques’ contract, and that I would have to make a move.  When the time came, it all made a lot of sense.”

At the time of the trade, Johnson told UPI that he “opened the paper and just absorbed the shock.”  Johnson handled the trade in a classy fashion indicated that trades are part of the game and that “[t]here will be no bitter feelings.”

Clippers Make It Awkward

Both the Bucks’ explanation and Johnson’s response were totally normal and healthy (though Nelson did tweak Johnson a bit for seeking more cash).  But things got weird because of the Clipps.  In October 1985, Johnson told the Milwaukee Journal that he had gone to rehabilitation for drug use back in the summer of 1982.  The Clippers freaked out when they heard this information.   Los Angeles alleged that the Bucks never disclosed this information and the Clipps would have “thought twice” had they known.  The Clipps then sued the Bucks to nullify the deal for making material misrepresentations in the course of the trade.

The lawsuit was faulty, however, for a number of reasons.  First, any disputes between teams regarding trades were supposed to be arbitrated by Commissioner David Stern.  The Clipps wanted no part of Stern because the NBA was already suing Donald Sterling for unilaterally moving the Clipps from San Diego to Los Angeles.  Putting the aside this procedural problem, the Clipps’ claim of misrepresentation was sort of bunk because, according to the L.A. Times, “the Clippers could easily have learned about Johnson’s drug history had they followed standard NBA procedure and checked Johnson’s file at the league office. The Clippers failed to check, believing that they had no reason to do so.”  There is no reported decision on the legal dispute but, presumably, the Clipps were routed in court and accepted the trade.  One can imagine that Johnson was not thrilled about being dragged through the mud based upon an old issue that he was hoping to put behind him.

The Final Tally On The Trade

The trade ended up being a huge win in the Bucks’ favor.  Johnson struggled his first year in Los Angeles (16.4 ppg on a then-career worst .454% and a 14.3 PER).  Johnson bounced back to All-Star form in 1985-86 before rupturing a disk in his neck in early 1968-87, which effectively ended his career at age-30.  Bridgeman had his typical season in 1984-85, sharply declined in 1985-86, and then was cut and re-signed by the Bucks for a brief swan song in 1986-87.  Catchings played one season with the Clipps before retiring.  His daughter, Tamika Catchings, was a WNBA star and Harvey is now a mortgage specialist in Texas.

On the Milwaukee side, Cummings developed quickly (he was already really good but got a bit better) and remained healthy.  He was an All-Star in 1984-85 and gave the Bucks five All-Star seasons before being traded to the Spurs for Alvin Robertson and Frank Brickowski.  Not only did the Bucks win the star-for-star exchange but both Pierce and Hodges were quite useful.  Pierce became a top scorer off-the-bench (maxing out at 23.0 ppg in 1989-90) before being traded for Dale Ellis.  Hodges basically replaced Bridgeman as an adequate starter for the next three seasons and learned how to shoot the three with high proficiency before being traded for the better Jay Humphries.

In a pure numbers term, here are the advanced analytics scored it:

Clippers WS BPM VORP
Johnson 8.7 0.8 3.7
Bridgeman 3.9 -3.2 -1
Catchings 1.1 -3.2 -0.3
Total 13.7 -5.6 2.4


Cummings 39.8 2.1 14
Pierce 43.3 0.8 9
Hodges 18 0.2 4.3
Total 101.1 3.1 27.3


Yikes that was bad for the Clipps.  It gets worse when you consider that the Bucks were able to trade all three players and get able future starters while none of the Clipps players got them any return (all three were out of the league within three years).

Retiring Johnson

Johnson has been out of Milwaukee for over 35 years but he still has the third most win shares in the franchise (behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Moncrief).  While there was some intimation that he left town badly, the contemporaneous reports show him to be a perfectly good sport about the trade.  Johnson is also now quite excited about the honor, as it was reported that the news “staggered” him (in a good way).  He has also acknowledged his mistakes in Milwaukee and the fact that he didn’t fully embrace the experience at the time.  Johnson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that “I was young, I was just getting plugged into all of the nonsense. It took a while for me to appreciate it here, but by the time I started appreciating it … it was time to move and I was traded to Los Angeles.”

Since the trade, Johnson was “disconnected” from the Bucks, which the same article describes in the following terms: “[h]e doesn’t feel like he was ever shunned, but there wasn’t a total embrace from either party. When he was traded, that was it.”  A few years ago, Johnson returned to Milwaukee to do television commentary and this reminded the fans and ownership that he was a big part of the past and here we are today.  He gave the Bucks some great years and gave them such a great return that they continued to thrive even after he was gone.  So, retiring his jersey is a no-brainer.


Leave a Reply