Magic Johnson left the NBA nearly 20 years ago and we’ve still waited to see another 6’9″ point guard that could dominate the league with his passing, enthusiasm, and command of the big moment.
While we’ve seen reasonable facsimiles of Michael Jordan, we are unlikely to ever see another supersized point guard of that caliber again.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Magic hasn’t transformed the league in his image. He has. Just not where one would normally look. Magic Johnson’s direct impact was felt most at the forward position not at the guard position.
In order to have this conversation, we must accept certain truths.
Magic Johnson wouldn’t be able to play point guard in today’s NBA. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know in our hearts Magic Johnson wasn’t a full fledged point guard. He’d be a small forward today. He is one of the three greatest players to ever play but he couldn’t defend point guards.
The Lakers rarely asked him to. He played together with Norm Nixon, another point guard who handled those defensive duties. Michael Cooper and Byron Scott covered for Magic as well. Why do I bring this up?
Because its the primary reason we haven’t seen a Magic clone with sustained success since his heyday. Defensive shortcomings, injuries, instincts and the inability to withstand full court pressure from small guards moved most would be supersized points off the ball into other positions.
In time, by the end of Magic’s career there were more and more multi dimensional small forwards with primary ballhandling responsibilty and the sea change towards position less basketball began.
Beginning in the mid 80’s the NBA was making a shift away from a center dominated league to a more perimeter oriented attack. There were fewer dominant big men to go around, so teams began to rely on small scoring guards to fill the void. The Don Nelson led Milwaukee Bucks were the first team to use the point forward concept with success, utilizing the skills of Paul Pressey.
Scottie Pippen was a point guard who grew to 6’7″ during college and sought to play the position in the NBA. Phil Jackson utilized Pippen in the primary ballhandler role and the “point forward” became legitimized league wide. Its main advantage was that opposing small forwards were unlikely to commit to ball pressure on a full court basis and it was easier to set up offenses and insert shooters at the guard positions.
Even with Pippen’s success, numerous players entered the NBA trying to replicate Magic Johnson at the point guard position. Walt Williams, Doug Christie, Jalen Rose, and Steve Smith all experimented with playing the point but struggled with the rudimentary aspects of the position that was often overlooked. Big point guards invited full court pressure from small pesky guards. Defensively it was problematic for these players to also apply ball pressure on the other end and stay in front of small guards.
In Steve Smith’s rookie season while being lauded for his 23 point effort against 5’7″ Spud Webb he knowingly stated, ” “Yeah, but Spud gave me trouble…He’s so quick, he took the ball away from me.”
It wasn’t until Grant Hill entered the league that the Point Forward became commonplace. Players like Smith, Rose, Christie, and Williams all were permanently shifted to the wing and consequently had their best seasons. Bigger forwards like Anthony Mason, Lamar Odom, and Toni Kukoc also began to shift the traditional role of forwards.
Anfernee Hardaway entered the NBA with much fanfare as potentially the successor to Magic Johnson. He was dominant practically from the beginning of his career. He made two first team All NBA appearances in his first 3 seasons. Knee injuries forced him to play shooting guard and he was the last big point guard of note.
By the early 2000’s it was customary for shooting guards and small forwards to be the dominant ball handling and passing positions on the floor. Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and eventually Lebron James were expected to both score and get others involved.
Point guard, consequently, became much more of a scoring position as a result. Players like Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, and Deron Williams became expected to score first and set up teammates second. The traditional roles of our father’s NBA no longer exist and Magic Johnson is the primary cause.
As Los Angeles celebrates Magic Johnson’s 54th birthday, we should remind ourselves of the revolutionary talent that captivated the world. The rise of “point forwards” and “stretch fours” should be attributed to what Magic was the first to bring to big men – perimeter skills, flair, and a mastery of all areas of the floor.