The "Point God" Magic Johnson
by ORTAK CALISMA on Apr 12, 2021
There’s never been a better passer than Magic Johnson. Not LeBron, not Pistol, not White Chocolate, not John Stockton, not Larry Bird, not Chris Paul, not Bob Cousy, not Steve Nash, not Jason Kidd, not anyone. It’s ultimately all subjective, of course, but in the same way a consensus has formed around the idea Stephen Curry is the greatest shooter of all-time — despite that being an equally abstract title — any list about the best passer in the game’s history should always start with Magic.
What does greatest mean in this context? Begin with the numbers: Magic remains the career assists-per-game leader with 11.19. Same deal for the playoffs, where he averaged 12.35 per game. In the NBA Finals, since assists became an official stat, no one has ever averaged 12 assists per game in a single series — except for Magic, who did that six times. But career totals and averages and numbers only tell part of the tale.
Magic’s versatility as a passer separates him from all others. His 6-foot-9 height allowed him to see over defenders and create passing lanes that only he had access to, an advantage unknown to the smaller great guards like Stockton, Nash or Cousy. That size also gave him an edge in the post, as he could direct the entire offense from the block (Magic’s probably the best post passer in the game’s history too, with apologies to the injury-plagued career of Bill Walton). Magic’s basketball IQ allowed him to anticipate plays seconds before anyone else realized the possibilities. He fooled defenders with his mind the same way he did with his artistry. Bird occasionally pulled off the same dazzling displays but was inferior to Magic in the middle of the fast break. As is LeBron. As was everyone. Magic expertly executed every pass, from bounce passes that traveled half the court to baseball ones that went from one end to the other. The most famous image of Magic is him with the ball in the middle of the break, but he was equally effective in the half court, whether hopping with a right-handed dribble before firing a bullet through defenders to James Worthy on the opposite block or kicking out to the perimeter after a drive or post-up. Another aspect of Magic’s greatness? So many of his assists, whether at the end of a 3-on-2 fast break or off of a set play, led to a layup or dunk. Not all assists are created equal, especially in today’s game, where so many assists result from 3-pointers and the shooter handles the majority of the work. Magic’s dishes put his teammates in a position where failure was impossible; Dyan Cannon, Jack Nicholson and the other celebs on the front row at The Forum could have finished off some of the plays Magic set up.
No one ever imposed their will with their passing like Magic. Not even his fellow legends. Bill Russell dominated with defense. Wilt, Kareem and Jordan with their scoring. Even all-around masters like LeBron and Bird controlled games more by putting the ball in the basket, not by setting up others. Since 1972, Magic’s the only player to lead the league in assists per game and win a title in the same season. (Going one step further, also since 1972, Magic’s the only player to even finish runner-up in assists per game and win a title in the same year, which he did three times).
His passing created Showtime, which started when he arrived in LA in 1979 and ended when he retired for the first time in 1991. Magic once said, “Showtime was coming down on the fast break, looking left — and throwing right.” Yes, Showtime was also James Worthy filling the lane on the fast break, Pat Riley’s hair and suits, Nicholson smiling courtside, Michael Cooper’s defense, Chick Hearn on the mic, Jamaal Wilkes’s silkiness, Kurt Rambis’s glasses, Byron Scott’s pull-up J, Dr. Jerry Buss’s coolness, Bob McAdoo’s jumper, Norm Nixon’s quickness, Randy Newman belting out, “I Love LA,” the Laker Girls and, when all else failed, the ultimate weapon: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook. But Magic was always the driving force, the man in the middle of the break, the player whose charisma, leadership and passing abilities set everything up. Magic was Showtime. Showtime helped save the NBA in the 1980s. And Showtime led to nine Finals appearances in 12 years and five NBA titles. That’s Magic’s unmatched legacy as a passer.
Some people occasionally knock Magic’s playmaking abilities or even his accomplishments because of the talent around him. At the start he played with a prime Kareem and Jamaal Wilkes. Later he had Worthy and others. Of course he racked up assists, the thinking goes. Who wouldn’t? But consider this: From 1987-91, Magic played with one all-NBA teammate, James Worthy, who made the third team in 1990 and 1991. Yet during that time Magic and the Lakers made four Finals appearances and won two titles. Those were not rosters littered with legends. Magic did make everyone on the court better, no matter if their career ended as a journeyman or in the Hall of Fame. In Game 5 of the 1991 Finals, when Jordan and the young, hungry Bulls finished off the Lakers for their first title, the Lakers battled without the injured Worthy and Scott. The players on the court with Magic that night? A.C. Green, Sam Perkins, Vlade Divac, Terry Teagle, and rookies Tony Smith and Elden Campbell. And yet Magic still dished out 20 assists, in the final game before his first retirement.
In the years since his playing days ended for the first time, Magic has been a television analyst, short-term talk show host, shorter-term coach, basketball owner, baseball owner, studio host, tweeter and entrepreneur. This past February he returned to where his NBA career started, taking over as President of Basketball Operations for a beleaguered Lakers franchise. No one knows how this new story will end. But nothing that’s come after his playing days concluded detracts from what he did while wearing the purple and gold.
It’s been 30 years since Magic won his first MVP and 21 years since he last played in the NBA. With the passing years, it’s not easy for fans to forget the greatest skill of one of the game’s greatest players, to diminish the sense of wonder that came with watching his no-look passes, over-the-head assists and sleight of hand.