The 50 Greatest NBA Players of the Last 50 Years: Magic Johnson ranks 4th

Editor’s Note: As part of a new series for your podcast, “What is Wright with Nick Wright,” FOX Sports commentator Nick Wright is rating the 50 best NBA players of the last 50 years. The countdown continues today with player #4, Magic Johnson.

Career Highlights of Magic Johnson:

  • Three-time Finals MVP
  • Three-time league MVP
  • 12 times All-Star
  • Nine times All-NBA first-team, once second-team
  • Four assist leader
  • Twice steals the leader
  • 1980 All-Rookie Team
  • Highest average career assists

A lottery, as with the first overall picks for some 20 years, determined the fate of rookie Earvin Johnson. The fortuitous turn meant he was heading to the Lakers to play alongside the best basketball player.

Of course, Michigan State’s product was already Magic back then. And he would prove to be the most unique player in NBA history.

“When you go back and watch those games, he’s just playing the sport differently than anyone up until that point and, honestly, than anyone since,” Wright said.

Magic Johnson is No. 4 on Nick Wright’s Top 50 NBA Players of the Last 50 Years

Magic Johnson is No. 4 on Nick Wright's Top 50 NBA Players of the Last 50 Years

With dazzling passing skills and playmaking ability, Magic Johnson made an immediate impact for the Los Angeles Lakers. He would go on to win five NBA championships while accumulating three NBA Finals MVPs and three regular season MVPs over the course of his career.

This explains the exceptional and winning production. All Magic really did was win. The 190cm unicorn has never gone more than a year without reaching the finals and has the highest combined regular and postseason win percentage of any player (72.8%).

“There are too many insane games to list them all,” Wright said.

Some just have to be. Johnson, 20, opened his postseason career with straight triple-doubles. He closed out the championship by jumping center in place of the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and scoring 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in Philadelphia. Game 6’s iconic performance earned him a controversial Finals MVP selection over Kareem, though there was nothing divisive about Magic averaging 22-11-9 with three steals in the series.

Johnson was an immediate superstar. He became a certified legend within two years, averaging approximately a triple-double in the 1981-82 season (18.6/9.6/9.5) before earning a second Finals MVP with a triple-double in decisive game against Julius Erving’s 76ers.

“It’s a little frustrating for me when I hear people arguing, it’s Steph [Curry] the greatest point guard of all time? No,” Wright said. “The conversation about the greatest point guard of all time starts at No. 2 because Magic Johnson transcended the rankings. He is without a doubt the greatest point guard of all time.”

At this point, he still wasn’t playing regularly as a point guard. As Abdul-Jabbar began to gradually decline, Johnson filled in whenever necessary. He averaged 18-9-13 in the 1983 playoffs, which ended in a Finals loss, a sweep from Moses Malone, and the Upper Sixers.

Magic switched to point guard for good the following season and averaged 13.1 assists per game, his career high. He would lead LA back to the Finals and a coveted showdown with rival Boston Celtics. Johnson and Larry Bird took turns imposing their will before the Lakers leader faltered in the final games, with Boston winning. The Magic’s early success had set expectations so high that the slightest of dips led people to call it “Tragic”.

What a mistake.

Steph Curry is not number 2 of all time above LeBron, Magic or Kareem

Steph Curry is not number 2 of all time above LeBron, Magic or Kareem

Nick Wright reacts to recent comments from Bobby Marks, suggesting that Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry should be second all-time, even above LeBron James. Nick explains why this is not only incorrect, but disrespectful to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Johnson responded by going into another march in the 1985 playoffs, as the Lakers passed the Western Conference for a fourth straight Finals appearance. In a thrilling rematch with the Celtics, Magic went 26 and 17 in Game 5 to give LA a 3-2 lead. He averaged a record 14 assists in a six-game series win – Johnson has the best six assist rates in the title round – beautifully orchestrating what would be the peak of the “Showtime” Lakers. Magic recorded a staggering 15.2 assists for the postseason.

Lakers and Celtics were on track for a trilogy until Houston stunned LA in the conference finals. Johnson went 22-8-16 per game in the series, only to see Hakeem Olajuwon defeat 38-year-old Abdul-Jabbar.

Magic took it upon himself to shoot more the following season and scored a career-high 23.9 points while still leading the league with 12.2 assists. This earned him his first league MVP. The Lakers went 11-1 in the West bracket before facing the defending champions Celtics again in the finals. Johnson was in full control in three games (28-8-14). His exploits in Game 4 are timeless. After recovering the Lakers from a 16-point deficit in the second half, Magic took Kevin McHale off the dribble and landed a hook in the junior sky over Boston’s big three with two seconds left to a one-point lead. LA won the rubber championship two games later, with Johnson claiming his third Finals MVP after averaging 26-8-13.

In 1988, the Detroit Pistons ended the Celtics’ reign in the East and were on the cusp of defeating the Lakers. But Johnson went 22 and 19 in Game 6 as LA narrowly surpassed a heroic performance by Isiah Thomas. James Worthy’s historic Game 7 (36-16-10) earned him MVP honors, though Magic was notably better throughout the series (21-6-13 on 55% shooting).

“This should have been Magic’s MVP,” Wright said. “They gave Worthy because Worthy had the unbelievable Game 7.”

Johnson averaged 23-8-13 en route to winning his second league MVP in 1989. He led the Lakers to an 11-0 mark before a Finals rematch with Detroit. Magic went down with a hamstring injury in Game 2, however, and LA was swept.

Despite Kareem’s retirement, the Lakers won six more games the following regular season (63 in total) and Johnson repeated as MVP. His streak of finals appearances would, however, end in the second round, defeating the Suns. Magic, it should be noted, scored 43 points on 58% shooting in each of the last two games in the series.

Although 1990 marked the end of the Pat Riley era in Los Angeles, Johnson led the Lakers back to the Finals just one season later. His triple-double in Game 1 scored a two-point win over the Bulls. He would play fantastically throughout the five-game series (19-8-12), but the battle belonged to Michael Jordan.

Five months later, Johnson shockingly revealed that he had been diagnosed with HIV. After an unparalleled 12 seasons, he retired at 32. But not before winning five titles, reaching nine Finals and setting countless (and perhaps untouchable) NBA marks, including average assists of 11.2 in the regular season and 12.3. in the playoffs. He dished out 20 assists in 10 playoff games. There are 10 other similar outings in league history. No one tops Magic’s 30 postseason triple-doubles. In his career, he scored 19.5 points and grabbed 7.2 rebounds while shooting 52.0%.

Johnson finished in the top three in MVP voting for a record nine straight years.

“I think Magic is really positionless, it could dominate anywhere, and in this era where you don’t have to defend dominant centers, it could be the ultimate small-ball cheat code,” Wright said. “The only question about Magic is, if it weren’t for HIV, would he be considered the GOAT?”

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