Was Magic better than Michael?
Was Los Angeles Laker Magic Johnson a better basketballer than the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan? Amongst basketball fans, and even non-fans, the question would almost seem sacrilegious to the legendary Jordan.
There is a reason Jordan has the unofficial nickname of ‘GOAT’ – as in, ‘Greatest Of All Time’.
However, the debate over who is the better player is not as definitive as you think, and has been raised again due to US journalist Jason Whitlock suggesting that Magic was the only player that could potentially rival Michael Jordan as the greatest ever.
Likewise, the recent NBA documentary about the 1992 ‘Dream Team’ has fuelled discussion around the topic. The movie showed never-seen-before footage of Team USA’s scrimmages, and it was interesting to hear basketball experts analyse the training games, and conclude that it may have been the first time anyone can remember Jordan not being the unequivocal best player on the court, such was Magic’s control of the games.
Magic was easily pegged as the better player when he retired in 1991. However, at that time, Jordan had won one championship, and Magic had five. Jordan peeled off five more victories to surpass Magic not just in championships, but in status as the best player.
But was Magic really a worthy challenger to Jordan’s crown?
I’m not a fan of statistics, but let’s start with both individual’s career ones anyway.
Magic averaged 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 11.2 assists, and 1.9 steals.
Jordan averaged 30.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.4 steals.
Jordan would appear to have the clear edge there, primarily due to his high scoring average.
However, it was interesting to note in the book ‘When the Game was Ours’, that Magic stated he could have easily averaged 30 points per game if he wanted to, but he preferred to pass the ball. In all honesty, it’s not hard to imagine Magic averaging 30 points if he truly desired.
Considering Magic averaged 11 assists per game, if he instead kept the ball and shot himself on at least half of those passing instances, he would have taken 10 more shots. With a 50% lifetime field goal shooting percentage, Magic would have therefore scored roughly 10 more points per game, taking his average to 29.5.
And that’s without taking into account that some of those field goals would have been three pointers.
Additionally, as anyone who’s played basketball will tell you, when you are more aggressive with your scoring, you’ll get some foul calls and get to the free throw line.
Seeming as Magic’s career success rate on free throws was 90%, you could probably add a couple of points or more to his tally.
Suddenly Magic is averaging an extra 12 points per game.
Magic: 31.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.9 steals.
Jordan: 30.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.4 steals.
Whilst that’s extremely hypothetical, and there is absolutely no question that Jordan was a much more potent scorer, it does prove a point that when you consider Magic’s high assist numbers, their statistics do very little to separate the two players.
Yet Magic didn’t need inflated scoring figures; his overall statistics were brilliant anyway.
In any case, numbers never truly reflected what Magic brought to a basketball team. He was all about winning.
Due to the HIV virus he contracted, Magic was forced into premature retirement in 1991, whilst he was still in his prime at 31 years of age. That year, he averaged 19 points, 12 assists and 7 rebounds. Those are crazy numbers, and are bang-on his career averages. He also led the Lakers to the NBA Finals, was nominated onto the All-NBA first team, and finished second to Michael Jordan in MVP voting.
Whilst Laker injuries and the ascension of Jordan and the Chicago Bulls prevented him from winning the title that year, his numbers, his team’s performance, and his MVP votes clearly indicate that Magic was still very much in his prime, and had plenty of great basketball left in him.
In fact, one of Magic’s most unbelievable achievements was coming out of retirement five years later, and playing the last 32 games of the 1995-96 season. Playing as a back-up power forward, Magic averaged 15 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds in 29 minutes per game. Playing at such an elite level after five years off, and registering those statistics, is just absurd, and indicates just how great Magic was.
I have no hesitation in saying Magic would have won at least one more championship if he wasn’t forced into early retirement. Yes, it’s hypothetical. Yes it’s impossible to guarantee that he would have won another ring. Whatever, I’m doing it. He was that good, and he was a winner.
That would have drawn him even with Jordan on championship rings. In fact, he probably would have taken one off Jordan, leaving the Bull behind on five.
Yet this is where hypotheticals prove almost pointless – Jordan almost certainly wouldn’t have taken his baseball sabbatical if Magic was still playing and pushing him to higher greatness. As such, you can only judge what is written down in history as fact: Jordan won six titles, Magic five.
Where Jordan really separated himself from Magic is on defence. Jordan was perhaps the best defender of all-time at his position. Magic, to put it kindly, was not. Whilst nowhere near the liability that he’s been historically remembered as, the truth is that Magic was not an elite level defender.
When you weigh up the MVP trophies, Finals MVP awards, all-NBA nominations, statistics, championships, all their respective accolades, and even the memories of their play, it’s evident that Michael Jordan was better than Magic Johnson.
But it’s a lot closer than you think, and could have been even closer if Magic wasn’t forced into early retirement.
Ryan is an ex-representative basketballer who shot too much, and a (very) medium pace bowler. He's been with The Roar as an expert since February 2011, has written for the Seven Network and NBA Down Under, and been a regular on ABC radio. Ryan tweets from @RyanOak.
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