Today, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame opens its doors to the Class of 2015, immortalizing Dikembe Mutombo, Spencer Haywood, Jo Jo White, Louie Dampier, Lisa Leslie, John Calipari, Dick Bavetta, Tom Heinsohn, John Isaacs, Lindsay Gaze, and George Raveling.
Enshrinement is a time to reflect upon and celebrate the accomplishments of some of basketball's most important figures, but no Phoenix Sun has received the honor since Jerry Colangelo and Charles Barkley went in way back in 2004 and 2006 respectively, although Suns announcer Al McCoy (electronic) and longtime Phoenix reporter Joe Gilmartin (print) received the Hall's Curt Gowdy Media Award in 2007 and 2014 respectively. Kevin Johnson has come close to breaking through, seeing his name listed as a finalist for both 2014 and 2015, but has not received the necessary 18 votes from the Honors Committee either time. Still, Johnson represents Phoenix's best shot at Hall representation until Steve Nash becomes eligible (unless you want to count Shaquille O'Neal's season and a half in Phoenix).
Getting elected to the Hall can be a confounding — and quite political — process. Reggie Miller, who became eligible for enshrinement in 2011, didn't even make the list of finalists that year. Instead, his nomination was pushed to 2012 (when the field of inductees would be lighter on star power) and earned enshrinement on his first try. Meanwhile, Artis Gilmore, a man who retired in 1988, had to wait until 2011 to get the call despite having accumulated 24,941 points, 16,330 rebounds, 3,178 blocks, and a field-goal percentage of .582 over his years spent in the ABA and NBA.
With no clear-cut criteria for deciding who gets in and when (like nightclub bouncers), the Hall makes it difficult to figure who is worthy outside of the no-brainers like Michael Jordan in 2009 or O'Neal in a couple years. So instead of asking whether Kevin Johnson will ever be inducted into the Hall of Fame, the better question to ask would be:
Is Kevin Johnson deserving of enshrinement in the Hall of Fame?
A quick glance at his résumé finds a player who had career averages of 17.9 points, 9.1 assists, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.5 steals from 1987-88 to 1999-00. If those numbers don't impress you, they should. Only four players in NBA history besides Johnson have averaged at least 17.9 points and 9.1 assists for their career. Three of them (Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, and Isiah Thomas) are already in Springfield. The fourth, Chris Paul, will be.
Johnson is also one of only three players to ever have three consecutive seasons averaging 20 points and 10 assists (Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas) and one of only three players to have a season with 20 points and 12 assists (Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas). He also ranks 12th all time among point guards for points per game during the playoffs (min. 1,000 points) at 19.3 and 5th all time for assists per game (min. 250 assists) with 8.9. As well, Johnson's 9.1 assists per game during the regular season ranks 6th all time.
But he didn't just get his stats; he won while doing so. From 1988-89 (Johnson's first full season in Phoenix) through 1994-95, no team piled up more regular-season wins than Johnson's Suns (394) and only the Chicago Bulls compiled more playoff wins than Phoenix over the same period.
And let's not forget that Johnson still holds the NBA Finals record for most minutes played in a game with 62.
At first blush, it seems odd that Johnson wouldn't already have his plaque in the Hall of Fame. However, his NBA totals tell a different tale. Johnson only scored 13,127 points in his career, and his total assists (6,711) are only good enough for 19th all time. This is because for as talented as Johnson was as a player, he was also a walking injury waiting for a cause. From 1992-93 to 1997-98, he appeared in 339 of a possible 492 games, missing 31.1 percent of Phoenix's games over that span with a variety of injuries that began with two hernias — one of which went undiagnosed for four years. Those injuries spiraled into all sorts of groin, hamstring, and quadriceps problems that led to his retirement. He appeared in 735 total games during his 12 seasons compared to contemporaries like John Stockton (1,504) and Gary Payton (1,335) — both Hall of Famers.
Injuries have derailed many Hall-worthy careers. Had fate been kinder, Anfernee Hardaway would have had the career he seemed destined for. The same holds true for Grant Hill, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Reggie Lewis, and many others over the years. But the Hall of Fame doesn't have a what-if wing. Players must gain admittance based on the merits of their playing careers, no matter the circumstances, and so too must Johnson.
However, if you examine other recent inductees, Johnson's absence seems jarring. In 2014, the Hall inducted Guy Rodgers, a point guard who spent 12 seasons in the NBA from 1958-59 to 1969-70. He was named to the All-Star team four times as he racked up career averages of 11.7 points, 7.8 assists, and 4.3 rebounds on 37.8-percent field-goal shooting. Johnson, a three-time All Star, owns career averages that better those of Rodgers in everything but rebounds. To be fair to Rodgers, though, he received his induction via direct entry from the Hall's Veterans Committee and played in a different era than Johnson.
So instead, let's compare Johnson to a recent inductee from his era — Mitch Richmond. Also inducted in 2014, Richmond averaged 21 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 3.5 assists over his 14-year career. He also:
- won Rookie of the Year in 1989
- was a 6-time All Star (was MVP in 1995)
- earned five All-NBA selections (3 2nd-team, 2 3rd-team)
- won two Olympic medals (bronze in 1988, gold in 1996)
- won a championship with the Lakers
Johnson's accolades include:
- won Most Improved Player in 1989
- was a 3-time All Star
- earned five All-NBA selections (4 2nd-team, 1 3rd-team)
- won a gold medal with Dream Team II at the 1994 World Championships
Johnson and Richmond are not far apart. The biggest differences between the pair are Richmond's longevity and the championship he picked up in LA the year before he retired. One would hope that championship isn't what put Richmond over the top in the eyes of voters since he appeared in just two games for Los Angeles that postseason — hardly a key component in their run.
But since Richmond is a shooting guard, he is also not an ideal comparison. In order to get an idea of Johnson's impact during his era, he must be compared to his point guard contemporaries. The charts below show Johnson and 16 other prominent point guards from the 1990s. Note: Point guards such as Jason Kidd and Isiah Thomas were omitted since the majority of their careers were spent in a different decade than Johnson.
As you can see, Johnson leads all others in points per game (17.9) and finishes second to the legendary John Stockton in assists per game (9.1), field-goal percentage (.493), and PER (20.7). The only area where Johnson loses contact with much of the pack is in 3-point percentage, but he came from an era that still didn't rely heavily on the 3-point shot. As trends began to shift later in Johnson's career, he improved his percentages, shooting 40.2 percent from 3-point range from 1995-96 onward. Suffice it to say, Kevin Johnson measures out as one of the best point guards of the 1990s, injuries or not.
If the Hall of Fame seeks to honor the best players from every era of basketball all around the world, then including just two NBA point guards from the 1990s is unacceptable. No fewer than three NBA point guards from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s are presently enshrined in Springfield, yet Stockton and Payton are the only point guard representatives of the 90s. There should be more. After luminaries like Stockton and Payton, Johnson and Tim Hardaway clearly established themselves as the upper echelon of point guards from that decade. The 90s might have been dominated by Jordan and a cadre of elite centers, but that is no excuse for giving point guards short shrift. Granted, Johnson saw his time as a professional athlete limited by injury, and he never got to hold that all-important Larry O'Brien Trophy; however, none of that should diminish what he did accomplish.
Choosing whom to induct is a difficult process, and every Hall of Fame must draw a line somewhere. Johnson just belongs on the right side of that line.