“The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” ~ Lao Tzu
Thus is the plight of former Suns point guard Kevin Johnson.
Despite having one of the best careers a point guard has ever had in the NBA, the fact that he burned brighter but for a shorter period of time has, in my opinion, hurt the former all-star in his pursuit of enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
I’m usually not a fan of numbers — mostly because the largest one in my life is the one that appears when I step on a scale — but the best way to paint the picture of the man who made the No. 7 Suns jersey iconic is to look at the numbers compared to the contemporaries of his era.
During a seven-year period of Johnson’s career, from 1988 to 1997, that excluded his rookie year and his final full season in the league, he averaged 19.8 points, 10.1 assists 1.6 steals and 3.4 rebounds a game. Those are numbers at or better than the career averages of what is considered the two greatest point guards ever, Magic Johnson (19.2 points, 11.0 assists, 1.9 steals, 7.1 rebounds) and John Stockton (13.1 points, 10.5 assists, 2.2 steals and 2.7 rebounds).
The reason he’s not held in the same regard as those two players? Injuries.
Magic’s career lasted 13 years while Stockton’s lasted 19 seasons. KJ’s career lasted 13 full seasons, but the problem was, he only played in 69 percent of games he possibly could have due to various injuries (many of which involved his hamstrings). By comparison, Magic played in 88 percent of his games and Stockton played in an astonishing 99 percent of games.
While KJ would never be considered for the NBA’s career iron man award — not that they actually giveaway such a ridiculous award — his bright career prime proved that he is worthy of being considered among the best.
The most disconcerting part of it all, for me and fans like me, are the point guards who made the list of Hall of Fame finalists on Friday over Johnson.
While Tim Hardaway and Gary Payton were fine players in their own right, they didn’t have as great a career as KJ during the same generation based on numbers. Payton only averaged 16.3 points, 6.7 assists, 1.8 steals and 3.8 rebounds per game. Tim Hardaway was slightly better with 17.7 points, 8.2. assists, 1.6 steals and 3.3 rebounds.
Neither of which are better than KJ’s career 17.9 points, 9.1 assists 1.5 steals and 3.3 rebounds. The difference once again? Longevity. Hardaway played 17 seasons and Payton lasted 19 seasons.
So the question becomes, is it better to hang around as long as possible and get diminishing returns or only stick around until you know you aren’t performing at the top level?
It appears, at least to the committee that votes for the Basketball Hall of Fame, the prior carries more weight than the latter.
Johnson never chased a ring, only wore two uniforms in his career (and was a member of the Suns for all but 52 games his rookie season), accumulated impressive numbers and left the game while still close to the top, long before he had to. Something should be said for a player’s loyalty and for having the internal awareness to get out before father time caught up to him.
Maybe the Hall of Fame will eventually agree that burning bright and fast is just as good, if not better than burning slightly less bright for a prolonged period of time.