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Who was better: Tim Hardaway or Kevin Johnson?

By 09.25.09

Tim Hardaway

We argue. You decide.

TIM HARDAWAY (by Austin Burton)
The first thing you have to understand about Tim Hardaway is that he was more than just a big crossover and a smile.

Maybe not Hall of Famer, maybe not even truly deserving of having his number retired by the Heat or the Warriors, Hardaway still put a stamp on the NBA that should be bigger than one iconic move. He cracked 5,000 points and 2,500 assists faster (at the time) than anyone since Oscar. He was a five-time All-Star and ranks seventh all-time in threes made, 13th in assists. Not to mention he had a spin move as slick as a pimp’s testimony, a teardrop floater Tony Parker would co-sign, and he played solid defense (1.6 spg). But you never get past the crossover. It’s like revering Michael Jackson for the moonwalk and forgetting Thriller and Bad ever happened.

But you’ve seen the mixtape tour: Having a killer go-to move doesn’t mean much if you can’t finish. So when Hardaway used the cross to skate past his man or send him stumbling backwards like he’d landed a stiff jab, he could then unspool that compact 6-foot frame into a quick pull-up three, get a layup with either hand, or draw the D and rack up assists. Style-wise, Hardaway was something like Baron Davis without the vertical, but with better shot selection.

In comparison to Kevin Johnson, the only thing that really stands out on either side is range. Hardaway was a prolific sniper, hitting 35.5% from three on more than 4,300 attempts; KJ’s long-distance game was basically nonexistent. For his career, Johnson only hit 160 threes total, at a 30.5% rate; Hardaway hit more than 160 in a single season three times. Johnson was more of a driver (6.3 FTA per game), Hardaway (3.7 FTA per game) more of a shooter. Preference honestly depends on the coach, the system and the teammates, but consider this: In 1994, when both were in their prime, KJ only made the Dream Team II roster because Hardaway got hurt and they needed an alternate.

Hardaway also proved to be more versatile. As much as the League’s entertainment value suffered when Golden State broke up Run-TMC, going to Miami was perfect for Hardaway. With the Heat, he showed he wasn’t just a guy who could get behind the wheel of a fast car and avoid running it into a tree. Hardaway’s numbers dropped — he went from 20-and-10 in Golden State to about 17-and-7 in Miami — but he maintained an All-Star level while quarterbacking a perennial contender in the rough-and-tumble ’90s East, running Pat Riley‘s murderball playbook. Not that anybody should’ve been questioning a PG hewn on Chicago’s playgrounds, but Hardaway showed a toughness in Miami some didn’t know he had. And not to say Kevin Johnson was soft, but … well, once upon a time I did hear George Karl call KJ “The Desert Princess.”

Kevin Johnson

KEVIN JOHNSON (by Ben York)
I’m going to start this off with a bold statement — I firmly believe that had KJ not been affected by injuries for the bulk of his career, he would’ve gone down as one of the top five point guards to ever play the game.

But, that’s a debate for another day…

Strictly from a statistical point of view, Johnson’s had some of the best seasons by a point guard in NBA history. He’s one of only three players to average at least 20 points and 12 assists in a season (Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson). He was the first player in NBA history to average 20 points, 10 assists, and two steals a game while shooting 50% from the floor.

Furthermore, he’s one of just three players to average 20 points and 10 assists for three consecutive seasons (Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas). These highlight a career in which KJ only played 735 games (he only played more than 75 games in a season four times in 12 years) and averaged 17.9 points and 9.1 assists.

Essentially, every argument that can be thrown KJ’s way in regards to Hardaway being the better player can be trumped by Johnson. For example, from a skills standpoint, Hardaway had a killer crossover that was unmatched. That’s great, but KJ could use his 6-1 frame to dunk on some of the League’s all-time best (namely Hakeem Olajuwon). Timmy was a prolific scorer and could get into the lane easily. Sure, but KJ was virtually unguardable with his ability to drive to the left and shot a higher career FG percentage (49 to 43). Hardaway had a better assist-to-turnover ratio, but KJ’s PER career rating of 20.7 (including one year with an insane 23.7) is better than Hardaway’s career average of 18.6 (highest individual season was 20.9).

Over the span of an entire career not hampered by injuries, Hardaway bests KJ in a considerable amount of career totals. As I said above, KJ was consistently burdened with injuries but still managed to attain some sick career numbers. KJ only has about 300 less assists than Hardaway, in spite of playing in 132 less games. However, KJ has a higher career scoring average, assist average, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and offensive rating.

In virtually every other category (leadership, teammate, selflessness, smarts) I’d take KJ, too. If you still don’t agree, just YouTube that dunk on Olajuwon if you need convincing. Unreal.

Who do you think was better?

Follow Ben York on Twitter: @bjyork
Follow Austin Burton on Twitter: @AustinatDIMEmag
Follow DIME on Twitter: @DIMEMag

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TAGSBARON DAVISDimeMagGEORGE KARLHAKEEM OLAJUWONISIAH THOMASKEVIN JOHNSONMAGIC JOHNSONmichael jacksonOSCAR ROBERTSONPAT RILEYTIM HARDAWAYTONY PARKER

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