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Who’s More Versatile? Magic Johnson vs. LeBron James

By 08.30.12

Larry Bird, Magic Johnson

MAGIC JOHNSON
An NBA player’s versatility can be measured by his ability to adapt to different circumstances without forfeiting the desired end result: to win a basketball game. Through personnel and coaching changes over time, a truly versatile player will need to wear many masks, but whatever role the player needs to play, the team is successful. Perhaps no single player was a better example of this ability to adopt different roles with the same team, than Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

Throughout his 12-plus year career, Magic played many different characters: wide-eyed rookie, team savior, facilitator, offensive focal point, organizational maestro, on-court coach and many others, but through it all he won. Maybe LeBron James has shown this same ability to adapt within the last year with the Heat, but he hasn’t worn so many different hats for his team through so many different changes, and he certainly doesn’t have (at least yet) the championship hardware that’s the ultimate signifier of versatility on the basketball court.

Any discussion of Magic’s versatility has to start with his rookie campaign for the Lakers. He was playing behind Norm Nixon in LA’s backcourt, but he still managed to average 18 ppg with more than 7 assists and 7 rebounds a game. In the NBA Finals against Dr. J’s Sixers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went down with a bad ankle sprain in Game 5. Up 3-2, Los Angeles traveled back to Philly and Magic (assuming a leadership role as a rookie) symbolically sat in Kareem’s seat on the plane ride east. Coach Paul Westhead started Magic at the 5, and he responded with one of the greatest individual games in, not just NBA Finals, but NBA history: recording 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists as the Lakers won Game 6 and the series. Magic snagged his first NBA title while also becoming the first NBA rookie to win the NBA Finals MVP.

Magic’s flexibility within the Laker organization went on from there. After a disappointing sophomore season that saw him tear cartilage in his knee and miss 45 games, a new coach, Pat Riley, was brought in, and Nixon was traded to make room for Magic at the point. Playing his first full season as a starter, he averaged nearly a triple-double and the Lakers again defeated the Sixers in the Finals with Kareem leading the way and Magic happily churning up and down the court leading the team at a breakneck pace.

During the mid-80’s Kareem was always the focal point of opposing defenses, but it was Magic’s overall play that drove the engine. His ability to intercept opposing passes (he averaged over 2.5 steals per game in each season through his first five years) and snag a rebound on one end before leading the Showtime fast break on the other, in part led to five Finals appearances and three NBA titles in his first six years in the league. Then, as Kareem’s body broke down, the best point guard in the league stepped up his game even more by assuming more of an offensive role during the 1986-87 season. He averaged a career high 23.9 ppg that season on the way to the first of his three MVP trophies and lead his Lakers over Bird’s Celtics in the Finals while also claiming another Finals MVP award. The Lakers would repeat the next year, but after the Pistons foiled their attempt to three-peat, Kareem retired and a year later, Riley left.

Anyone without a historic ability to adapt and the versatility to do many different things would have folded or looked for excuses. Instead, with a new coach and a new set of faces beside him on the Lakers, Magic and his aching knees led his young team back to the 1991 NBA Finals. He would lose to MJ, of course, and then announce he had HIV the following season before retiring, but it was just another role Magic played for the Lakers in his quest for another title.

All told, in 12-plus years playing against stiff competition in the modern game (this was not Russell’s 11 titles in 13 years during the 1950s & 60s), after three coaches, the loss of a superstar teammate’s prime, a ton of team turnover and the pressure from playing in Los Angeles, Magic ended up going to nine NBA Finals and winning five of them. That’s versatility; LeBron has a long way to go before it’s even close.
-SPENCER LUND

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