Who’s Better: Magic Johnson Or Oscar Robertson?

Icons, immortals or institutions of the game.

Label them however you would like, either way it all spells out the same in the end. In most circles the debate for the best point guard of all-time starts and ends with a 6-9 215-pound legend that produced “Magic”. For the historians in the group they take it a bit further, back to a time where a 6-5 205-pound triple-double machine known as “The Big O” roamed the NBA landscape.

Magic was the spearhead – from literally his rookie year – of a Lakers team that dominated the 1980s. With Magic, they became the immovable object of the NBA, appearing in seven Finals and winning five of them. He picked up the mantle as a unique, large guard who mastered the art of the triple-double shortly after his opposition, The Big O retired.

For most of Robertson‘s career, he was on struggling Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) teams that never broke through. Once he arrived in Milwaukee he won a title with the Bucks and lost in another a few years later, finally getting to the big stage where he belonged all along.

This is the fourth and final entry in the Point Guard Debate that saw Jason Kidd overcome Gary Payton, Isiah Thomas upset John Stockton> and Bob Cousy prove old school is still in session versus Steve Nash using four these four basic categories; Statistics, Best Season, Playoff Success and Historical Effect. Let the debate begin!


Certain stats were not recorded like they are today like steals, blocks and turnovers. It is hard to compare players from different eras because of this, but not impossible. Robertson did not have his turnovers or steals recorded for his career (except for his final season) so those stats can not be looked at seriously with either player.

If we just look at the evidence of the point guards that have already been discussed, the average for turnovers-per-game comes out to 3.1 and the steals-per-game to 1.9 (average without Steve Nash included).

Rebounds, steals and turnovers are a virtual wash for each player’s respective career. Magic has a decisive edge in assists and Robertson has an even larger edge in points.
Here is a water cooler fact to boggle the minds of your friends and co-workers: Through his first five seasons (384 games played), Oscar Robertson averaged 30.2 PPG, 10.4 RPG and 10.6 APG. He is known for averaging a triple double during the 62-63 season (his second year), but the bigger story is that he consistently was a triple-double tour de force for FIVE seasons. Oscar was also more of a pure scorer than Magic mainly for team need, but also because he had a scorer’s mentality.

For Magic, he had an impressive streak as well during his playing career. In nine straight seasons (682 games played from 1982-’83 to ’90-’91), Magic averaged 12.2 assists per game. That is truly Magic, the definition of what a point guard should do on the court, distribute and lead. To put that in perspective, not one player in the past 16 seasons has averaged 12 assists in a single season and only Stockton has had a string of seasons comparable to what Magic did over those 9 years.

Both players were matched up with the opposing teams’ top defender nightly and they delivered at a very high level in spite of that. Robertson had his elite run and so did Magic rewriting the record books every time they stepped on the hardwood.

Magic Johnson: 1988-1989 (57-25)… 22.5 PPG, 12.8 APG, 7.9 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 50.9 FG%, 31.4 3PT%, 91.1 FT%, 65 Double-Doubles and 17 Triple-Doubles
Oscar Robertson: 1961-1962 (43-37)… 30.8 PPG, 11.4 APG, 12.5 RPG, NA SPG, 47.8 FG%, NA 3PT%, 80.3 FT% *double-doubles and triple-doubles were not recorded this season

The Lakers made it to another Final in 1988-’89 (their sixth in eight seasons) only to lose to the Bad Boy Pistons in four games. That was not without effort from Magic who had just won his second MVP award in three years and was riding high off of a historic season. He was at or above his career highs in nearly every category and was simply the NBA’s best.

Team success was not achieved during the single greatest single season by a basketball player, but about everything else was. Cincinnati lost in the first round of the playoffs after an overall subpar season. That did not stop Robertson from achieving (it is debatable) the single best season by a player in basketball history. Sure, Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 PPG and 25.7 RPG in the same season, but Robertson dominated in a different way. He scored, he rebounded and he distributed the ball in a combination that will never be seen again.

The closest thing to Robertson’s great season were seasons from Magic Johnson (’81-82): 18.6 PPG, 9.5 APG, 9.6 RPG, Michael Jordan (’88-89): 32.5 PPG, 8 APG, 8 RPG, and LeBron James (’09-10): 29.7 PPG, 8.6 APG, 7.3 RPG.

The burden of running an entire team usually does not translate to success (Magic won a championship in 1981-1982) on the basketball court, but greatness is undeniable and that is what Robertson displayed in 1961-1962.
Edge: Oscar

The sample is misleading because Magic played with other all-time greats and Robertson only had a few seasons with another player of his caliber. In Cincinnati, Robertson led a “b squad” to the playoffs year after year until he eventually landed in Milwaukee with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

With the help of Jabbar, Robertson was able to amass almost all of his playoff success in a four-year window. In that window, he went 30-7 in the playoffs, won the ’70-71 NBA championship and lost another just three years later in ’73-74. Robertson was no slouch in the playoffs, averaging 22.2 PPG, 8.9 APG and 6.7 RPG in his 86 games played.

Ironically Magic found success with the same giant as Robertson did – Jabbar – in the playoffs. It was under different circumstances as Magic was drafted to a Laker team that already had Jabbar as an established superstar. Once in the playoffs, Magic had a nearly flawless record (as seen in the chart above). In his career, the season ended in the NBA Finals 8 out of 13 (full) seasons.

Magic has an astronomical edge in playoff success and has played in six more Finals than Robertson over his career. If you switch the player’s jerseys the story may have been different, but this is the way it was written.
Edge: Magic

These players proved that a “generational talent” is more than an overused cliché. In the ’60s and early ’70s, Robertson was a talent never seen before and played a style that was not common. He was a big guard that could score and rebound the ball. Traditionally guards played within the offense and distributed. The way he played created a ripple effect that was felt again in the ’80s.

That next ripple was Magic, who was a bit bigger and a bit more dynamic, but was the evolution of what Robertson started. He was more unique in the aspect that he could play five positions with regularity and did it well. On any given night Magic was the square peg that could fit in the square, circle, triangle, rectangle and diamond holes.
This proves further the equality of the players as Robertson was the original model that was modified and perfected with Magic.

Both players made the triple-double an important statistic and proved a point guard can be as dynamic as any position on the court. Both go down in history as two of the greatest players to ever play the game, let alone the point guard position. Neither was more important than the other, but they were equally important in the growth of players after them. Down the road players such as Jason Kidd, LeBron James and others were relevant because they were not restricted to a positional definition. Even Magic could have been held back to a square peg in a square hole if Robertson did not break the mold.
1-1-2 TIE

They were definitely two of the best ever. They were both revolutionary and true generational talents. Is one better than the other? It depends on your preferences, but they were interchangeable in regards to skill and impact. Sure Magic won more, but look back at the company he kept.

Robertson is The Big O and Mr. Triple-Double, a prototype that constantly tries to be duplicated, but never replicated.

Magic is and was Magic, plain and simple. He did things that will never be seen again on the basketball court.


Jason Kidd verse Gary Payton
Isiah Thomas verse John Stockton
Bob Cousy verse Steve Nash

That is a wrap. Did this solve the debates we all have at the water cooler? Heck no, but for the time being we have something to look at to make our debates more knowledgeable. These are eight of the best to ever run a team and in 20 years, we may be discussing the same names or maybe others will enter the mix as the best point guards ever.

Who would you rather have had?

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