The Lowdown: Kevin Johnson

Years Active: 1988 – 2000
Regular Season Stats: 735 games, 34.1 mpg
17.9 ppg, 9.1 apg, 3.3 rpg, 1.5 spg, 49.3% FG, 84.1% FT
Playoff Stats: 105 games, 36.9 mpg
19.3 ppg, 8.9 apg, 3.3 rpg, 1.3 spg, 46.9% FG, 83.3% FT
Accolades: 3x All-Star (1990-’91, ’94), 4x All-NBA 2nd Team (1989-’91, ’94), All-NBA 3rd Team (1992), Most Improved Player (1989)

Photo by Hogue News

Whom does KJ remind you of? He can penetrate like Magic. He’s as quick with the ball as Stockton. He’s as good with his left hand from close-in as Larry Bird. His attitude is part Mailman Malone, part pit bull. He has dunked over a pair of All-Star centers—7’4″ Mark Eaton of Utah and 7-foot Kevin Duckworth of the Portland Trail Blazers…Beyond that, says teammate Tom Chambers, KJ “has the quickest first step I’ve ever seen.”

Via KJ!

Over the past decade it’s become fairly commonplace to see a diminutive point guard rise up amongst the lowpost trees to deliver a slam. Derrick Rose, Steve Francis and Russell Westbrook are some prime examples, but they’re exploits don’t hold the revelatory power that Kevin Johnson’s assaults had in the late 1980s.

Short players had certainly been dunking for a while. Buffalo Brave Randy Smith in the 70s and Johnson’s contemporary Spud Webb come to mind, but Johnson’s frequency of slams was at a then-unparalleled  level. But don’t let the dunks fool you. KJ was a superb point guard. He could dish the ball with expertise and run an offense like a floor general should.

Prior to Steve Nash’s run in the desert, Kevin Johnson held the mantle as most recognized and lovable Suns player. Rightfully earned too, considering he played 11 seasons and almost 700 games with the club. However, Kevin Johnson’s NBA sojourn began as a Cleveland Cavalier.

The Cavs selected Johnson 7th in the 1987 Draft. His 52 games with Cleveland in 1987-88 were steady if unremarkable. In 20 minutes a nights he averaged 7.3 points and 3.7 assists. With 2nd-year PG Mark Price running the show, there wasn’t much room for KJ on Lake Erie. However, circumstances in arid Arizona were about to give Johnson a huge break.

A model of consistency and winning during the 1970s and early 80s, the Phoenix Suns fell into an embarrassing morass in the mid-80s culminating with the scandalous indictment of multiple players for drug possession and trafficking. Determined to clean and house and start anew, Suns president Jerry Colangelo dismantled the roster swiftly in 1987:

The Suns sent one third of their roster packing in just two days last February. Humphries went to the Milwaukee Bucks for guard Craig Hodges and a 1988 second-round pick; Edwards was sent to the Detroit Pistons for center Ron Moore and a second-rounder in 1991; and forwards Larry Nance and Mike Sanders were dealt to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kevin Johnson, forward Tyrone Corbin and center Mark West. Then in July, [Walter] Davis signed a contract with the Denver Nuggets as a free agent.

Now out in Arizona, Johnson seized the starting point guard reins and averaged 12.6 points and 8.7 assists for the rest of his rookie season. If the Suns weren’t quite sure they’d done the right thing by sending All-Star Larry Nance (who was not involved with the drug scandal) out in favor of Johnson, they were confidently assured by a late April gem from KJ: 31 points, 14 assists, 10 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 blocks and 2 turnovers while playing all 53 minutes in an OT win against Seattle.

Further improving the roster, the Suns signed PF Tom Chambers and drafted Dan Majerle sliding them in with Eddie Johnson, Jeff Hornacek, Armen Gilliam and Mark West (plus little-used Steve Kerr!). The Suns exploded from 28 wins the season before to 55 in 1989.

The duo of Chambers and KJ was largely responsible, forming one of the more formidable PG-PF combinations in the league. Johnson was always in nonstop movement getting the ball and pushing it with every opportunity in Cotton Fitzsimmons’ uptempo offense. Chambers would average 25.7 and then a career-high 27.2 ppg in 1989 and 1990 as he was copiously fed the ball by KJ.

Predictably, Johnson’s assists totals also hit career-highs these seasons: 12.2 and 11.4. But Kevin could certainly do more than pass. He was a dangerous threat to score thanks to his blinding quickness, choppy jab step and between the leg dribbles that would leave defenders either on ice skates or a yo-yo.

After leaving the perimeter defender in shambles, Johnson would then assail the basket and any interior opponent who dared cross him. Contorting layups, thundering dunks or a parade of free throws would result. 8 of the next 9 seasons, Johnson would shot above 48% from the field and never hit less than 81% of his free throws.

In 1989, the Suns would reach the Western Conference Finals and despite excellent performances from Johnson, like his 27 points and 18 assists in Game 1, the Suns would be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers, although they never lost a game by more than 8 points in the tough series.

Again reaching the WCF in 1990, the Suns again would be hard-luck losers. However, the 4-2 series defeat against the Blazers would sting more. The Suns’ four loses came by a combined 12 points, while their 2 victories came by 42 points.

The Blazers and Suns would tangle again in the 1992 Western Conference 2nd Round. Again, the Suns would be hard-luck losers. They lost the series 4-1 and their loses were by an average of 7 points. The turning point was a barn-burner Game 4, with the Suns down 2 games to 1. The final score was 153-151 after 2 overtimes and Johnson finished with 35 points and 14 assists, but the Blazers prevailed.

Johnson was brilliant during this stretch. He took home the Most Improved Player award in 1989, played in 2 All-Star games and was selected for 4 All-NBA Teams. The Suns as a team strung together 4-straight 53+ win seasons, but with Tom Chambers fading at PF a move had to be made to keep the team afloat. Although Jeff Hornacek had assumed the role of 2nd best Suns player, he was the prime piece sacrificed to Philadelphia in the 1992 trade for Charles Barkley.

With Sir Charles on board and young players like Oliver Miller, Cedric Ceballos, and Richard Dumas coming along, the Suns blazed their way to 62 wins. KJ, however, never completely meshed with Barkley. Charles domineered the ball which cut into Johnson’s free-wheeling abilities. More importantly though, Kevin would finally start to suffer the breakdowns that would ultimately curtail his career, appearing in only 49 games in the 1992-93 season.

The Suns, of course, made the Finals that season, but only after surviving an 0-2 hole against the 8th seed Lakers in the 1st round and a classic 7-game series against Seattle in the WCF. In the 1st two games of the Finals, KJ struggled mightily scoring 15 points on 6-19 shooting. Although he recovered offensively for the final 4 games, the Suns weren’t quite able to dig out of the 0-2 hole in the Finals against the Bulls. It was a frustrating nail biter: the Suns four loses came by 18 total points.

More playoff heartache would occur the next few seasons: blowing 3-1 series leads to the Houston Rockets in the 1994 and 1995 playoffs and losing in the 1st round to San Antonio in 1996.

During the stretch from 1993 – 1997, Johnson would miss nearly a third of games due to various injuries and forced him to contemplate retirement:

Over his last 4½ seasons, KJ has suffered from an assortment of injuries—a strained rib cage, a bruised right calf, a sprained right ankle, a strained right quadriceps, a strained left groin, a strained left calf, a bruised left knee and a strained left knee tendon (not to mention having chicken pox and undergoing hernia surgery)—that have forced him to miss 122 games.

The injuries conspired to dampen Johnson’s productivity. Consider that in his 1st four full seasons in Phoenix, KJ averaged 21.2 points and 11.1 assists. During his injury-riddled seasons he put together 17.8 points and 8.7 assists. Certainly great, but not the historically mind-blowing 20-10 seasons.

Prior to the 1996-97 season, Barkley was traded to the Houston Rockets and Johnson regained greater control of the offense and also maintained his health, playing in 70 games for the first time since 1992. He would finish the season averaging a robust 20 points and 9.3 assists. Johnson’s time in Phoenix was just about up, though. The injuries and rehab of the previous four seasons had sapped his enthusiasm for the game and the Suns trading for Jason Kidd midway through the 1996-97 season had clearly ushered in the beginnings of a new era.

Johnson served as backup PG for his final full season in 1997-98 (with a quirky small ball roster of Kidd, Steve Nash, Cliff Robinson, Rex Chapman, Antonio McDyess and Danny Manning) before retiring. There was a brief comeback for the 2000 playoffs after Kidd went down injured, but the curtain had drawn down on Johnson’s career.

And it was certainly a magnificent career. He is one of 9 players to ever average 20 points and 10 assists for a season. Only KJ, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas have done it 3 or more times. Furthermore, if you average out Johnson’s production between 1989 and 1997 you discover he delivered 19.8 points and 10 assists per game. That’s nearly a decade of 20/10. Truly remarkable.

Players and coaches routinely singled him out as one of the toughest players to guard in the league. His ability to destroy and break a defense down off the dribble was just too much to handle. Even during his older years as he lost his quickness, he was still able at 6’1″ and 180 lbs able operate more from post positions and was able to impose a more methodical offense or play off the ball as the 2-guard with Jason Kidd or Steve Nash.

With all of his contagious fist pumping and intensity, it’s unsurprising that KJ has since gone on to a political career. Even back in 1987 as a rookie he delivered fun, team-building quotes like this revealing his spirit and zeal:

“My hero is Benji, the dog. He’s so perfect. He’s so unselfish, and he makes so many sacrifices just so all groups of people can get along.”

Yeah, but Benji never threw down like this…

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