Playing for the Phoenix Suns, Kevin Johnson’s career was appropriately explosive, fiery, and combustible. Acquired by the Arizona club via a trade midway through the 1987-88 season for Larry Nance, Johnson reinvigorated the moribund Suns. They finished the 1988 season 28-54. The next season the Suns rose to 55 wins and advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals.
To be sure KJ wasn’t the only reason for this remarkable turn around. Tom Chambers and Eddie Johnson provided veteran mettle while Dan Majerle, Armen Gilliam, and Jeff Hornacek gave stellar doses of talent and potential. KJ was the engine though of this powerful machine. That season he became just the fifth player to average over 20 points and 10 assists in the same season. It’s a plateau he’d stay above over the next two seasons and flirt with for the rest of his career. Indeed, from 1989 to 1997, Johnson averaged 19.8 PPG and 10.0 APG.
This duality of scoring and passing made Johnson beloved by his teammates, but a terror for defenders. His explosive first step would leave any hopeful defenseman in ruins. Actually, it could leave an entire defense in ruins by the time KJ was finished. The lightning step was but the beginning. He could let defenses off the hook with a pull-up jumper, but the worst terror awaited any center by the basket. Johnson was fearless and possessed extraodinary leaping ability. Combined with his speed this made a posterized fool out of many big men who did their duty to the protect rim.
The Johnson Suns were a perennial Western force. After the initial WCF run in 1989, they repeated the effort in 1990. A first round exit in 1991 to the 54-win Jazz followed and in 1992 the Suns bowed out in the semi-finals. Their win tallies for these seasons were 55, 54, 55, and 53. These KJ-led Phoenix squads are largely forgotten because prior to the 1992-93 season Phoenix dealt for Charles Barkley. The 1993 squad made the finals and thus obscured the prior success of the late 80s and early 90s clubs without Barkley.
Further shadowing those moments was Kevin Johnson’s string of hobbling injuries. His hamstrings proved most troublesome but ankle and knee woes also cropped up. So, just as the Suns as a team were thir most successful, Johnson was beginning to lose his own personal effectiveness. Despite his growing troubles staying on the court, Johnson was still a force. In the 1994 playoffs he had back-to-back games of 38 points and 12 assists. In 1995 he uncorked a Herculean 46-point, 10-assist effort in a losing Game 7 to the Houston Rockets.
Those leg injuries took their toll, however, and Johnson ultimately retired after the 1998 season.
Although his career didn’t last particularly long, Kevin Johnson was particularly amazing. His lightning fire attack produced four appearances on the All-NBA 2nd Team and left him 6th all-time in assists per game. Unfortunately, the second half of his career was marred by injuries, so there can be a bit of misapprehension concerning Johnson’s true greatness. Let thy mind go to ease, though. When KJ was healthy and on the court, he was a simply one of the best.
Seasons Played: 1988 – 1998
4x All-NBA 2nd Team (1989-’91, 1994)
All-NBA 3rd Team (1992)
Most Improved Player (1989)
3x All-Star (1990-’91, 1994)
NBA - 735 Games
17.9 PPG, 9.1 APG, 3.3 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 49.3% FG, 84.1% FT
18th All-Time Assists
6th All-Time APG