Was Dennis Johnson a point guard or a shooting guard?
It’s a question with no easy answer. While with the SuperSonics, Johnson played alongside Gus Williams and Freddie Brown in the backcourt. All three men were under 6’4″ in height and all had assists tallies around 3 or 4 per game. While with the Phoenix Suns a somewhat clearer picture emerged with Johnson being the point guard, but the Suns distributed the burden of orchestrating offense widely, even to center Alvan Adams. Things got murkier yet in Boston. Danny Ainge, Gerald Henderson, and Larry Bird could all assume ball-handling and/or orchestration duties. Adding Bill Walton to the mix in 1986 didn’t do much to resolve the impasse.
Not until the late 1980s when Dennis Johnson was on the back nine of his career could you say the man was truly a classical definition of point guard. All this long while, though, Johnson was tremendous guard, whether shooting, point, or any other arbitrary signifier.
He was a highly effective offensive player who could drive into a defense and finish strong by bodying up for layups. When he was on defense, he was even better. He had tremendous anticipation and a wit about him. He knew the right moment to pounce on a lazy pass or to sneak behind an unsuspecting post player to swipe the ball. That anticipation made him a selection to the All-Defensive Team nine straight times from 1979 to 1987.
The greatness of Johnson was revealed fairly early in his NBA career. In 1978 he helped lead the club to the NBA Finals where they lost in seven games to the Washington Bullets. In a rematch the next season, the Sonics won four-games-to-one and Johnson was named Finals MVP with averages of 22.5 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals a game. The success went to Johnson’s head, though, and the Sonics locker room imploded the next year.
In the aftermath, Johnson was traded to Phoenix where he played fine basketball for the Suns. Questions lingered on whether DJ was merely a great individual talent with no way to integrate into a team. After three years in Arizona, Johnson was dealt to Boston in 1983 for backup center Rick Robey, which is an embarrassing sentence to write about a Hall of Fame guard. With the Celtics, though, Johnson redeemed his reputation and helped Boston capture its last two titles of the 1980s. He summoned all the best of his Sonics days without the worst of it. Like most people, he became wiser and better as time passed by.
So, whether Johnson was a true point guard, combo guard, or a shooting guard who could command the offense doesn’t really matter. He was a fantastic player who filled the role his team needed. Sometimes that meant more scoring, sometimes that meant more passing. And with DJ it always meant some hard-nosed, unrelenting D.
Years Played: 1976-1990
3x Champion (1979, 1984, 1986)
Finals MVP (1979)
All-NBA 1st Team (1981)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1980)
6x All-Defensive 1st Team (1979-’83, 1987)
3x All-Defensive 2nd Team (1984-’86)
5x All-Star (1979-’82, 1985)
NBA - 1100 Games
14.1 PPG, 5.0 APG, 3.9 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 44.5 FG%, 79.7 FT%
Contemporary NBA Ranks (1976-77 through 1989-90 season)
18th Points, 18th FGs Made
14th FTs Made, 35th FT%
7th Assists, 22nd APG
6th Steals, 27th SPG
2nd Games Played, 3rd Minutes Played