Tha Sports Junkies 101

Most Underrated NBA Players Ever-Point Guards

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Three of the Less Celebrated Talents to Ever Play the Point Guard Position

1.) Kevin Johnson

In the 1994 NBA playoffs, a surprising baseline dunk over an NBA legend became extremely popular extremely quickly. It was indeed all-time great center and shot blocker Hakeem Olajuwon getting put on a poster. This was one of the greatest playoff dunks of all time, and the dunker was Phoenix Suns point guard Kevin, “KJ” Johnson.

Currently, Kevin Johnson is the mayor of Sacramento, California and has been involved in some controversial news regarding his alleged sexual misconduct with multiple young women during his playing career. Obviously, regardless of the punishment or if there is one at all, this was disappointing news for his fans and NBA fans in general.

This, however, should not take away from the fact that he was one of the best point guard EVER during his prime. Slowing down gradually due to injuries, Johnson may have had more to offer… But a close examination of his Phoenix Suns playing career shows that he was able to accomplish things that only a handful(maybe even less) of point guards showed the capability of matching.

Johnson was selected seventh overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1987 NBA draft. Cleveland had a solid backcourt led by Mark Price and did not have much reliance on KJ. As a backup averaging just 24.0 minutes per game, he did not make much noise during his rookie campaign. In this rookie season, Johnson was traded to the Phoenix Suns. Starting 25 of 28 games with them, Johnson averaged 12.6 points and 8.7 assists in 31.2 minutes per game. KJ had shown flashes of brilliance, and would be rewarded with the keys to run the offense for the upcoming 1988-1989 season.

The 1988 Phoenix Suns had won just 28 games. They lost their top player Larry Nance, and two of their other solid players in Walter Davis and Jay Humphries. The addition to the 1989 team was Tom Chambers, a 20 ppg high flyer for the Seattle Supersonics a year before, Chambers had proven to be a dangerous player but did not make the all star team. His value alone was not much more than the value of three of the top Suns in 1988, if it was worth more at all.

Despite having a similar talent level to the previous 28 win season, the Suns managed to make a major improvement and win 55 games. Chambers averaged 25.7 points and 8.4 rebounds  on 47.1% shooting. Eddie Johnson, who started 59 games and averaged 17.7 points in 1988, averaged 21.5 points despite starting 7 out of 70 games he played in, and also shot better from the field. Both of these players had the best years of their career, and this can be attributed to all star point guard Kevin Johnson. KJ averaged 20.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 12.2 assists on 50.5% shooting. He led the Suns to an incredible turnaround season, nearly doubling their previous win total.

In the ’89 playoffs, he averaged 23.8 points and 12.3 assists on 49.5%. The Suns swept the 44 win Denver Nuggets, beat the 43 win Golden State Warriors 4-1, and got swept by the longtime Western Conference rulers- the Los Angeles Lakers. Against L.A., KJ averaged 23.3 points and 12.8 assists on 52.5% shooting. Chambers did average 25 a game, but shot just 43.6% as he relied on KJ for much of his offense. Magic Johnson, in my opinion the greatest point guard of all time, was KJ’s matchup. He averaged 20.3 points and 14.3 assists on 50%. The Suns were swept, but they lost by 8, 6, 3, and 5 points. Magic did not need to do as much for his team, so his numbers were a bit worse than they could have been and he was not necessarily outplayed, but KJ came about as close as it gets to the best point guard around.

That was the 1989 season, in 1990, the Suns were around the same level and won 54 games, going just 3-5 in 8 games that KJ missed. Averaging 22.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 11.4 assist on 49.9% shooting, Johnson was fantastic again. This playoff run was more impressive than the previous one.

In a matchup with John Stockton and the Utah Jazz in the first round, Kevin Johnson led the Suns to a 3-2 victory. Utah won 55 games and Stockton averaged 17/14 on 51% during the season. He averaged 15/15 on 42% during the series while KJ averaged 20/9 on 42.5%. It looks as though Stockton won the numbers battle despite losing the series, but even this is not true. In game one, Johnson recorded 0 points and 5 assists in just 9 minutes of play, leaving the game and watching the Suns lose by 17 points. In this game, Stockton recorded 16 points and 17 assists on 7-16 shooting. In the next four games in which Johnson was healthy, he averaged 24.5 points and 10.3 assists on 43%, while Stockton averaged 14.8 points and 14.5 assists on 41.5%. Winning the matchup and series against one of the best point guards ever, a red-hot KJ moved on to face Magic Johnson and the Lakers for a rematch.

Magic had to do as much as possible to win this series, averaging 30-6-12 on 50%, but the Suns still won 4-1 behind KJ’s 22-6-11.2 on 47%. Magic won the individual matchup, although KJ played him very well and made him work, and Phoenix advanced to the conference finals against the Portland Trailblazers.

Up until game 6, KJ averaged 23.0 points and 12.4 assists on 52.9% shooting. In game 6, Johnson had 16 points and 6 assists in just 14 minutes of play… Then left the game injured while Phoenix led. Had he stayed in that game, there is little question that they would have won and forced game 7. Would they have won in game 7? Possibly, but an untimely injury stopped the Suns from a shot at the NBA Finals. KJ’s true averages in the 1990 playoffs, meaning the games which he played and did not leave early on, was 23/11 on nearly 49%.

Some incredible feats throughout KJ’s career:

  • As a Suns starter from 1989-1997, KJ averaged 19.8 points and 10.0 assists on 49.7% fg(59%ts) in the regular season, and 21.1 points and 9.7 assists on 47%fg(56% ts) in the playoffs.
  • From 1993-1997, KJ saw injuries consistently bug him and cause his eventual retirement. During these years he still averaged 18.4 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 8.8 assists on 49.2%.
  • From 1988/1989-1991/1992, he had four(basically) fully healthy seasons. During these years, he averaged 21.2 points and 11.1 assists on 50% fg(59% ts) in the regular season, and 21.6 points and 11.2 assists on 47% fg(57% ts).
    • He made the Western Conference Finals twice in this time, losing to the powerhouse Lakers and then was an unlucky injury away from having a solid chance at beating the Blazers/making the NBA finals.
    • Other point guards to average 20/12 in a season as KJ did in 1989? Magic and Isiah Thomas. Only other players to average 23/12 in the playoffs as KJ did in 1990? Magic, Isiah, Stockton, Rod Strickland, and Oscar Robertson. Stockton, Strickland, Isiah, and the Big O all lost in the first round in 3/4 games during that playoff run, and Magic lost in the semifinals. KJ kept up this historic pace throughout three rounds of the playoffs, making him the lone player in NBA history to do so . In 1990, he truly averaged 23/11 again, injured in two games.
    •  KJ would average 23.6 points and 11.6 assists on about 48% in 1992 before losing in the semifinals to the West champions in Portland. The only point guard to average 23/12 in a deep playoff run other than Magic, and only one to average 23/11 in a deep run(which he did twice, really three times) other than Magic and Nash in the mid 2000’s. KJ also became the second player in NBA history to average 20 points/10 assists in a deep playoff run more than two times(Magic).
    • In 1994 and 1995, KJ averaged 26.6 points and 9.7 assists on 44.4% and 27.9 points and 9.4 assists on 57.5% against the Houston Rockets, the Suns lost both times to the eventual back-to-back champs. Each losing series in deep runs, except the 1993 Finals in which KJ was not 100% all year and Charles Barkley was an MVP, he performed at a legendary level.
    • In 1997, after Barkley left, KJ played through his final year before falling apart and finally losing the battle with injuries. He averaged 20 pts/9 assists on 49.6% shooting, playing 70 games. The Suns were 1-11 without KJ, 39-31 with him. He would attempt to play in 1998, retire, return briefly in 2000 and retire once again.

The comparisons spoke for themselves, KJ’s four year prime was matched only by a couple other point guards in NBA history. He elevated his teammates, matched up and often outplayed serious competition, and is prime for prime one of the very best point guards of all time!

2.) Rod Strickland

It would not surprise me if I learned that only 20-30% of NBA fans knew of Rod Strickland. My prior knowledge of Strickland was not as deep as it is for Kevin Johnson, as Strickland never even made an NBA All-Star game. Drafted 19th overall to the New York Knicks in 1988, he did not start or play much during his first two seasons. Halfway through his second season, he was traded to the San Antonio Spurs.

In the remaining 31 games of the 1990 season with the Spurs, he averaged 14.2 points and 8.0 assists. From 1991 to 2000, his career as a starter, he averaged 15.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 8.4 assists on 45.9%. Playing until age 38, Strickland enjoyed a seventeen year career, playing until the mid 2000’s. Leading the league in assists and dazzling with his unique ability to slither by opponents and get into the lane, Strickland may not be popular among current fans but he is remembered by players. In an episode of the NBA on Open Court, NBA legends and Hall of Famers remember players with the best ball handling ability in NBA history.

Near the end of this video, Chris Webber, a teammate of Strickland with the Washington Bullets/Wizards, acknowledges him and his talents with agreement from Atlanta Hawks great Dominique Wilkins.

Despite (ridiculously) never making an all-star team, here are some noteworthy seasons of his:

  • 1993-1994: 17.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 9.0 assists on 48.3% shooting. Portland won 47 games, and his teammate Cliff Robinson who averaged 20.1 points and 6.7 rebounds on 45.7% was an all-star.
  • 1994-1995: 18.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 8.8 assists on 46.6%. Played 64 games, Portland was 35-29 in those games, 9-9 without him, and 44-38 total. Dan Majerle of Phoenix was an all star while averaging 15.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 4.1 assists on 42.5% for a Phoenix team that faced some injuries and still won 59 games. Despite Thunder Dan being a pretty good player, it is ridiculously difficult to justify this all-star snub of Strickland.
  • 1995-1996: 18.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 9.6 assists on 46.0%. Portland goes 44-38 again, going 7-8 in the games Strickland missed. The 1996 Dallas Mavericks won 26 games, Jason Kidd averaged 17-7-10 on 38% shooting. 19-4-10 vs. 17-7-10, 46% vs. 38%, 44 wins vs. 26 wins… Strickland probably deserved that all star appearance more. Other players that one could argue did not deserve the all star appearance over Strickland include Mitch Richmond and Sean Elliot, although both had good seasons.
  • 1996-1997: 17.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 8.9 assists on 46.6% shooting. Playing all 82 games for the Washington Bullets who won 44 games, Strickland and his team made the playoffs only to face Michael Jordan and the three-peat Chicago Bulls. Terrell Brandon, quick point guard of the 42 win Cavaliers averaged 19.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 6.3 assists on 43.8%. 20-4-6 vs. 17-4-9 and 44% vs. 47%. Strickland was probably the more deserving all-star selection of the two. This was the fourth straight season in which Strickland definitely could have played in the NBA All-Star game.
  • 1997-1998: 17.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 10.5 assists on 43.4 % shooting. Washington, now known as the Wizards, won 42 games. Averaging 20-4-4 on 44% for the 50 win Atlanta Hawks, Steve Smith made the all star team. 13 point/14 rebound per game(50%) PF/C Jayson Williams of the 43 win New Jersey Nets made the all star team. Strickland did not make the all-star team but was an All-NBA second team selection. Clearly, he could have and probably should have made the team for the fifth straight year.

As outlined, not only was Strickland underrated during his time, but he is not well-recognized today. Current star point guard Kyrie Irving‘s godfather, “Hot Rod” was a wizard in his time with the Wizards and Portland, and was an extremely solid NBA point guard throughout his lengthy career.

3.) Mark Price

A long-time Cleveland Cavalier, Mark Price was an outstanding marksman and quietly had a great NBA career. Making just four all-star teams, he was not extremely well-recognized and remains quite forgotten today.

For his entire 12 season career, Price averaged 15.2 points and 6.7 assists on 47.2% shooting, including 40.2% from the three point line and 90.4% from the free throw line. He played from 1986 to 1998, and was a four time all-star, three time all-NBA third team selection, and once a first-team selection. Price played the prime of his career with Cleveland, the team who he began his career with in the 1986-1987 season and did not leave until after the 1994-1995 season.

He did not start as a rookie in ’87, but started nearly the entire season during every year from ’88 to ’94. In this span, he averaged 17.8 points and 7.9 assists on 49.0% from the field, 41.3% from three, and 91.0% from the free throw line. Price was one of the finest sharpshooters the league had to offer. Price also won an Olympic Gold Medal playing for Team USA in 1994.

Price, despite seemingly having a lack of playoff success, had to face some of the league’s giants.

  • 1988: Price averages 16.0 points and 6.0 assists on 50.6% shooting. The Cavs win 42 games, and lose in the first round. Their opponent was a Chicago Bulls team that, despite having a supbar supporting cast, were led by a young Michael Jordan who won the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year award. He averaged 45/5/5 on 56%, decimating Cleveland and leading the Bulls to a 3-2 series victory. Price averaged 21 points and nearly 8 assists per game and shot well over 50%, doing all he could despite his team not matching this level of production.
  • 1989: Led by Price, their all-star and all-NBA third team point guard, leading scorer, and facilitator, the Cavaliers win 57 games. Their first round matchup? The Chicago Bulls. Facing injuries and turmoil, the Bulls won just under 50 games, but it was evident that they were better than their record. Jordan destroyed the Cavaliers yet again and despite his still underwhelming supporting cast, led the Bulls to a 3-2 series victory. Jordan averaged 40/6/8 on 52%, and hit “The Shot” at the end of game five to seal the upset.
  • 1990: Price averaged 20/9 this year, but the injury-riddled Cavaliers won just 42 games. They lost in five games in the first round of the playoffs, facing MVP candidate Charles Barkley and the Philadelphia 76ers. Price, despite the loss, averaged 20 points and 8.8 assists on over 50% shooting, continuing to perform well.
  • 1991: Price plays just 16 games, and the Cavs win just 33 games.
  • 1992: Averaging 17/7, Price is selected to his second all-star team and all-NBA third team. The Cavaliers won 57 games, and came out on top in their first and second round matchups. In the Eastern Conference Finals, another battle with MJ and the defending champion Bulls awaited. With Jordan averaging 32/6/6 and Pippen averaging almost 20 as well, the Bulls won the series in 6 games. Winning game 6 by just 5 points, the NBA champions did not ease by Cleveland, led by Price.
  • 1993: Averaging 18.2 points and 8.0 assists and being named to his third all-star team, Price was also selected to the all-NBA first team. Cleveland won 54 games, defeating the Nets in five quick games to advance to the second round. There, they met-you guessed it- the Bulls. Cruising through the regular season on tired legs after winning back-to-back championships and having their top two players play on the “Dream Team”, Chicago was ready to go for the postseason. They swept Cleveland en route to their third straight championship, with MJ averaging 31/5/5 and Pippen adding 18/6/5. Yet again, the Cavaliers are stopped by one of the best teams ever, led by the best player ever.
  • 1994: Averaging 17.3 points and 7.8 assists, Price was an all-star once again and an all-NBA third team selection. Facing injuries to most of their top tier players, the Cavs were bounced out in the first round by a Jordan-less Bulls team in a sweep.

Going through Price’s prime, it is evident that the lack of deeper playoff runs by Cleveland can be attributed to some unfavorable matchups. A two-time three-point contest champion and a player with a season(1989) in the 50-40-90 club, Price dazzled the league with his outside shooting and overall shooting repertoire.

Price was not a highly marketed player, but as NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas said on an NBA on Open Court episode while discussing forgotten legends, Price “had a run in this league that was as good as anyone”.