Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

March 11, 2012

What if Magic Didn’t Retire?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 6:44 pm

After the brackets have been selected, ESPN will take center stage tonight at 9 p.m. with the documentary “The Anouncement,” in which Nelson George details the shocking press conference revealing Magic Johnson would retire after contracting HIV and how Johnson remains happy and successful some two decades later. Certainly, the ramifications of Johnson’s announcement went far beyond the basketball court, but the timing made me curious: What did we miss out on because Johnson retired at age 32?

Using SCHOENE in the same manner as I did to fill out Michael Jordan‘s career a few years ago, I projected out Johnson’s statistics through age 38, assuming he would play 77 games per season and that his minutes would ramp down by one per game through retirement. Games played is difficult to approximate, but I think the playing time assumption is reasonable given that Johnson averaged 29.9 minutes a night at age 36 when he returned for the second half of the 1995-96 season. Johnson was also quite effective as a sixth man that year, posting a 22.1 PER, lending credence to the notion that he would be have been able to play productively for another couple of seasons after that point in an alternate reality. (In fact, Johnson’s 95-96 projection is similar to his actual stats with the exception of the fact that he had fewer assists playing point forward alongside Nick Van Exel.)

Year    Tm    MPG    PPG   RPG    APG   Win%   WARP
1992   LAL   36.0   19.2   6.8   11.5   .792   21.6
1993   LAL   35.0   18.5   6.7   11.6   .775   20.1
1994   LAL   34.0   16.9   6.5   11.4   .756   18.4
1995   LAL   33.0   15.8   6.1   10.5   .733   16.7
1996   LAL   32.0   13.7   5.6    9.6   .708   14.9
1997   LAL   31.0   12.0   5.3    9.1   .680   13.0
1998   LAL   30.0   10.5   5.1    8.8   .649   11.1

The striking thing is just how much of his career Johnson potentially missed. Consider that I project Johnson playing an additional 507 games–more than half as many as the 906 he actually played. I think time has also overshadowed just how well Johnson was playing at the time of his retirement. He was two years removed from winning MVP, and was the runner-up to Jordan in his final full season while leading a post-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Lakers team to the Finals. The projections show Johnson with another couple of MVP-caliber seasons, and as an All-Star-caliber player all the way through his retirement.

Naturally, the extra stats make a big difference in Johnson’s career numbers. I project him finishing with 15,498 career assists, which would put him second in NBA history, just behind John Stockton (15,806). As it is, Johnson is one of four players in NBA history with at least 10,000 assists, though Steve Nash is likely to bump him down to fifth place sometime next season. Johnson would move from 15th to fourth in career steals (2,361) and would be projected to surpass 25,000 career points (25,454), putting him 14th in NBA history. Johnson also could have become the all-time leading rebounder among guards with 9,610 (currently, Jason Kidd tops the group with 8,337).

By far, the biggest change is to Johnson’s WARP figure. The projections show him adding an additional 110.8 WARP. That’s more than Chris Mullin‘s career total (108.2), among a handful of Hall of Famers. Johnson was already 11th in modern history (WARP dates back to 1979-80), so adding the additional projected seasons makes Johnson the projected leader in WARP. As it was, Magic Johnson had a remarkable career. Had he not been forced to retire early, it could have been even more historic.

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