This is a magician's hat and wand besides the words: Not So Magical on Defense!

Magic Johnson on Defense: Not Quite Magical

Earvin “Magic” Johnson was mostly an average defender throughout his career. Johnson led the league in steals twice and had outstanding size for a guard. But Magic was not very quick for his position and the Lakers mostly relied on better defenders to cover the other team’s best offensive players. 

Magic Johnson On Defense: Stats

One way to judge players from the past is to use advanced statistics to look back and get an unbiased view of how good they really were. Advanced stats have their limits. They are still less effective at measuring defense than offense. 

But they can give us a view of players that is not affected by memory or nostalgia.

When you look into what advanced stats say about Magic Johnson, they show he was a decent, but not amazing, defensive player. 

Basketball Reference lists five defensive statistics in its advanced statistics section. They also list defensive rating in their per 100 stats, which attempts to measure a player’s defensive effectiveness per 100 possessions. 

Magic ranks among the all time NBA leaders for five of these statistical categories. But he barely ranks in the top 250 all time in two of those while ranking fairly highly in three of them. 

All Time
Def.Reb. %15.8%(233rd)
Block %.6%(NR)
Steal %2.46%(68th)
Def. Rating(lower is better)105(195th)
Def. Box +/-1.6(49th)
NR=Not Ranked in Top 250

Individual Defensive Statistics

A general belief in using statistics to scout players’ defensive abilities is that good players will get their share of blocks and steals.  

Magic did not get too many blocks at the NBA level. Johnson’s .6 block % does not make the all time top 250 list of NBA players for this category. 

John Stockton, who was 6’1” finished with a .5%. This is not a great number for Magic. He was not much of a rim defender nor shot blocker throughout his career despite outlier size for his position. 

He did get his share of steals, however. Johnson led the NBA in steals twice early in his career. He did not lead in steal percentage, which estimates the number of opponents possessions that ended with the player stealing the ball,  but in actual steals, which is the more traditional counting stat. 

Rather than always being a positive like a blocked shot, steals can often be correlated with needless risk-taking on defense.  Magic had this reputation for sure. 

Early in his career, Magic gambled a lot for steals.  Some observers say the Lakers encouraged this in those years and set their defense around it. 

Magic also had stronger steal rates early in his career but both his pure steals and steal rate tailed off as his career progressed. While that could be a sign that Magic played with less energy on the defensive end as his career progressed, it could also be a sign of his growing ability to guard his own man straight up. 

The most likely explanation is probably both: he started conserving some energy on defense as he aged but he also did not have the need to gamble as much as his career progressed. In any case, steals were Johnson’s defensive hallmark. 

Johnson’s career steal percentage of 2.46% left him 68th on the all time NBA list. He was not an all-time elite thief, but he could pick a pocket or two when needed. 

Magic was a great rebounder for a guard. He finished with a 15.8 defensive rebounding percentage.There are not too many guards ahead of Johnson on the all-time list. 

In general, guards don’t get many defensive rebounds because they are on the perimeter. Magic was often guarding a small, or even big, forward. Because of this, he was often in a much better defensive rebounding position than most guards. 

When you compare Magic to forwards, his rebounding numbers are not as clearly great. He finished almost tied with journeyman forward Brandon Bass in  career defensive rebounding percentage towards the bottom of the all-time top 250. 

So Magic had good defensive rebounding numbers for a point guard but that is likely a bit of a misleading stat that is not as good for him as it seems. 

“Stats Key” by Got Credit is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Overall Defensive Statistics

Magic’s big-picture advanced stats make the case that he was not a net negative defender. 

Defensive rating essentially measures how many baskets a player gives up per 100 possessions. Here Magic makes the top 250 but not strongly finishing 195th all time with a 105 rating. 

He finishes well below all-time elite defenders like Michael Jordan who had a 103 career defensive rating. But many players have worse ratings. For instance, god-awful defender Dominique Wilkins finished his career with a 108 defensive rating. 

Defensive box plus/minus is an estimate of how many points a player gave up per possession when compared to a league average player & team. 

Here Johnson finishes with his highest ranking 49th all time at 1.60. Magic is right behind long-time teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, widely considered a great defender.  

The last advanced defensive statistic is defensive win shares (DWS), a complicated stat that tries to measure how much a player contributed to his team while on the floor. The news here is also good for Magic as he finished 64th all time at 45.2. 

It is important to note that DWS seem to be impacted by long, successful  careers. The top 20 all seem to be players widely recognized for good or great defense. 

But from there, the list includes some real variance in defensive reputations. Even some not so great defenders, like Charles Barkley, with 53.9, rank highly in this category.

Ultimately, Magic’s career advanced defensive statistics are good but not great. 

He got his share of steals but did not block many shots – even with his height. He did get a lot of defensive rebounds for a guard but that stat is a bit shaky considering where he tended to play. The overall stats are a little mixed with a good plus/minus but a not-so-great defensive rating.

Was Magic Johnson considered a good defender when he was playing?

Another way to measure a player’s defense is to look back at what people who watched him said. While advanced statistics offer an unbiased look at a player, they are also limited, especially in measuring defense. 

In this case, the statistics line up with the views of most observers who saw Magic Johnson as a decent but not outstanding defender. 

Versatility and Adapting from the College Game

Johnson never made any all-NBA defensive teams in his career. He was considered a terror on the fast break, and on offense generally,  who could be hidden pretty easily on defense because of his size and versatility. 

One famous example of that versatility was his lining up at center for game 6 in the 1980 NBA finals. But Magic’s career highlights came mostly on offense. 

In his autobiography “My Life”, Johnson himself discusses how the zone defense he played at Michigan State did not prepare him well for the exclusively one-on-one defense of the NBA. He discusses his struggles adjusting to defense in the league and his need for extra coaching for it. 

The Lakers knew Magic’s strengths and their roster was developed such that Magic was rarely defending a point guard – his position on offense. 

If you watch the clip below from Magic’s first NBA game, you can see why this was needed. World B. Free blows by Magic like he is standing still. But you also see Magic recover and steal Free’s pass and lead a break in the other direction.

Instead of having Johnson guard players like Free, better defenders like Michael Cooper, an all-time great on the defensive end, would take on the quicker guards leaving Magic defending a bigger, slower guard or even a forward.

In addition to Cooper, Magic was generally surrounded with strong defenders including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an 11-time NBA all-defensive team selection. The strong defenders around him let Magic play to his strengths on defense and generally offered him an easier match up as well. 

Magic Johnson on Defense: A Different Era

Magic also played at a time when the league was very different from what it is now and those differences helped him on defense. The NBA allowed players to be much more physical defensively in the showtime era. 

This included hand-checking, so a bigger, stronger player like Magic could offset his quickness disadvantage by getting his hands on a faster player. 

Quicker guards who did get by Magic faced more bodies packing the lane because of the much tighter spacing of a league featuring way fewer three point shots. Centers in that age were almost never outside shooters, so Jabbar was nearly always available for rim protection like most centers of the day. 

Magic Johnson was a five time NBA champion. His Lakers teams tended to protect him on defense because his biggest contribution to those victories was on offense for sure. 

Those who watched him never considered him a defensive stalwart. But, at the same time,  he did enough on the defensive end to help those teams win consistently.

Was Magic Johnson better on defense than Larry Bird?

Magic and Larry were classic rivals, and Dream Team teammates, but on defense Bird clearly had the edge. Advanced statistics heavily favor Bird as the better defensive player.

Def. Reb. %22.4% (71st)15.8% (233rd)
Block %1.22% (242).6 %(NR)
Steal %2.16% (132)2.46%(68th)
Def. Rating
(lower is better)
101 (63)105 (195th)
Def. Box +/-1.8 (37)1.6 (49th)
Def.Win Shares59.0 (30)45.2 (64th)

Magic had a higher  defensive rating (which means worse with this stat), lower defensive rebounding and block percentages and fewer defensive win shares. 

Magic had a higher steal percentage, but even that statistic is fairly close with Bird finishing 131st on the NBA all time list vs Magic’s 68th.  

While advanced stats are not perfect at capturing players’ effectiveness on D, they offer unbiased insight that stories can’t. In this case, when nearly all of them say Bird was better, it is hard to ignore.

The stats match what most observers saw as well. While Magic was viewed as an adequate defender who was well protected by Lakers teammates, Bird was viewed a little differently. 

Larry Legend was voted to the NBA all-defensive 2nd team three times early in his career. 

Both players shared weaknesses in terms of lateral quickness for their position and a lack of elite level athleticism for the NBA. But Bird was quicker than most remember in his early years. 

The Hick from French Lick was viewed as  a strong defender in those early years. As his career went on, the Celtics started to hide him a bit by having others chase the quicker forwards who gave him trouble. But even in that role he was good offering strong post defense and outstanding defensive rebounding. 

Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had one of the NBA’s best rivalries. But when it comes to defense, the rivalry was pretty one-sided. Larry Bird was a good defender who was considered outstanding early in his career. Magic struggled early and grew into an average defender.   

Summary: Magic Johnson on Defense

Magic Johnson was a winning basketball player who excelled on offense but had pretty clear defensive limitations. Advanced statistics show he had some strengths, like getting steals and contributing to team defense. But stats also show some weaknesses and people who watched him play did not consider him a very strong defender. 

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