Who Led Showtime?

The latest trade demand from Kobe might cause some to look back at the days when the Lakers were led by players who demanded their team win by producing large quantities of wins (as opposed to Kobe’s method of just demanding the team acquire players who can produce large quantities of wins).

In 1979 the LA Lakers took Magic Johnson with the number one pick in the NBA draft.

Pairing Magic with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led to the birth of Showtime, and when the 1980 playoffs ended, an NBA championship. Which player, though, mattered more? Was Magic the star of this team? Or was Kareem still leading the way in Magic’s rookie season?

As with my analysis of the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers, the answer (at least the one I am providing) is in Wins Produced. The following table reports the Wins Produced for the 1979-80 LA Lakers.

Table One: The LA Lakers in 1979-80

The Lakers won 60 games that season, an increase of 13 from the previous campaign. The summation of Wins Produced comes to 57, and of these, 23.4 are traced to Kareem. Another 21.1 can be attributed to Magic. When we look at Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48] it looks like these two players – who each posted a 0.36 mark — were equally responsible for team success. After Magic and Kareem, the only above average player who played significant minutes was Jamaal Wilkes. The combination of Magic, Kareem, and Silk produced 54.3 of the 57 Wins Produced this team accumulated.

It’s important to remember that Kareem was 32 years old that season while Magic was just a 20–year old kid. As the decade continued, Magic became more and more important while Kareem’s contribution declined. This can be seen when we look at the 1986-87 edition of Showtime.

Table Two: The LA Lakers in 1986-87

The Lakers won 65 games this year, and nearly 29 of these victories can be linked to Magic. Although Magic was truly “magical”, he was not a one-man team. James Worthy, A.C. Green, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, and Kurt Rambis were all above average players. These five players produced 33.9 victories.

Kareem at this point was 39 years old, but still taking the floor for 31 minutes a night. But he clearly was not a good as he once was. His WP48 was only 0.094 and he only produced 4.8 wins.

Again, the NBA only began tracking the data necessary to calculate Wins Produced, Win Score, PAWS (Position Adjusted Win Score), etc… in 1977-78. If we look at Kareem’s PAWSmin (PAWS per minute), and his corresponding WP48 and Wins Produced (which you can estimate once you know PAWSmin), we see that Kareem was truly an amazing player before he got old.

Table Three: Kareem from 1977-78 to 1988-89

From 1977-78 to 1980-81, Kareem averaged 25.1 wins per season. In 1980-81 he was 33. Over the next four seasons – 1981-82 to 1984-85 — Kareem was in his mid-30s but still very good, producing 57.1 wins. To put that in perspective, Kobe Bryant – the man demanding a trade every other week – has only produced 51.6 wins across the past four seasons.

Still, although Kareem was quite good, he was not the main star of Showtime.

Table Four: Magic Johnson’s Career Productivity

In the same four seasons Kareem produced 57.1 wins, Magic produced 113.3 wins. And in the next four seasons – 1985-86 to 1988-89 – Magic produced another 106 wins. And the two seasons after this, Magic added another 56.8 wins. Yes, Magic produced more in two seasons at the age of 30 and 31 than Kobe has produced the past four campaigns.

It’s important to note that the estimates of wins for Magic and Kareem across their careers are based on the link between PAWSmin and WP48. Because NBA teams played at a faster tempo in the 1980s, these estimates tend to over-state their contribution. But it looks to me that the over-estimation is not very large. Magic’s Wins Produced in 1986-87 (reported in Table Two above), a measure that took into account team pace, indicated that Johnson produced 28.8 wins that season. The estimate of Wins Produced based on PAWSmin says he produced 28.5 wins that season. When we look at Kareem, we see a bigger difference. His WP48 is reported to be 0.094 in Table Two. When we look at PAWSmin, though, we get a WP48 of 0.143.

When I have the time, I prefer to calculate Wins Produced the old-fashioned way (as detailed in Chapters Six and Seven of the book). Still, the picture we paint with PAWSmin is often “close enough”. And in this case, both pictures indicate that Magic initially shared the stage with Kareem in the LA. But by the mid-1980s, it looks like the Lakers were Magic’s show.

History is something I love and I plan on returning to stories from the past again and again in this forum. My next two historical posts will examine the Bad Boys of Detroit and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. I also need to start writing about the NBA Draft. Hopefully I can get to all of these topics before the week (or month) is over.

– DJ

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