The Magic Effect: Can you make your team mates better?

Don’t leave!

What follows is a piece from Chris Yeh. After a trip to the finals in 1991 and a year where Magic Johnson finished 2nd in MVP voting, he left the Lakers. A big question is: did it matter? Chris decides to investigate — with a few pipe ins from me.

I was reflecting on Magic Johnson (once again) because of Dream Team anniversary (Dre: I apologize for the lateness of this post.), when I realized that his sudden retirement offers a perfect (and possibly unique) natural experiment on the question, “Can a great player make other players better?”

Magic Johnson was a great player by any standards, but especially so when measure on Wins Produced. Magic played 11 full seasons (in 1980-81, he lost much of the season to injury, and in 1995-1996, he played a partial season in his comeback from HIV). During those 11 seasons, Magic led the league in Wins Produced four times, was second twice, and third another three times. (In contrast, Michael Jordan only led the league in Wins Produced once, during the 1988-89 season)

More importantly, during those 11 seasons, he led the Lakers to 8 NBA Finals  9 NBA Finals (Dre: for shame Chris! You forgot one!) and 5 championships.

I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles during that period, and one of the things I remember sportscasters (including the immortal Chick Hearn) saying was that, “Magic made everyone around him better.” The question is, did he?

In 1991, Magic Johnson led the Lakers to the NBA Finals, where they might have been able to edge out Jordan’s Bulls if Worthy and Scott avoided injury. Remember, by the end of the series, they were starting (STARTING!) the immortal Tony Smith.

In 1992, the Lakers brought back essentially the same squad, but with the addition of Sedale Threatt as the backup PG. Then “The Announcement” happened. The fact that Magic’s retirement occurred during the preseason (rather than at the beginning of the summer a la “The Decision”) meant that the Lakers were forced to go into the 1992 season without having the chance to restructure their roster, thus providing a near perfect experiment.

Let’s compare the 1991 Lakers to the 1992 Lakers

Player Pos 1991 WP 1992 WP Difference
Magic Johnson PG 21.5 DNP -21.5
Sedale Threatt PG DNP 9.1 9.1
Byron Scott G 5.0 7.1 2.1
Rory Sparrow G DNP -1.0 -1.0
Tony Smith G -0.4 -0.9 -0.5
Larry Drew G 0.0 DNP 0.0
James Worthy SF 6.2 2.0 -4.2
Terry Teagle SF -2.1 -1.5 0.7
A.C. Green FC 8.3 12.7 4.4
Mychal Thompson FC 1.5 DNP -1.5
Sam Perkins FC 6.3 6.1 -0.2
Vlade Divac C 12.3 2.3 -10.0
Elden Campbell C DNP 3.6 3.6

1) After replacing Magic Johnson (a superstar) with Sedale Threatt (an above average but ordinary player), the Lakers dropped from 58 wins to 43 wins (and from 59 wins produced to 38 wins produced)

2) Not all of the blame can be placed on poor Sedale Threatt. In 1990-91, Magic produced 21.5 wins; in 1991-92, Threatt produced 9.1 (both played roughly 3,000 minutes) for a drop of 12.4 wins. However, as we saw, the Lakers team WP dropped by 21 games. Replacing Magic with Threatt accounts for 60% of the drop, but the remaining 40% (8.5 games) needs to be explained.

While Scott, Worthy, and Perkins were getting older (all three turned 30 during the 91-92 season), and were thus potentially subject to decline, Scott and Perkins actually improved their productivity (albeit marginally) in Magic’s absence. In addition, both went on to have more productive seasons later in their careers (ironically enough, when playing with Mark Jackson and Gary Payton/Nate McMillan as their PGs).

Chris had a lot to say here. Unfortunately as the ardent Laker hater, I had to fact check. I’ll be hijacking the rest of the article. Chris assures me he’ll be back with a vengeance in a follow up piece.

Instead, the drop in wins produced can be attributed to major declines by James Worthy (4.2 wins) and Vlade Divac (10.0 wins) In fact, no other Laker that played both with Magic and without Magic saw a decline of even a single win! Scott, Teagle and Green actually got better! In fact, the only people that seemed to miss Magic were Tony Smith, James Worthy and Vlade Divac. Let’s look deeper.

Player 1991 Games 1991 MP 1992 Games 1992 MP
James Worthy 78 3008 54 2108
Vlade Divac 81 2310 36 979

As you may recall Chris mentioning a few paragraphs earlier – Worthy got injured in the finals in 1991. In 1992, he still wasn’t back. He missed 24 games — and all of the playoffs — and he was about half as productive as the year before. He had also just turned 30. In essence, Worthy dealt with both injury and the most risky age simultaneously. Now, it’s possible the loss of Magic compounded this as well, but it’s unlikely it was the driving force behind his decline.

In Divac’s case, it seems almost entirely a case of injury. He played less than 1000 minutes, and 45 games fewer than the season before. Also, he managed to return to form a few seasons later in Los Angeles, and also play at high levels in Charlotte and Sacramento.

The real thing that may have taken apart the Lakers in 1992 was injuries taking their best players. Losing Magic completely to HIV, losing Worthy to injury and age, losing Divac to injury. That’s taking three starters off a championship team. The fact that Sedale Threatt was able to step up as a new member and that the Lakers were still able to return to the playoffs is remarkable. Lakers fans can look at this season and shake their heads and wonder what if.

As for the Magic effect? I want it to be real. His team with him gone though, looked very similar to him there. There is one possible — albeit anecdotal — way out. Every one of the Lakers that hung around both years, played their entire career with Magic. Threatt managed to play remarkably well for a new member. It’s possible that with Magic as the heart and sole of the Lakers for all of the 80s, that he helped make a team of productive players. He helped make a team that could lose their top PG and top C and still try to contend. It’s grasping at straws, but it’s better than nothing.

-Chris, with a huge hijack from Dre.

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