1980 NBA Finals MVP: Taking Measure of the Myth of Magic Johnson at Center

And we have yet another Magic piece from another great writer. Mosi Platt (@mia_heat_index) decides to attack the notion that Magic earned his 1980 Finals MVP. In completely unrelated notes (except perhaps to the Editors of the site: Go Detroit, New England and Denver!)

Was Magic Johnson the right choice to be MVP of the 1980 NBA Finals?

That was the question analyzed at the Miami Heat Index blog after the 2012 Hall of Fame induction of Jamaal Wilkes. Chris Yeh analyzed the conventional wisdom that Magic made his teammates better, but did Magic’s teammates make him look better than he was in the 1980 NBA Finals?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put the Lakers up 3-2 in the 1980 NBA Finals with 40 points and 15 rebounds in Game 5 at L.A. According to Wikipedia, he scored 14 points in the 4th quarter, including the game-winning dunk over Dr. J, on an ankle so badly twisted doctors said he couldn’t play in Game 6. Kareem averaged 33 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks in the first 5 games of the series.

Jamaal “Silk” Wilkes outplayed Julius Erving in Game 6 with a career-high 37 points against Dr. J’s 27 to help the Lakers win the second title in franchise history. Game 6 was tied at the half, but the Lakers blew it open by scoring 14 straight points to start the 3rd quarter. Silk scored 16 points in the period and was the Lakers’ leading scorer until Magic passed him with some free throws when the 76ers started fouling at the end of the game. Wilkes also finished the game with 10 rebounds.

Magic Johnson racked up 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists as a rookie in Game 6 at Philadelphia after jumping center in place of the injured Kareem. The idea of Magic playing center for any significant portion of the game was a myth. Jim Chones spent most of the game in the middle and put up 11 points and 10 rebounds while Mark Landsberger grabbed 10 rebounds at power forward. Brent Musberger even says at the end of the game that Magic only “started” the game at center and played forward and guard the rest of the game. Regardless, the myth was born and Magic was crowned Finals MVP.

But was he the right choice? The tables below list the per-game stats for the Lakers and 76ers in the 1980 NBA Finals.

Per Game
Player MP PTS TRB AST STL BLK
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 40.6 33.4 13.6 3.2 0.6 4.6
Magic Johnson 42.7 21.5 11.2 8.7 2.7 0.3
Jamaal Wilkes 42.0 21.3 7.7 3.2 0.8 0.2
Norm Nixon 42.3 15.5 3.7 7.0 2.2 0.2
Michael Cooper 30.8 8.8 4.2 3.3 1.2 0.7
Jim Chones 30.8 8.3 7.0 1.5 0.8 0.7
Mark Landsberger 14.3 4.2 6.2 0.2 0.5 0.3
Brad Holland 4.3 3.3 0.3 1.0 1.0 0.0
Spencer Haywood 2.5 1.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Marty Byrnes 1.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Team Totals 240.0 109.5 51.3 27.0 9.2 6.2
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/9/2012.
Per Game
Player MP PTS TRB AST STL BLK
Julius Erving 40.7 25.5 7.0 5.0 2.0 2.3
Darryl Dawkins 33.8 20.2 6.0 2.2 1.2 2.3
Maurice Cheeks 36.8 14.7 3.2 6.7 2.5 0.2
Lionel Hollins 36.0 12.8 3.7 8.8 2.0 0.3
Bobby Jones 26.8 11.0 5.7 2.0 1.2 1.8
Caldwell Jones 33.7 9.0 8.3 1.8 0.2 2.7
Steve Mix 15.2 7.2 1.8 1.4 0.2 0.4
Henry Bibby 19.0 5.0 1.8 3.2 0.2 0.0
Clint Richardson 1.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Jim Spanarkel 1.0 0.0 0.0 1.0 0.0 0.0
Bernard Toone 1.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Team Totals 240.0 104.2 37.2 31.0 9.3 10.0
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/9/2012.

 

Based on those numbers, who would you pick as Finals MVP? I picked Kareem. Arturo disagreed.

An estimation of wins produced from the box score proved Arturo was right. Check out the Miami Heat Index blog for the full analysis and spreadsheets, but the short version is this:

  • Magic produced an estimated 1.9 wins in 256 minutes (0.363 est.WP48) over six games of the 1980 NBA Finals. and 1.4 wins in 209 minutes (0.312 est.WP48) over the first five.
  • Kareem produced an est. 1.2 wins in 203 minutes (0.277 est.WP48) over five games.
  • Silk produced an est. 0.1 wins in 252 minutes (0.024 est.WP48) over six games.

Magic produced an estimated 0.5 wins in Game 6. Arturo was right, he earned that 1980 Finals MVP.

-Mosi

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