Holiday parties always spark fun sports debates. Who did what this year? Who will do what next year? Who’s overrated? And who’s underrated? That last question reminded me of this Sports Illustrated feature from November of 1980 on Marques Johnson, perhaps the most underrated basketball player of all-time. As the article notes:
If Marques Johnson is not generally conceded to be the best all-round basketball player in the game today, it is only because comparing players at different positions is as difficult as comparing pitchers with hitters, quarterbacks with linebackers or goalies with wingers.
In other words, he was really good. And not just in his 4th season when that piece was written, but almost immediately. He received an MVP vote his rookie year and averaged 24 points and 12 rebounds per game (59.6% TS) in the playoffs. In his second season, he made the all-nba 1st team with a 26-8-3 line (58.6% TS). All the while playing good defense, versatile enough to guard big and small forwards. The Bucks had the 6th best Offensive Rating that year, which yielded a solid 2.1 SRS.
In 1981, five months after that SI feature, Marques arguably outplayed MVP Julius Erving in their seven game playoff battle. In game 4, he started 7-7, and finished with 35 points and seven offensive rebounds. In game 5 he was saddled with back spasms, but recovered by game 7 to pour in 36 while playing the entire game. He averaged 25-9-5 on 58% TS for the series.
In 1983 he was prominent in overwhelming the Celtics in a first round sweep. His athleticism, along with Sidney Moncrief, created serious problems for Boston and even Larry Bird. As Moncrief said after Johnson popped off for 33 points 9 rebounds and 6 assists in the closing game, “it was Marques and Marques tonight.” In the next round against the champion 76ers, Marques again outplayed Erving and was arguably the best player in a series involving MVP Moses Malone. Johnson averaged 28-7-3 on 60.9% TS in the first two games and had 19-10-8 in the lone series win.
That’s a pretty darn good five or six year stretch, in which he was a top 4-7 player and played some of the all-time greats fairly even. He could guard multiple positions, play multiple positions and was an extremely low turnover player, making for even more efficient offense. Indeed, from 1978-1984, only Fred Brown turned it over less frequently than Johnson in the postseason, and his career 9.2% turnover rate still ranks 22nd all-time in the playoffs.
And yet Johnson wasn’t named to the NBA at 50 team. He wasn’t in SLAM’s top 50. Or Bill Simmon’s top 96. Or realgm’s latest top 100. Nothing. Not a mention. It’s hard to find a more underrated player in NBA history, which might make Marques Johnson the MUOAT: Most Underrated of All-Time.