Alexander: Who’s the point guard GOAT? Easy choice
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Alexander: Who’s the point guard GOAT? Easy choice

May 25, 2023

Just when you thought the NBA drama machine had shut down for an August vacation, former player Gilbert Arenas asked this question of Steph Curry on a podcast released last week:

“Are you the best point guard ever?”

After a three-second pause, Curry answered: “Yes. I’d have to – yes. Me and Magic, that’d be the conversation?”

Laker fans, calm down. We’re going to defend Earvin Johnson’s honor here in a moment. But some context is required beyond the sound bite.

Arenas, who went from Grant High in L.A. to Arizona to 11 NBA seasons from 2001-02 to ’11-12, made this point during the discussion, which starts at the 27:33 mark of the clip on YouTube:

“We can look at stats and try to judge. I wasn’t around with Magic. So much respect, (but) I know there’s not a lot of 6-9 point guards. … I’m thinking about the ’90s growing up. There was nobody trying to be a 6-9 point guard, right? But I can witness and watch every kid trying to be Curry, you know what I mean? So the influence you really have on the game from the position – I look at the stats and say Magic, then Curry. When I look at the kids and watch AAU, it’s like – nah.”

Fair point, although there are two issues here. First, are we sure we want every kid on the summer circuit trying to be Curry when 99% of them will only emulate part of his game? The 6-foot-2 Curry is not only arguably the best shooter of all time but also far less selfish than all but maybe a handful of the game’s gunners, and the style of game and responsibilities he assumes with the Golden State Warriors are unique even within today’s NBA. (How that changes with Chris Paul now a Warrior will be intriguing.)

The other issue? When we’re talking GOATs – and yes, that whole conversation tends to go off the rails quickly, which is part of the beauty of NBA drama – what you achieved on the court is of greater importance than how many kids are trying to play your style. (And I can guarantee that during the ’80s there were a lot of kids trying to do the same stuff as Magic without the benefit of not only his height but his vision and instincts.)

The numbers are in Johnson’s favor.

You want championships? Magic won five in 12 seasons (not counting his 32-game post-HIV-retirement comeback in 1996, at 36, when he was more power forward than point guard and came off the bench most nights). Curry has four in 14 seasons and still counting, and at 35 it’s worth seeing how long he can maintain his pace; he didn’t seem to be slowing down this past season, averaging 24.6 points and 6.5 assists.

Points? Steph has 21,712, putting him 43rd on the all-time list, with two scoring titles (and two MVP awards, one unanimous). Magic, at 17,707 in those 12-plus seasons, is 86th on the all-time scoring list (but won three MVPs).

Assists? Curry has 5,740, or 6.5 per game. Magic had 10,141, 11.2 per game, and was the all-time leader from April 1991 until John Stockton (15,806) passed him in February of 1995. Currently, Johnson is No. 7 behind Stockton, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Steve Nash and Mark Jackson.

Triple-doubles? No contest. Curry has 10 in his career. Magic had 138, led the league 10 times and is third on the all-time list behind Russell Westbrook (198 and counting) and Oscar Robertson (181).

As for the eye test, you had to be there but you can call up the highlights on YouTube as a refresher: Magic zinging no-look passes to teammates (early on, before said teammates realized they’d better be ready, some of those passes conked them in the head), while leading the vaunted “Showtime” fast break with James Worthy or Byron Scott or Michael Cooper on the wings. … Magic jumping center and playing all three positions in Game 6 in Philadelphia in 1980, the first of the Lakers’ five titles in the decade … Magic’s “junior, junior skyhook” with four seconds left to win Game 4 of the 1987 Finals in Boston Garden, en route to championship No. 4.

There are plenty more. And that style, revolutionary in the 1980s, definitely could still play today.

GOAT-worthy? Michael Jordan, who could be considered something of an expert on the subject, said so himself after ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith chose Curry.

“Magic Johnson is easily the best point guard of all time,” he texted Smith. “Steph Curry is very close, but not in front of Magic. You must define point guard to really have a serious debate.

“Steph Curry is by far the best shooter of all time. Yes, his movement has created many shots for his teammates, he’s a career 45% 3-point shooter, but Magic Johnson invented the triple-double. Not true invented but makes it more noticeable in terms of the impact on the game. It’s a point guard stat, to be honest, Magic was the best.”

Actually, Oscar Robertson invented the triple-double. Magic refined it.

And if recency bias is put aside, Oscar should definitely be in the conversation. So should Bob Cousy, who was among those who played point guard even before the term “point guard” was coined, along with Stockton, Nash and Isiah Thomas.

But in this corner, for revolutionizing the game and for his uncanny knack of providing his team with what it needed when it needed it, Magic is the choice.

Bottom line: It’s a debate that will never truly be settled, as is usually the case with GOAT arguments, Most of it is in the eye of the beholder, as Curry acknowledges.

“Magic’s resume is ridiculous,” he said on the Arenas podcast. “So the fact we’re even having that conversation is a place I never thought I’d be in. … That’s why we have the conversation. It’s because it’s fun, and measuring eras against each other, that’s what basketball and sports is all about. That’s why people watch. That’s why people get in heated debates about it. I love it.

“Put me on my own team, I’m gonna rep myself for sure. But Magic – that’s a lofty resume to shoot for, right? I’m still going. Let’s see what happens.”

The best part of all of this? It’s given NBA fans something to talk about, taking the edge off the dog days of August while we await the latest James Harden rumor.

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