Jeff Pearlman just published a great piece on Sports Illustrated’s site explaining how close Magic Johnson was to not being the Lakers’ #1 overall selection in the 1979 Draft. Who was LA considering instead? Sidney Moncrief.
Today this sounds like a joke, but a closer look at the two players reveals how close of a debate this really was and should have been.
1. Magic didn’t exactly have the best reputation early in his career. He was known for being terrible in the clutch (absolutely bombed in the ’81 playoffs and in the final minutes of each loss in the ’84 Finals), got the 1980 Championship-winning coach fired only 11 games into 1981-82 by refusing to play for him (they were 7-4 at the time), his teammates thought he was egotistical, and Sports Illustrated called him “greedy, petulant, and obnoxious” during his third season. All this changed down the road, but you have to think the Lakers did their due diligence and knew this might be the player they were getting, which had to make them nervous going into the draft.
2. Whereas Magic was an above-average shooter at best, Moncrief was a phenomenal shooter who could therefore play in any type of system, against any type of defense, with or without the ball in his hands. Not only that, Moncrief would have benefited greatly by playing in a later era with everyone practicing and shooting 3-pointers their whole lives, much much more so than Magic whose career FG% benefited greatly by playing on a fastbreak club with tons of surrounding talent.
3. Monrief was without question the best defensive guard of the 80’s, winning the league’s first two Defensive Player of the Year awards in 1983 and 1984. He was one of the 3 best defensive guards ever, clearly overshadowing Boston’s Dennis Johnson whose defense was a major reason he made the Hall of Fame. Magic was a poor defender who racked up steals by playing “centerfield” in front of Kareem who covered up Magic’s obvious deficiencies on that side of the ball.
4. Magic’s surrounding talent was amazing from Day 1 until he retired, while Moncrief’s best teammates in his prime were Terry Cummings and an over-the-hill Marques Johnson. The Bucks still ended up with the league’s 3rd-best winning percentage for the 80’s, only behind the super loaded Celtics and the super loaded Lakers. The Bucks actually won their division the first 7 years of Moncrief’s career over teams like the Pistons with Isiah/Laimbeer and the Hawks with Dominique/Willis.
5. Here’s the biggie: Moncrief was on track to be one of the best 2 to 3 guards of the era before a series of knee injuries wiped him out in the late-80’s. If arthroscopic surgery existed, we’re talking about a guy who averaged a very efficient 23 ppg, 7 rpg, and 5 apg for years while doubling as the best backcourt defender in between Walt Frazier and Gary Payton -- tell me how many guards in NBA history could do it all to that degree (Michael Jordan, Jerry West, end of list).
Considering he was one of the very best defensive guards in NBA history, a great shooter (not at all a volume scorer), a very good passer for a SG with low turnovers, and one of the top offensive rebounding guards ever, it’s clear Moncrief would have been an all-time great if he could have gotten the surgery that existed just one decade later. Throw in a giant “what could have been?” had he been surrounded by the type of talent Magic had his entire career, and who’s not to say the Lakers didn’t nearly make the wrong decision in the summer of 1979.