What if Magic Johnson never got HIV and had to retire? We’ve done several of these Alternative History articles, and what is so interesting to me about Magic is he came out of retirement after 4.5 years. Much like Michael Jordan coming out of retirement after 3 years, I believe it allows us to gauge what kind of player he would have been in those ensuing years. I think we can fill in the blanks fairly accurately as to what might have happened in those 4 years.
I was 12 years old when Magic retired at the age of 31 off of a finals appearance. At the time it wasn’t just a blow losing one of the best players and biggest superstars in the world, I remember the reaction was almost like a death sentence. It was a different period, and we just didn’t really have the information ecosystem about AIDS we do now to even know it was survivable. You only really heard about the deaths and in 1991 the disease had just topped 100,000 deaths of people with a third of them dying in the previous year. It was probably one of the scariest points in the history of the disease, especially when one of the most famous people on earth would become infected. When you remember having that feeling at the time, it’s just great Magic is still here not only surviving but thriving.
Even as well as Magic is doing now, AIDS and more specifically the lack of knowledge about its contagiousness robbed him, the sport, and fans of at least 4.5 years of being one of the top players that have ever lived. Magic was still playing at MVP level when he had to retire. What is sad is Magic wanted to come back in 1992-93, but got such pushback from other players that it forced him to pull the plug. Eventually, he was able to come back in 1996 and walk away on his own terms.
Let’s take a look at the season before Magic retired.
Magic had just won the MVP the season prior in 1990 and as you can see, this was a very good individual follow-up season. Magic would finish 2nd in the voting to Michael Jordan and the Lakers were 58-24 and would lose in the finals 4-1 to the Chicago Bulls. It would be the first championship for the Bulls.
Magic would come back in January of 1996 for the last 32 games at the age of 36. He would come back a much different player but still a highly effective one. Instead of a slim point guard, he was playing mostly power forward and 25 pounds heavier at 255lbs. The beauty of his game allowed him to be so versatile and skilled that it was pretty seamless, transition to the post. In 1980 he started at center in the Finals and had 42 points 15 rebounds and 7 assists as a rookie so it’s no shock. He had the size and build to age into a Power Forward role, but one that was highly skilled. He could still dribble like a guard and bring the ball down the court. What is most incredible to me is that after 4.5+ full seasons of not playing at all, he was able to kick off the rust and come back in January and play at the level he did.
What is probably the most amazing is how similar every number except assist was, and that was from his position changing. He was still very efficient and very productive, he was still Magic in many ways.
|Per 36 minutes|
The Lakers would go 22-10 with him playing 30 minutes a game. Overall, they would go 53-29 and lose to the Rockets in the 1st round 3-1. Magic would average 15.3ppg, 8.5rpg, 6.5apg playing 33.8 minutes with a .570 True Shooting. The surrounding team featured Vlade Divac, Eddie Jones, Cedric Ceballos, Elden Campbell, and Nick Van Excell. This wasn’t a great team and Magic was probably still the best player. This was the season before they would acquire Kobe and Shaq. It would have been a nice visual to see those three on the same court just for the photo. It was a matter of months from that happening.
Let’s attempt to fill in the missing seasons and see what those Lakers teams may have looked like with Magic. Magic would play in 1992 in the All Star game at a time it was taken more seriously, winning MVP. It was a great showing where he would have 25 points 9 assists on 12 floor shots. He would also play of course on the 1992 Dream Team at the age of 32 as a regular part of the rotation. Clearly, he was still one of the best players in the world given how well he played the year prior in the finals and 2nd in MVP voting, and how well he played when he came back at age 36. I think he comes into this season with a very similar form to how 1991 left off.
The Lakers would miss him greatly in 1992 going 43-39 and losing 3-1 to the eventual Western Conference Champion Trailblazers in the first round. It’s a team they had defeated 4-2 the previous season. Portland was a legitimate contender, though. They had been to the Finals in 1990, but they didn’t have to go through the Lakers that season. It’s still a team they had yet to take down themselves.
What complicates it and why I couldn’t pick the Lakers to get back to the finals this season is James Worthy only played 54 games to miss the playoffs. Sam Perkins also only played 63 and missed the playoffs as well. Had Worthy been healthy, I do believe they would have been a higher seed and made the WCF. There is a good chance they are back in the finals again in 1992 where they likely lose again to the Bulls for the 2nd time. I think this season was decided by the injuries. I don’t think Magic was enough by himself.
The Lakers this season would change their coach again, and got 39-43, but would make the playoffs and give eventual Finalist Phoenix Suns a series going all 5 in the first round and losing 3-2. This however is a very interesting team that featured many of the mainstays of that era, and a very balanced approach. No player averaged more than 15.1ppg, and even in those times, that was unusual.
Journeyman Sedal Threatt who averaged double-digit scoring twice prior to this season was 31 years old and would be the leading scorer. Seven players averaged double digits in that 1993 season. With no real scoring leader, and a player to get you that bucket when you needed it, having Magic Johnson on the team to score efficiently or dish it to who had the best shot could have drastically changed this season. The offense was only 16th in both 1991-92 and 1992-93. It was 5th in Magic’s last season. I do believe he would have had a similar effect.
There was much better health on the 1993 Lakers, and they would push the Finalist Suns with the MVP Barkley to 5 game. They would win both games on the road to start the series 2-0, before losing by 5 at home in game three when they could have clinched the series. I believe with Magic they would have beaten the Suns. Even in game 5 back in Phoenix, it was a competitive 104-112 loss. I think with their playoff experience and health they get through the Suns and Supersonics who were in the WCF or any of the other teams in the west. Worth, Byron Scott and Vlade were still playing at high levels. This I believe would have been another match up with the Bulls that would have gone similar to the first in 1991. Magic and Michael part 2 would have been fun, but ultimately I think having MVP Charles Barkley as the foil that season was better for Jordan’s legacy. It was another all time great notch on the belt to beat him. It was just the Bulls time.
Jordan how walked this season, which automatically would open the door for someone else to win. Unfortunately, this was the season their changing of the guard was happening. Byron Scott was released, and James Worthy was on his last legs. He would come off the bench and average 10ppg this season and retire. The Lakers had drafted well in the later part of the draft and did have intriguing young talent with Nick Van Excell, Valde Divac, Anthony Peeler, Doug Christie, George Lynch, and Elden Campbell all 25 years or younger. The team wasn’t good though finishing 33-49. It’s exactly the kind of team with no real go to scorer or guy that Magic Johnson could have helped immensely. I certainly think he could have gotten them to the playoffs but they are likely a quick out. Their defense was bad and a 34 year old Magic probably isn’t helping that out a lot.
The Lakers had a good off-season this year, trading the #21 pick in the draft for Cedric Ceballos who was a 19ppg scorer. Exactly what the team needed, and in an alternative timeline with Magic this still seems like a move they could have made. He was also only 25 years old, giving them another quality young player and future all star to pair with Nick Van Excell and Valde Divac. They also drafted a difference maker in Eddie Jones with the 10th pick. If Magic was still around, they don’t get him with a lottery pick. So he will need to be removed from the team the next two seasons. He was pretty good as a rookie, averaging 14ppg on .546 true shooting. The Lakers would win 48 games that season and make it to the 2nd round of the playoffs after losing to the Spurs.
If you replace Magic for Eddie Jones on that team, I think the upside is greater. They probably win in the low 50s and would have had a solid shot at making it to the finals or even winning. I could see them in the mix. Magic would be slipping at 35 but playing a similar role to what he did when he came back the next season, likely. That version of Magic was still very good, and the talent around him was better than in 1993-94. It was more ready by that point, especially added Ceballos. The Rockets were the defending champs and would win again, but they had to do it as a 6th seed. Ultimately, the championship DNA and experience probably comes through for the Rockets, but the Lakers would have had a chance to get to the finals and win. Especially if they could have beaten the Rockets. The fact they lost to the Rocket’s the following season with Magic 3-1 kind of seals it.
We know how 1996 went because we got to see Magic on the court by January and in those playoffs. Although, that team wouldnt’ have had Eddie Jones. If they had Magic Johnson all 82 games, though, I believe they would have had similar results. After the playoff loss, he said he wanted to come back. He did specify that he wanted to play point guard again either for the Lakers or someone else. I’m not sure how big of a factor that played in his decision but I don’t think he could have played PG at 255 very effectively for 30+ minutes a game at 37 years old. Had he come back he would have been on a team with Shaq, Van Excell, Robert Horry, and Kobe. It was a good team, one with Magic Johnson that would have likely been a little better. Not good enough to beat the Bulls though, and probably not Utah either. It was way too soon for that. It would have been cool to have Magic on this team though and play a full season. I do believe as well as he played in 1996, given the normal age regression, he still would have been a high-level player on that team. He probably would have averaged about 11ppg, 5rpg, 7apg with an 18 PER and .600 true shooting. Something along those lines.
Filling in the Missing Years