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“I want my three to play defense” — Larry Johnson chooses an unlikely forward on his All-Time First Five

Larry Johnson wants his three to be a lockdown defender. But he chose an icon who's known for his offensive exploits.
Milwaukee Bucks guard Oscar Robertson and New York Knicks former player Larry Johnson

Oscar Robertson and Larry Johnson

Apart from comparing players from different eras, it’s a habit of fans and players to come up with their all-time starting five. Larry Johnson is the latest legend to come up with his exclusive list. No one was surprised when LJ placed Michael Jordan in the two-guard spot. But at the small forward position, he chose an unlikely player.

Defensive mind

Johnson entered the league in 1991 as the first overall pick by the Charlotte Hornets. As such, he was contemporaries with Jordan and Magic Johnson — and he didn’t hesitate to chuck them into his starting five. Interestingly he needed ample time to think of who he’ll put in the small forward spot.

I’mma go by position. I’m gonna put Magic in his heyday at point, I’m gonna put Michael Jordan in his heyday at two. It’s tough with my three. I want my three to play defense, I want my three to be wary…,” Johnson said, per the Sidelines podcast.

Unsurprisingly, Johnson put the great Wilt Chamberlain at center. At the power forward spot, he put Tim Duncan — the San Antonio Spurs icon who Johnson played against at the tail end of his career. Then Johnson finally named his choice for the small forward spot.

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At center, I’mma go with Wilt Chamberlain On my starting five, at my power forward, I want Tim Duncan, I want Tim Duncan… At small forward, Imma go with Oscar Robertson.

Stats to show for?

Robertson is an unlikely choice at the three because the man stood 6’5” and played point guard. Putting him at the two-guard would be acceptable since The Big O was a very potent scorer. But moving him up to another position would create a mismatch disaster.

Anecdotes reveal that Robertson was neither a great nor a bad defender. He was just okay. There’s no statistical evidence to deeply parse the Big O’s impact on defense, as the NBA did not track steals during his time. The only measure of the Big O’s defense was Defensive Win Shares (DWS), where he notched 37.2.

For comparison, Jerry West — another great point guard and Robertson’s contemporary — had a 37.9 DWS. Russell Westbrook, a fellow triple-double machine and a decent defender, has a 46.7 DWS. Gary Payton, regarded as one of the best defenders of all time, had a 48.9 DWS. Chris Paul should probably be crowned the new best lockdown point guard, as he has a 54.6 DWS.

Looking at the comparative numbers, they don’t beef up Johnson’s argument that well. But then again, if we look at Jrue Holiday’s DWS, he has 28.3 — which is the lowest compared to the guards mentioned above. But no one would tell you that Holiday is a horrible defender. He’s easily one of the best in his era.

Perhaps this is the crux of Johnson’s argument. Statistics can only tell so much about players. Maybe Robertson was one of the players Johnson studied growing up. Perhaps he saw past the Big O’s triple-double antics and saw the potential to be a competitive defender at the three. We have to trust LJ’s keen eye for basketball.

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