NBA / Sep 16, 2011 / 12:00 pm

Who’s Better: Magic Johnson Or Oscar Robertson?

Oscar Robertson

Icons, immortals or institutions of the game.

Label them however you would like, either way it all spells out the same in the end. In most circles the debate for the best point guard of all-time starts and ends with a 6-9 215-pound legend that produced “Magic”. For the historians in the group they take it a bit further, back to a time where a 6-5 205-pound triple-double machine known as “The Big O” roamed the NBA landscape.

Magic was the spearhead – from literally his rookie year – of a Lakers team that dominated the 1980s. With Magic, they became the immovable object of the NBA, appearing in seven Finals and winning five of them. He picked up the mantle as a unique, large guard who mastered the art of the triple-double shortly after his opposition, The Big O retired.

For most of Robertson‘s career, he was on struggling Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) teams that never broke through. Once he arrived in Milwaukee he won a title with the Bucks and lost in another a few years later, finally getting to the big stage where he belonged all along.

This is the fourth and final entry in the Point Guard Debate that saw Jason Kidd overcome Gary Payton, Isiah Thomas upset John Stockton> and Bob Cousy prove old school is still in session versus Steve Nash using four these four basic categories; Statistics, Best Season, Playoff Success and Historical Effect. Let the debate begin!


Certain stats were not recorded like they are today like steals, blocks and turnovers. It is hard to compare players from different eras because of this, but not impossible. Robertson did not have his turnovers or steals recorded for his career (except for his final season) so those stats can not be looked at seriously with either player.

Statistics- Magic vs. Big O

If we just look at the evidence of the point guards that have already been discussed, the average for turnovers-per-game comes out to 3.1 and the steals-per-game to 1.9 (average without Steve Nash included).

Rebounds, steals and turnovers are a virtual wash for each player’s respective career. Magic has a decisive edge in assists and Robertson has an even larger edge in points.
Here is a water cooler fact to boggle the minds of your friends and co-workers: Through his first five seasons (384 games played), Oscar Robertson averaged 30.2 PPG, 10.4 RPG and 10.6 APG. He is known for averaging a triple double during the 62-63 season (his second year), but the bigger story is that he consistently was a triple-double tour de force for FIVE seasons. Oscar was also more of a pure scorer than Magic mainly for team need, but also because he had a scorer’s mentality.

For Magic, he had an impressive streak as well during his playing career. In nine straight seasons (682 games played from 1982-’83 to ’90-’91), Magic averaged 12.2 assists per game. That is truly Magic, the definition of what a point guard should do on the court, distribute and lead. To put that in perspective, not one player in the past 16 seasons has averaged 12 assists in a single season and only Stockton has had a string of seasons comparable to what Magic did over those 9 years.

Both players were matched up with the opposing teams’ top defender nightly and they delivered at a very high level in spite of that. Robertson had his elite run and so did Magic rewriting the record books every time they stepped on the hardwood.

Magic Johnson: 1988-1989 (57-25)… 22.5 PPG, 12.8 APG, 7.9 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 50.9 FG%, 31.4 3PT%, 91.1 FT%, 65 Double-Doubles and 17 Triple-Doubles
Oscar Robertson: 1961-1962 (43-37)… 30.8 PPG, 11.4 APG, 12.5 RPG, NA SPG, 47.8 FG%, NA 3PT%, 80.3 FT% *double-doubles and triple-doubles were not recorded this season

The Lakers made it to another Final in 1988-’89 (their sixth in eight seasons) only to lose to the Bad Boy Pistons in four games. That was not without effort from Magic who had just won his second MVP award in three years and was riding high off of a historic season. He was at or above his career highs in nearly every category and was simply the NBA’s best.

Big O/Magic All-time

Team success was not achieved during the single greatest single season by a basketball player, but about everything else was. Cincinnati lost in the first round of the playoffs after an overall subpar season. That did not stop Robertson from achieving (it is debatable) the single best season by a player in basketball history. Sure, Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 PPG and 25.7 RPG in the same season, but Robertson dominated in a different way. He scored, he rebounded and he distributed the ball in a combination that will never be seen again.

The closest thing to Robertson’s great season were seasons from Magic Johnson (’81-82): 18.6 PPG, 9.5 APG, 9.6 RPG, Michael Jordan (’88-89): 32.5 PPG, 8 APG, 8 RPG, and LeBron James (’09-10): 29.7 PPG, 8.6 APG, 7.3 RPG.

The burden of running an entire team usually does not translate to success (Magic won a championship in 1981-1982) on the basketball court, but greatness is undeniable and that is what Robertson displayed in 1961-1962.
Edge: Oscar

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  • CJ

    wow great debate. i think you’re safe either way.

    i think it would depends on the supporting cast. with lesser talent around him, i would go with oscar. i think he would be more of a one-man wrecking crew. with those types of numbers he obviously had the ball in his hands most of the time whether he was shooting it or passing it. i don’t know if he could keep other talented players happy. i heard he was a bit difficult in the locker room as well.

    Magic however proved that he could play with other great players. he was a strong effective leader, even with kareem on the squad. but i don’t think he would be as effective as oscar if he had a bunch scrubs around him.

  • JAY

    Both are great in their own respect. Magic, is the better point guard. Oscar, is a one man gang. Neither one is better than the other.

  • Jzsmoove

    Magic all the way man! Big O was nice but Lakers rode Magic to 5 titles. You can argue lakers had more star material to work with. That’s a lot if egos to feed. And Magic fed all and many.

  • ERIC

    Big O fo sho!

  • Ian

    fuck it its a tie.

    magic went to 9 finals i think not 7.(8 of them in the 80s)

    won 5 and lost to pistons , bulls , celtics and sixers?? no??

  • K Dizzle

    No. Lose. Situation.

  • Cektics 17

    The Big O and Magic were the 2 best guards of their era. The only difference is Magic could play guard,forward or center if that’s what was needed to win.

  • cesar

    This is the FOURTH and final entry in the Point Guard Debate *