Since the NBA started tracking Games Started as a stat leaguewide in the 1981-82 season, the top 5 seasons by Win Shares of any player who played in at least 70 games while starting 10 or fewer of them represent the pinnacle of what a sixth man can do.
The list, in order? Kevin McHale (10.5 WS, BOS, 1983-84), Detlef Schrempf (9.8, IND, 1991-92), Antawn Jamison (9.0, DAL, 2003-04), Schrempf again (9.0, IND, 1990-91), and Montrezl Harrell (8.7, LAC, 2018-19.)
As you look further down that list, you see great bench guys; Steve Kerr is at 7th and 21st for 1996 and ’97 with Chicago respectively, Ricky Pierce‘s name shows up twice in the top 12, and James Harden‘s 2011 season with Oklahoma City ranks 28th.
Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson started too many games to qualify under the “10 starts or less in 70 games or more played” list in all but three of his post-1981 years, but when you’re putting together a list of great sixth men, Johnson practically invented the modern version of instant offense off the bench.
But did he really? Or was the nickname a deceptive bit of marketing masking a guy who was on the bench for a different, more traditional reason, namely that he simply wasn’t good enough to earn more minutes than he got?
There’s a difference, after all, between a sixth man and a scrub, so to earn Confirmed on this list, let’s completely leave aside Johnson’s defense (although Johnson did record a dead-even 0.0 Defensive Box Plus-Minus for his career, so it’s not like he’s Lou Williams) and see if “The Microwave” was as hot as advertised or whether the science oven was all science and no oven.
The Counting Stats
For his career, Johnson averaged 12.0 points in 24.7 minutes per game. That’s a respectable but not terribly impressive 17.5 points per 36 minutes.
Lou Williams, in 2018-19, averaged 27.1 points per 36 minutes, which is more than LeBron James has averaged in all but three of his years in the league (including 2018-19, when LeBron averaged a career-high 28.0 per 36. You have to go back to Bron’s first stint in Cleveland, in 2009 and 2010, to find the other two seasons he topped 27.1.)
Schrempf, in those two legendary sixth-man years in Indiana in 1991 and ’92, averaged 18.1 and 19.1 points per 36 minutes. He averaged 16.9 for his career per 36, not far below a guy whose entire calling card was scoring off the bench.
Speaking of Schrempf, he was also a whole lot more efficient than was Johnson, hitting 49.1 percent of his shots and 38.4 percent of his 3-pointers, laying the groundwork for efficient scoring by a German big man that Dirk Nowitzki would take and run with when he came into the league.
Williams is a career 42.0 percent shooter but hits 35.0 percent of his long balls, good for a .481 eFG%. Let’s hold onto that for a second and circle back to Johnson.
Johnson…came off the bench and missed a lot of shots.
He was a career 46.4 percent shooter who hit just 25.4 percent from long range, although as a product of the 1980s, those 3-pointers were few and far between, comprising just 327 of his 10,515 career attempts.
Then again, so few threes means what you see is what you get eFG% wise, and Johnson’s career total in that stat is just .468. That wasn’t even good in the ’80s.
Which leads me to…
The Advanced Stats
Here’s where Johnson’s case as an offensive spark plug totally falls apart.
Johnson had one good year where he put up 5.9 Offensive Win Shares, in 1982-83, when he also posted a solid 51.3 FG% and a .563 TS% to go with a career-best 2.6 VORP.
He started 51 games in 1983, the only time in his career he was the starter in the majority of his appearances.
Off the bench, despite hovering around 2,000 minutes every season, he had years—good years, years when the Pistons made the NBA Finals in 1988 and again in 1990—when he posted less than one OWS. He had 0.2 OWS in ’88 and 0.5 OWS in ’90. That’s bad. Putrid, in fact, the kind of number you expect from a guy who comes off the bench for defense, not offense.
And sure enough, Johnson had more DWS in both years, but it still wasn’t enough to salvage a WS/48 of .056 in ’88 and .079 in ’90.
Sure, he had a great year in ’89 (3.4 OWS, 2.2 VORP, .136 WS/48), but his whole career featured just 27.2 Offensive Win Shares in over 20,000 minutes played, contributing barely over half of his 50.8 overall Win Shares for his career (precisely .100 per 48 minutes, oh by the way.)
The advanced stats bear out what the unimpressive counting stats in terms of both point totals and shooting efficiency told us at the top, and that makes this a quick snap judgment that required very little in the way of even a cursory glance to understand.
Was Vinnie Johnson “The Microwave” in terms of his ability to provide reliable instant offense off the bench?
Not by a mile! He was neither a volume scorer nor an efficient scorer off the bench. If anything, his role was to soak up minutes and help the Pistons squander the lead their starters had built, leaving Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, and friends to have to clean up the mess when they came back into the game.
Any minutes Johnson was out there, Pistons fans should’ve been cringing.
I hate to say it, because the guy had a great nickname and snookered me when I was a kid rooting against Detroit against my hometown Celtics, but Johnson wasn’t anywhere near as good as his nickname. This one’s Busted.
NEXT: Robert Horry.