Dennis Johnson: Basketball’s Top Defensive Guard, 1980

[By game five of the 1979 NBA championship series, the Seattle SuperSonics were sitting pretty. They held a 3-1 advantage in their best-of-seven series with the Washington Bullets, and, so far, just about every in-game adjustment made by Bullet coach Dick Motta had backfired. A major reason for Washington’s clunk-clunk-clunk was Seattle’s young defensive stopper Dennis Johnson. At 6-foot-4 with remarkable strength, athleticism, and single-mindedness to winning, Johnson could adjust on the fly to just about any situation thrown at him.

But Motta had one final trick up his sleeve. The two teams had met the year before in the 1978 NBA Finals, and Motta recalled its decisive game six that brought Washington its first title. Johnson, in his second NBA season and perhaps succumbing to the pressure, shot a career-worst 0-for-14 from the field.

And so, as the teams warmed up in Washington’s Capital Centre before game five of the 1979 series, Motta sauntered down to Seattle’s end of the floor, where Johnson sank jump shots from near the top of the key. “D. J., remember last year?” Motta called out to Johnson, known as D.J. to his friends and tormentors, trying to get under his skin. “You went oh-fer-14 . . . You were really hot that night!”

Johnson looked straight ahead, offering not a word to Motta. The opening buzzer sounded, and D.J. and his backcourt mate Gus Williams continued to give Motta and the Bullets fits. Behind Johnson’s 21 points, including an impossible 10-foot hurl through the net while crashing to the floor late in the game, Seattle had won its first (and only) NBA title. “The man couldn’t motivate his team,” Johnson dismissed Motta’s failed psych job afterwards, “so he picked on me. I just let it go in one ear and out the other.”

This article, from Sports Quarterly’s 1979-80 Basketball Special, catches up with Johnson after his MVP performance in the 1979 NBA championship series. Writer Steve Ellis hits all the main points and, more than 40 years later, gives us a chance to remember an elite performance by Johnson, who passed away from this world far too early. Here’s to one of the all-time greats!!]

Johnson (24) celebrates Seattle’s first NBA title.

For years, Sam Schulman’s generous intentions ended in frustration as the Seattle SuperSonics’ president futilely sought a National Basketball Association championship like the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon searched for the Fountain of Youth. Schulman threw out dollar-after-dollar in his quest, first grabbing Spencer Haywood out of the American Basketball Association, followed by lesser lights such as Jim McDaniels and John Brisker. The Sonics under Coach Lenny Wilkens at last enabled Schulman to taste some championship champagne this past spring when they rolled past the Los Angeles Lakers, nipped the Phoenix Suns, and stopped the Washington Bullets to capture the NBA title in their 12th season. 

When Seattle entered the league in 1967-68, a teenager named Dennis Johnson could think only of playing baseball in his Los Angeles neighborhood. Whether to play second, third, or short outweighed dribbling and shooting on a burning asphalt playground. This past June, however, when other prospective dribblers may have been thinking more about baseball, Johnson—or D.J., as he is known in Seattle—literally was on top of the basketball world. Along with helping bring the crown to Seattle, Johnson was selected the most valuable player of the 1979 playoffs by seven media members. He outpolled teammate Jack Sikma, 4-3.

Like Sikma, the team’s No. 1 draft choice in 1977, D.J. blossomed quickly. The Sonics in 1976 pirated him from Pepperdine University in the Lakers’ backyard. Seattle, seeking big guards to combat the Suns’ Paul Westphal after Phoenix knocked the Sonics out of the 1976 playoffs, selected him 29th overall. The club took Bobby Wilkerson in the first round and Bayard Forrest earlier in the second round. The Lakers, well aware of D.J.’s potential, ignored the 6-foot-4 leaper because they considered him ineligible for the draft. After sitting out a season following high school, D.J. played two years at Harbor Junior College and one year at Pepperdine. 

D.J. indicated to Seattle he would sign if drafted. The Sonics contended his eligibility had expired because four years had elapsed since he left high school. The Lakers protested, arguing the four years began when an athlete entered college. By the time the league recognized its error, D.J. had signed a four-year contract with Seattle. 

For Johnson, signing was easy. “Once I got serious about basketball, I told myself that if I had a chance, I was going to take it, whether I made it or whether I didn’t,” he said. “I took it.”

He agreed to $45,000 the first year, escalating to about $85,000 for the coming season. For Schulman, of course, the deal turned out to be a steal, as D.J. paired his extraordinary physical skills with the determination of a marathon runner. He has become the game’s finest defensive guard. 

In the championship series against the Bullets, D.J. and Gus Williams combined at both ends of the floor to overpower their Washington counterparts. While the Bullet backcourt struggled with a shooting slump, D.J. and Williams sagged off inside and helped slow down Elvin Hayes and Bob Dandridge. In desperation, Washington coach Dick Motta shifted Dandridge, the game’s best small forward to guard. D.J. rendered him ineffective there. Before the last game, with the Bullets trailing, 3-1, Motta tried in psych job on D.J., reminding him through the press of his 0-for-14 shooting in the ’78 series’ seventh game, won by Washington. 

While Dennis acknowledged the comments, he refused to let them rattle him—an indication of his increasing maturity, which has marked his play the past two seasons. In the fifth and final game, he went the entire 48 minutes, hit nine of 22 shots from the field and wound up with 21 points. He had five assists, four rebounds, and blocked a shot. The performance was typical of his play in 17 playoff games. He finished the regular season averaging 15.9 points a game, but in the playoffs, he ballooned to 21.9. Against the Bullets, he averaged 22.6, not bad for a player who has developed a reputation as being only a defensive star. 

Johnson shoots over Washington’s Bob Dandridge

Last fall, D.J. identified three goals for himself—to play in the All-Star game; to make the All-Defensive team and to make All-Pro. The first he accomplished as a reserve. The second was much easier. The league’s 22 coaches named him on every ballot—20 to the first team and two to the second, making him the only player so honored. The All-Pro team, however, appears out of reach for some time to come, or at least as long as the selection panels considered only the offensive end of the court. Nevertheless, D.J. has steadily improved his scoring skills as he has gained experience. 

“My reputation is as a defensive player,” he said. “I like getting the credit. But no one seems to notice me for anything else, and that’s hard for me to accept sometimes.”

Offensively, the Sonics take advantage of D.J.’s tenaciousness by running inside plays for him. “Our plays are geared for everybody,” he said. “We may be playing against somebody with a smaller group of guards. I can jump over some. I take a lot of shots from either baseline. I’m more comfortable on the baseline than I am at some other places on the court. We can set up, but we like to run. I prefer running. It leads to a more open-minded game; more freestyle type of game. Setting up requires more concentration, discipline, thinking ahead.”

D.J. has become an aggressive rebounder, particularly on the offensive boards if his opponents are undisciplined in blocking out. D.J. admitted he may be somewhat sneaky. “I just slip in there. I try to get positioned and hold it. There’s a lot of people who don’t block out.” He said his vertical jump is about 38 to 40 inches. 

His progress has been as much mental as it has been physical; maybe more so. “I think I’ve matured a lot,” he said. “Anytime a young player comes into this league, he’s always going to be a little erratic. I think I got away from that in my first year. I think I’ve gotten to the point that I think I can handle almost any situation. I can approach it with confidence.”

Wilkens agreed. “He’s more into the game,” the Seattle coach said. “He’s more patient with his shot. He’s the finest defensive guard in the game right now. He does so many things for us. He’s improving all the time. He’s a lot more patient with himself.”

Phoenix coach John MacLeod concurred. “He seems to be more confident, more sure of himself.” MacLeod said. “He has a lot of different things he can do. You have to play him like a forward because he goes to the board so well, if you’re not careful and don’t block out. He’s a complete ballplayer, heads up, alert.”

As would be expected, D.J. finds his greatest defensive challenges are San Antonio’s George Gervin, Denver’s David Thompson, and Phoenix’s Paul Westphal. “They can do a lot of other things, but their primary asset is to score,” he said. “I have to hold them down. I work at it. I try hard and sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s a job I accept every night. It doesn’t bother me. It gives me pleasure. Anytime I can hold an opposing player to five or 10 points under his average, I feel like I’ve really contributed.”

Motta, who through the years has turned out some of the league’s the best defensive teams in Chicago and Washington, ranked D.J. with the best defensive guards he has seen. “They are Jerry Sloan, Walt Frazier, and this kid,” Motta said. “I like the way Jerry West played defense, too. But Dennis Johnson is a disruptive force.”

In his brief three-year career, D.J. already has accomplished one feat on which legends are built. In game No. 3 of the 1978 Bullet series, he blocked seven shots—unusual for a center and unheard of for a guard. He stopped Kevin Grevey and Charles Johnson three times and Tom Henderson once.

“I think a lot of my shot-blocking comes from my position defense,” D.J. said. “On some occasions, opponents may have only two or three seconds left on the shot clock. They may be out of position to shoot, and I’m in the right position to block it. It comes from that and partly from my jumping ability. A little bit of everything goes into playing defense.”

After the 1978 season, D.J.’s comparatively low salary was widely publicized. Later in the year, the Sonics initiated contract talks. After renegotiations bogged down at midseason and obviously distracted D.J., whose mood can change direction as rapidly as Williams can on a drive to the basket, the parties agreed to resume talks this past summer. D.J. has indicated he would prefer to remain in Seattle. His agent, Fred Slaughter, said he will honor the final year of the contract. 

Meanwhile, D.J. has let his performance on the playing floor do his talking. Most observers expect him to get much better. “He’s just learning how to channel his ability,” Seattle’s Paul Silas said. “He’s learning the game now. Oscar Robertson was the most complete player I ever saw. D.J.’s comparable. Of course, Oscar shot better. It’s just a matter of polishing his game.”

D.J. has come into his own and everyone knows it. It’s unlikely he’ll enter the coming season under the previous contract. Perhaps he may be traded, but is Schulman willing to break up a winning combination? After 12 years of searching, Sam probably is a long way from quenching his thirst for champagne in the locker room.      

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