The Immortalized Spurs, Part IV

Avery Johnson 1990-1993 & 1994-2001

Avery JohnsonAvery Johnson went undrafted in 1988 and through hard-work and determination, earned his place in the NBA. Best known by Spurs fans for starting at point guard for the ’99 Championship team and hitting the the series-winning basket in Game 5 against the Knicks, Johnson’s leadership skills were immense on a team that featured David Robinson and Tim Duncan.

Known as “The Little General,”Avery was a fan favorite in San Antonio because of his hustle, work ethic, and funny sounding voice. Really, mostly because of his voice. The unintentional comedic factor of his voice was unmatched. His mouth seemed twice the size evolution intended it to be and he used all of it to over enunciate every syllable, sometimes adding syllables on a whim.

During his playing days as a Spur, Johnson averaged an unimpressive 10.1 ppg and 6.9 apg. His career average of 8.4 ppg and 5.5 apg is even less impressive. His best statistical season came in the ’95-’96 campaign when he averaged 13.1 ppg and 9.6 apg. That’s fine, but it’s not great. Are those not the minimum stats that you would demand from a starting point guard that averages 38 minutes per game? Do those numbers justify a retired jersey?

First, let’s rewind the clock back to 1999. Our starting five consisted of Avery Johnson, Mario Elie, Sean Elliott, Tim Duncan, and David Robinson. Who is the least talented player in that group? To put it another way, if you were the opposition, which player would you strategically want to leave open? The answer is Avery. The game plan of opposing teams was to make him win the game. As Charles Barkley once said, “You’re open for a reason, stupid.”

So, did we retire Avery’s jersey because he was just mediocre enough to not tank a champion-destined squad? He was by far the least talented starter. If Avery suffered an injury right before the ’99 playoffs, would anyone dispute that a young Antonio Daniels would have led the Spurs to the championship? (San) Antonio Daniels had more natural talent than Avery ever did and was a great young player.

The other problem I have with retiring Avery’s jersey is the precedent that it sets. How many players have worn a Spurs jersey and contributed as much as Avery did? Should Willie Anderson, Terry Cummings, Alvin Robertson, Dennis Rodman, Derek Anderson, Stephen Jackson, Robert Horry, Michael Finley, Steve Kerr, Malik Rose, Jaren Jackson, Dominique Wilkins, Mario Elie, Vinny Del Negro, Chuck Person and J.R. Reid all have their jerseys retired?

So why did Avery get the nod? He clearly was not one of the NBA’s best. He never made an All-Star team and was always identified as the Spurs’ weak link. My theory is that Gregg Popovich has an affinity for guys that work hard. Can you blame Popovich for rewarding Avery’s work ethic? It’s difficult and it’s also the reason why Jacque Vaughn won the backup point guard duties. That guy was a poor man’s Avery Johnson, but he did try really, really hard and that is what won Pop over.

While some Spurs fans may not agree with this post, in the grand scheme of things AJ did not contribute enough to be worthy of a retired jersey. Still, he did play a pivotal role in keeping the Mavericks from winning a championship, so maybe that’s why his #6 hangs in the rafters of the AT&T Center.

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