The Best of a Bad Situation: 7. Ervin Johnson

(We’re counting down the best 20 Bucks since 1991 over the next few weeks. It’s something to do with the lockout sucking the life out of NBA fans. We continue with number 7. Ervin Johnson. Quite simply, EJ was the Bucks defense from 1997-2002. Everyone else just existed on that end of the court. Johnson controlled it.)

In 1998 George Karl took over the Milwaukee Bucks. It looked like a match made in hell.

Karl’s Seattle Sonics were a ball hawking group that went hard to the rim and hard on defense. In Milwaukee Sam Cassell would soon be running the point, which was fine when the Bucks had the ball and not very fine when the opponents did. Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson were on the wings and a variety of hustle guys took turns trying to provide something at the power forward slot. Defense had been an issue in Milwaukee ever since Don Nelson left in the late 80s (what an insane sentence to write in 2011) and this hardly appeared to be the group that was going to turn things around on that end of the court.

But there was one familiar face from Karl’s time in Seattle that could help him feel at ease. And nearly single handedly, Ervin Johnson balanced the Bucks amazing offense with a defense that could take them somewhere.

Allen, Robinson and Cassell were comically inept and uninterested as defenders throughout their time in Milwaukee. Athletically Allen had the most chance, but he also took on the biggest role offensively. Robinson and Cassell both had very slow feet for their position. None of them were good help defenders. In short, Milwaukee’s best three players were all probably among the ten worst defenders at their positions.

But EJ had it covered. Karl summed it up quite nicely in the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals.

“We’re not very good when we have to double-team,” he said. “He’s (Johnson) such a big part of our defensive fundamentals. It’s very out of proportion. He doesn’t have one-fifth of our defense. It’s more like three-fifths of our defense.”

This was the reality for virtually Johnson’s entire tenure in Milwaukee. Most players would, at the very least, struggle to accept such a role. Especially when given no opportunity to make an impact on offense. How did Johnson respond?

“Hey, that’s my job,” he said.

Spoken exactly as you’d expect of a one time grocery clerk enjoying an NBA career. Johnson didn’t even play high school basketball. Johnson was pulled in for a tryout by his college coach and worked himself into a first round pick. He was the perfect compliment to NBA blue bloods like Allen and Robinson from basketball factories Connecticut and Purdue. It’s no wonder Johnson was voted captain by his teammates year after year.

Despite his captainship, statistically, Johnson never appeared to be much of a factor for the Bucks. He averaged better than 5.1 points per game just once in seven seasons on the team. The 8.5 rebounds he grabbed every night in his first season with the team would be his high water mark, a number that doesn’t jump off the page. He never even averaged 30 minutes per game.

It’s players like Johnson who remind us how far we have to come when trying to measure defense. Especially when we’re trying to quantify individual defense on a bad team. Johnson will never get the credit he deserves for what he did as a Buck, but rarely was there a time when Johnson wasn’t on the court plugging gaps and putting out fires when Milwaukee needed stops in the game’s most tense moments.

Not buying it? Here’s Karl again, after the Bucks came back from down 3-2 to defeat the Charlotte Hornets in the 2001 Eastern Conference semi-finals.

“Ervin Johnson probably is in my mind the MVP of the series,” Karl said. “He was so good at the dirty work and in the interior, in the paint. Even though the Big Three are expecting most of the reward, I really think Ervin was fantastic.”

Of course, Karl had a way about chiding his prime offensive players, often saying he preferred coaching defense more than his “crazy offense”. But the praise he heaped upon Johnson was valid. For all the hooting and hollering Karl did about defense, it was Johnson’s play on the court and influence in the locker room that got the Bucks, all of the Bucks, to do what they needed to do to get stops.

Jeremy Schmidt writes the Milwaukee Bucks blog Follow him on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.

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