Getting into the Hall of Fame is very hard for a certain kind of very good NBA player. Players who crack 21,000 points or finish with a Player Efficiency Rating of 21.0 or higher are generally locks, provided they’ve made the requisite number of All-Star teams and haven’t irreparably sullied their reputations. A couple of future candidates, especially Vince Carter, are going to challenge the primacy of those milestones in front of a voting committee that seems to value pioneering accomplishments, college success and membership on multiple championship teams as much as it does individual NBA numbers.
The induction this year of Ralph Sampson hammers that home. Sampson played only nine NBA seasons. He barely cracked 7,000 career regular-season points and recorded precisely three seasons — his first three — in which he played 50 games and averaged at least 15 points per game. He did make four All-Star teams and hit an iconic shot to beat the Lakers in the 1986 Western Conference finals, and a series of unfortunate injuries limited him during his career and forced its premature end. Still, there is no standard under which an NBA-only Hall of Fame would admit Sampson. He’s in mostly because of his legendary college career at Virginia, where his play convinced NBA higher-ups he would revolutionize the game and had Celtics honcho Red Auerbach traveling to Charlottesville after Sampson’s freshman year to try to persuade the big fella to enter the 1980 draft — in which Boston had the top pick. (Auerbach failed, and the Celtics ended up using that pick to swing a franchise-altering megadeal that netted Robert Parish and Kevin McHale.)
The focus on guys like Sampson is fine. The Hall of Fame is for the general sport of basketball, not the NBA, and it’s fun to have contributors from across the world housed in one place. But that has left a particular group of NBA players out in the cold — the guys who score somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 points, make a couple of All-Star teams, fail to really distinguish themselves as elite defenders/rebounders/passers and go through their careers without playing a prominent role on a truly memorable championship team.
A ton of names fit this bill — Eddie Johnson, Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers, Glen Rice, Walter Davis, Bernard King, Terry Cummings, Reggie Theus, Dale Ellis, Lou Hudson, Cliff Robinson, Mitch Richmond, Mark Aguirre and many others. Some of those guys made more than a couple of All-Star teams (Hudson and Richmond made six each, for instance), and some (Richmond and Rice) won single rings as role players on top-heavy Lakers teams. Aguirre was a key member of two championship teams in Detroit, scored more career points than Hall of Famer Chris Mullin and barely gets a sniff from Springfield; the player the Pistons dealt away for him at Isiah Thomas’ urging, Adrian Dantley, is in the Hall, in part because he reached a sheer number of points (more than 23,000) voters simply cannot ignore. (He was also a fantastic player.)
Here’s a quick look at a few current players who are going to finish their careers soon and end up somewhere in this Hall of Fame Netherworld Spectrum. The focus is on players clearly at the tail end of their NBA careers: Those in their mid-30s whose minutes and/or level of play are in obvious decline. If a qualified mid-30s player is not listed here, that means they are a Hall of Fame lock.
The Big-Name Stars
• Grant Hill: Hill is going to get in, even though a series of devastating ankle injuries limited him to six truly dominant seasons at the start of his career — a streak that ended right after he signed a massive free-agent contract with the Magic during the same summer spending bonanza that netted the next guy on this list. But Hill was one of the league’s top half-dozen or so players during that six-season stretch, and he has since reinvented himself as an effective two-way third/fourth option on the wing. He’ll approach 18,000 career points, and when you toss in a storied college career at Duke — including authorship of the best inbounds pass in basketball history — Hill meets the Springfield criteria.
• Tracy McGrady: Covered here. McGrady’s apex was incredible, peaking with a 2002-03 season that ranks among the best in the sport’s history. At top form, McGrady shot 45 percent, hit an above-average percentage from three-point range, sported perhaps the best wing passing skills in the pre-LeBron James era and even bought in on defense — most famously in the 2005 playoffs, when McGrady guarded Dirk Nowitzki effectively as a depleted Rockets team pushed the Mavericks to seven games in a losing effort. But his career is littered with ugly stuff: the departures from Toronto and Orlando, announcing his intention to undergo microfracture surgery in 2009 before even telling the Rockets, laughing on the bench as Detroit mutinied against coach John Kuester, etc.
Will all of that, plus his relatively early fall from elite status, keep him out of Springfield? He’ll probably end up with close to 19,000 points, seven All-Star appearances and zero postseason series wins.
• Vince Carter: Covered at length last year at this time. Assuming Allen Iverson gets in at some point, Carter, with more than 21,000 points already, stands a chance at being the all-time highest ABA/NBA scorer on the outside.
• Manu Ginobili: He’s absolutely going to get in, and he should. Ginobili’s already 35 and cracked 10,000 career points only last season, but voters are smart enough to see the context behind those numbers and the paltry two All-Star Games. Ginobili came into the league late, at 25, after dominating the Euroleague; worked as the best player on an Argentina team that won gold in the 2004 Olympics and beat Team USA twice; and has won three titles under an NBA coach who prioritizes minutes management above regular-season numbers. Ginobili is an all-around hoops genius, and a Springfield no-brainer.
• Marcus Camby: He’s played in the league forever and been an elite rebounder and shot-blocker for his entire career. He’s 40th in the NBA in total rebounds, but that undersells his glass-eating; Camby is fifth in total rebounding rate, which measures the percentage of rebounds a player grabs while on the floor. He is also a nifty passer for a big man, and could actually score in double figures for the first half of his career before morphing into the offensive nonentity (outside of rebounding) he is now. If Dennis Rodman can get in, why can’t Camby?
For one, Rodman won five rings as part of two legendary NBA teams — the Bad Boy Pistons and the post-baseball Jordan Bulls. He started for the 1995-96 Bulls, who went 72-10 and are in the “greatest team ever” conversation. Rodman could defend wing players early in his career, and his rebounding numbers are off the charts, even in comparison to players like Camby and Dwight Howard. He is the greatest rebounder in league history, by a significant margin. Camby also helped lift UMass to prominence, including a Final Four run, but the school ultimately had to vacate that season’s record after it was revealed Camby received improper benefits from an agent.
• Ben Wallace: Wallace is No. 8 in the NBA in rebounding rate, won a ring as part of a Detroit team that played in six straight conference finals, made five straight first-team All-Defensive teams and guarded Shaquille O’Neal decently during the 2004 Finals. But his career got off to a slow start, with three fairly low-minutes seasons in Washington, and it has ended with unspectacular (but solid) play in Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit again. Wallace was a horrid free-throw shooter and less of an offensive threat than Camby, but he made up for it to some degree with nasty screen-setting and decent passing.
The “Clutch” Winners
• Chauncey Billups: Voters love Finals MVPs, and though Billups never quite lived up to the “Mr. Big Shot” moniker — his clutch numbers are pretty average overall — he did make some huge shots for the Pistons, upgraded Denver as soon as he got there and has won universal respect as a locker-room leader. He could finish with close to 17,000 points and a PER around 19.0 — a top-100 mark — if he stays healthy and productive for two more seasons. He has remained very efficient as his athleticism declines by focusing almost entirely on threes and free throws. A five-time All-Star and a solid, smart defender during his prime, Billups has had trouble cracking the All-NBA teams with so many elite point guards, old and young, scattered around the league. Gun to my head, I bet Billups gets in.
• Jason Terry: This is my pet case, if only because Terry’s Hall of Fame credentials are starting to sneak up on people. Terry has 16,487 career regular-season points, so if he can manage just 1,000 per year over the next three seasons in Boston, he’ll begin to approach the territory at which voters at least take a second look — even if Terry’s 17.5 career PER is not on pace to crack the top 150 (minimum: 15,000 minutes played). He’ll likely finish third all-time in made three-pointers–and with zero All-Star appearances, an obvious disqualifier. Terry’s size means that teams have to hide him a bit on defense, but he has always been a wily defender and has survived in Dallas’ complex hybrid zone defenses — not the easiest thing to master.
Terry’s contributions on the other end have probably been underrated. He’s a terrific shooter who can work the pick-and-roll, and players with that skill set are enormously difficult to guard. Dallas’ offense has just about always improved by massive margins with Terry on the floor, and while lineup combinations have something to do with that, Terry’s skill set does, too. He hasn’t always been clutch (check his early postseason numbers), but he has been a steady late-game player for a team that has regularly outperformed expectations in close games. His work in the 2011 playoffs, especially the clinching game of the Finals, was exemplary, including 44 percent shooting from long range.
Terry probably isn’t going to get serious attention without another title in Boston, but his career may at least make for a fun argument one or two beers into a Friday night.
Somehow Doesn’t Pass The Smell Test
• Elton Brand: True story: Every player in NBA/ABA history with a career PER above 21.0 and at least 15,000 minutes played has either made the Hall of Fame or hasn’t come up for eligibility yet. Brand’s career PER is 21.30. He also averaged at least 20 points and nine rebounds in six of his first eight seasons and came close in other two. He was a brutally efficient low-post scorer, ranked in the top 10 in PER in three seasons and has evolved into a stout defender. Depending on his longevity and role, he has an outside shot at 20,000 career points.
But through no fault of his own, Brand hasn’t played on any great teams, and his production has tailed off since a mid-career Achilles injury. He won’t maintain that 21-plus PER as he ages.
• Richard Hamilton: Rip averaged between 17 and 20 points per game for 10 straight seasons and was the most reliable scorer on those Detroit teams that made six consecutive conference finals. His trade from the Wizards to the Pistons was one of the central moves in the construction of that team because Hamilton, unlike Jerry Stackhouse (who went to Washington in that deal), could thrive off the ball. Hamilton was a decent defender in his prime but never an especially good one, and he was an underrated passer who could run a nice pick-and-roll on the wing and drop the ball to big men as he caught the ball sprinting around a pick. Just three All-Star Games and zero All-NBA appearances. Never developed a reliable three-point shot. Won a title at UConn, but still seems destined for the Hall of Fame netherworld.
• Jerry Stackhouse: He was on the flip side of that Washington-Detroit trade, and like Hamilton, Stackhouse butted heads with Michael Jordan in his desire to emerge as a star in his own right. He’s hanging on to an NBA career with 16,000-plus career points, but he has never been an accurate shooter (career 40.9 percent from the floor), and his efficiency fell off a cliff when he couldn’t draw the heaps of free throws that sustained him during prime years. Had his chance at a ring in Dallas, as a pre-Terry sixth man, but never got it. Was never quite special as a passer or defender. A tough, tough dude and hoops junkie who just doesn’t have enough on the résumé.
• Shawn Marion: Don’t laugh. Marion has nearly 16,000 career points, a championship ring on a memorable Dallas team and worked as a key third-option type on the Seven Seconds or Less Suns that rejuvenated offense around the league. He’s a four-time All-Star who has also piled up some nice rebounding numbers; his career rebounding rate is just about the same as Pau Gasol’s. He’s always taken care of the ball, and has developed into an elite defender capable of guarding four positions. It’s puzzling that Marion has never made a single All-Defensive team, especially as Kobe Bryant (at another position, I realize) continues to make them on an outdated reputation. Marion’s ability to play both forward positions has made him enormously valuable, capable of playing in several different kinds of first- and second-unit lineups.
And yet, aside from some unmemorable time in Toronto and his work on the 2005-06 Suns, Marion has rarely been even the second option on his teams. That Suns team did have a conference finals run without Amar’e Stoudemire, their real second option, but it got that far only because the league’s silly seeding rules had by far the two best teams — Dallas and San Antonio — meet in the second round.
• Jermaine O’Neal: Elite two-way big men deserve extra credit. Other than true top-five superstars, they are the most valuable commodity in the league, and for a bit longer than a half-decade, O’Neal was a very, very good two-way big. But he missed significant time during two seasons of that prime stretch, and his peak just didn’t last long enough or reach high enough highs to warrant serious Hall consideration. He has slightly more than 12,000 points, and it’s unclear how much he has left in the tank after a series of injuries limited him to just 34 games over the last two years in Boston.
• Andre Miller: Miller is 10th all-time in assists, a basketball professor with a unique understanding of how to create space, generate the best kind of shot attempts (threes and layups) for teammates and work the post. Perhaps the greatest lob passer in NBA history. Miller is also an uneven defender, owns a middling (by Hall standards) 17.84 PER and has never won a playoff series in the NBA.
• Antawn Jamison: The new Lakers’ forward is going to blow past 20,000 points this season, and if he stays healthy for another couple of years, he will get into that points territory in which guys nearly automatically gain entry to the Hall. But I don’t buy it. Big men have to provide defense, and Jamison has teetered between “average” and “disastrous” during most of his career, falling into the latter category for the last half-decade or so. His inability to even pretend to guard Kevin Garnett is one of the two or three biggest reasons the Celtics upset Cleveland in the conference semifinals in 2010, setting off a chain of events that has reshaped the league. Jamison is a funky scorer and has developed into a league-average three-point shooter, but he’s not a Hall of Famer.
• Baron Davis: We all love Baron Davis. We all enjoyed the 2007 “We Believe” Warriors. He’s smart, funny, thoughtful — a great interview. In three or four healthy, productive seasons during a much longer career, Davis played point guard with a combination of destructive force, fun spirit and passing genius we’ve seldom seen. It’s just not close to enough for a Springfield case.
• Derek Fisher: Only because it will come up: No. Fisher has hit some monstrous shots en route to five titles with the Lakers, including the 0.4 shot against San Antonio, the tying and clinching shots in Game 5 of the 2009 Finals and an improbable series of baskets late in Game 3 of the 2010 Finals in Boston to swing that game — and that series. And there is precedent, in the form of K.C. Jones and others, for letting in low-scoring members of dynastic teams. But Fisher was a limited role player on two mini-dynasties set apart by a half-dozen seasons, and he has been a below-average player his entire career. And just to reiterate: Bernard King is not in the Hall of Fame. Fisher’s had a nice career and his stewardship of the players’ union will win him gravitas points, but he’s not a Hall of Famer.