By: Tommy Beer
Driving back home from Springfield, Massachusetts this weekend, after taking in the 2008 Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony on Friday night (as an aside, every basketball fan in America owes it to themselves to visit the HOF at least once – it is heaven for a hoops junkie), I got to thinking: which active players are locks to one day be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
When I sat down and started starting digging through career statistics, playoff scoring averages, and other pertinent information, it turns out there are seven players that I feel are lead-pipe locks to make the HOF. They are listed below.
While I don't think too many people could disagree that these first seven will wind up in Springfield, what I found interesting was where to draw the line between the "locks" and the borderline/probable selections, and then the also-rans/unlikely... Thus, I submitted a few quick thoughts on the remaining choices.
Without further adieu, let's run down the seven no-doubt, first-ballot selections:
1. Tim Duncan – Duncan's Hall of Fame credentials are second to none: Back-to-back NBA MVP's, 4 rings, three-time Finals MVP. He is also the only player in NBA history to receive All-NBA and All-Defensive honors in his first 11 seasons. He is an absolutely dominant force on both ends of the court, and steps up his game when it matters most, as evidenced by his increased averages in the postseason and his Finals MVP trophies. For my money, he is the greatest power forward that ever lived. While I suppose that opinion could be contested, nobody would ever argue that Duncan won't be enshrined in Springfield five years after he hangs up his Nike's.
2. Shaquille O'Neal – The last of a dying breed. O'Neal was his generation's greatest pure center and, during his prime, one of the most intimidating players to ever set foot on a basketball court. Here is a brief résumé, courtesy of NBA.com: One of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players and one of the most prolific scorers in league history. He owns a career scoring average of 25.6 points, the ninth-highest in league history, and ranks 11th all-time in scoring (25,908) in 1,013 career games. The 16-year veteran is a career 58-percent shooter, third-highest in NBA history, and has led the league in field goal accuracy nine times, matching Wilt Chamberlain's all-time record. O'Neal has averaged 11.5 rebounds (21st-NBA history) and grabbed 11,630 boards… There is no doubting that the Hall of Fame is in his future. But one question that could certainly be debated: If you had to pick one player, in their prime, to build a franchise around, would you take Duncan or Shaq? (I'd go with Timmy D., if only because he is a more reliable end-game option on the offensive end.)
3. Kobe Bryant – The most popular player on planet Earth, Kobe is a lock as well. The lack of a NBA Finals MVP trophy, signifying that he hasn't won a ring "on his own," is of relevance only in debates regarding Kobe's place among the game's all-time greats. Although he lost an opportunity to cement his legacy a few months ago, Kobe still has definitely earned a spot among the NBA's greatest payers. And while the comparisons to Michael Jordan are utter nonsense (MJ has 6 NBA Finals MVP's compared to Kobe's zero), Bryant has already done more than enough to secure his spot as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. His career averages of 25 PPG, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.6 assists, speak volumes. In addition to his offensive prowess, KB24 has also been named to the All-NBA Defensive first or second teams eight out of the last nine seasons.
4. Allen Iverson – When he first entered the league, generously listed at six-feet tall, the critics claimed AI would never be able to handle the physical beating the NBA would deliver. Well, 12 years later, he is still proving doubters wrong. And, as result, you can punch his ticket to the Hall. Iverson's has a league MVP and four scoring titles under his belt, and his career scoring average (27.7 PPG) currently ranks him third all-time, behind Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. Anytime your career accomplishments are mentioned in the same sentence as MJ and the Big Dipper... that's good.
5. Jason Kidd – I feel one of the key criteria for Hall of Fame worthiness is whether a player was the absolute best at his position for a sustained period of time. For Jason Kidd, that answer is an emphatic 'yes.' During the early part of this decade, when he led the Nets to two straight Finals appearances, J Kidd was unquestionably the best PG in the NBA. In his prime, there were very few players that could control and impact the game like he did. He has dished out more assists (9,497) and than any other active player in the league. Kidd also is the active steals leader (2,038). The true testament to Kidd's all-around greatness is the 100 career triple-doubles he has racked up, which places him second all-time behind only Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson.
6. Kevin Garnett – Coming into the 2007-2008 NBA season, the only knock against KG was that he couldn't be depended upon in crunch time, and thus had never won a championship. Well, if there was any doubt, the ring currently residing on his finger should settle that debate. Much like Jason Kidd, Garnett's best attribute was his ability to contribute in so many different ways. Looking for proof? KG is the only player in NBA history to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists per game for six consecutive seasons. He also stands alone as the only NBA'er to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists per game for nine consecutive seasons. Lastly, Garnett is only player ever to accumulate 20,000 points, 11,000 rebounds, 4,000 assists, 1,200 steals, and 1,500 blocks in his career.
7. Steve Nash – Make no mistake; Nash was/is a great player, but being in the right place at the right time and having his best years when he did, is the main reason he is headed to the Hall. If you look at his career numbers (14.3 points, 7.9 assists, 3 rebounds), they are solid but not jaw-dropping. In fact, as a 30-year old, following the 2004 season in Dallas, the odds were heavily stacked against him ever entering the HOF. However, Nash then landed in Phoenix and teamed up with Mike D'Antoni and the rest, as they say, is history. After a few outstanding seasons in the Valley of the Sun, Nash had added something to his résumé that assures he'll get a plaque in Springfield: back-to-back MVP awards. Nash is one of only nine players in the history of the sport to be able to claim that distinction; the other eight are Duncan, Moses Malone, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Despite limited postseason success, and never reaching an NBA Finals – Nash is destined due to those two terrific seasons.
* The Next Rung – The 'Very Probable' Category:
Dirk Nowitzki – Dirk has a NBA MVP on his résumé and has carried his team to NBA Finals. It is important to note that every player that has ever won an NBA MVP award has either already been inducted into the Hall of Fame, or will be elected once they are eligible. Thus, we can safely bet Dirk will get his plaque.
Paul Pierce – The recently awarded NBA Finals MVP Award provides an enormous boost to his candidacy. A few more decent years by both Dirk and Pierce should bump them up into the "lock" category.
* Next Tier – Borderline:
Tracy McGrady: T-Mac's overall numbers are excellent, but never advancing past the first round of the playoffs is tough to overlook.
Vince Carter: I may be in the minority, but I could never vote VC into the Hall of Fame. Personally, I think the HOF should be reserved for the players that gave 110% every time they stepped on the floor, as opposed to those who tended to coast and skate by solely on their ability. Specifically, check out VC's career numbers and check his production from the first 20-games of the 2004-2005 season. Over that 20-game stretch, Carter averaged just 15.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 3.1 assists, while shooting 69.4% from the free-throw line. VC flat-out quit on the Raptors and the city of Toronto. Want proof? Once he got traded to the Nets, over the final 57 games that same season, he averaged 27.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.7 assists, while shooting 81.7% from the stripe. I have a real hard time looking past that. (Similarly, I could never look at Scottie Pippen the quite the same way after he took himself out of Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference with 1.4 seconds left on the clock, after Phil Jackson decided Toni Kukoc would take the game's final shot. But that is a story for another day…)
Manu Ginobili – One of the most accomplished European players of all-time, Manu is a "winner" in the truest sense of the word. The selection committee usually looks favorably upon international achievements, so Ginobili, who always stepped his game up when it matter most, will have his supporters.
Ray Allen – Ray-Ray has always been an accomplished scorer, and now has a ring, in addition to always having one of the most aesthetically pleasing jumpers in NBA history. But I am just not sure he deserves a place among the greatest to ever play the game. Was he ever the best two-guard in the NBA? No. He never made an ALL-NBA first-team, and made the second-team just once…
* Next Tier - Borderline/Less-likely:
Chris Webber – Webber's last few injury plagued seasons took a lot of luster of what was, statistically speaking, a phenomenal career. It is easy to forget just how good he was in his prime. C-Webb is one of only six players in NBA history to post career averages of at least 20 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 assists. The five other players are Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Billy Cunningham, and Kevin Garnett. Still, Webber all too often disappeared in big spots and never advanced to an NBA Finals.
Chauncey Billups – Billups was maddeningly inconsistent over his first five years in the league, before arriving in Detroit and really finding his comfort zone. In his six seasons in Motown, the Pistons have advanced to at least the Eastern Conference finals each year. In 2004, the Pistons won the title and Billups was awarded the NBA Finals MVP trophy. From 1991 thru 2005, there were only five different players named NBA Finals MVP: Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, and Chauncey Billups.
Dikembe Mutombo – While never much of a scorer, Mutombo was a dominant defender and rebounder. He won the Defensive Player of the Year award four times and led the league in total rebounds four times as well. He is an eight-time all-star. In addition, his humanitarian work is legendary, and is a true ambassador of the game.
* Next Tier – Interesting/Unlikely:
Robert Horry – Based strictly on numbers, Horry shouldn't even sniff the Hall. But if you include his jewelry collection (seven rings) and postseason heroics, Horry will get a few votes. Some pertinent facts to support his case: Big Shot Bob is one of only nine players to have won seven or more championships, and the only one who did not play on the 1960s Celtics. He is one of only three players to win multiple NBA Championships with two different teams in consecutive seasons and one of only two players to win titles with three different teams. He is the all-time leader in playoff games played, having surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the 2008 playoffs. Horry is second on the all-time list of three-pointers made in the playoffs, behind only Reggie Miller. He also holds the record for three-pointers all-time in the NBA Finals with 53, having eclipsed Michael Jordan's previous record of 42…. I don't think he'll ever get in, but he makes an interesting candidate considering how often some fans and media members claim that winning defines greatness.
Ben Wallace – He and Dikembe are the only two players in league history to each capture four NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards. (Of course, the award only came into existence relatively recently (1983). I assume Bill Russell would have been named the league's best defensive player once or twice.) Big Ben is also the one of only four players to lead the league in boarding and blocks the same season - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, and Hakeem Olajuwon are the other three. He is also the only undrafted player to ever be voted as a All-Star Game starter. In some respects, he is the anti-Vince Carter. However, as good as he was defensively, Wallace was that inept offensively. He is a career 41% shooter from the free-throw line.
Alonzo Mourning - One of the NBA's most intense competitors, Zo has an All-NBA first-team selection and an NBA title on his résumé.
Rasheed Wallace - One of the more underrated players of his generation, 'Sheed did more than collect technicals. He possessed other-worldly talent.
Grant Hill - If I had written this column in summer of 2000, Hill would have been considered all but a lock. After his first six seasons in Detroit, he looked like the second-coming. Unfortunately, the injury bug bit and Hill was never the same.
* The Young Guns:
Lastly, in an attempt to answer a few questions/complaints before they arise – players such as LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Paul are too young to be considered. Basically, I tried to look at guys aged 30 and over. I also didn't list guys in their late 20's, such as Elton Brand, Yao Ming, Carlos Boozer, etc. These guys still have too much career ahead of them. The next few years will determine upon which list they land.Regarding the super-talented neophytes, suppose King James and/or D. Wade retired tomorrow in order to play baseball or become movie stars, it is difficult to argue these young guys have done enough to earn Hall of Fame distinction. For instance, players like Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill looked to well on their way, before there careers took a precipitous decline due to injuries. After his first few seasons, some analysts believed Penny would be better than Magic by the time he retired. Penny was named First Team All-NBA back-to-back in his second and third seasons. As a point of reference, even LeBron didn't match that feat. And Wade has still never been named to an All-NBA First Team. Make no mistake; I believe that by the time he retires, LeBron will likely be considered the best non-center in NBA history not named Michael Jordan. But the lesson we have learned is that we have to let these guys career's play out…