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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Reflections on the Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2016

This year's Basketball Hall of Fame class is headlined by two players who are polar opposites in size and playing style: the huge, powerful Shaquille O'Neal and the diminutive, quick Allen Iverson. However, it is important to not overlook the accomplishments of several of the other enshrinees, including Cumberland Posey, John McClendon and Zelmo Beaty.

Posey was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, 60 years after he passed away. He spent 35 years in that sport as a player, manager and owner. His teams won nine consecutive Negro League pennants. He was also considered to be the best African-American basketball player of the early 20th century, before he retired from basketball to pursue his baseball career. Posey played basketball at Duquesne University and was later inducted into that school's sports Hall of Fame. Posey subsequently led the Loendi Big Five to four straight Colored Basketball World Championships in the early 1920s (the term "Colored Basketball World Champion" was used and accepted by African-American sportswriters in that era and is still used today by scholars who research the segregated basketball leagues of that era).

McClendon was previously honored by the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979 as a contributor but this year he finally was enshrined as a coach, nearly 20 years after he passed away. The term innovator is thrown around far too loosely but it fits McClendon, who learned the sport of basketball from James Naismith himself. McClendon's teams pushed the pace during an era when slowing the game down was the most common and accepted way to play. McClendon is the first coach to win three straight college basketball titles, leading Tennessee State to the NAIA championship from 1957-59. McClendon also coached the Cleveland Pipers in the American Basketball League, becoming the first African-American head coach in any American professional sport and thus paving the way for championship coaches like Bill Russell, Lenny Wilkens, K.C. Jones, Tony Dungy, Mike Tomlin and others. The movie "Black Magic" masterfully tells the story of McClendon and other African-American basketball pioneers.

Zelmo Beaty passed away three years ago, yet another great player whose belated Hall of Fame enshrinement arrived posthumously. Beaty led Prairie View A&M to the 1962 NAIA championship before earning two All-Star selections in the NBA. He then jumped to the upstart ABA, where he earned three more All-Star selections and was twice named to the All-ABA Team. Beaty won the 1971 ABA Playoff MVP award as he led the Utah Stars to the championship. He averaged 23.2 ppg and 14.6 rpg while shooting .536 from the field during the 1971 postseason. Beaty averaged 17.9 ppg and 10.1 rpg during his 12 year professional career.

O'Neal is the biggest figure in this year's class, literally and figuratively. I discussed his legacy extensively right after he retired. He should be commended for the wonderful way that he acknowledged both his history and the history of the sport by tapping Alonzo Mourning, Isiah Thomas, Julius Erving and Bill Russell to be his presenters. O'Neal identified Mourning as a rival turned friend, he cited Thomas as a mentor in sport and business, he termed Russell the "greatest big man ever" and he is one of many who grew up idolizing Erving.

O'Neal is obviously one of the greatest and most dominant basketball players of all-time and I certainly don't want to rain on his parade as he receives his sport's ultimate honor but a few things are worth mentioning in light of some of O'Neal's repeated public comments about his career:

1) No one should buy the idea that the O'Neal-Kobe Bryant feud was just for show or was some kind of ingenious method by O'Neal to motivate Bryant. If anyone needed motivation and focus, it was O'Neal, not Bryant. The main source of their feud was that Bryant was a relentless, obsessive worker in training, in practice and in games, while O'Neal preferred to conserve his energy for games (and sometimes only for playoff games). Yes, they had other issues as well and both could have been a little bit more mature about how they handled things but the ultimate issue was that they had a fundamentally different approach to the game--and history has vindicated Bryant's approach, because he had a much longer individual peak than O'Neal and because Bryant won more championships with less help despite not being nearly as physically imposing as O'Neal. O'Neal played with prime versions of Penny Hardaway, Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash and LeBron James, plus slightly past their prime versions of Boston's Big Three. O'Neal won three titles with Bryant and a combined one title with everyone else. I well remember that in the early 2000s many of Bryant's critics stated that any of a number of perimeter players could have won titles playing alongside O'Neal in Bryant's place; these critics likely never imagined that O'Neal would go on tour around the league playing alongside so many elite perimeter players but that happened and we found out that in terms of winning championships it is much better to play alongside Bryant than it is to play alongside the other guys. Meanwhile, my oft-stated contention during that era was that prime Bryant could contend for--if not win--a championship provided he had a solid big man and a halfway decent supporting cast. Bryant subsequently made the playoffs twice with Kwame Brown and then he transformed the Lakers into a mini-dynasty when paired with Pau Gasol, who no one thought of as being even remotely close to an elite player before he arrived in L.A.

2) O'Neal has a tendency to twist history around in general, not just in terms of his relationship with Bryant. O'Neal has admitted that he made up the story about David Robinson refusing to sign an autograph for him when O'Neal was a youngster in San Antonio. O'Neal plays this off as a harmless self-motivational tactic and he claims that Robinson has forgiven him but this is different than Michael Jordan trash talking LaBradford Smith or the Vancouver Grizzlies during a game to motivate himself; O'Neal portrayed Robinson--one of the sport's class acts--in a negative light publicly because he could not figure out any other way to motivate himself to perform. Why is this deemed acceptable but Bryant's self-motivation--which was never about lying or putting down other people--is viewed so negatively?

3) O'Neal has said that when he arrived in Miami he knew that he was on the downside of his career and thus he told Dwyane Wade that the Heat were Wade's team. If O'Neal had been willing to have a similar conversation with Bryant then O'Neal could have stayed in L.A. and he almost certainly would have won multiple additional championships with Bryant as opposed to just one title with Wade.

One last point: O'Neal is often described as the most dominant player ever but that is not true either by the eye test or by the numbers. The eye test showed that a skilled and savvy big man like Hakeem Olajuwon could outduel O'Neal in the Finals during O'Neal's prime. The numbers show that when O'Neal retired he ranked 21st in regular season career scoring average (23.69 ppg) and 32nd in regular season career rebounding average (10.85 rpg). Those are great per game averages and they would have been even greater had he not extended his career well past his prime but there are just too many players ahead of O'Neal on both lists for him to be considered the most dominant player ever. O'Neal's back to back to back Finals MVP performances are among the most dominant ever but O'Neal did not sustain that kind of dominance game in, game out during his career.

All that being said, O'Neal is in my Pro Basketball Pantheon and I can say without hesitation that he was robbed by the media of several regular season MVPs that he deserved: he won the 2000 MVP (nearly becoming the first ever unanimous selection, a distinction that Stephen Curry achieved last season) while finishing second in 1995 and 2005 but he probably should have received the honor in 2001, 2002 and 2005 at the very least (the 1995 MVP rightfully should have gone neither to O'Neal nor to the actual winner David Robinson but rather to Olajuwon).

Iverson is the most amazing athlete I have ever watched perform in person. He is not necessarily the greatest athlete I have ever seen in person and he is certainly not the greatest basketball player I have seen in person but he amazes me the most because I stood next to him off of the court and I seriously doubt that he was even his listed 6-0, 165 pounds when he won four scoring titles plus one regular season MVP. If you saw him warming up from afar and did not recognize his trademark tattoos and corn rows you would have sworn that a ball boy had sneaked on to the court. Then the game began and Iverson spent 40-plus minutes (he averaged at least 40 mpg in 11 of his 14 NBA seasons, which is one of the most remarkable statistics in pro basketball history considering his size and playing style) being pushed, shoved, grabbed and bounced around like a billiard ball. Somehow, by the end of the game he would have about 27 points, six assists, two steals and a bunch of floor burns. Maybe his team won, maybe his team lost but night after night Iverson kept his team in contention and left his heart on the floor. Stat gurus will carp that he was not efficient and there is no doubt that Iverson would have benefited from taking a more disciplined approach to the sport (and life, for that matter). I did not agree with everything Iverson said or did but I would go into a (basketball) foxhole with him any day of the week. Iverson played every game as if it was his last and he gave every ounce of energy he had. Iverson played hurt and he hated to miss a minute, let alone sit out a game.

Both O'Neal and Iverson tapped Julius Erving to be one of their presenters. Erving has now served as a Hall of Fame presenter nine different times and according to my research he may hold the record for most times serving as a Basketball Hall of Fame presenter. Previously, Erving presented Cheryl Miller (1995), Moses Malone (2001), Clyde Drexler (2004), Dominique Wilkins (2006), Artis Gilmore (2011), Katrina McClain (2012), Ralph Sampson (2012). Erving has often stated that he values respect more than popularity and the fact that so many Hall of Famers from so many diverse backgrounds have selected him as a presenter is a testament to how highly respected Erving is across the board.

The other members of the 2016 Basketball Hall of Fame class not discussed in this article are referee Darell Garretson, college coach Tom Izzo, Chicago Bulls' owner Jerry Reinsdorf, WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes and Chinese/NBA star Yao Ming. Their careers and accomplishments are of course noteworthy as well.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:26 AM



At Saturday, September 10, 2016 6:27:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

The other thing about the Shaq/Kobe feud is that Kobe was very young. There should be an onus on Shaq as the leader he always purports himself to be to be more mature but it often seemed Kobe was more mature than Shaq.

The thought experiment that is most revealing to me is imagining what Kobe would have been like with a different Pantheon centre. For example Hakeem and Kobe would have won for a decade. Partly because Kobe was so young during that first threepeat having an older leader like Hakeem would have really benefited him.

Tim Duncan wasn't as Young as Kobe but I think David Robinson is an underrated influence on his career.

At Saturday, September 10, 2016 9:57:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Additional comment on Allen Iverson after seeing so much footage of his Michael Jordan crossover:

I want to preface this by saying I have a lot of respect for Iverson but this "highlight" always irked me because Iverson quite clearly carried the ball. If he hadn't carried MJ would have stolen the ball if you look at his hand positioning.

I don't know if he started the trend, my memory is not that good, but post AI everyone carries these days. It frustrates me in some ways because whilst the game evolves and the players evolve with it, some evolutions take things out of the game.

Travelling for example, which every superstar seems to partake in these days, has reduced the utility of footwork as a skill because you don't need it as much if you can just travel. Carrying similarly has emphasised isolation heavy point guard hero ball and has allowed guards who carry to surpass those who have worked hard to develop an 80s legal dribble. Skills like pass-cut-get the ball back and other movements aren't as useful when you have guards dribbling all over the court, in the key, back out again etc.

Maybe I'm looking at the past with rose tinted glasses but some of these big handed guards and their hesitation dribbles are indefensible because it is impossible for the defender to time when the ball is coming back down. Calling these carries could open up more ball movement just as calling travels could allow players with better footwork to prosper.

At Sunday, September 11, 2016 3:07:00 AM, Anonymous CR said...

Good stuff, David. I'm going to have to say there's no way Shaq deserved the 2002 regular season MVP award. That year Shaq missed 15 games and his team finished with 58 wins. Meanwhile, Tim Duncan, played all 82 games, his team won 58 games, and he didn't spend the year feuding with his team's co-star in the media.

Shaq was probably the best player in the league in 2002, but as was often the case with him, he did not exert maximum effort during the regular season.

Shaq was a player who always felt like he was leaving something on the table. Only one full season in his career (2000) did we get to see what Shaq would looked like fully engaged and in shape.

At Sunday, September 11, 2016 3:17:00 AM, Blogger Christopher Robin said...

Andrew, no the ultimate "what-if" is if you just swap Shaq and Tim Duncan in 1998. How many titles does each player end their careers with? It's not crazy to think 18 years of a Kobe-Duncan tandem could have approached double digits in championships.

At Sunday, September 11, 2016 10:18:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Completely agree with you there Chris. In that situation though Tim and Kobe are both young, I was trying to make an analogous situation with an older, more mature superstar. Whilst Shaq was the superior player in the first three peat, Shaq needed Kobe because Shaq was such an immature leader. To extend David's argument about no other superstar wings winning with Shaq, I don't think any other wings would have been mature enough at Kobe's age to get along with Shaq at that stage. Wade got along with Shaq but at that point Shaq had been humbled by the Lakers and he was keen to prove post Penny/Kobe that he could get along with other superstars.

On the other hand if Kobe had a young Shaq to mentor I think those two would have done well. Shaq was the far greater talent than Kobe, but Kobe had the better mentality.

At Tuesday, September 13, 2016 1:18:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Duncan was certainly a justifiable choice for the 2002 regular season MVP but--just as was the case with Olajuwon a few years earlier--during the playoffs O'Neal proved that he was in fact still the most dominant player in the league. O'Neal actually finished a distant third in the 2002 voting behind Duncan and Kidd but in my opinion O'Neal deserved that MVP much like Jordan deserved the MVPs that went to Barkley and Malone for seasons that culminated in Jordan leading the Bulls to the title. I guess you could say that I believe that the "champion" (best player in the league) must be knocked out to lose his crown and in the instances cited above I would have given the benefit of the doubt to the proven "champion" over the challenger.

In contrast, as a result of the media's way of doing things guys like Karl Malone and Steve Nash each have more MVPs than Shaq and Kobe despite never winning a championship. Any method of player evaluation--whether stat based or eye test based--that results in Shaq and Kobe winning just one MVP each is very flawed, in my opinion.

At least in 2002 the MVP went to a proven champion who later won more championships. The 2001 and 2005 snubs of O'Neal are much harder to justify.

At Tuesday, September 13, 2016 11:14:00 AM, Anonymous AW said...

I do believe Shaq did leave some accomplishments on the table. Its a crime he only won one regular season MVP. The league slept on him at times but he brought a lot on himself. With all of that said, I still consider him the most dominant player of all time. He's in my top ten players of all time.

The way I look at the whole Shaq/Kobe thing is that it was just two big egos. I don't believe Shaq was willing to take a back seat to Kobe like he did with Wade, but at the same time Kobe got tired of taking a backseat to Shaq. When the Lakers lost to the Pistons in 2004 I believe Kobe Bryant was probably content with the Lakers losing rather them winning and he had to sit back and watch Shaq get most of the praise for the victory and holding up the finals MVP award. I just believe it was two huge egos.

If you put Jordan and Bryant on the same team with both their best, it would be the same result. They'll have success, but eventually one is tired of being a sidekick and wants to be the man. Their egos will collide.

Yes, I believe Duncan and Bryant would have had greater success than Shaq/Kobe. Duncan has no ego and is laid back. Duncan would just have to hope Kobe doesn't get in trouble with the law and rat his name out to the police like he did Shaq though.

At Tuesday, September 13, 2016 2:57:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shaq and Kobe each should have at least 4-5 MVPs. I'd say Shaq had the most dominant 3-year stretch in nba history, but Wilt was certainly more dominant for a career and maybe others as well. And I'm not sure what dominant exactly means either. Shaq still needed Kobe to save his butt many times during their 3-peat. Without Kobe's heroics, LAL probably only wins 1 of those titles even if Kobe was still there. Shaq could've won with another AS wing, similar to Kobe with another AS big, but I can't see Shaq winning 3 straight with anyone else other than Kobe during their 3-peat.

Shaq was humbled a bit after 04 probably, and his relationship with Wade was new, while Wade wasn't an 18yo entering the league either. I seriously doubt Kobe was content losing the 04 Finals. That doesn't fit his character.

But so true, Jordan/Bryant or Jordan/Shaq would've butted heads a lot. These 3 all have strong cases for best ever. Pippen doesn't nor does Wade, which was why these 2 didn't butt heads as much. Kobe was made out to be the black sheep, but even prime Jordan would've been #2 to Shaq from 00-02 at least partially.

Kobe/Duncan probably would've made it work better long-term. I don't buy the Duncan has no ego thing, though, just because he's a quiet leader and stays out of the spotlight. Duncan would've been more than happy to be Kobe's #2 and continue to rack up titles. With a somewhat competent cast, they would've been nearly unstoppable.

At Tuesday, September 13, 2016 5:39:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Shaq's so weird to try and evaluate, and where he actually ranks pretty much comes down to what you care the most about. If you're going off just peak value, he's in a tier with basically just 70s Doc, 90s Jordan, and '67 Wilt (maybe toss '77 Walton in there, too). If you're going off sustained greatness, he's somewhere in the mid teens or low twenties. If you factor in the titles he cost himself with work ethic/free throws/feuds, he's maybe lower than that.

But I don't know that anyone's ever been harder to stop than 'early 2000s Shaq.

Iverson was a great player, too, and I wish he'd had more help. We'd think of him a lot differently if he'd had a valid #2 at his apex and won a title or three, and it's not really his fault he didn't.

At Wednesday, September 14, 2016 12:55:00 PM, Blogger beep said...

Speaking of which I'd say Iverson/Shaq duo would be very interesting to watch.


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