The Horace Grant Conundrum

Horace Grant had a career year in 1991-92, averaging 14.2 points and 10.0 rebounds per game, shooting a career-high .578 from the field, and he was one of just six players with at least 100 steals and at least 100 blocks.

On the surface those numbers appear to be good, not great, yet he finished the season third in the NBA with 14.1 win shares, and his average of .237 win shares per 48 minutes was good for third as well.

How did this happen? How did a player like Grant manage to contribute so much to the bottom line?

There are many things a player can do on offense to help his team, but the five most important skills are probably the following:

  1. Make shots from the field.
  2. Get to — and make shots from — the free throw line.
  3. Minimize turnovers.
  4. Create shots for others.
  5. Extend possessions with offensive rebounds.

Let’s take a look at each of those and see how Grant did:

1. Make shots from the field.
Grant’s effective field goal percentage was .578, the third-best figure in the league among players with at least 300 field goals made.

2. Get to — and make shots from — the free throw line.
Grant averaged 29.7 free throws made per 100 field goal attempts, above the league average of 26.2 for post players (i.e., power forwards and centers).

3. Minimize turnovers.
Grant turned the ball over just 9.5 times per 100 plays, the 15th-lowest rate in the NBA among players with at least 2,000 minutes played.

4. Create shots for others.
Neither the quantitative nor the qualitative evidence suggests that Grant was an adept playmaker. However, he did register an assist on a little over 10 percent of his teammates’ field goals while he was on the floor, a rate that exceeded the league average of 8.1 percent for post players.

5. Extend possessions with offensive rebounds.
Grant grabbed 14.3 percent of all available offensive rebounds while he was on the floor. The only players who played at least 2,000 minutes and had a higher percentage were Dennis Rodman (18.1) and Kevin Willis (14.7).

What we have, then, is a player who was well above average in terms of scoring efficiency, who rarely turned the ball over, and who gave his team extra scoring opportunities by pounding the offensive boards. That sounds pretty valuable to me.

In fact, if you add it all up Grant averaged 132.2 points produced per 100 possessions, the best offensive rating in history* among players with at least 1,000 points produced.

* Since 1977-78, when individual turnovers were first recorded.

What about defense? That can be harder to measure, of course, but let’s look at the evidence we do have:

1. Team Defense
The Bulls finished fourth in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions, with Grant averaging 35.3 minutes per game, third highest on the team behind Michael Jordan (38.8) and Scottie Pippen (38.6) and well ahead of the next-closest post player, Bill Cartwright (23.0).

2. Defensive Rebounding
Grant’s defensive rebound percentage of 18.2 was the third-highest on the team, although the two players ahead of him, Scott Williams and Will Perdue, averaged just 11.0 and 13.1 minutes per game, respectively.

3. Steals
Grant averaged 1.78 steals per 100 opponent possessions, the eighth-best rate in the NBA among post players (minimum 2,000 minutes).

4. Blocks
Grant blocked 2.88 shots per 100 opponent 2-point attempts, the league’s 14th-highest rate (minimum 2,000 minutes).

5. Personal Fouls
Grant committed just 2.47 fouls per 36 minutes, the fifth-lowest rate in the league among post players (minimum 2,000 minutes).

Once again we have the profile of a very valuable player, a guy who played major minutes on a team with a top-notch defense, who was solid on the defensive boards, who was one of the best in the post at recording steals, who was one of the league’s top shot blockers, and who only committed a foul about once every 15 minutes.

With the caveat that individual defense is difficult to measure, Grant allowed an estimated 102.2 points per 100 defensive possessions, the sixth-best individual defensive rating in the NBA (minimum 2,000 minutes).

Putting it all together, Grant was the league’s most efficient offensive player — albeit one who did not carry a heavy offensive load — and one of the league’s most efficient defensive players.

Despite the evidence laid out above, I know there are still going to be people who doubt that Grant was an extremely valuable player. Let me try to answer some of the arguments against him:

Grant was helped by playing alongside Jordan.

But two years later, when Jordan was shagging fly balls for the Birmingham Barons, Grant had what was probably his second-best season as a pro, as he earned his only All-Star selection and was named to the All-Defensive Second Team.

In short, Grant was a very good player with or without Jordan.

Grant did not carry a large offensive burden.
That’s true; in 1991-92 Grant used just 16.5 percent of his team’s possessions while he was on the floor.

But think about this another way: An average post player would have needed over 1,100 possessions to produce the same number of points that Grant did using 921 possessions.

In other words, you could add almost 200 zero-point possessions to Grant’s line — which would push his possession percentage over 20 percent — and he would still have an offensive rating that was better than half of the league’s post players.

Grant is getting too much credit for defense.
That’s possible, as it’s hard to disentangle a player’s individual defensive accomplishments from the team surrounding him.

But aside from the quantitative evidence, there is also some qualitative evidence that Grant was a very good defender, as he was named to the All-Defensive Second Team four straight times starting with the 1992-93 season.

I know there are going to be people who are onboard with me in believing that Grant was a much better player than he is given credit for, and I also know that there are going to be people who think I’m cuckoo for wasting almost 1,000 words on this subject.

But I think there is one important thing to learn from all of this, and it’s something that applies to almost all athletes in team sports: Players who can do many things well but lack a signature skill tend to be underrated, while players who have a signature skill but are not well-rounded tend to be overrated.

Horace Grant did a lot of things well.

2 thoughts on “The Horace Grant Conundrum

  1. I am in complete agreement with your analysis. Just watching the Bulls during that time, you could see what an integral part Grant played. He was all hustle, grit and efficiency. He was rarely called on but when his number came up, he was always ready.

    It was hard to believe Harvey Grant was his brother.

  2. He must have done something right being on top 4 teams in the league almost every year he played. When I was a kid I liked him because of the glasses/goggles.

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