Basketball Hall of Fame Standards

June 4, 2014

In his excellent book The Politics of Glory, Bill James outlined what he called the Hall of Fame Standards Test. In a nutshell, the system awards points to players for various accomplishments: hitting .300, winning 300 games, etc. James designed the system such that the average Hall of Famer had a score of 50.

I wanted to develop a similar system for basketball, but immediately ran into a problem. The election process for the baseball Hall of Fame is very different from that of the basketball Hall of Fame, the biggest difference being that the basketball Hall of Fame honors players based on their college, international, and/or professional accomplishments, while the baseball Hall of Fame honors players based solely on their professional careers.

Because I wanted to evaluate a player based solely on his NBA career, I developed my system using players who:

  • were elected to the Hall of Fame,
  • were elected under the category of “Player”,
  • played their entire career with the shot clock (1954-55 to present), and
  • had a minimum of 400 games played in the NBA.

That gave me 80 Hall of Famers. My feeling was that players who met the criteria above were players who were elected primarily for their NBA accomplishments, although there are some obvious exceptions (e.g., Arvydas Sabonis).

The Hall of Famers were awarded points in seven different categories, which I will explain in greater detail below. In the end, the median Hall of Famer had a score of 50*. The maximum score was 95 (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and the minimum score was 8 (Sabonis).

* For those who are curious, the “typical” Hall of Famers were Walt Frazier and Jerry Lucas.

Now let me outline the system:

  • Games Played: Award the player one point for every 40 games played above 400, with a limit of 15 points.
  • Points Per Game: Award the player one point for every 0.5 point per game above 10.0 points per game, with a limit of 20 points.
  • Rebounds Per Game: Award the player one point for every 0.5 rebound per game above 5.0 rebounds per game, with a limit of 10 points.
  • Assists Per Game: Award the player one point for every 0.5 assist per game above 5.0 assists per game, with a limit of 5 points.
  • All-Star Games: Award the player two points for each All-Star selection, with a limit of 20 points.
  • Championships: Award the player three points for every championship team he played on, with a limit of 15 points.
  • MVP Awards: Award the player five points for every MVP award he won, with a limit of 15 points.

The maximum possible score is 100. I don’t agree with all of the weights or categories, but based on past election results those seem to be the things that the voters have deemed most important. I’ll go through an example using Bill Russell:

  • Games Played: Russell played in 963 games: (963 – 400) / 40 = 14.075. Dropping the decimal, he earns 14 points in this category.
  • Points Per Game: Russell averaged 15.1 points per game for his career: (15.1 – 10) / 0.5 = 10.2. He earns 10 points in this category.
  • Rebounds Per Game: Russell averaged 22.5 rebounds per game for his career: (22.5 – 5) / 0.5 = 35. The is above the limit for this category, so credit him with 10 points.
  • Assists Per Game: Russell averaged 4.3 assists per game for his career, so he does not earn any points in this category.
  • All-Star Games: Russell was selected to play in 12 All-Star Games: 12 × 2 = 24. This is above the limit for this category, so credit him with 20 points.
  • Championships: Russell’s Celtics won 11 NBA championships: 11 × 3 = 33. This is above the limit for this category, so credit him with 15 points.
  • MVP: Russell won five MVP awards: 5 × 5 = 25. This is above the limit for this category, so credit him with 15 points.

Adding it all up, Russell’s score is:

14 + 10 + 10 + 0 + 20 + 15 + 15 = 84

Among Hall of Famers, that score puts Russell in sixth place:

Rk Player Score
1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 95
2 Magic Johnson 90
3 Larry Bird 88
4 Michael Jordan 87
5 Wilt Chamberlain 86
6 Bill Russell 84
7 Moses Malone 83
8 Hakeem Olajuwon 76
9 David Robinson 75
9 Karl Malone 75

That’s not a bad list. I don’t necessarily agree with the order, but the system’s purpose is not to rank players. Rather, its purpose is to identify viable Hall of Fame candidates.

As I said earlier, the median score for the Hall of Famers used in the study is 50. Among all qualifying players — that is, players who are eligible for the Hall of Fame, spent their entire career in the shot clock era, and had at least 400 games played — we find:

  • A total of 24 had a score of 60 or above. All of these players are in the Hall of Fame.
  • A total of 19 had a score between 50 and 59 points. Eighteen of these players (94.7 percent) are in the Hall of Fame. The exception is Jack Sikma.
  • A total of 38 had a score between 40 and 49 points. Twenty-three of these players (60.5 percent) are in the Hall of Fame.
  • A total of 61 had a score between 30 and 39 points. Seven of these players (11.5 percent) are in the Hall of Fame.

It seems that once a player reaches 30 points he becomes a fringe Hall of Fame candidate, at 40 points he’s a viable candidate, at 50 points he’s an extremely strong candidate, and at 60 points he’s a lock.

Based on this system, here are the top 10 players eligible for the Hall of Fame who have not yet been elected:

Rk Player Score
1 Jack Sikma 52
2 Chris Webber 49
3 Spencer Haywood 46
4 Walter Davis 44
4 Bob Dandridge 44
4 Lou Hudson 44
4 Mark Aguirre 44
4 Jo Jo White 44
9 Willie Naulls 43
9 Bill Laimbeer 43

It may surprise you to see Sikma’s name at the top of this list, but he has a surprisingly strong resume. Sikma finished his 15-year career with 1,107 games played, including 10 seasons with 80 or more game played; averaged 15.6 points and almost 10 rebounds per game; was a seven-time All-Star selection; and was the leader in Win Shares for a Sonics team that won the 1979 NBA championship.

Who are the top 10 retired players not yet eligible for the Hall?

Rk Player Score
1 Shaquille O’Neal 82
2 Allen Iverson 59
3 Jason Kidd 50
4 Tracy McGrady 47
5 Grant Hill 44
5 Yao Ming 44
7 Dikembe Mutombo 41
8 Stephon Marbury 38
9 Rasheed Wallace 37
10 Richard Hamilton 36

O’Neal, Iverson, and Kidd are virtual locks to make the Hall of Fame, while McGrady, Hill, Yao, and Mutombo have strong cases. However, Marbury, Wallace, and Hamilton are highly unlikely to be elected.

***

Let me close by stating very clearly that I am not advocating the use of a system such as the one above to determine who should or should not be in the Hall of Fame. Rather, the system can be used to help answer questions such as:

  • Who are the top candidates for the Hall of Fame?
  • Who are the most questionable Hall of Fame selections?
  • Do the accomplishments of (insert favorite candidate’s name here) measure up to those of other Hall of Famers?

In other words, the system is designed to aid in the search for a final answer, not produce the final answer. Statistics are a wonderful tool, but they never tell a complete story.

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