Is Larry Nance a Hall of Famer?

August 4, 2014

The Keltner List is a series of subjective questions formulated by famed sabermetrician Bill James used to help assess whether or not a player deserves to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Although the system was designed to evaluate baseball players, with a few minor tweaks it can also be used to assess the Hall-worthiness of basketball players. Today I will assess the Hall of Fame chances of Larry Nance.

1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in basketball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in basketball?

Nope and nope.

2. Was he the best player on his team?

Nance was, in my opinion, clearly the best player on the Phoenix Suns from 1982-83 until he was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers on February 25, 1988:

Name GP MP/G WS WS/48
Larry Nance 407 35.7 51.2 .169
Walter Davis 398 31.3 28.7 .111
Alvan Adams 460 24.7 25.5 .108

From 1988-89 through 1992-93, it’s not so clear. Nance was one of the best players on the Cleveland Cavaliers, but those were some very good teams, and it’s hard to decide who was the best player among Nance, Brad Daugherty, and Mark Price:

Name GP MP/G WS WS/48
Larry Nance 373 35.3 49.6 .181
Brad Daugherty 339 37.0 46.2 .177
Mark Price 311 33.8 42.3 .193

I think Price was the better player when he played, but he missed 99 games in those five seasons, including 66 games during the 1990-91 season*.

* That season was a disaster for the Cavs, as they limped to a 24-42 finish after Price’s knee injury. Perhaps that’s a good argument in favor of Price.

Regardless, Nance was arguably the best player on his team for 11 straight seasons, an impressive run.

3. Was he the best player in basketball at his position?

No, he was not. The best power forwards in basketball during Nance’s era were Charles Barkley, Kevin McHale, and Karl Malone. For what it’s worth, I would rank Nance fourth in that time period.

4. Did he have an impact on a number of NBA Finals or Conference Finals?

Nance never played in the NBA Finals, but he did play in two Conference Finals.

In the 1984 Western Conference Finals, Nance’s Phoenix Suns lost to the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers in six games. Nance played very well, though, averaging 21.5 points per game on .602 shooting from the floor.

In the 1992 Eastern Conference Finals, the Chicago Bulls beat Nance’s Cleveland Cavaliers in six games. Once again Nance played well, posting per game averages of 17.8 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks.

5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?

Yes, he was.

6. Is he the very best (eligible) basketball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

I don’t believe that he his. If I was prioritizing selections, I would place Sidney Moncrief and Kevin Johnson ahead of him.

7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?

Nance finished his career with per game averages of 17.1 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks. Among players eligible for the Hall of Fame, seven have averaged at least 17.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks per game:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar* 24.6 11.2 2.6
Patrick Ewing* 21.0 9.8 2.4
Elvin Hayes* 21.0 12.5 2.0
Alonzo Mourning* 17.1 8.5 2.8
Larry Nance 17.1 8.0 2.2
Hakeem Olajuwon* 21.8 11.1 3.1
David Robinson* 21.1 10.6 3.0

Nance is the only one on this list who is not in the Hall of Fame. But other than Mourning, Nance really doesn’t belong in a group with the rest of these players, as he just skirts by the minimum in all three categories.

Let’s look at win shares, a more comprehensive statistic. Nance finished his career with 109.6 win shares, a fine total. Here are all of the eligible players with between 105 and 115 win shares:

Name WS WS/48
Bailey Howell* 114.8 .180
Walt Frazier* 113.5 .176
Kevin McHale* 113.1 .180
Jack Sikma 112.4 .146
Terry Porter 110.5 .150
Wes Unseld* 110.0 .147
Detlef Schrempf 109.6 .157
Larry Nance 109.6 .171
Jeff Hornacek 108.8 .154
Paul Arizin* 108.8 .210
George Mikan* 108.7 .249
Artis Gilmore* 107.6 .174
Otis Thorpe 106.4 .128
Julius Erving* 106.3 .178
Bill Laimbeer 105.6 .149
Sam Perkins 105.5 .138

Half of these players — Howell, Frazier, McHale, Unseld, Arizin, Mikan, Gilmore, and Erving — are in the Hall of Fame. Among the remaining players, Nance has by far the highest rate of win shares per 48 minutes (.171 compared to .157 for Schrempf).

8. Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?

Nance’s Hall of Fame probability is just .059, an extremely low figure.

His Hall of Fame Standards score is 38, a score that puts him very close to the “viable” candidate line.

Please remember that the two methods above are designed to model the behavior of the voters. They do not reflect my personal opinion.

9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?

There is some evidence, yes. Traditional statistics are inadequate, at best, for evaluating defense, and Nance was by all accounts a very good defensive player.

10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame?

Yes, I think that Nance is the best eligible power forward who has not yet been elected to the Hall of Fame.

11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?

Nance never won the MVP, nor did he ever come close. In fact, the only time he received votes was following the 1988-89 season, when he finished tied for 13th with three points in the balloting.

12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the players who played in this many All-Star games go into the Hall of Fame?

As a rule of thumb, I consider a season with 10 or more win shares to be an “All-Star-type” season. Nance had five such seasons, plus two more where he fell just short (9.8 in both 1983-84 and 1990-91). Here are the other players with exactly five “All-Star-type” seasons:

Name Count
Paul Arizin* 5
Rick Barry* 5
Marques Johnson 5
Ed Macauley* 5
Sidney Moncrief 5
Wes Unseld* 5

Johnson and Moncrief are not in the Hall of Fame (although Moncrief should be), but the other four are.

Nance was selected to play in three All-Star games, which is not an impressive total. There are 26 players eligible for the Hall of Fame who played in exactly three All-Star games, and only two of them — Maurice Stokes* and Jamaal Wilkes — are in the Hall of Fame.

* Stokes is not an apt comparison, as he was selected to play in the All-Star game his first three years in the NBA before suffering a career-ending brain injury at the age of 24.

13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win an NBA title?

Likely? No, but I believe that a team with a player like Nance as its best player plus a strong supporting cast would have a decent chance to win a title.

14. What impact did the player have on basketball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way? Was his college and/or international career especially noteworthy?

Nance was the first winner of the NBA Slam Dunk Contest in 1984, but other than that there is nothing especially noteworthy.

The Verdict

I like to “score” a player’s career by taking 100 percent of his best season (as measured by win shares plus win shares above average), plus 95 percent of his second-best season, plus 90 percent of his third-best season, etc. I think this results in a nice balance between peak and career value.

If you do this for all Hall of Famers who have played at least 400 NBA games, the mean score is 159 and the median score is 149. Nance’s career score is 166, which is above both the mean and median scores for the group.

In other words, Nance’s election wouldn’t lower the Hall of Fame’s standards at all. In fact, Nance’s election would slightly increase the average career score of these players.

If I had a ballot, I would cast a vote for Nance.

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