Is Buck Williams a Hall of Famer?

January 22, 2015

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 Buck Williams.

Here are the questions as adapted by me:

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?

No on both counts.

2. Was he the best player on his team?

In his first eight seasons with the New Jersey Nets, Williams had several seasons where he was clearly the best player on the team, but there were other seasons where he just as clearly was not.

Williams was a solid starter for the Portland Trail Blazers of the early ’90s — he averaged 30+ minutes per game and was named to three All-Defensive teams — but Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter were the alpha dogs on those teams.

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

No, he was not, as power forward was a deep position at the time. I would rate Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Kevin McHale, and Larry Nance ahead of Williams, and possibly Terry Cummings as well.

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

Williams played in three consecutive Western Conference finals with the Trail Blazers (1990-1992), reaching the NBA Finals twice (1990 and 1992). His performance in those series was solid but not particularly noteworthy.

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

Yes, he was. Williams was a valuable starter through his age-34 season, then spent the last three years of his career as a solid contributor coming off the bench.

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

No, he is not. This isn’t necessarily an exhaustive list, but at the very least I would place Sidney Moncrief, Kevin Johnson, and Larry Nance ahead of him.

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

For most of his career, Williams was a double-double threat on a nightly basis, finishing with averages of 12.8 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. He was efficient from the floor too, as his career field goal percentage of .549 is good for 14th all time (minimum 2,000 field goals made).

But how impressive is that? There are 13 players eligible for the Hall of Fame who averaged a double-double (points and rebounds) and shot at least 50 percent from the field (minimum 400 games played):

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (HOF) 1560 24.6 11.2 .559
Charles Barkley (HOF) 1073 22.1 11.7 .540
Walt Bellamy (HOF) 1043 20.1 13.7 .516
Wilt Chamberlain (HOF) 1045 30.1 22.9 .540
Artis Gilmore (HOF) 909 17.1 10.1 .599
Bob Lanier (HOF) 959 20.1 10.1 .514
Karl Malone (HOF) 1476 25.0 10.1 .516
Swen Nater 489 12.2 10.8 .537
Hakeem Olajuwon (HOF) 1238 21.8 11.1 .512
David Robinson (HOF) 987 21.1 10.6 .518
Wes Unseld (HOF) 984 10.8 14.0 .509
Bill Walton (HOF) 468 13.3 10.5 .521
Buck Williams 1307 12.8 10.0 .549

Eleven of these players are in the Hall of Fame, while just two (including Williams) are not.

But if you take a closer look, you’ll see that Williams is more statistically similar to the non-Hall of Famer — Nater — than he is to the rest, albeit in a much longer career.

Let’s look at wins above replacement (WAR), a more comprehensive statistic. Williams finished his career with 95.9 WAR, a very good total. Here is a list of all players eligible for the Hall of Fame who had between 90 and 100 career WAR:

Terry Porter 35,354 99.7 41.9
George Gervin (HOF) 26,536 98.7 45.7
Jeff Hornacek 33,964 97.5 43.2
Wes Unseld (HOF) 35,832 97.1 46.2
Chet Walker (HOF) 33,433 96.3 39.1
Buck Williams 42,464 95.9 30.3
Kevin Johnson 25,061 95.1 48.3
Alonzo Mourning (HOF) 25,975 94.0 45.2
Dikembe Mutombo** 36,791 93.6 39.5
Terry Cummings 33,898 93.0 32.0
Shawn Kemp 29,293 92.4 41.3
Sam Cassell 29,812 92.4 35.2
Horace Grant 38,621 91.3 35.8
Lenny Wilkens (HOF) 38,064 91.3 29.8
Neil Johnston (HOF) 18,298 91.0 56.8
Chris Webber 30,847 90.9 33.2
Bob McAdoo (HOF) 28,327 90.9 40.2
Otis Thorpe 39,822 90.9 28.6

* +WAA stands for positive Wins Above Average (i.e., negative seasons are zeroed out). This is an attempt to measure each player’s impact in his “big” seasons without penalizing him for seasons where he was below average.

** Mutombo is eligible for the Hall of Fame for the first time in 2015 and seems likely to be elected.

In addition to Williams there are 17 other players on this list, and seven of them are in the Hall of Fame.

However, Williams played far more minutes than any other player above, and his impact in “big” seasons (+WAA) is less than every other player save Wilkens and Thorpe.

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

Williams’ Hall of Fame Standards score* is 35, a score that puts him somewhat above the “fringe” candidate line (30 points) but somewhat below the “viable” candidate line (40 points).

* Please remember that this method is designed to model the behavior of the voters and does 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?

Yes, there is some evidence. Traditional statistics are inadequate, at best, for evaluating defense, and Williams was a four-time All-Defensive selection.

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

No, I don’t believe he his. Among power forwards I would definitely put Larry Nance ahead of him, and possibly some others as well.

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

Williams received MVP votes in five different seasons, but he never received a first-place vote, and his best finish was seventh following the 1982-83 season (the only season he was named to an All-NBA team, I should note).

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?

I define an “All-Star-type” season to be one in which a player has at least 8.0 WAR. Williams had only one such season (1982-83), a total that would be extremely low for a Hall of Famer.

Williams was selected to three All-Star Games, yet another low total. There are 26 players eligible for the Hall of Fame who played in exactly three All-Star games, and just 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?

It’s doubtful. Williams was often the best player on the Nets, but in his five postseason appearances with the team they only managed to win one playoff series. And although Williams was on several title contenders in Portland, he clearly wasn’t the best player on those teams.

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?

Williams was selected to the 1980 U.S.A. Olympic basketball team, but he never got to play due to the United States’ boycott of the Moscow Games. Other than that, though, there’s really nothing that would advance his case.

The Verdict

I like to “score” a player’s career by taking 100 percent of his best season (based on WAR), 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.

Williams’ career score is 66.4, which puts him close to some players who are in the Hall of Fame (Chris Mullin and Bernard King) and others who are not (Eddie Jones and Otis Thorpe).

A player who is “stuck” in the middle like that needs a little something extra — big seasons, awards, etc. — to push him over the line, and based on the answers to the questions above I just don’t find that with Williams. He was a very good player for a very long time, and that’s extremely valuable, but in my mind that is not quite enough to make him a Hall of Famer.

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