Is Buck Williams a Hall of Famer?

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.

21 thoughts on “Is Buck Williams a Hall of Famer?

  1. This was well done. There are two questions I think need a little more context.

    For number 7, I feel like you may be under-selling Williams a bit to say his best statistical comparison is Swen Nater. There is so much discrepancy in their games played that the comparison greatly benefits Nater, and punishes Williams for his longevity. If you compare them both based on their first 11 seasons, the comparison starts to tilt towards Williams, particularly in the WAR department. If you look this way, Williams falls about halfway between Nater and Artis Gilmore, though with less efficient shooting.

    For question 14, I think you might be under-selling his college career a bit. He’s considered one of the best players of all time in the ACC, arguably the most storied college basketball conference. He was twice All-ACC, led the ACC in rebounding twice, ACC Rookie of the Year.

    Those are quibbles, though. They don’t move the needle a whole lot, I don’t think. If he gets in, it is going to be through the old timers’ committee at some point in the future, or if some new defensive statistic comes along that shows he was a much better defensive player than was previously thought. At the moment it seems like he’s in a weird spot: probably top 10% both offensively and defensively, but not quite good enough in either dimension to make enough of an impact.

    1. Also, random secondary point/question: I don’t have access to WAR data, but I do have access to VORP data. The converting VORP to WAR makes it look like he had three All-Star caliber seasons by your metric: 82-83, 83-84 and 91-92. I think there might be a rounding error somewhere in the VORP data. What was his WAR in those two other seasons, if you don’t mind me asking?

      1. Geoff, you may not know that I no longer work for Sports Reference. Those numbers you see on are not mine. The WAR values I’m using are based on my own (unpublished) work.

        1. Ah, okay. No, didn’t know that. That would explain the difference. Makes sense now.

          Yeah, I was playing with the cut-off point to see how moving it up or down for different players got different results. At 7 WAR as an All-Star season, Williams has 6. And that is when I noticed the cusp-line seasons.

          If you don’t mind me asking, what is the logic behind the 8 WAR cut-off point for an ‘All Star’ caliber season? How robust is that number in reflecting actual All-Star appearances?

          1. In the last 30 years or so, roughly 25-30 players will reach that mark every season. Since an All-Star team is made up of 24 players, I thought that was a good cutoff.

    2. I think it’s a stretch to call him one of the best player in ACC history, although I guess it depends on how deep you’re going when you use the word “best.” Keep in mind that he was never a consensus All-America selection and he did not win ACC Player of the Year. Those are high standards, I know, but we’re talking about the ACC here.

      1. I was going off of the ACC’s own thinking. He was on their 50th anniversary team, and statistically one of the better players on that team. But that’s open to interpretation, and WAS compiled in 2002. Been some good players since then that aren’t on the list.

          1. True. 50 out of 50 years worth of players. Similar sized ratio as NBA Hall of Famers, and we consider them the best, right?

        1. But also among the ACC top 50 were guys like Bobby Jones, Sam Perkins, Horace Grant, and Christian Laettner. And the case for Buck Williams over those guys is less than clear. He played the most minutes and had the most aggregate points and was the best rebounder of the group; but each of the other four had higher steal percentages and >= block percentages, each had significantly higher assist percentages, and all but Grant had higher usage rates. Each of the other 4 had a higher PER and higher box score plus-minus, each but Laettner had a higher WS/48, and Jones and Grant had significantly higher VORPs.

          See this comparison.

          Grant was the third best player on triple-NBA-champion teams. Jones was a key contributor of Philadelphia teams that won 1 title and played in 2 other finals, and the third best player (behind David Thompson and Dan Issel) on ABA runner-up and NBA West runner-up Denver teams. Perkins — whose career numbers are extremely similar to Williams’s, with less rebounding and inside efficiency but more floor spacing — was the third or fourth best player on some outstanding Dallas teams and an NBA runner-up Lakers team, and a key contributor to Seattle teams, one of which was also an NBA runner-up.

          Laettner had the least distinguished NBA career of the group but BY FAR the most distinguished college career. (That’s the sort of college career bump that matters for the Hall. See, e.g., David Thompson and Ralph Sampson — each of whom had higher NBA peaks, though obviously lower longevity, than Williams.)

          Williams played the most minutes and has the most points and rebounds of the group, but it’s not like it’s a head and shoulders case for Williams over any of the four mentioned (let alone later PFs on the ACC-at-50 list who aren’t eligible but have significantly better offensive numbers than Williams, like Elton Brand and Antawn Jamison).

  2. Buck Williams has the most WS, 120.1 career, of any player not elected. Why did you use a different stat (WAR) here when all the other Keltner Lists use WS?

    1. John, that’s a fair question. I may have more to say about this later, but for now I’ll just note two reasons. One, I felt like there were a few things in the Win Shares system that could be improved. Two, there is now a familiarity with WAR thanks to its acceptance in the baseball community, so I decided to move from straight wins to wins above replacement.

      1. Also, while Williams does have more win shares than any other candidate, he also has a big lead over the other leading candidates in playing time. For example, Larry Nance is only about 10 WS behind Williams, but he did that in almost 12,000 fewer minutes.

        1. I had assumed that you chose to break down Buck Williams for that very reason (Win Shares), as I have when doing Keltner lists on my own.

          I believe one can make an argument for Williams being the best PF in the NBA for the first three seasons of his career (1981-1984). Of the players you mentioned, Cummings, Barkley, and Malone were not in the NBA all three years. Comparing Williams to McHale and Nance in said seasons:

          Williams: 16.1 ppg, 12.4 rpg, 17.2 PER, 27.7 WS, .151 WS/48
          McHale: 15.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 18.2 PER, 25.6 WS, .169 WS/48
          Nance: 13.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 18.3 PER, 22.7 WS, .156 WS/48

          It’s a weak argument, but if you’re willing to do it for Marques Johnson I believe you have to do it for Williams.

          I would agree that Williams is a borderline candidate. His most similar player in similarity scores is Rasheed Wallace, who is a better candidate (more All-Star appearances, an NBA title, etc.) but still probably won’t get in. Of the other listed players, Alex English, Elvin Hayes, and John Havlicek have been elected, but Otis Thorpe, Horace Grant, A.C. Green, Sam Perkins, Detlef Schrempf, and Rashard Lewis likely won’t get in (though Grant arguably should). In a small-hall world I wouldn’t put him in.

          But the Basketball Hall has been a big hall ever since its inception, and Williams would be a better selection than many of the NBA players already elected. If Ralph Sampson can get in on four overrated NBA seasons and four supposedly great college years, Williams can get in as well.

  3. I think there are a few things you are missing in terms of Williams’ importance. He played for a terrible franchise who always seemed to do less with more. In his time in NJ the Nets drafted terribly, that was when they weren’t trading picks away for injury prone players like Otis Birdsong. That being said, he still managed to shoot at a high rate and rebound better than many other players in their Prime.

    Williams was 6-8 and 225, the exact same size as Grant Hill, yet still managed to pull down a ton of rebounds. He wasn’t a leaper like Nance nor did he have the strength of Barkley, yet he was far superior on the boards than either player.

    He was also an underrated defensive player. He didn’t put up great shot blocking numbers, but he didn’t need to. He simply shut opposing forwards down using superior positioning. He was the Blazers interior defense, as the team had to make up the defensive black hole that was Keving Duckworth.

    While on the Nets I often said that many teams would become contenders if they had Williams starting at PF for them. The Blazers turned from an ALSO-RANS to a contender the second they got Williams. He simply did all the little things a team needed in their interior to succeed. Had he been drafted 1st in 1981 instead of Aguirre, he would have made that fledgling team scary right away (they also drafted the criminally underrated Rolondo Blackman that year as well). Aguirre hardly made any team he played for better due to his complete disinterest on the defensive end, whereas Williams was just fantastic on that end and was efficient on the offensive end.

    Also , he won a rookie of the year award in a year he went up against Isiah Thomas, Aguirre, Chambers, Tripuka, Blackman and others. That was no accident.

    In college he was pretty great. He completely shut down Ralph Sampson during his last season and gave James Worthy fits. He. Dominated Sampson in their many matchups despite giving up 8 inches, and this was when Sampson was in prime. He wasn’t called on to score that much because he played on the same team as Albert King, a great scorer at the college level. Maryland’s lack of success during his time there had more to do with Lefty Drissel then it did with Williams. Add Williams to UNC and that team would have won the 81 national championship over a loaded Indiana team. He was that good.

    Williams made his teams better with his rebounding and D. He did a lot of other things that contributed to a team’s benefit that don’t show up in the record books much like Wrs Unseld.

    In that case I think he goes in, albeit even after a long wait.

  4. John Woods – 4 “overrated” NBA seasons for Ralphie Boy? I beg to differ.

    Sampson was drafted by a raped and pillaged Rockets team that won 14 games the year before (their best player was Allen Leavell). I believe Allen still holds the record for the lowest team-leading PPG avg. in history. That team was truly bad. They averaged 99.3 PPG and gave up 110.9…

    The following year, with the additions of Ralph, Rodney McCray (instead of Clyde the Glide), Reid, and Lew Lloyd, they more than doubled their win total to 29. Sampson was the hands down ROY, and the Rockets avgd 110.6 and gave up 113.7 with a PthgW/L of 33-49.

    Add in the Dream the following year, they make the playoffs, then the finals the next year. Then, they went on to break the Celtics’ record by winning 10 straight NBA titles… Oh wait… the offseason following their finals’ loss, their ENTIRE backcourt, Lloyd, Lucas and Wiggins got suspended. Then Ralph started having back and knee problems.

    Houston traded him for Sleepy and Joe Barely Cares in early ’87-’88 season. and Houston didn’t sniff the finals again until ’93-’94.

    Ralph was great for 3 seasons (20.7/10.9/2.8/1.0/2.0 while playing 243 regular season games), then his body gave out on him. His big problem was that he wanted to be Dirk Nowitzki, but there was no such thing yet, and Bill Fitch planted him down on the box instead of spreading the floor. If you hate Ralph, just say so, but overrated, those seasons were not.

    I’m not a big fan of the guy, but I watched him play most of those games, and if he was in the league today, someone would figure out how to use his unique skill set. He’s not a HOFer in my book, but it’s the BASKETBALL HOF, not the NBA hall.

    The NBA needs their own hall, IMO.

    (On a side note, in the “what if” category, suppose the Rockets had taken Drexler instead of McCray? Rodney was a decent player, but had Clyde developed alongside Hakeem during those calamitous years when they lost their back court and then Ralph, I think they may well have challenged the Bulls a few times in the finals, and may have beaten them. They DID win a title together when they were both 32…)

  5. Williams wasnt a stat hog and for that he is punished….. he would box out and let his teammate get the rebound or the basket

    He dominated the post…. ask the players who played against him if he deserves the hall

    1. I’ve read the analysis of the OP and most of the replies. All are excellent. I watched Buck Williams numerous times on TV and w/o looking at the stats, I have to say that qualitatively, he was an outstanding PF who deserves to be in the HOF. I remember him making Charles Barkley look silly in a game in barkley’s rookie year. Williams was a great defender and rebounder.

      Since the OP has compared him to Larry nance, I looked a the stats of both. While I think Nance was underrated, I think Williams was better. Here are some selected comparisons:

      Total points- Nance 15,687, Williams 16,784
      PPG- Nance 17.1, Williams 12.8
      Total rebounds- Nance 7,352, Williams 13,017
      RPG- Nance 8.0, Williams 10.0
      ASGs- Nance 3, Williams 3
      Win Shares- Nance 109.6, Williams 120.1
      All Defensive (1st or 2nd)- Nance 3, Williams 4
      All NBA- (1st or 2nd)- Nance 0, Williams 1

      Based on the above, I think the HOF case is stronger for Buck than Larry. How many players have over 15,000 points and 10,000 rebounds? How many players have over 16,000 points period? How many players have over 120 WSs? Yes, Buck played a long time, but what is wrong with that? I was surprised that Buck’s stats were as good as they are. Based on his stats and what I remember what an exceptional rebounder and defender Williams was, I think he clearly belongs in the HOF, and the case is stronger than I thought it was.

      I think the HOF case for Williams is stronger than that for Nance, but a good case can be made for Larry as well. I think both of them belong in the HOF, and they were better than many players in the Hall.

      1. WS/48 – Williams .136, Nance .171
        PER – Williams 15.3, Nance 19.9
        VORP – Williams 34.8, Nance 47.9

        Williams the stronger case? No

  6. buck Williams was a dominating player, and usually the best player on the floor, he was not a stat hog, and that is where you miss out on his value

    he could have gotten more rebounds but instead he was content to box out and let someone else get it,
    he could have scored more but he was not a ball hog and instead played within the system he was in
    he had a floor sense where he could position himself, set picks whatever that allowed his teammates to score more
    he is definitely a hall of famer
    he just wasn’t lucky enough to play with enough other good players to win it all
    but he was always the best player on his team when he played on the east coast, no matter what your stats show
    I didn’t see him much after he went to portland

  7. I think one major factor that isn’t captured by individual statistics but IS captured by team statistics is Williams made his teams much better in the win-loss column. Not once but twice in his NBA career his team improved by 20 wins after Williams joined the team.

    In 1981-82, Williams’ rookie season, the Nets improved from 24-58 to 44-38. There were other players who played important roles in the Nets’ improvement, but Williams played the biggest role. The Nets hadn’t been close to posting a winning record in their first 5 NBA seasons, but then achieved winning records in each of Williams’ first 4 seasons in the NBA.

    The Nets team as a whole fell back as Williams’ career progressed, and the former Maryland standout was traded to the Trail Blazers before the 1989-90 season. For most of the 1980s, the Blazers had been an above average team but not a serious playoff contender; they usually finished with a winning record but only reached at least 50 wins once during the decade (1987-88). They also advanced past the first round of the playoffs only twice and never to the conference finals. In 1988-89, the year before Williams joined the team, the Blazers finished 39-43. After Williams joined the team, the Blazers improved dramatically, finishing with a 59-23 record and reaching the NBA Finals. Similar to the Nets’ case almost a decade earlier, there were various players who contributed to the improved record but Williams played the largest role. Additionally, without Williams the Nets dropped from 26-56 to 17-65, a 9 game drop for an already weak team (which is actually hard to do). The Blazers had their greatest period of sustained success in the first 3 years after Williams joined the team, finishing with 59, 63, and 57 wins in those three seasons and appearing in the Western Conference finals all 3 years and the NBA Finals in 2 of the 3 years.

    One thing that sometimes gets overlooked when evaluating players is “how much did they improve the team after they joined it?” It is easy to see the difference caused by some players (like Larry Bird, who helped the Celtics improve from 29-53 the year before he arrived to 61-21 in his rookie season), but in many cases the improvement is measured by NBA titles rather than wins and losses, which is a fairer measurement for bad teams that become good and average to good teams that become very good but fall a little short of winning an NBA title. Buck Williams’ positive impact on his teams’ on-court accomplishments during his prime years, in addition to his very good statistics during those same prime years, are significant positives in his Hall of Fame argument.

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