Is Jack Sikma a Hall of Famer?

January 28, 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 Jack Sikma.

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?

Nyet, nyet.

2. Was he the best player on his team?

Sikma was arguably the best player on the Seattle SuperSonics from his fourth year in the league (1980-81) until he was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks following the 1985-86 season.

He was very good for Milwaukee, especially his first three years, but he was not the team’s best player.

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

Center was an extremely deep position in the 1980s, with the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, and Robert Parish manning the position. For the decade, Sikma was probably the fourth-best center in the NBA.

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

Sikma played in three Western Conference finals and two NBA Finals — all in the first three years of his career — and he was solid if unspectacular in most of those series. His best performance came in the 1979 NBA Finals, where he averaged 16.2 points, 14.8 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks per game.

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

Yes, he was. Sikma was very effective through his age-33 season. At age 34, though, there was a noticeable dropoff in his performance, and he retired following his age-35 season.

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

No, he is not. In my opinion the top two candidates are Sidney Moncrief and Kevin Johnson.

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

Here is a list of players who are eligible for the Hall of Fame and averaged at least 15.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game (minimum 400 games played):

Name GP PPG RPG APG
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (HOF) 1560 24.6 11.2 3.6
Charles Barkley (HOF) 1073 22.1 11.7 3.9
Elgin Baylor (HOF) 846 27.4 13.5 4.3
Larry Bird (HOF) 897 24.3 10.0 6.3
Wilt Chamberlain (HOF) 1045 30.1 22.9 4.4
Dave Cowens (HOF) 766 17.6 13.6 3.8
Billy Cunningham (HOF) 654 20.8 10.1 4.0
Brad Daugherty 548 19.0 9.5 3.7
Bob Lanier (HOF) 959 20.1 10.1 3.1
Jerry Lucas (HOF) 829 17.0 15.6 3.3
Karl Malone (HOF) 1476 25.0 10.1 3.6
George McGinnis 528 17.2 9.8 3.8
Bob Pettit (HOF) 792 26.4 16.2 3.0
Bill Russell (HOF) 963 15.1 22.5 4.3
Dolph Schayes (HOF) 996 18.5 12.1 3.1
Jack Sikma 1107 15.6 9.8 3.2
Chris Webber 831 20.7 9.8 4.2

Thirteen of these 17 players are in the Hall of Fame, the exceptions being Brad Daugherty, George McGinnis, Chris Webber, and Sikma.

Of course, you can probably see what’s going on here: I’m deliberately setting the minimums so that Sikma just squeaks by in each category.

Let’s look at a comprehensive statistic like wins above replacement (WAR). Sikma had 104.3 career WAR, which currently places him 53rd on the all-time list.

Here are all of the HOF-eligible players with between 100 and 110 career WAR:

Name MIN WAR +WAA*
Kevin McHale (HOF) 30118 109.9 57.9
Elvin Hayes (HOF) 50000 107.1 22.3
Alex English (HOF) 38063 105.0 35.4
Jack Sikma 36943 104.3 41.6
Walt Frazier (HOF) 30965 103.3 49.6
Larry Nance 30697 103.0 51.1
Jerry Lucas (HOF) 32131 101.8 50.4
Bailey Howell (HOF) 30627 101.6 49.1
Artis Gilmore (HOF) 29685 101.4 52.9
Detlef Schrempf 33597 100.7 45.1

* +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.

The only players above who are not in the Hall of Fame are Larry Nance (who I’ve argued should be), Detlef Schrempf, and Sikma.

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

Sikma’s Hall of Fame Standards score* is 52, a score that puts him above the median Hall of Famer. In fact, Sikma is the only eligible player with a score of 50 or higher who is not in the Hall of Fame.

* 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?

No, not really.

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

Yes, I believe Sikma is the best center 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?

Sikma received MVP votes in five different seasons, although he never finished higher than seventh. He earned four first-place votes in 1978-79 — when a voter could only select one player on the ballot — but those turned out to be the only first-place votes of his career.

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. Sikma had five such seasons, plus four more where he was close (7.9 in 1978-79 and 1980-81; 7.6 in 1979-80; and 7.5 in 1985-86).

Here is a list of HOF-eligible players who had exactly five “All-Star-type” seasons:

This is a mixed bag, as nine of these players are Hall of Famers and nine are not.

But if the cutoff is dropped from 8.0 WAR to 7.5 WAR — giving Sikma nine such seasons — here’s what you get:

As you can see, Sikma is surrounded by Hall of Famers.

Looking at All-Star Games, Sikma played in seven of them, a very respectable total. Here is a list of HOF-eligible players who had exactly seven All-Star selections:

Sikma and Jo Jo White are the only players on this list who have not been elected to the Hall of Fame.

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

Probably not. Sikma did play for three conference finalists, two of which advanced to the NBA Finals, but Gus Williams was the best player on those teams.

In fact, when Williams sat out the 1980-81 season in a contract dispute, the Sonics dropped to 34-48 and didn’t even make the playoffs. When Williams returned for the 1981-82 season, the Sonics improved to 52-30 and advanced to the Western Conference semifinals. (It’s only fair to note, though, that the 1981-82 season was easily the best of Sikma’a career.)

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?

There’s nothing in particular that stands out.

The Verdict

Based on what the voters have done in the past, Sikma’s resume looks like that of a Hall of Famer, and the advanced stats agree with that conclusion. He’s a very strong candidate, and I believe he should be elected to the Hall of Fame.

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