The Basketball Hall of Fame's Mistake

The newly inducted class includes a colorful player whose glaring weaknesses should have kept him out

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During the lockout shortened NBA season of 1998-99, the flailing Los Angeles Lakers signed a veteran power forward to shore up their defense and rebounding. He behaved erratically, underperformed, and was released after 23 games. The next season, the Dallas Mavericks signed the same player. Before being released he managed 12 games, and was ejected twice. That ended his fourteen years in the NBA, during which he averaged 7.3 points per game, 1.8 assists, shot 58 percent from the free throw line, and played roughly 32 minutes per game, often coming off the bench. That player was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame this week. His name is Dennis Rodman.

The case for bestowing on him the highest honor in basketball is straightforward enough. He won two championships with the Detroit Pistons, where he started his career, and three more with the Chicago Bulls. Twice he won recognition as the NBA defensive player of the year, he made the all defensive first-team seven times, he twice played on the All Star team, and most importantly, he won the NBA rebounding title seven consecutive times, averaging an impressive 18.7 boards per game in his best season. His career average was 13.1 rebounds per game.

The case against Rodman is nevertheless more persuasive - so much so that I'm as surprised as he is that he made the cut. As Tony Gervino points out in The Awl, "he may have averaged 13.1 rebounds per game over his career, but he only scored 7.3 points a game... Putting an incomplete player like him in the Hall is like crowning a headless woman Miss America." This point is worthy of emphasis. Defenders of Rodman insist he arguably the best rebounder ever, as Sports Illustrated asserted on its cover back in 1996. It certainly was entertaining to watch him jostle for position, jump into the air, contort his body, and even tip the ball to himself before securing possession.

But he is actually 22nd on the all-time rebounding list (and 11th on the rebounds-per-game list). And it's instructive to look at the career scoring averages of the players who grabbed more boards in their careers:

Wilt Chamberlain - 30.1
Bill Russell - 15.1
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - 24.6
Elvin Hayes - 21
Moses Malone - 20.6
Karl Malone - 25
Robert Parish - 14.5
Nate Thurmond - 15
Walt Bellamy - 20.1
Wes Unseld - 10.8
Hakeem Olajuwon - 21.8
Shaquille O'Neal - 23.7     
Buck Williams - 12.8    
Jerry Lucas - 17
Bob Pettit - 26.4
Kevin Garnett - 19.5    
Charles Barkley - 22.1
Dikembe Mutombo - 9.8    
Paul Silas - 9.4    
Charles Oakley - 9.7    
Tim Duncan - 20.6

Remember, those are players who grabbed more career boards than Rodman. In doing so, most were averaging more than twice as many points as he did. This is particularly relevant when you look at his contemporaries like Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Karl Malone. Imagine if you told any one of those guys, "Don't worry at all about scoring this year. Just grab as many boards as possible." It's hard to believe Rodman would've won all those consecutive rebounding titles in that world. (For that matter, how many rebounds per game would Kobe grab if he made that his only goal?) Something similar can be said for Rodman's defensive honors, as Gervino also notes:

While Rodman was named NBA's All-Defensive First Team seven times in his career, I don't hold that feat in the same regard as Michael Jordan's nine times, or Kobe's eight. Why not? Because those players added defense to the existing burden of scoring, and setting other players up. Running an offense. Playing on both ends of the court. Rodman never had to worry about anything other than not losing his head, rebounding and fronting on defense. Sure he was great at it, but he never elevated his game to be anything more than what he was: the third or fourth best player on any team on which he played.

Here's a rule of thumb. If you could swap a player off of his championship team for a non-Hall-of-Famer, and still be confident the team would've won the championship, the guy doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame. It seems obvious that was true of his time with the Bulls. I am not so sure about the Pistons years, though I do remember that in Game 7 of the 1988 finals, my eight year old self was thrilled with Rodman in the final minutes for fouling Magic Johnson in the back court, and missing an ill-conceived pull-up jumper on a subsequent, crucial possession. The sot wasn't particularly tough - it's just that any Dennis Rodman jump shot was a terrible idea. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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