Are They the Best Class Ever? An (Imperfect) Statistical Analysis of the 2020 NBA Hall Inductees- Part 1

I hope that the nine individuals that will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2020 will get the fanfare that they deserve. On Saturday the Hall of Fame announced that three men’s and one woman’s player, (Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Tamika Catchings, respectively) along with four coaches (Kim Mulkey, Barbara Stevens, Eddie Sutton and Rudy Tomjanovich) and one Olympic executive (Patrick Baumann) will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, with the induction ceremony scheduled for August 29th.

Given world events, that feels like an eternity from now. As COVID-19 casts a shadow over everything in its wake, I want to take a moment to appreciate the four players that are planning to be inducted into Springfield this summer.

Naturally, there is one other albatross to mention among this, and this is the untimely death of one of those beloved inductees, Kobe Bryant. So, while this announcement could be considered doubly somber, I’d rather evoke the competitive spirit that was so deeply embedded into Bryant’s game and attitude. Ultimately, basketball and its other professional sport relatives are about entertainment through competition, and while the show can’t go on for real right now, we can always talk about it like it is.

With that being said, this particular group of players is a special one. Of course, all Hall of Fame inductees are the best of their time, but a group that in this case consists of these four is one that could be argued to be one of the best Hall of Fame classes of all-time.

I mean, let’s just look at their combined accolades:

58 All-Star Appearances (Bryant with the most, 18)

51 All-NBA/All-WNBA appearances (Bryant and Duncan tied at 15 total appearances, but Bryant had 11 1st teams to Duncan’s 10)

51 All-Defensive Teams (Duncan with 15, but Bryant and Garnett were first team 9 times, meanwhile the WNBA only has one team, so all 12 of Catchings All-Defense awards are essentially first team)

6 Defensive Player of the Year Awards (Catchings had 5 of these, I don’t care that she’s a woman, she might be the best defender out of this whole group)

6 All-Star MVPs (Bryant had 4)

6 Finals MVPs (Duncan had 3 of these)

5 season MVPs (Duncan had 2)

4 rebounding championships (all Garnett)

2 scoring titles (Bryant)

12 Championship rings (5 for Bryant and Duncan each)

I can’t even imagine how much hardware that is. Beyond this, if you were to mold the four of them into one player and get aggregate statistical averages for them as this one “super-player” their averages would be:

20.1 Points Per Game

8.6 Rebounds Per Game

3.8 Assists Per Game

1.3 Steals Per Game

1.3 Blocks Per Game

0.218 Win Shares Per 48 Minutes

That’s quite the player. Averaging 20/9/4 is quite the feat for any one individual let alone four of them combined over the course of their careers including the high and low points of those careers. In NBA history, 68 players have averaged 20 PPG in their careers, and only five of those players also averaged at least 8.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists (Chris Webber, Charles Barkley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone & Wilt Chamberlin). Only Webber also averaged 1.3 steals and blocks (and probably Chamberlin, but they didn’t track those stats in his time). This group of 4 is in rarefied company when you also consider that aggregating their numbers against each other should dilute them a little bit. Yet, here they are, setting a standard that was incredibly difficult to replicate.

Initially, I was going to look at playoff stats as well to include in their resume, but in all my time and effort I came to the conclusion that actually, there is very little statistical difference in any of the samples that I have taken between regular season and playoff numbers. For that reason, you will just have to take my word for it, and trust that while certain players do rise to the occasion at times, for this longer analysis of full careers, that distinction just isn’t necessary.

I mention this because, I really wanted to bring some historical context to this Hall of Fame class. Just how good are they? Really, how do they stack up to other classes of their kind?

Looking back through the history of Hall of Fame inductions I only found four classes that I thought might possibly be comparable. Admittedly, this wasn’t very scientific and to be frank, I’m just doing my best. Take everything I write here as the opinion of an enthusiastic and knowledgeable sports fan, do not take it as information from a professional statistician, because I’m not one.

Anyway, I scanned the list of all Naismith Hall of Fame classes and came up with four possible competitors. Remember, I am speaking strictly about players. Its only too obvious that the Dream Team being inducted as a unit is more prominent than the 2020 Hall of Fame class. Further, every group I am going to mention is going to only have 3 players in it, and therefore will be at a disadvantage. For that reason, I will be factoring in a stat I just created called “Accolades Per Player” or APP, which is exactly what it sounds like. It is an average of how many each class had of each award per player.

Let’s get to the first candidate.

Class of 1980: PG Oscar Robertson, PF Jerry Lucas, G Jerry West.

33 All-Star Appearances (11 APP vs. 14.5 APP for 2020 Class) (West led with 14)

28 All-NBA Appearances (9.3 APP vs. 12.75 for 2020) (West, 12)

5 All-Defensive Teams (1.6 APP vs 12.75) (West had all 5)

0 Defensive Players of the Year

5 All-Star MVPs (1.3 APP vs 1.5) (Robertson led with 3)

1 Finals MVP (0.3 APP vs. 1.5) (West)

0 MVPs

1 scoring championship (0.3 APP vs 0.3) (West)

7 assist championships (2.3 APP vs 0) (Robertson, 6)

3 Championship Rings (1 APP vs 2.75) (each had one)

The only thing that this group is actually even close in terms of accolades is All-Star MVPs as they have a total of 5, with the Big O having three of them. Outside of that, they also have 7 assist championships (also mostly Robertson), something the front-court heavy 2020 Hall of Famers didn’t accomplish at all. Lastly, West matches his protege Bryant in terms of having one single scoring championship. Unfortunately, none of their other award totals stack up.

As far as statistics, the league didn’t start recording steals and blocks until the last year of this group’s careers, so those won’t be available to me, however, their per game averages are still quite interesting. The 1980 class averaged:

23.5 Points Per Game

9.3 Rebounds Per Game

6.7 Assists Per Game

0.189 Win Shares Per 48 Minutes

It seems like that means that they would blow this years class out of the water statistically, especially when you consider that two guards were part of a group that out-rebounded two of the most dominant big men of the recent era. However, the pacing of the game needs to come into play as well. In this 1980 group’s median season, which would have been the 1967-1968 season, there were a total of 137.9 shot attempts per game (field goals and free throws combined). In comparison, in this year’s class’s median season of 2006-2007 there were a total of just 105.8 shots per game. That means that shot attempts, and therefore opportunities to either score, rebound or assist were coming at a rate of about 30% more for the 1980 class (I couldn’t account for the first shot of two free throws on this, so its not exact, but its relatively close). If you then normalize the 1980 class’s stats to those ’06-’07 rates you would get:

18.0 Points Per Game

7.1 Rebounds Per Game

5.1 Assists Per Game

0.189 Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (not altered)

This suggests then that the 2020 Hall of Famers were indeed more statistically gifted, albeit by a small margin.

However, this is just the beginning. Now that I have established my parameters and given an example of how this analysis will work I plan to jump right into the data and details next time. There are yet three more Hall of Fame classes to compare to this newly anointed 2020 class. How will the likes of Maravich, Barkley, Robinson, and the great Michael Jordan stack up?

Stick to this space to find out.

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