Welcome to morning target practice, where every day of the week you will receive an up-to-date and current column from one of the SI.comNBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
Life as an NBA power forward in the early 2000s was hell.
One night, Tim Duncan is pushing you into oblivion. Next up, Kevin Garnett is giving a blowjob and teasing you into submission. Or Karl Malone is crushing your ribs and your will. Or Rasheed Wallace is drowning you in jumpers of change. Or Dirk Nowitzki is rocking threesomes with one leg in your face.
This was an era of elite strikers, of all stripes, from old-school bullies like Malone to new-age techs like Nowitzki and Wallace. And none of them combined a skill set as complete as Chris Webber’s.
“C-Webb is just as talented as all those guys,” says seven-time champion Robert Horry, who spent his career defending everyone on that list. “His ability to lift the ball, his ability to pass, his ability to shoot.”
And he absolutely belongs to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Webber was named a Hall finalist last week, along with former NBA stars Paul Pierce, Chris Bosh, Tim Hardaway, Michael Cooper and Ben Wallace. But Webber has been a finalist before. He’s eligible since 2013. And still, wait.
It is completely unnerving for anyone who has seen Webber play, and even more so for those who competed against him during his 15-year NBA career, especially during Webber’s prime with the Kings.
“He’s Hall of Fame worthy,” says Horry, whose Lakers teams were pushed to the limit by Webber’s Kings in the early 2000s when the Lakers won three straight titles. “Athletic, big-bodied, able to move with a grace that many greats don’t have,” says Horry. “It was very elegant. Talented around the rim. Soft touch. Baby hook. The jumper wasn’t pretty, but it was effective. When it comes to the greats who improve the people around them, it did so with their passing. “
The usual disclaimers apply here: we don’t know who votes for the Hall, or how they vote, their qualifications, their standards, or their reason for being. The whole process is shrouded in secrecy. We will never know why one player succeeds and another does not. Additionally, the Naismith Hall of Fame encompasses all of basketball, worldwide, and takes into account the entire resume of a nominee, including college and Olympic games. It is not an NBA Hall of Fame, so we cannot strictly compare and contrast on NBA resumes.
But Webber is one of the most egregious exclusions of his day, based only on his years in the NBA. His basic career markers – five-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA, 1993-94 Rookie of the Year – should suffice, though they don’t do him justice, because major knee surgery at age 30 robbed Webber of some major years.
Here’s what Webber did when he was healthy: He averaged 22.8 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks from 1994-2003. The number of players that matched that matrix during that nine-year span? Zero. Remove the robberies and blocks, and still zero. Reduce it to scoring and bouncing, and just two others join the list: Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal.
However, you could play with Basketball-Reference And it is Stathead tool all day, and he still doesn’t fully capture Webber’s excellence, especially when you consider his rivals as power forward: Malone, Garnett, Duncan, Nowitzki, Charles Barkley, Shawn Kemp, Vin Baker, Jermaine O’Neal, Antonio McDyess. The position was absolutely stacked.
Horry protected them all, some more successfully than others. Webber, he says, was a unique challenge because of the breadth of his game. While Duncan beat the defenders with just a few moves, because they were so effective, Webber actually had more ways to attack, from more areas of the court.
“Tim was going to face you, corner him, drop him, jump and hook you; That was it with Tim, ”says Horry. “With C-Webb, it will jump you, it will leave you, it will leave you, it will step back, it will go up to the elbow. Think about it, how many times have you seen Tim Duncan on the elbow? “
Duncan was more of a stationary post player. Webber could put the ball down and beat defenders with a variety of moves or passing.
“He would look up at you, rock you to sleep and do that little jump hook that went down the middle,” says Horry, who says Webber’s jump hook is “unstoppable.” “And then, in the mail, I could prepare you to go left. You think it’s going to hook you to the left, but it lets you fall. He had a bit of footwork. And then he had that elbow bridge and the first step to get over you, if you weren’t paying attention to it. “
During that 1994-2003 span, Webber averaged more points than Nowitzki, Garnett, Barkley and Wallace; more rebounds than Nowitzki and Malone; more assists than anyone labeled power forward. The only element missing from Webber’s game, Horry says, was “a little off-putting,” calling him a more picky player who would fit in well with today’s game, due to his broad skill set.
We may never know which factors are most important to those secret Hall of Fame voters. Are they statistics? Awards? Championships? Playoff record? Longevity? Is a five-year dominance streak enough? Seven? Ten? The Hall cannot be just “the best of the best”, it is full of former NBA players who never won an MVP award and never dominated their position, but who played for great teams of all time.
The best definition of what makes a Hall of Famer is this: Can you tell the story of that player’s era without him? In Webber’s case, he absolutely can’t. It was the lynchpin of those fabulous, frenetic, free-spirited Kings teams from the early 2000s. “The best show on the court” What Sports Illustrated dubbed them in a cover story from 2001.
Those Kings were seen as a joint cast, combining Vlade Divac’s low post cunning, Mike Bibby’s outside scoring, Peja Stojakovic’s three-point shooting and Doug Christie’s tight defense. But Webber was by far the most talented and essential of that group, due to his scoring and play-making skills.
“He was that guy who was critical to these other guys being able to score, play defense and do the things that they could do,” says Horry.
The Kings averaged 56 wins between 2000 and 2005, including 61 wins, the most in the league in 2001-02, reaching the conference semifinals four times and the conference final once. They just had the misfortune to exist in an era of Western Conference powerhouses: the Shaq and Kobe Lakers, the Nowitzki-Nash Mavericks, the Duncan-Robinson Spurs.
The Kings led the Lakers to Game 7 (and overtime) in the 2002 conference finals, getting as close as any other team to derailing the triple. Webber’s supporters will cite the arbitration controversy in Game 6 of that series as the reason those Kings never made it to the final. Critics of Webber might point to his untimely difficulties in Game 7. If the Kings had won that game, they would almost certainly have beaten the Nets and won the 2002 title.
“If Chris Webber beats us and wins a championship,” says Horry, “it’s not even a debate if he gets into the Hall of Fame.”
Maybe. But Webber deserved a failure in Springfield, regardless.
LUKEWARM TAKE OF THE WEEK
Shaquille O’Neal was half right on the definitions of MVP, during last week’s fight Inside the NBA debate.
“The most valuable player is singularDiesel yelled at Charles Barkley. (Correct.)
“It has nothing to do with the registry,” he added emphatically. (Incorrect.)
As an English student (UC Davis ’91, #GoAgs), I appreciated Big Fella’s grammatical stance. As an awards voter, I have to berate you for your flawed rationale on MVP.
Of course, the success of the team is important. It always has. How much? Well that’s in the eye of the beholder. But it matters.
Of the last 40 MVPs, 38 played for teams that finished in the top three in their conference and won at least 50 games (or the equivalent in a season shortened by the lockout). There have only been two outliers in four decades: Russell Westbrook in 2017 (47 wins, sixth place) and Moses Malone in 1982 (46 wins, fifth place).
As I always say, MVP has two components: individual excellence. Y team success. You need both (which is why I voted for James Harden over Westbrook in 2017). What is the proper balance between the two? Again, that is up to the beholder’s eyes. Reasonable people can disagree on the minimum required wins or whether 40 years of precedent should matter.
The NBA does not give a definition of MVP, leaving the interpretations to the voter. But 40 years of results clearly indicate that “valuable” means “to your team,” suggesting that a win-loss record is very important. The individual dominance of a player is never enough.
Which brings us to the real reason Shaq got so nervous the other night. It’s not about the MVP race of 2021. It’s about 2005, when Steve Nash narrowly beat O’Neal for MVP, despite Nash’s modest scoring average (15.5 points, vs. O’Neal’s 22.9). Nash earned the award by turning the Suns into an offensive monster that runs, shoots and leads to 62 wins, the best record in the league, a jump of 33 wins from the previous year.
Miami won 59 games behind (newly acquired) O’Neal and Dwyane Wade. But the Suns’ transformation was so dramatic, so electric, and so clearly player-driven, that Nash’s scoring average became moot. Nash led the league in assists (11.5 per game), while shooting 50% from the field and 43% on 3s. O’Neal had the most striking statistics (22.9 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.3 blocks); Nash made the biggest impression. (Disclosure: I did not cast a vote because my employer at the time, The New York Times, does not allow reporters to vote on the awards).
So when Barkley last week raised Chris Paul as an MVP candidate, despite Paul’s modest scoring average (16.1 points per game), Nash’s comparison came up immediately, making O’Neal nervous. .
“Change the prize to the most valuable team So don’t call the MVP, ”O’Neal snapped.
Nash was certainly not MVP’s prototype, although others they have won the award with a scoring average of less than 20 points, including Bill Russell (five times), Bill Walton and Wes Unseld (13.8 points per game in 1968-69).
Can Paul join that list? It seems unlikely in a field that includes LeBron James, Joel Embiid, and Nikola Jokic, among other music masters. But the Suns, after a decade of ineptitude, are now floating near the top of the West; Paul’s arrival is possibly the most important reason. He may not be dominant enough to win MVP, but he has earned a place in the conversation, and perhaps, eventually, on the five-man ballot.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.