2011 Hall of Fame NBA Class

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Normally I do a whole write-up on all of the members of the incoming class to the Basketball Hall of Fame as the inductions approach. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about several of the players, coaches, and participants, so I’m going to stick to the recent NBA players and coaches with whom I am most familiar. I mean no offense to fans of USA Basketball’s Teresa Edwards, the ABA and NBA giant Artis Gilmore, Celtic 8 time champion Satch Sanders, Goose the high-stepping Globetrotter, and the others but my knowledge isn’t deep enough to write about them with conviction.

Tex Winter has been a professional basketball coach in the NCAA or NBA for 64 years. That’s incredible in and of itself. He is universally respected as a strategist and student of the game. John Paxson says he learned more from working with Tex than from any other influence in his basketball career. Kobe Bryant credits breaking down film with Winter as a big reason for his personal evolution as a basketball player. Tex’s triple post offense had a hand in winning 11 of the last 17 NBA championships.

The offense does not have standard sets. It is what coaches call a “read” offense and focuses on ball and player movement in response to the reactions of the defense. Maximizing player spacing and coordinated but not pre-determined motion was the key to effectively using the triple post or “triangle” offense. The triangle empowered every player on the court to make decisions with and without the ball yet allowed the scoring stars the space and freedom to score in isolation. MJ won 6 Finals MVPs working in that offense. Shaq won 3. Kobe 2.

It worked so well that when Rudy Tomjanovic took over coaching the Lakers for Phil Jackson in 2005, Kobe Bryant requested that aspects of the triple post be run because he recognized what that offense did to get him open shots and space to operate in isolation. Michael Jordan also committed to retiring if Phil Jackson left Chicago after the Bulls’ last championship, and one would have to conjecture that one of the reasons is because Michael didn’t want to have to work within any other offense but Tex’s triangle to defend his title. That’s quite the legacy.

In the history of the NBA there have been many defensively dominant players, but none of them have had been quite like Dennis Rodman.

The majority of game-changing defensive stalwarts have been centers. From Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain to Nate Thurmond and Artis Gilmore to Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing to David Robinson and Dikembe Mutombo to Alonzo Mourning and Ben Wallace to Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard, year after year, decade after decade the true defensive giants have manned the middle. Then there have been the more perimeter-oriented defensive specialists, often bench players whose sole purpose was to disrupt the opponents’ offense. Rodman himself started his career in this guise, winning both of his Defensive Player of the Year awards as the designated stopper for the Detroit Pistons. It is a role he shared with other lockdown players such as Satch Sanders, Bobby Jones, Michael Cooper, and Bruce Bowen. But Rodman eclipses even those defensive pitbulls with his otherworldly rebounding skills.

There are two components to every defensive possession. Number one is thwarting the offense’s attempt to score by causing a turnover or a missed shot. Number two is coming up with the ball after it is knocked loose or the shot is missed. Not many of the other versatile non-center defensive masters were able to dominate the backboards. Kevin Garnett did. Depending on how you classify Wes Unseld, he might fit the bill. Oakley? But we’re getting pretty big again. Other than KG and Rodman, how many players could lock down small forwards and completely own the glass? Not many. And nobody, but nobody, owned the glass like Rodman. Per possession he is a rebounder without peer. Wilt and Russ pulled down more boards per game, but they played a lot more minutes in a much faster paced game to do so. Worm’s rebound rate for his career is unmatched. He cleaned 23% of all available ‘bounds off the backboards. To put that in context, Dwight Howard, the best rebounder on the planet today (except maybe Kevin Love who doesn’t have enough games to qualify) pulls down “only” 20% of the misses in his games. 3% doesn’t sound like a big difference, but when you factor one of them defending under the rim and the other defending all over the court, you really see how well Dennis chased down every carom he could get his hands on.

Rodman’s over-the-top public persona, which is in strong contrast with his generally shy and respectful one on one personality, can overshadow his actual contribution to the game, and I’m impressed that the committee saw past all that to include D-Rod. He was one of the five most important players on five different NBA championship teams, playing small forward off the bench for the Detroit Pistons in the late ’80s and then changing sides and winning three more rings as the starting power forward for the late ’90s Chicago Bulls. In that span he defended everyone from Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan to Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal, and while nobody shuts down those stars, Dennis’s teams did win most of those matchups. Not many players can honestly say that they were on the winning end most of the time against the best players in league history.

Chris Mullin is one of the most unique NBA stars of his generation. Bob Ryan, the esteemed Boston sportswriter, once referred to Mullin as the NBA’s answer to the change-up pitch. Chris did everything off-speed. He defended (well) with positioning, physicality, and quick-hands. He ran the break without great speed and shot the ball over 50% for his career without being able to get to the rim consistently. In his best years in the early ’90s, Mullin scored at will against dominant defenders like Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Derrick McKey. Standard defensive skills, even at the very highest levels, just didn’t work against Mullin’s array of quick hitting deep shots, interior flip shots, and mid-range foot fakes, spins, and pull-ups. He was like a half-speed, left-handed Kobe Bryant with no lift and better touch. You can’t gameplan for that.

Chris was beloved in his hometown, New York City, where he starred for St. John’s Universiry (Go Red Storm!) and helped bring the team to two Final Four appearances in the NCAA Tournament. He teamed with the NBA’s #2 All-Time assist deliverer, Mark Jackson, in a dynamic and explosive scoring combo. In 1984, playing with Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing on a team coached by Bobby Knight, Chris won the last Olympic gold medal a USA amateur basketball team would ever bring home.

Drafted #7 overall by the Golden State Warriors (in hindsight he should have been no later than 3rd – behind only Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing who are both also in the HoF), Mullin would go on to star next to another elite point guard in Tim Hardaway. Along with shooting guard Mitch Richmond, Tim and Chris would form the one of the most phenomenal perimeter scoring trios in league history, nicknamed Run T(im)M(itch)C(hris). The Run TMC Warriors had a few memorable playoff runs but never had the rebounding or interior defensive help to compete with the more well-rounded Lakers, Trailblazers, and Suns, yet they were one of the most fun teams to watch that you could find.

Initially fame and excess got the better of Mullin, but he quickly righted his own ship, checking himself voluntarily into a rehab facility and rededicating himself to his craft. In 1992 the Olympic team once again selected Chris to represent the USA along side Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing, this time on the legendary Dream Team. Chris served along side Larry Bird as a designated zone buster, punishing teams for playing zone defense and leaving him open outside the three point line. Mullin acquitted himself well and fit it on the greatest basketball team of all time, winning his second Olympic gold medal and making his mark on the international scene to go with his indelible work in the NCAA and NBA.

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