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August 11, 2011

Dennis Rodman: Not a Hall of Famer

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:54 pm

Last spring, I tweeted my opinion that Dennis Rodman – then merely a finalist – did not belong in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, debated that assertion with a follower and forgot about it until this week. With selection ceremonies almost upon us, the topic has again taken center stage. Jack McCallum took heat for writing on SI.com that he doesn’t feel Rodman belongs. Friend of BBP Tom Ziller spoke up in Rodman’s defense today on SBNation.com, calling Rodman’s election “a victory for the unglamorous.” I tend to think the opposite way. McCallum went out of his way to explain that Rodman’s off-court antics weren’t his issue, but they are for me to the extent that I think Rodman’s fame in the literal sense of the word explains his choice nearly as much as his basketball performance.

Because Rodman was such an extreme player in both positive (rebounding) and negative (usage rate and offense in general) senses, his value is a bit more difficult to quantify than most Hall of Fame candidates. Metrics that put a heavy emphasis on rebounding, like Dave Berri‘s, view Rodman as an all-time great. WARP tends to take a more moderate view.

Rodman had an incredible 1991-92 season. During the first year he went from outstanding to historic on the glass, Rodman continued to have value on offense, allowing him to generate a career-high 16.5 WARP–a total that put him 10th in the league. Before that, Rodman had averaged between six and eight WARP per year for the Pistons’ contending teams. Thereafter, he was less effective through the prism of WARP, as his single-minded pursuit of rebounds limited his other contributions. Rodman’s best season in Chicago, the 72-10 1995-96 campaign, saw him generate just 5.1 WARP.

Again, all-in-one stats struggle with players like Rodman. Plus-minus data would be hugely useful in evaluating his contributions, but play-by-play doesn’t go back to the mid-90s. We do have periods Rodman missed games, which offer mixed conclusions. Rodman was hugely valuable to the Pistons and the Spurs. In 1992-93, Detroit went 36-26 with Rodman (.581) and 4-16 (.200) without him, which almost defies belief. The 1994-95 Spurs won at a .816 clip with Rodman, just .667 without him. But the Bulls were elite even when Rodman was out. In 1995-96, they won 83.3 percent of the games Rodman missed (89.1 percent with him). In 1996-97, Chicago went 15-3 without Rodman when Toni Kukoc was available (6-3 with neither power forward) for an identical .833 winning percentage, as opposed to .873 with him. Had the Bulls started Kukoc with a more capable backup than journeyman Jason Caffey, it’s not clear they would have won many fewer games during their historic seasons.

The most damning bit of contemporary evidence against Rodman is this: He was selected for just two All-Star Games, which doesn’t exactly scream Hall of Fame. I asked Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference.com to look this up for me. Among players with at least 900 games between the ABA and the NBA (throwing out guys inducted primarily for achievements elsewhere, like Bob Houbregs and Drazen Petrovic), he found just one Hall of Famer with fewer combined All-Star appearances: Calvin Murphy, with one. Everyone else made at least four All-Star appearances.

The reply is likely this: What about Rodman’s eight All-Defensive First Team picks and pair of Defensive Player of the Year awards? Well, those aren’t exactly unique credentials. I don’t sense that Dikembe Mutombo is considered a sure thing despite four DPOY awards and eight All-Star selections. Ben Wallace made four All-Star teams and won Defensive Player of the Year four times. If Rodman belongs in the Hall of Fame, so does Wallace. Mutombo and Wallace were dirty-work players who truly were unglamorous and relatively unheralded.

To me, Rodman belongs more in a group with his Chicago predecessor Horace Grant. Grant doesn’t have Rodman’s defensive credentials, obviously (he never made the All-Defensive First Team), but he was picked for a similar number of All-Star Games (one), was also the third-best player on a team that won three consecutive championships and was far more rounded as a player. Grant totaled 82 WARP in his career to Rodman’s 80. Grant will never make the Hall of Fame. At best, he’s a first-ballot selection for the Hall of Very Good.

Maybe this comes down to how you view the Hall of Fame. Rodman is the greatest rebounder in NBA history and won five championships. He’s inarguably a crucial part of NBA history, so Springfield will hardly suffer his addition. But in terms of the overall value he provided throughout his career, Rodman falls short of Hall of Fame standards.

You can contact Kevin at kpelton@basketballprospectus.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kpelton.

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