Thursday, August 19, 2010

Completing the Circle?

The Dream Team was honored at the Hall of Fame last week. Only two of the members of the 1992 Olympic basketball team are not already in the Hall as individuals: Chris Mullin and Christian Laettner. (Karl Malone and Scottie Pippen were inducted this year.) Should Laettner and Mullin be in the basketball Hall of Fame as well? Let's have a look.

Christian Laettner

Laettner had a nice NBA career, averaging 17 points and 8 rebounds per game over his first five seasons. But he played on some really bad teams, including the near-expansion Timberwolves and the donkey ass Wizards of the early 2000's. His only sniff of a championship caliber team came with the 2004-2005 Heat as a role player, his final NBA season. The team lost in the Eastern Conference finals to the Pistons.

But if Laettner were to be considered for the Hall of Fame, it would be based on his college performance less than his NBA career. He was the best player on the best team of his era, hitting clutch shots, and frustrating fans of the Michigan Wolverines and their "Fab Five" superstar recruiting class. He's the only player ever to start in four consecutive Final Fours. He holds the record for most points scored in NCAA Tournament play.

The logical comparison case is Bill Walton. Walton's NBA career bore a resemblance to Laettner's, featuring averaging about 16 points per game in his first five seasons, but he was definitely a better defensive player. Walton pulled down 12+ rebounds per game in each of his first four seasons, and had 2.5+ blocks per game in three of those four campaigns. Perhaps most importantly, his teams were a lot better than the Timberwolves ever were.

Walton also had a more illustrious college career, being the centerpiece of the unreal 88-game winning streak by UCLA in the mid-70s. And there's the main difference between Walton (a HOFer) and Laettner: hardware. Walton managed to garner an NBA MVP trophy in 1978 (not sure how, with just 19 points and 13 rebounds per game, and only playing in 58 games). He's also got two each of NCAA championships and NBA championships, and he was named Finals MVP in 1977 for the Portland Trail Blazers.

The reality is that Christian Laettner doesn't come close to Walton in terms of overall performance; Walton was a better college player, and a far better professional player than Laettner. Perhaps a better comparison to Laettner would be Vin Baker (who by the way was my favorite player in Electronic Arts' Live '95 game for Super Nintendo).

Verdict: Not a Hall of Famer.

Chris Mullin

I chose to review Mullin second because he's basically Laettner, except better. Mullin was a superstar at St. John's, winning Big East Player of the Year honors three times in his four years, as well as being named an All-American three times. Additionally, he won Olympic gold in 1984, eight years before he did it again with the Dream Team.

Mullin was drafted seventh overall by the Golden State Warriors in the 1985 NBA Draft, in a draft that saw power forwards or centers get drafted with 15 of the first 17 picks. He contributed immediately, sliding into the starting lineup by the middle of his rookie season, and 14 points per game. His scoring average increased over his first four years, up to a career high of 26.5 in 1988-89. He scored at least 25 points per game over the next four seasons as well, guiding the Warriors to five consecutive playoff appearances. He also made better than 50% of his field goals, remarkable for a spot-up shooter.

His performance over this period earned him his spot on the 1992 Olympic team, and he took full advantage. He may not have provided any memorable highlight reel dunks or passes, but Mullin was the 4th leading scorer on a team of legends, despite starting only two of the team's eight games.

Unfortunately, injuries took away parts of four seasons, as Mullin missed 140 games over that period, preventing him from building on his Olympic success. By the time he was fully healthy and able to play a full season's worth of games, he was 33, and his skills had begun to fade. He'd never again break 15 points per game, and his career faded out of memory.

So how do we judge him? Comparing him to Walton is pretty fair; he was a dominant college player who had success in the pros. Walton picked up an MVP trophy, but I'd say Mullin was more productive, so we'll call their NBA careers, production-wise, a wash. So the question is this: Does Mullin's Olympic and college success measure up to Walton's college dominance, and the NBA title he pulled in?

Answer: Almost. Walton's NBA championship is impressive, and he was clearly an integral part of the team, rating second in scoring and first in rebounds and blocks on that Trail Blazer team. But I can't give top credit to Mullin for either of his two Olympic golds, for the same reason I don't assign much value to Walton's second title with the Celtics in 1986. Mullin was important to his two gold medal teams, more important than Walton was to those Celtics, but not nearly as important as Walton was to the Portland team.

The final piece of the puzzle is this: While Mullin was a prolific scorer, he never led the league in scoring. Granted, this was during Michael Jordan's heyday, but if a player is going to be elected to the Hall of Fame as a prolific scorer who never won a title (in the NBA or college), he'll have to have led the league in scoring at some point. If Dominique Wilkins can't get in, neither can Mullin.

Verdict: Not a Hall of Famer

I think it's important to note that, specifically with Chris Mullin, this isn't a slouch we're talking about. He's one of the all-time greats, maybe the second-best player in Warrior history behind Wilt Chamberlain, and certainly their best player since moving out west. But the Hall of Fame isn't (and shouldn't be) about being a good player, or being the best player over a short period for one time. It's about being a legend. And we should reserve that for the elite.

And yes, I'm looking at you, baseball.

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