Will these 2014-eligible players make the Hall of Fame? (Mitchell Layton/Rocky Widner/Joe Murphy/Getty Images)
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame's class of 2013 featured a group of distinguished contributors to the sport, with Gary Payton and Bernard King as the most notable NBA representatives. Both were well worthy of the honor, though far from the only deserving candidates; the pool of eligible players still features some qualified NBA talent, and will now only grow with the addition of a new crop of eligible prospects in 2014. A player must be retired for five years to even be considered for the Hall, and thus next year's ceremony could potentially feature NBA standouts who retired in 2008. Below are three of the most compelling from that group, each worthy of discussion in their own way.
Hall of Fame voting is a bit of a charade, as some worthy players are arbitrarily forced to wait longer than others for their day of enshrinement. Webber -- as both a very-good-but-not-great player and a figure of some controversy -- seems likely to fit that bill. Webber doesn't meet the basketball standard of the NBA's first-ballot Hall of Famers, and didn't quite have the sustained production to warrant his induction with no questions asked. But for a Hall that rewards performance and influence almost equally, Webber simply cannot be denied. He's an important character in the story of modern basketball, and a fantastic player well worthy of a secure place in the sport's history.
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From a pure basketball standpoint, Webber brings both strong career numbers (20.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 20.7 PER) and impressive peak production. He was a top-five NBA player for a two-year stretch at the turn of the millennium, and likely could have continued that pace were it not for an unfortunate knee injury in 2002. Webber was ultimately never quite the same thereafter, but over the course of his career still managed to make five All-NBA teams and five All-Star teams while functioning as the centerpiece of one of the best teams of his era. The 2000s Kings may not have the historical confirmation of a championship, but they were a top-10 outfit on both sides of the ball for essentially four years running -- barred from a title by the misfortune of repeated run-ins with the Lakers.
His career's coincidence with a dynastic opponent shouldn't be held against him, just as it wasn't used as a barrier for entry for first-ballot Hall of Famers like Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, and John Stockton. Webber obviously doesn't come close to any of those three legends in terms of extended greatness, but he nevertheless deserves to have his career judged on its own merits rather than dwarfed by championship expectation. Webber was successful and decorated even without winning a title, and lest we forget: He was denied a legitimate chance at a ring in 2002 by allegedly crooked officiating. The hardware would have helped his case, but would only have crystallized the success of a title-worthy team.
Yet all of this discussion might be burying the lede, as Webber's case for the Hall began before his NBA career ever did. The Basketball Hall of Fame is first and foremost a museum dedicated to the history of the game, and in that spirit the Hall tends to enshrine those who have made significant contributions to the narrative of the sport itself. In that vein, I see no way to exclude Webber, who along with a terrific career can claim to be one of the most influential college basketball players of all time. He was the best and most productive of Michigan's revered and reviled Fab Five -- a lightning-rod team that earned two trips to the NCAA title game based on an unprecedented recruiting class.
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There's some controversy there in Webber's admitted forfeiture of his amateur status, but public chiding, court cases, and the forced vacating of wins can't mute the indelible impact of Webber and his teammates. Their joint committal and success as underclassmen shaped NCAA recruiting. Their personalities and team ethos shook the culture of the game. They took part in bitter rivalries, and were bested in the NCAA tournament only by the dreaded tandem of North Carolina and Duke. They weren't just a great collegiate team, but an important one -- arguably the most monumental in the history of college basketball. Some would see Webber's involvement in that group and their associated scandal as a demerit for his Hall of Fame chances, but why discount his involvement in one of the most memorable teams of college basketball history?
I don't really understand any argument by which Mourning wouldn't be considered a Hall of Famer. Even in acknowledging that he could be fairly categorized as one of the lesser greats of his time, Mourning was still an exceptional, long-tenured pro with a standout college career and a successful turn in international play. He's one of just seven players in NBA history to win the Defensive Player of the Year award more than once, and rates as one of the best shot blockers ever by most any means of evaluation (he's 10th all-time in career blocks, sixth in blocks per game, and fourth in block percentage). Mourning scored (17.1 per game for his career) and rebounded (8.5) well to boot, and his advanced stats are well worthy of Hall of Fame standards.
He was also selected to the NBA All-Star team seven times, which puts him in an impressive class of players. Of that group, only three eligible players (Jack Sikma, Jo Jo White, and Larry Foust) have thus far been denied admission to the Hall. Mourning was also a three-time AP All-American during his time at Georgetown, and ranks in the top three in points, blocks, and rebounds at one of the NCAA's most storied basketball institutions.
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He's an NBA champion, an Olympic gold medalist, and an icon of resilience after battling through a life-threatening kidney disease to resume his career. Even without bringing the career scoring marks that most first-tier legends boast, Mourning has built the kind of comprehensive case that should make him difficult to turn back. Like Webber, though, he'll undoubtedly see a few rounds of voting rejection before eventually being admitted. Such is the tendency of the Hall's voters. Yet there is no other logical outcome here but eventual admission; Mourning's place in the history of the game deserves to be honored, as he was both too good and too accomplished to be refused.
Hardaway is a personal favorite and a crowd-pleaser with a lot of peripheral appeal, but stylish play as part of a then-up-and-coming team doesn't get Penny anywhere near the Hall of Fame's usual benchmarks. A career-altering knee injury denied Hardaway a chance to establish himself among the league's elite and pad his statistical totals, which in an evaluation like this is killer. Even as a talented scorer, Hardaway put up just 10,684 career points -- 280th in NBA history, and marginally more than Hedo Turkoglu and Ben Gordon. Hardaway's 3,525 career assists don't stand up particularly well, either, as his mark is bested by those of Webber, Vlade Divac, and Lamar Odom. Even at his best, Hardaway was never a top-five player in the league, though ascent to that level had at the time seemed something of an inevitability. It just never came to fruition, as a string of knee injuries culminating in a double round of microfracture surgery cost Hardaway a chance to fulfill his basketball promise.
Hardaway's brilliant start is still worth a nostalgia trip, as well as a tumble down the YouTube rabbit hole. There just isn't enough on paper to give Penny even semi-serious consideration -- not when the best years of his career were stolen away from him, and too few star-level seasons to make him a candidate worthy of exception.
Other notable first-time candidates
: Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Eddie Jones