Breaking Down Chris Webber's Case for the Hall of Fame

The early 2000s was an era of elite power forwards, of every sort and not one of them combined a skill set as complete as Webber's.
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Life as an NBA power forward in the early 2000s was pure hell.

One night, Tim Duncan is footworking you into oblivion. The next, Kevin Garnett is slam-dunking and sneering you into submission. Or Karl Malone is crushing your ribs and your will. Or Rasheed Wallace is drowning you in turnaround jumpers. Or Dirk Nowitzki is swishing one-legged threes in your face.

This was an era of elite power forwards, of every sort—from the old-school bruisers like Malone to the new-age technicians like Nowitzki and Wallace. And not one 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 guarding everyone on that list. “His ability to bring the ball up, his ability to pass, his ability to shoot.”

And he absolutely belongs in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Webber was named a finalist for the Hall last week, alongside former NBA stars Paul Pierce, Chris Bosh, Tim Hardaway, Michael Cooper and Ben Wallace. But Webber has been a finalist before. He’s been eligible since 2013. And still, he waits.

It’s thoroughly confounding to anyone who watched Webber play—and more so to those who competed against him over his 15-year NBA career, especially during Webber’s prime with the Kings.

“He's worthy of the Hall of Fame,” says Horry, whose Lakers were pushed to the limit by Webber’s Kings in the early 2000s, when Los Angeles won three straight titles. “Athletic, big body, able to move with a grace like a lot of bigs don't have,” Horry says. “He was very graceful. Talented around the rim. Soft touch. Baby hook. Jumper wasn't pretty, but it was effective. When you talk about bigs that make the people around them better, he did that with his 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 rationale. The entire process is shrouded in secrecy. We’ll never know why one player makes it and another does not. Also, the Naismith Hall of Fame encompasses all of basketball, worldwide, and takes into account a nominee’s entire résumé, including college and Olympic play. It’s not an NBA Hall of Fame, so we can’t compare and contrast strictly on NBA résumés.

But Webber is one of the most egregious exclusions for his era, based on his NBA years alone. The basic career markers—five-time All-Star, five-time All-NBA, 1993–94 Rookie of the Year—should be sufficient, though they don’t do him justice, because a major knee surgery at age 30 robbed Webber of some prime years.

Here’s what Webber did when healthy: average 22.8 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks from 1994 to 2003. The number of players who matched that matrix during that nine-year span? Zero. Remove the steals and blocks, and it’s still zero. Narrow it down to scoring and rebounding, and only two others join the list: Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal.

Yet you could play with Basketball-Reference and its Stathead tool all day, and still not fully capture Webber’s excellence, especially when you consider his rivals at power forward: Malone, Garnett, Duncan, Nowitzki, Charles Barkley, Shawn Kemp, Vin Baker, Jermaine O’Neal, Antonio McDyess. The position was absolutely stacked.

Horry guarded them all, some more successfully than others. Webber, he says, was uniquely challenging because of the sheer breadth of his game. While Duncan beat defenders with just a few go-to moves—because they were so effective—Webber actually had more ways to attack, from more areas of the floor.

“Tim was gonna face you up, bank it, drop-step you, jump-hook you; that was pretty much it with Tim,” Horry says. “With C-Webb, he's gonna jump-hook you, he's gonna drop-step you, he's gonna bank you, he's gonna step back, he'd go to the elbow. Think about it, how many times have you ever seen Tim Duncan on the elbow?”

Duncan was more of a stationary post player. Webber could put the ball on the floor and beat defenders with a variety of moves, or with the pass.

“He’d face you up, rock you to sleep, and do that one little jump hook going to the middle,” says Horry, who calls Webber’s jump hook “unstoppable.” “And then on the post, he could set you up going left. You think he's gonna jump-hook you left, but he drop-steps you. He had some footwork. And then he had that elbow jumper and the first step to get by you, if you didn't pay attention to him.”

Over that 1994–2003 span, Webber averaged more points than Nowitzki, Garnett, Barkley and Wallace; more rebounds than Nowitzki and Malone; more assists than anyone else labeled a power forward. The only element missing from Webber’s game, Horry says, was “a little nasty,” calling him more of a finesse player who would fit in well with today’s game, because of his broad skill set.

We might never know which factors matter most to those secretive Hall of Fame voters. Is it stats? Awards? Championships? Playoff record? Longevity? Is a five-year run of dominance enough? Seven? Ten? The Hall can’t just be about the “best of the best.” It’s filled with former NBA players who never won an MVP award and never dominated their position but happened to play for all-time great teams.

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, you absolutely cannot. He was the linchpin of those fabulous, frenetic, free-spirited Kings teams of the early 2000s—“The Greatest Show on Court,” as Sports Illustrated dubbed them in a 2001 cover story.

Those Kings were viewed as an ensemble cast, combining Vlade Divac’s low-post guile, Mike Bibby’s outside scoring, Peja Stojakovic’s three-point marksmanship and Doug Christie’s lockdown defense. But Webber was by far the most talented and the most essential of that group, because of his scoring and playmaking abilities.

“He was that guy that was very pivotal in those other guys being able to score, play defensively and do the things they were able to do,” Horry says.

The Kings averaged 56 wins from 2000 to 2005—including a league-high 61 wins in 2001–02—making the conference semis four times and the conference finals once. They simply had the misfortune of existing in an era of Western Conference powerhouses—the Shaq-Kobe Lakers, the Nowitzki-Nash Mavericks, the Duncan-Robinson Spurs.

The Kings took the Lakers to Game 7 (and overtime) in the 2002 conference finals, coming as close as any team to derailing the three-peat. Webber’s backers will cite the officiating controversy in Game 6 of that series as reason those Kings never made the finals. Webber’s critics might point to his untimely struggles in Game 7. Had the Kings won that game, they almost certainly would have beaten the Nets and won the 2002 title.

“If Chris Webber beats us and goes on to win a championship,” Horry says, “it's not even a debate if he gets into the Hall of Fame.”

Perhaps so. But Webber deserved a bust in Springfield, regardless.

LUKEWARM TAKE OF THE WEEK

chris-paul-suns-mavericks

Shaquille O’Neal got it half-right about MVP definitions, during last week’s feisty Inside the NBA debate.

“Most Valuable Player is singular,” the Diesel bellowed at Barkley. (Correct.)

“It has nothing to do with the record,” he added, emphatically. (Incorrect.)

As an English major (UC Davis ’91, #GoAgs), I appreciated the Big Fella’s grammarian stance. As an awards voter, I have to chide him for his faulty rationale on MVP.

Of course, team success matters. 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 top-three in their conference, and won at least 50 games (or the equivalent in a lockout-shortened season). There have been only 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, there are two components to MVP: individual excellence and team success. You need both (which is why I voted for James Harden over Westbrook in 2017). What’s the proper balance between the two? Again, that’s an eye-of-the-beholder thing. Reasonable people can disagree over the minimum wins required, or whether 40 years of precedent should matter.

The NBA does not give a definition for MVP, leaving interpretations to the voter. But 40 years of results clearly indicate that “valuable” means “to your team,” which suggests the win-loss record matters greatly. A player’s individual dominance is never enough.

Which brings us to the real reason Shaq got so agitated the other night. It’s not about the 2021 MVP race. It’s about 2005, when Steve Nash narrowly beat O’Neal for MVP, despite Nash’s modest scoring average (15.5 points, to O’Neal’s 22.9). Nash earned the award by turning the Suns into a running, gunning, offensive juggernaut, leading them to a league-best 62 wins—a 33-win leap from the previous year.

Miami won a stout 59 games behind the (newly acquired) O’Neal and Dwyane Wade. But the Suns’ transformation was so dramatic, so electric, and so clearly fueled by one player, that Nash’s scoring average was rendered moot. Nash did lead the league in assists (11.5 per game), while shooting 50% from the field and 43% on threes. O’Neal had the gaudier stats (22.9 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.3 blocks); Nash made the bigger impression. (Disclosure: I did not cast a ballot, because my employer at the time, The New York Times, does not permit reporters to vote on awards.)

So when Barkley last week raised Chris Paul as an MVP candidate, despite Paul’s modest scoring average (16.1 points per game), the Nash comparison came up immediately, sending O’Neal into a tizzy.

“Change the award to most valuable team then—don’t say most valuable player,” O’Neal snapped.

Nash was not the prototypical MVP, to be sure, although others have won the award with a sub-20 point scoring average, 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 Jokić, among other box-score maestros. But the Suns, after a decade of ineptitude, are now hovering near the top of the West; Paul’s arrival is arguably the biggest reason. He might not be dominant enough to win MVP, but he’s earned a place in the conversation—and perhaps, eventually on the five-man ballot.