Is a player with these credentials a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, quick yes or no?
- McDonald’s All-American
- NCAA champion, NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, and two-time All-American
- Leading scorer on an NBA championship team and three-time NBA All-Star
- More career playoff points than Moses Malone, David Robinson, and … uh … Isiah Thomas, to name a few
If you’re hesitating, I’ll make the answer easy for you: yesssssir.
Richard Hamilton and former teammates Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, and Rasheed Wallace, are among eligible players listed annually by the Naismith Hall of Fame for possible inclusion. Finalists for the class of 2020 were annnounced Friday, and while it included names like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett not a Piston was among them.
Hamilton, eligible since 2016, has seen little support for his candidacy. In fact, Basketball Reference gives him slightly worse chances of getting in than B.J. Armstrong and Dana Barros. But he should be inducted.
There are easier statistical cases to make for both Wallaces and Billups (I’ll get to those in a second), but proper advocacy for Hamilton’s candidacy is long overdue. There’s not exactly a science to selecting Hall of Famers, and the Naismith Hall of Fame has added complications because basketball contributions beyond the NBA can and often are considered. Hamilton’s NCAA accomplishments give him a significant boost.
In addition to his championship, Most Outstanding Player award and All-America honors, he was also a two-time Big East player of the year, has a higher career NCAA scoring average than fellow Big East great and surefire Hall of Famer Ray Allen, and iconic clips of him are a fixture in the NCAA Tournament highlight reels each March.
He’s also the Pistons’ all-time leading playoff scorer. With the exception of Charlotte’s Kemba Walker (who is still building his Hall of Fame case), every franchise’s all-time leading playoff scorer is either a Hall of Famer or a likely future Hall of Famer.
Hamilton, perhaps most importantly, was simply … unique. It’s hard to quantify and even hard to put into words why, especially considering how drastically the NBA game has transformed since he retired. Hamilton was known for his mid-range game, his relentless ability to move without the ball, and his ability to score and create shots for himself without being ball-dominant.
His game and his scoring pedigree were decidedly unsexy, especially by today’s standards. But there’s a beauty to his game that I’ve grown to appreciate more and miss terribly as Ivy League and Silicon Valley galaxy brains working throughout the league try convince everyone that the only good shots are threes, free throws and dunks. We, sadly, might not ever see a player develop the very specific skillset that made Hamilton into a perpetual-motion All-Star.
Oh, and incidentally, even though he was known for his midrange game, Hamilton was a pretty good three-point shooter. He led the league in three-point percentage once and shot a respectable 35% from three for his career.
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“Chauncey Billups (who was not as good as Zeke) doesn’t get enough credit for the player he was with Detroit, or honestly, with Denver. Dude WON. He made the right plays, he made the big shots. But trying to argue him as a legend is impossible.” - Matt Moore of Action Network on Twitter.
We’ll see about that, sir.
I worked for eight years as a communications director in an environment that, on a good day, could best be described as chaos. Early on, while trying to reign in some of the disorder in a meeting, I could only think of Chauncey Billups.
In a story for ESPN’s Outside the Lines in 2009, Tom Friend wrote about Billups acclimating to Denver’s more free-wheeling approach to basketball after he’d spent six seasons in Detroit’s regimented, grind-it-out system. Or, rather, he wrote about how Billups willed his team to acclimate to him. This was my favorite part of the story, an anecdote I’ve remembered every time I’ve felt overwhelmed or disorganized:
With 2:54 left in the fourth quarter, the Nuggets are clinging to a 99-98 lead, when the ball goes out of bounds to the Nuggets underneath their own basket. Chauncey’s fear is realized. The team has no out-of-bounds play. Karl just wants them to improvise, to use their basketball instincts, but Chauncey can’t live that way. So he calls time.
In the huddle, they’re all stumped. Smith tells Anthony: “He just got here, and he’s calling timeouts?” But Chauncey waves them close and starts in: “Look, George, I need you to draw me up an out-of-bounds play, man, to get the ball in. Because if we don’t and we turn the ball over and lose this game because we didn’t have something, that just won’t sit well with me.”
Translation: slow down. The lasting image I’ll always have of Billups is simply his sense of calm, of being a stabilizing force, of never being scared of the moment. Oh, and he was also really damn good.
Billups is an NBA champion and Finals MVP. Cedric Maxwell is the only Finals MVP preceding Billups who isn’t in the Hall of Fame or a sure thing to be inducted in the future. Of those after Billups, the only player who is questionable to make the Hall of Fame is Andre Iguodala, and even Iguodala has a vocal contingent of supporters. (Seriously, if Iguodala gets in, then Billups, Hamilton, and both Wallaces should be locks).
Billups is also a six-time All-Star, he was an All-NBA selection three times (second team once and third team twice), an All-Defense selection twice (both second team), and finished in the top 12 in NBA voting four times, including finishing fifth in 2006.
Basketball Reference has his Hall of Fame probability at nearly 87%, but for a variety of reasons, Billups is frequently overlooked in discussions of the best players of his era. His counting stats were never gaudy (largely because of the slow pace of the Pistons). Despite being one of the most respected players in the league, he bounced around and played for seven different teams. His prime was also at a crowded time for great point guards, including Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Allen Iverson (certainly a ball dominant guard), Tony Parker, and Chris Paul, among others.
It’s somewhat fitting, considering the understated nature of his career, that Billups’ Hall of Fame case is also quiet. But that makes him no less deserving.
* * *
Something that can’t be understated is how suffocating Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace were defensively in 2003-04. The Pistons had a deep roster of talented players, but the interior defense provided by the Wallaces is the reason Detroit won maybe the most unexpected championship of the modern era.
Unexpected, yes, but should it have been such a surprise to the basketball world? Big Ben’s defensive rating of 87 led the league that season. Rasheed’s wasn’t far behind at 91. Their skillsets inside were perfectly Yin and Yang, with Rasheed as the disciplined, unflappable one-on-one post defender with otherworldly basketball fundamentals and instincts and Ben as a dynamic, try-hard, ground-covering machine who could interchangeably fly in from the weakside to block a shot at the rim or switch out and smother a point guard on the perimeter.
Their backgrounds were similarly different yet somehow made perfect sense together. Rasheed was as a blue chip prospect, a college star from the second he stepped on campus at North Carolina, and an unrepentant tell-it-like-it-is loudmouth. Ben was the soft-spoken, overlooked, self-made warrior who came from a tiny college, earned his way onto a roster as a free agent, and poured every ounce of talent he had out on the floor every night.
Rasheed was a McDonald’s All-American, an NCAA All-American, and a four-time NBA All-Star. He was the best player on title-contending Portland teams that couldn’t quite get past the Shaq and Kobe Lakers, he finished in the top 16 in MVP voting twice, and is 73rd all-time in win shares.
Plus, his iconic “Ball Don’t Lie!” scream has become a fixture during NBA games to this day. If that doesn’t fit “contribution to the game” criteria, I don’t know what does.
Ben’s case is even stronger. Although his prime didn’t last as long, his defensive impact is comparable to … uh … Bill Russell. He won two rebounding titles, led the league in blocks once, in defensive rating three times, and was a four-time All-Star. He, Grant Hill, and Iverson are the only Pistons voted by fans to start in the All-Star Game in the last 30 years.
Perhaps most impressively, he finished in the top 10 in NBA MVP voting three times … despite never averaging double figures in scoring in a single season. He’s fifth in NBA history in defensive rating, he’s 15th all-time in total rebound percentage, is 33rd all-time in rebounds, and 13th all-time in blocked shots.
Ben Wallace is also the foundational player who brought the Pistons out of the teal era, re-invented the team’s toughness and defensive identity, and propelled the franchise to its second golden age.
There’s an old quote from Ben when he was interviewed on TV early in his Pistons career. The interviewer called him a “defensive specialist.” His surly, impeccably Big Ben response was, “I’m not a defensive specialist, I’m a basketball player.”
He may not have been a scorer, but his defense was every bit as game-changing and impactful as the league’s top offensive threats.
* * *
For many reasons, the Pistons run in the 2000s is near forgotten. Three different regimes have so poorly mismanaged the roster that it has been over a decade since the team has been relevant. The team unceremoniously severed ties with each of its stars from its title team (although Billups and Ben did come back for nostalgia end-of-career runs). The team was never able to win a second title, despite getting excruciatingly close. The Lakers team they beat in 2004 is still more famous in defeat because of the squabbling and ultimate implosion between stars Bryant and O’Neal that resulted in O’Neal’s trade to Miami. The league has done all it can to change rules and shift away from the physical, slow style the Pistons perfected in that title run, so the game itself looks much different today.
But that team was good. And those players were good, Hall of Fame-worthy good. That doesn’t mean all or even some of the four stars are a shoe-in or even possibilities to get in the Hall of Fame. They had non-traditional skillsets for star players, they’re from a bygone era that the NBA would rather downplay, and they played in a golden age of basketball that featured several players who will likely make the Hall of Fame.
So I have an alternate suggestion, one that is gonna combine multiple of lame interests at once — obsessing over basketball players I love from 15 years ago and still watching pro wrestling.
But here’s the suggestion: borrow an idea from another Hall of Fame with seemingly arbitrary criteria, the WWE. Like, Tully Blanchard or X-Pac aren’t gonna roll off anyone’s tongues as their favorite wrestlers ever, but even casual fans know the Four Horsemen or the NWO. Those factions are Hall of Fame-worthy, even if some of the individuals in the faction only have borderline cases for inclusion. And hey, if you induct the Pistons as a “Best Five Alive” faction, it’s a way to get Tayshaun Prince in the Hall of Fame too.
In the 2006 NBA All-Star Game, Flip Saunders put all four Pistons on the East team into the game at once, and they provided one of the most memorable series of highlights in All-Star Game history: they actually played defense. In other words, they did what they were known for, and they stubbornly put their own imprint on a game that is typically about finesse and flash.
The Naismith Hall of Fame should honor them by creating a similar moment. Induct Billups, Hamilton, and Wallace x 2 into the Hall of Fame at the same time and give one of the most era-defining teams of the 2000s NBA its proper respect.