Keltner List: Bernard King
Today we’re going to run our first Keltner List, that tried-and-true staple of sabermetric-type analysis ever since Bill James introduced it way back in the 1985 Baseball Abstract. The format is simple: it’s an inventory of yes-or-no questions designed to assess whether or not a player deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. It’s not numerical, nor is it strictly objective, but after going through the list you typically get a pretty good feel for the player’s HoF-worthiness. Our subject this morning is Bernard King, one of the best scorers of the 80s, but a guy who still hasn’t been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Have the HoF’s anonymous voters made the right call the past four years, or does King really belong in the Hoop Hall?
Height: 6-7 Weight: 205 lbs.
Born: December 4, 1956 in Brooklyn, New York
High School: Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, New York
College: University of Tennessee
Draft: Selected by the New Jersey Nets in the 1st round (7th pick, 7th overall) of the 1977 NBA draft.
1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in basketball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in basketball? No. He did lead the league in PPG in 1984-85, however, and it’s been suggested that he was the best pure scorer of the pre-Jordan era — although the likes of Adrian Dantley and Alex English might disagree.
2. Was he the best player on his team? Yes… when healthy. He was the best player on the Nets in each of his first two NBA seasons, the best player on the Warriors from 1980-82, and the Knicks’ best player right up until his devastating knee injury in 1985. He was also arguably the Bullets’ best player at the turn of the decade.
3. Was he the best player in basketball at his position? No. Unfortunately for King, playing in the 1980s meant you had to contend with Larry Bird for “best SF” bragging rights, and Bird was just better, frankly. King made 1st-team All-NBA twice, but Bird won the MVP in each of those seasons.
4. Did he have an impact on a number of NBA Finals or Conference Finals? No. King’s teams made the playoffs with him as a regular just 4 times, and only escaped the 1st round twice. His best postseason moments by far came in 1984, when King scored 34.8 PPG on .574 shooting as the Knicks upset the Pistons in the 1st round (BK scored 44 pts in the 5th and deciding game) and pushed the eventual-champion Celtics to 7 games in the East semis.
5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime? Yes. Not only was he good enough to play regularly after his prime, he was good enough to score 28.4 PPG as a 34-year-old, five years removed from surgery on a torn ACL.
6. Is he the very best (eligible) basketball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame? No, that’s probably Artis Gilmore.
7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame? King is the only single-season scoring champion not to be enshrined. He and Tom Chambers are the only players to score 60 points in a game and not be in the Hall. Just 22 players have a higher career scoring average than King, and virtually all of them are either already in the HoF or are sure-fire future members. The overwhelming majority of players who put up seasons comparably productive to King’s prime are in the Hall of Fame. The only problem here is King’s career totals, which are deflated by the loss of basically 3 prime seasons to the knee injury.
8. Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards? Yes, if barely. According to our Hall Probability metric, King has a 79.1% chance of entering the HoF, which is somewhat on the low end for players inducted, but higher than members like Nate Thurmond, James Worthy, Wes Unseld, Walt Bellamy, David Thompson, and Earl Monroe, just to name a few.
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics? From King’s basic stats, you don’t truly get a feel for his defensive shortcomings. Here are his career defensive numbers, translated to the environment of 2007-08 (league avg. of 107.5):
Season Ag Tm G Min trDRtg ------+----+------+-------+--------+-------- 1978 21 NJN 79 3092 107.3 1979 22 NJN 82 2859 105.6 1980 23 UTA 19 419 113.4 1981 24 GSW 81 2914 112.1 1982 25 GSW 79 2861 109.8 1983 26 NYK 68 2207 103.1 1984 27 NYK 77 2667 105.1 1985 28 NYK 55 2063 110.2 1987 30 NYK 6 214 114.5 1988 31 WSB 69 2044 109.5 1989 32 WSB 81 2559 110.7 1990 33 WSB 82 2687 111.8 1991 34 WSB 64 2401 110.7 1993 36 NJN 32 430 107.4 ------+----+------+-------+--------+--------
By any account, he wasn’t very good at that end of the floor. With a career mark of 2.63 DWS/3K (average is 3.07), King’s subpar defense has to be accounted for in any Hall of Fame discussion regarding the prolific scorer.
10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame? It’s somewhat tough to say, but I’ll go with “yes”. Although other arguments can be made — Mark Aguirre is a fellow big-time scorer who lit up the eighties, and Chris Mullin quietly had a really good peak (plus he has longevity on his side). Meanwhile, what do we do about European imports like Detlef Schrempf and Toni Kukoc? Still, I think King’s best years give him the edge over the other eligible-but-not-in SFs out there.
11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close? King had one MVP-caliber year: 1983-84, when he posted 11.8 Win Shares and finished 2nd to Larry Bird in the award voting (The Sporting News actually gave King their MVP award over Larry Legend). He also finished in the top 10 in MVP voting in ’84-85 (7th), although that time it had more to do with his league-leading 32.9 PPG than having an all-around, MVP-type season.
12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the players who played in this many All-Star games go into the Hall of Fame? King suited up for 4 All-Star games (1982, ’84, ’85, ’91) and was probably an All-Star caliber player in 1981 and ’83 as well. Still, players who only play in 4 ASGs typically do not get into the Hall of Fame (George Mikan, Earl Monroe, and Arnie Risen being notable exceptions).
13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win an NBA title? No. As we observed above, King was the best player on most of his teams, but they never achieved much success in the postseason.
14. What impact did the player have on basketball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way? Was his college and/or international career especially noteworthy? King was a great NCAA player, but you could say that about a lot of guys. I suppose his most noteworthy impact, then, was the fact that he was the first player to really come back from an ACL tear at anything resembling his pre-injury level of play.
The Verdict: He’s a borderline candidate, obviously, but I think King deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. I can’t recall another player with BK’s scoring chops who isn’t in the Hall, and his peak (pre-injury) years alone give him a decent HoF résumé. The fact that he returned from such a severe (and, at the time, generally career-ending) injury to post some decent seasons with Washington later in his career only enhances his case for enshrinement. That said, King’s career totals aren’t as gaudy as they should be because of the years lost to injury, and his history of substance abuse could be a factor for some voters (though it didn’t hurt, say, David Thompson). All told, King’s body of work — particularly his best seasons in the early-to-mid 1980s — is probably Hall-worthy… although it’s unlikely that King will be enshrined in Springfield at this point. That’s unfortunate, because when he was at his best, King was one of the most feared scorers in the game, a serious threat to explode for a monster point total on any given night.