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Is Walter Davis a Hall of Famer?
Breaking down the Hall-of-Fame case for Walter Davis.
Note: I had a slightly unfinished version of this post stored in my drafts for some time. Sadly, Walter Davis passed away on Thursday at the age of 69. I now wish I had published this piece much earlier, but hopefully it will serve as a tribute to the man they called “The Greyhound.”
Although the system was designed to evaluate baseball players, with a few minor tweaks it can also be used to assess the Hall-worthiness of basketball players. In this post, I will examine Walter Davis’ case for the Basketball Hall of Fame.
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?
Davis finished fifth in the MVP voting after his rookie campaign, receiving four first-place votes (voters could only vote for one player at this time). I guess there could have been a few people who thought Davis was the best player in the NBA at this time, although I couldn’t find any quotes to support this.
I think Davis’ rookie season was his best as a professional (more on that unusual feat here), so any momentum he might have gained as “best player in the game” would have slowly fizzled out after his debut season.
Was he the best player on his team?
I would argue that he was not. I think Paul Westphal was slightly better in Davis’ first three seasons with the Phoenix Suns, then Dennis Johnson and Larry Nance after that. There’s no doubt Davis was a very important player for the Suns, he just happened to have some really good teammates.
Was he the best player in basketball at his position?
Davis never earned All-NBA First Team honors, only receiving Second Team nods at forward in 1977-78 and 1978-79, so I would say the answer is no.
Did he have an impact on a number of NBA Finals or conference finals?
Davis never played in the NBA Finals. He made three appearances in the conference finals:
In 1979, Davis averaged 22.3 PPG, 5.0 RPG, and 4.9 APG but the Suns lost to the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games.
In 1984, Davis averaged 23.8 PPG and 5.8 APG for the Suns in a six-game loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. Davis shot 55.3% from the field and 90.3% from the free throw line in that series.
In 1991, Davis was a bit player for the Portland Trail Blazers. He averaged just 5.3 PPG and did not play in three of the six games.
So in the two conference finals in which he was a regular contributor, Davis averaged 23.0 PPG and 5.3 APG, with shooting percentages of 52.3% from the field and 85.0% from the free throw line.
Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?
Yes, he was. Davis was still a regular in the rotation into his mid-to-late-30s. In his final season, at the age of 37, Davis almost scored in double figures (9.9 PPG) despite averaging just 16.1 MPG.
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Is he the very best (eligible) basketball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
No, I don’t believe he is. As I’ve stated numerous times in the past, I think Chauncey Billups holds this somewhat-dubious honor.
Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?
Davis is one of only three qualified* players in NBA history to shoot at least 50% from the field and 85% from the free throw line for his career. The others to achieve this feat are Chris Mullin (who is in the Hall of Fame) and Kiki VanDeWeghe (who is not). By the way, Davis (19,521 points) easily outscored both Mullin (17,911) and VanDeWeghe (15,980).
* Minimum 2,000 field goals made and 1,200 free throws made.
If we lower the free throw rate to 80%, we add 11 more Hall of Fame-eligible players into the mix. Of the 14, nine are in the Hall of Fame. In addition to Davis and VanDeWeghe, the non-Hall of Famers are Doug Collins, Billy Knight, and Brad Davis. Walter Davis had a higher scoring average than all three of those players, while also playing the most games:
Walter Davis — 19,521 PTS in 1,033 GP (18.9 PPG)
Billy Knight — 10,561 PTS in 671 GP (15.7 PPG)
Brad Davis — 7,866 PTS in 961 GP (8.2 PPG)
Doug Collins — 7,427 PTS in 415 GP (17.9 PPG)
If you calculate Davis’ career value as described in this post, you’ll find he ranks 139th among all players and 113th among Hall-of-Fame eligible players. Here are the five eligible players directly above and below Davis:
None of those players have been elected to the Hall of Fame.
Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
Davis’ Hall of Fame Probability is 30.9%, which isn’t bad. Of the five eligible players directly above and below him, six were elected to the Hall of Fame as a player:
Paul Westphal (HOF)
Jack Twyman (HOF)
Reggie Miller (HOF)
Carl Braun (HOF)
Rudy Tomjanovich (HOF as coach)
Tom Gola (HOF)
K.C. Jones (HOF)
Davis’ Hall of Fame standards score is 42, which puts him at the lower end of the “strong candidate” range. Thirty of the 41 eligible players with a score between 40 and 49 have been elected to the Hall of Fame.
Note that both of the measures used above are based on past voting tendencies. In other words, they don’t necessarily reflect who should be elected to the Hall of Fame, but rather who will be.
Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
Not really. Traditional statistics are inadequate, at best, for evaluating defense, but Davis was not noted for his abilities on that end of the floor.
I guess now is as good a time as any to note that Davis’ performance fell off a decent amount after his first three seasons, undoubtedly the three best seasons of his career. Part of that is due to back problems which plagued him later his career, but drug addiction (which came to light in 1985) no doubt played a big role in Davis’ decline.
Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame?
Davis was a swing man, playing both shooting guard and small forward. Among shooting guards, I would put him at the front of the line, although to be honest there aren’t a lot of strong candidates at this position.
I would not put him at the from of the line in the small forward group. I believe Marques Johnson, for one, has a better case than Davis.
How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
Davis received MVP consideration in three seasons: a fifth-place finish in 1977-78, a 10th-place finish in 1978-79, and a 24th-place finish (tied) in 1980-81.
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?
Davis was selected to play in six All-Star Games, a solid total. There are 18 eligible players who earned exactly six All-Star selections, 12 of whom have been elected to the Hall of Fame.
I sometimes define an “All-Star-type” season as one in which a player records a PER of 20.0 or higher while playing at least 50% of all possible minutes (about 2,000 minutes in an 82-game season). Davis recorded three such seasons, which happened to be the first three seasons of his career.
If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win an NBA title?
No, I don’t think so. Davis was never on a team that made the NBA Finals, even though (as I argued above) he was probably not the best player on his teams. I think a team with Davis as its best player could be a good team, but not a great one.
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?
Davis won a gold medal playing for the 1976 U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team, a time when the U.S. was still represented by collegians.
This is not an easy case. Davis’ career numbers are very good, but not overwhelming. The same can be said of his list of awards and honors: Rookie of the Year, two All-NBA Second Team selections, and six All-Star selections.
In order to push Davis over the Hall-of-Fame line, I think you have to make a case using his peak value (i.e., his best seasons were so good they overshadow any shortcomings in his career value). There are any number of ways one could attempt to do this, and the truth is there is no “right” method. That said, I looked at this two different ways.
Get total individualized wins* for all eligible players in their top seven seasons.
Order the players from most individualized wins to least.
* This is my replacement for another statistic I created, win shares. Win shares, in my opinion, overrates low-usage/high-efficiency players and underrates high-usage/low-efficiency players.
Davis ranks 91st by this method. If you look at the five players directly above and below him, you’ll find five players who have been elected to the Hall of Fame and five who have not:
Jack Sikma (HOF)
Tony Parker (HOF)
Bernard King (HOF)
Billy Cunningham (HOF)
Cliff Hagan (HOF)
World B. Free
This doesn’t exactly strengthen Davis’ case.
Take Davis’ top seven seasons based on individualized wins.
Order them from highest to lowest.
Repeat this for all eligible players and find the 10 players with the most similar pattern to Davis (note that the word “similar” here refers to value, not style of play).
Here are those players, in order of similarity:
Billy Cunningham (HOF)
Mitch Richmond (HOF)
Wes Unseld (HOF)
As you can see, this list includes just three Hall of Famers. Again, this doesn’t really help Davis’ case.
Okay, I’ve procrastinated long enough, it’s time to make a decision. As much as I’d like to give a thumbs-up to Davis’ candidacy, in the end I think he falls just short of the Hall-of-Fame line.