Who goes first: 'Nique, Sir Charles or Joe D?
Of the three former NBA players going into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, two were college stars -- lottery picks, in today's parlance. Dominique Wilkins of Georgia was the third pick of the 1982 draft (selected by Utah, believe it or not). Two years later, the Sixers took Auburn's "Round Mound of Rebound," Charles Barkley, with the fifth pick. Joe Dumars, on the other hand, played in obscurity at McNeese State and was taken as the 18th pick in 1985, by the Pistons, his only team.
But knowing what we know now, if we could draft these three guys, how would we rank them? They'll have equal billing in the sphere at Springfield, but which one is closest to the mythical "inner circle" of the Hall of Fame?
Weighing personal accomplishments, championship rings and my own observations, here's how I would pick 'em:
First pick: Charles Barkley
Cue David Stern's voice: "With his first pick in the 2006 Hall of Fame draft, ESPN.com's Ken Shouler selects Charles Barkley from Phila&" Wild applause and scattered boos ensue. Why Barkley over Dumars and Wilkins?
Barkley is the greatest small rebounder of all time. Elgin Baylor, like Barkley a 6-5 forward, got slightly more boards per game than Sir Charles, but there were more missed shots from 1959 to 1972 to spike Elgin's total. Besides being an undersized power forward, Barkley was also a great scorer, averaging 22 points on 54 percent shooting for his career.
But I can hear the catcalls in the distance. After all, Wilkins was a better scorer and Dumars won two titles (and another ring as an executive).
It's true that Philadelphia's record dropped four consecutive years, beginning with Barkley's rookie season. But that had more to do with the decline of Julius Erving and Andrew Toney, not to mention Moses Malone's departure after the 1986 season. The decline actually started when the Sixers, as defending champs, won 52 games in 1984 but lost to New Jersey in the first round. Barkley was finishing up at Auburn and had nothing to do with that embarrassment.
He played eight years for Philly. If the Sixers had gotten stronger at small forward and center, they would have fared better. Even so, with the late 1980s belonging to the Pistons and the early '90s to the Bulls, Philly's improvements would have needed to be significant to get past those two East powers.
That said, the Phoenix experience furnishes proof not only of Barkley's individual greatness but of his ability to lead a team. In his first year with the Suns in 1993, he posted 25.9 points and 11 rebounds, won league MVP, and took his team to six games against the Bulls in the Finals. Only a complete collapse in the final seconds of Game 6 deprived the Suns of a seventh game that would've been in Phoenix.
The Suns led 98-94 with 49 ticks left and even had possession. Guard Frank Johnson missed an open jumper, and Jordan went coast-to-coast, making it 98-96. Incredibly, Dan Majerle then shot an airball on a wide-open 12-footer from the baseline. A Bulls timeout with 13 seconds left led to a 3 by John Paxson to win the title.
In the Finals, Barkley averaged 27.3 points, 13 rebounds and 5.5 assists. What else could he have done? As usual, Michael Jordan was the difference maker, averaging a supernatural 41 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists. You can blame Barkley for that, but I can't.
All told, Barkley was a 20-10 man (20 points and 10 rebounds per game) for 11 consecutive seasons. Here are the other leaders:
|20 Points, 10 Rebound Club|
|Years with 20 and 10||# Consecutive|
With some of his antics, Barkley sure looked like a volatile person. But his numbers were steady. And his career averages in points, boards and assists all went up in the playoffs.
Second pick: Dominique Wilkins
The "Human Highlight Film" is associated with spectacular slams more than with winning. Your mind goes to 360s that gave his defenders whiplash. Or you think of two Slam Dunk championships won with windmill jams (and a third he would have won if he hadn't been competing against Jordan in Chicago).
But be honest: You also think of a Hawks team that last won in 1958 when the team played in St. Louis. Zero titles. The goose egg can't be erased. It's part of Wilkins' ledger.
But wait. 'Nique is just one in a long line of greats who didn't win a single title. What might an All-Star team of such players look like?
On the first team, I'll take Elgin Baylor and Karl Malone at forward. Patrick Ewing gets the nod at center. At the guards, I give you John Stockton and Lenny Wilkens, a Hall of Famer as a player and a coach.
Now I ask you -- was there some deficit in talent that made these guys unable to win? That sounds like a stretch. It's less of a stretch to say they just didn't have the right troops around them.
Wilkens logged 25 points and seven rebounds per game for his career. That's enough. And his Hawks in the late '80s, under coach Mike Fratello, averaged 52 wins for four consecutive years. It wasn't enough to top the Celtics, then the Pistons. But it's no failure, either.
Third pick: Joe Dumars
Dumars was the anti-Wilkins. He played both ends of the floor and, in Detroit's best years, was usually only its third-leading scorer, behind Isiah Thomas and Adrian Dantley.
But Dumars fit perfectly into the Pistons' balanced offense, and the Detroit defense was the best of its era. "The Jordan Rules" -- a set of roughhouse defensive tactics designed to pummel Jordan and make him give up the ball -- kept Chicago from breaking through until MJ was in his seventh season. Jordan admitted that Dumars was the toughest defender he went against. In fact, Dumars was named to the NBA All-Defensive first team four times.
He also led the surprising sweep of the Lakers in 1989 with a 27.3 series scoring average. With the Pistons trailing in the third quarter of Game 3, Dumars scored 17 straight points and 21 for the quarter in one of the most memorable performances in Finals history. His Finals MVP award was a foregone conclusion.
Dumars' individual greatness always was submerged beneath his fit-right-in team play. Like the Celtics of the 1960s or the Knicks of the 1970s, the Pistons won with balance, not superstardom. That seemed fine with Dumars. And it's that ability to play at a high level as a member of a great team, along with his recent accomplishments as president of the Pistons, that makes Dumars a deserving member of the Hall of Fame.
Kenneth Shouler is the editor of and a writer for "Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia." Send him questions or comments here.