A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

The Perennial Snubbing of Artis Gilmore

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Artis Gilmore 1970

Image by Vedia via Flickr

The basketball Hall of Fame announced their 2011 finalists for induction yesterday, and the big snub everyone’s talking about is Reggie Miller. I think people are overreacting there. You’ve got people who seem to think this means Miller will never get in the Hall, and even extrapolating about what the snubbing means for Ray Allen. It’s as if people have no experience with players not getting in to Halls of Fame on their first year of eligibility. I personally won’t be alarmed unless we go a few years without him getting into the Hall.

With everyone in a mood for snub-based outrage though, let me take the opportunity to shed some light on the elephant in the room: Artis Gilmore. Gilmore retired over 20 years ago, and he’s not on the HOF voters’ radar. Short of something major changing, he’s not getting in the Hall, and this folks, is completely and utterly indefensible.

Artis Gilmore in the ABA

Any discussion of Gilmore’s accomplishments has to start out with the ABA. Gilmore hit the league and took it by storm. His combination of 7’2″ size with tremendous leaping ability made him a devastatingly effective shotblocker. In the words of Rick Barry:

Artis Gilmore was incredibly agile and was just an amazing shot blocker. In fact, I’ve had him on my radio show a couple times, and I think that he stopped blocking some of the shots because they were calling goaltending on him. I don’t think that anybody had ever seen anything like that and they figured that he had to be goaltending, that you can’t possibly block somebody’s jump shot.

In his rookie season, which was also Julius Erving‘s rookie season, he would average 5 blocks per contest, and win the MVP. Over his 5 years in the ABA, he would make All-ABA 1st team each year, and take Playoffs MVP in ’74-75 as he led his Kentucky Colonels to the ABA championship. When the NBA & ABA merged in 1976, only Erving had had a superior ABA career than Gilmore.

So now we get into what is obviously part of the reason for the snub: The ABA gets underrated. In the same time period where Gilmore was the 2nd best ABA player, I count no less than 8 NBA players at their peak who have since been inducted into the Hall: Walt Frazier, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Bob McAdoo, Bob Lanier, Rick Barry, Dave DeBusschere, and Tiny Archibald. And obviously that doesn’t even include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, and Jerry West on that list. Was the ABA truly so inferior to the NBA that the ABA warrants 1 spot in the Hall of Fame while the NBA warrants the better part of a dozen?

Nah. Consider:

1) The NBA & ABA played exhibition matches against each other every year. Early on, when the ABA was a clearly inferior league, the NBA dominated the matches. However, the last 3 years before the merger, the ABA won more than the NBA did.

2) In ’76-77, the year of the merger, 10 of the 24 all-stars had played in the ABA. Understand that when the merger happened there were 18 NBA teams and only 7 ABA teams – so in terms of the density of all-stars in the two leagues, it was quite comparable.

3) In ’76-77 the 2nd best regular season team was the Denver Nuggets, who had been the runner up in the ABA the previous year.

4) In ’76-77, the NBA finals that year involved 4 stars: Bill Walton, Mo Lucas, Julius Erving, and George McGinnis. Only Walton was a non-ABA player, and Walton was not a superstar level player until that year meaning that *none* of those NBA Hall of Famers I listed figured in the NBA championship the year the ABA came in.

The early ABA years were indeed a weaker league than the NBA, but by later years, the leagues were roughly equal. Very clearly, a Hall of Fame that grossly favors the contemporary NBA players over the ABA players is simply operating with an unreasonable bias. However, the Gilmore snub goes beyond that.

Artis Gilmore vs Dan Issel

Dan Issel is in the Hall of Fame. Dan Issel was Artis Gilmore’s teammate in Kentucky for 4 years in the ABA, and despite playing 6 years total in the league, was the lesser player on the team and the ABA hierarchies. But wait, what about their NBA years, maybe Issel surpasses Gilmore by having a drastically superior career in the merged NBA?

Well, Dan Issel did have a solid NBA career, but it’s really hard to look at it objectively and even argue it was a rough equal to Gilmore’s career. Issel made the NBA all-star team only once, in that first year after the merger. Gilmore made NBA all-star 6 times, with the last time being in 1986. (Incidentally, both players played center primarily.) 1 time vs 6 times and the 1 time guy has the edge? Nah, makes no sense.

Issel’s defining characteristic, and what I think must have caused him to be more salient than Gilmore, is his scoring. He does have bigger numbers there, but even that isn’t a very big edge. Issel’s peak scoring in the NBA was 23.8 PPG, while Gilmore’s was 23.7, and Gilmore’s team played at a slower pace. Issel had more years as a 20+ scoring guy, but when Gilmore’s scoring volume went down, he put up the most impressive run of shooting efficiency the NBA has ever seen. (For perspective, Wilt Chamberlain had a TS% north of 64 only one time, and in that year he scored 13.2 PPG. The post-prime Gilmore broke that efficiency while scoring 15+ points for 6 straight years.) There’s also the matter that Gilmore actually scored more points in the NBA than Issel, while as always trouncing Issel in rebounds and blocks.

An indefensible snub if there ever was one

A couple weeks back, when Steve Nash didn’t get selected as an all-star, I wrote an article about how indefensible snub happens. Here’s a more general paraphrasing of my takeaway there:

Thus what I’d say what we have here, is a bunch of human beings who just aren’t putting in the effort to compare every candidate against each other, and thus come up with a conclusion by a process that sometimes yields fundamentally incoherent results.

I’m convinced the same has happened here. Somehow Issel got on the voters radar, and Gilmore didn’t. Almost certainly it happened because Issel was a scorer on one of the most exciting scoring teams in history. I don’t believe that “sexiness” of Issel’s game would make voters purposefully pick him over a player like Gilmore who was so vastly more qualified and the clear star of the Kentucky team they played together on. I just think it gave Issel a salience at the right time so that he got in a conversation when Gilmore’s never been in.

That was 18 years ago by the way folks. This isn’t a snub that’s going to get fixed by itself. However, every year I see article mentioning the snubbing of Gilmore, and my hope is that eventually one of them will go just viral enough to wake the decision makers up.

EDIT: A friend who goes by the handle Chicago76 pointed out to me that the newly formed ABA Committee at the Basketball HOF should make it impossible for Gilmore to continued be snubbed much longer. Knock on wood.

3 Responses

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  1. Nice article. Hopefully Artis will get in this year via the newly constructed ABA committee. Your comparison to Issel is particularly well chosen considering their time together in Kentucky. I don’t know what the Nuggets have on the Hall, but there must be some dirty photos of someone.

    Issel-gets in instead of his more qualified teammate Gilmore.

    Thompson-nice career in college, but unfulfilled promise in the pros thanks to coke and injuries. He gets in 12 years after retirement. Definitely a borderline guy. Tough for me to distinguish him with another unfulfilled promise guy like Bernard King.

    English-definitely a lower rung HOFer for his era. He gets in immediately, while Dantley waits for an eternity. Personality aside, I don’t see a bit of difference between the two. DJ had totally different credentials, but probably a similarly good case, and his call came after he passed.

    Walter Davis-was a finalist for a year or two around the same time. Nice player, but a stretch as a finalist.


    February 21, 2011 at 8:47 pm

  2. Forgot to add: given the politics of the process (encouraged by total anonymity and a very small selection panel), it will be interesting if another franchise seems to hold similar sway over the next decade. Dumars was a lower tier guy that was enshrined in his second year who isn’t really distinguishable from a player like Miller. The Pistons have a few borderline guys either in play or on the horizon: Rodman, Ben Wallace, and Billups. Should be interesting to see how this plays out.


    February 21, 2011 at 8:52 pm

  3. I’d be inclined to agree in the sense that being on a team salient in the minds of the voters gives a player a leg up as a candidate.

    Will be interested to see what happens with Wallace & Billups. I feel like if their championship happened later on in their career, they might have been more susceptible to such a bump. Man, Big Ben was a freaking icon after they tore apart the Lakers. He just doesn’t feel the same way now.

    Matt Johnson

    February 22, 2011 at 8:21 pm

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