It’s a single play on a grainy YouTube clip from a game that happened 13 years ago, but it still makes you shake your head, smile, and silently mouth “wow.” The Kings are down by 13 on the road in Game 5 of their 2000 first-round series against the Lakers when A.C. Green enters the ball to Shaquille O’Neal on the left block and cuts across the baseline, clearing the way for another grisly Shaq post-up.
And then it happens: Green’s man, Chris Webber, stops trailing Green, reaches out his giant right hand, swipes the ball clean from Shaq mid-dribble, and takes off down the court. The Kings’ point guard, Jason Williams, understands Webber is the rare big man capable of leading a fast break, and so instead of demanding the ball, Williams streaks to the right sideline — filling that side as Peja Stojakovic darts to the left wing, a textbook three-on-two. Webber is in full flight just before half court when he grips the ball with his right hand, extends it toward Williams on his right, turns his head that way, and then yanks the ball back across his body for a 30-foot diagonal bounce pass that hits Stojakovic in stride just behind the 3-point arc for an open triple.
It was an audacious, tradition-shattering play, executed with little regard for situation or score. Webber’s career is filled with thousands of such plays. They combined showmanship with a sophisticated understanding of how the sport works. Webber grasped the value of a hard push or a risky outlet pass — of how getting the ball up the court quickly could scramble a defense and generate open looks, even when no obvious three-on-two or two-on-one was available at the start. And he internalized the notion of passing up a good shot to hunt a great one. He wasn’t going to force a jump hook from the post or drive from the elbow if he thought one of those cutters whirring around the floor as he palmed the ball over his head would come open for a 3-pointer or a layup. He was stylistically mesmerizing, only his style had substance.
He is, by some measures, the greatest passing big man in the history of the sport. He averaged 4.2 assists per game over his 15-year career, and he assisted on 20.2 percent of his teams’ baskets while on the court — an outrageous number for a true power forward. Of all players listed at 6-foot-9 or taller, only three assisted on a larger percentage of hoops: Larry Bird, Toni Kukoc, and Alvan Adams. That passing ability will be the starting point in evaluating Webber’s Hall of Fame case as he becomes eligible for the first time in 2014. And it’s clear already, in talking to dozens of NBA thinkers and evaluating Webber’s case on my own, that this will be one of the thornier Springfield cases of our time — maybe the thorniest. And, on a personal note, that’s what makes it so much fun to talk about. The chief of this site has jokingly called me “Spock,” a good-natured poke at my unpleasant self-discipline in shoving all emotion aside when judging NBA things.
This project was appealing because I just couldn’t manage that emotional asceticism in Webber’s case. I loved Webber’s game. I got into arguments with my dad — actual arguments, with real tension and cries of “You don’t get it!” — about the utility of Webber’s behind-the-back passes. I imitated the sideways violence of his dunks on my Nerf hoop — the way he’d extend his right arm way out to his side and rip it horizontally back toward the rim. I dug the mean mug, probably the greatest mean mug ever. I aimed for the sudden ferocity of his baseline spin move from the left block, a piece of hoops ballet, often preceded by a Jordanesque shoulder flinch, which left bulkier defenders standing befuddled as Webber scooted by for a power dunk from directly under the rim. This wasn’t just an All-Star. It was an All-Star who added both art and a sneering, cool style. How many guys did that? How many big guys ever did that? How could he not make the same Hall of Fame that has Ralph Sampson, Jamaal Wilkes, K.C. Jones, and other objectively inferior players?
But it’s amazing what happens to fanboy enthusiasm once you start digging and talking to insiders all over the league. There is an angry, fundamental division about Webber, and a lot of it starts with the perception of his passing ability. For his supporters, those passes symbolize a team-first brilliance that helped redefine what big men could and should do; several people, including current and former GMs, used the word “revolutionize” in describing Webber’s impact on the power forward position. That might be a stretch, considering that two of Webber’s power forward contemporaries, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki, probably had an equal or even larger impact in broadening the big man skill set.
But Webber was part of that trailblazing trio, and for a two-season window from 2000 to 2002 — as Webber entered his prime, and before Garnett and Nowitzki hit theirs — Webber had a real claim to the “Best Power Forward Alive” throne.1 Webber in those years nudged his Player Efficiency Rating into the 23-25 range, almost mandatory for a big man Hall of Fame candidate, and racked up enough counting numbers to put himself in historically elite territory. Here is the total list of players who piled up at least 17,000 points and 8,000 rebounds, while averaging at least four assists per game with a career PER above 20: Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Bird, and Webber. There’s some unfair cherry-picking there, since Webber barely exceeds all those thresholds. But cutting the criteria still produces a ridiculously elite list of just 11 guys, all current or future Hall of Famers — plus Webber.2
Thirty-two players have logged at least 30,000 NBA minutes and kept their career PERs at about 20.5. Twenty are in the Hall of Fame. At least eight others are locks. Two of the remaining four are Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady, both good bets to get in. That leaves two players. One of them is Webber. We’ll talk about the other guy later.
Webber isn’t a surefire candidate. He doesn’t have a ring (we’ll get to this, Sacto fans) as he approaches an opaque voting body that overvalues ringzzz. He never had a no-brainer MVP-type season with a PER in the mid/high-20s,3 in part because Webber was never a very efficient shooter for a big man. And a devastating knee injury in the 2003 playoffs effectively ended Webber’s prime and prematurely aged him into a lead-footed jump-shooter — a role he was never equipped to play as well as Nowitzki and Garnett. But it’s clear he has the raw numbers to get in, especially given the precedent. And that does not even factor in Webber’s college play, which could cut both ways. He was the best player on an iconic team that made back-to-back title games, but the University of Michigan had to erase those wins (among other penalties) after revelations that Webber and other players took huge sums of money from a booster. Webber later pleaded guilty to criminal contempt of court in connection with the matter, and voters who care about maintaining the faux-veneer of amateurism surrounding college sports might hold that against him.
For those who get queasy about the idea of Webber in Springfield, the highlight passes represent something else: the empty flash of a front-running star who did not want the ball, and the responsibility that came with it, in crunch time. There is also a related line of thinking that Webber never embraced the grittier aspects of winning basketball — that he was a lazy screen-setter, a lollygagger on transition defense, a lesser defender than he should have been, and an overrated rebounder who couldn’t snag highly contested boards.
Some of this is based in hard truth. Webber’s career PER declined two full points in the postseason. He shot just 44 percent combined over 13 of his highest-leverage games — a dozen elimination games, and the Infamous Game 6 loss to the Lakers in the 2002 conference finals. The numbers and the video4 show he recalibrated his game under harsh playoff stress to feature slightly more passing and less scoring. He averaged 15 field goal attempts per 36 minutes in those games, between four and five fewer than he averaged in the regular season over his prime, and his usage rate fell from about the 30 percent range down to about 24 percent in those 13 games.5 He shot just 36-of-60 from the foul line over those 13 games, 60 percent shooting on the equivalent of just four free throws per 36 minutes — low for an elite scoring big man, and about two fewer attempts than Webber averaged at his peak.
His foul shooting was clearly a problem, and at times impacted both Webber’s decision-making and Rick Adelman’s play calling during Webber’s years in Sacramento. He was 2-of-5 in Game 4 against Utah in 1999, when the no. 7–seeded Kings could have closed out the Jazz. The bricks included a huge miss in the last two minutes, and Adelman responded by calling four straight post-ups for Vlade Divac down the stretch.
He went a disastrous 1-of-4 from the line in the decisive Game 5 against Utah, and he was mostly unable to exploit the much smaller Bryon Russell on the block. The entire Kings team went cold from the stripe against L.A. two years later, and Webber was inconsistent in crunch time attacking Robert Horry on the block.6
It isn’t quite right to say Webber shied away from shooting during the largest games. He went 4-of-7 from the floor in the fourth quarter (with zero free throws) in the Infamous Game 6 in 2002, and he hit a monster jump hook over Horry with just over a minute left to bring the Kings within one. And though my memory had Webber freezing late in Game 7 of that series, not even looking toward the rim, that turned out to be sort of wrong; Webber shot 2-of-9 over the fourth quarter and overtime of that game, and while the shooting percentage is ugly, there’s no evidence Webber was actively reluctant to shoot during the biggest moments of his career.
But there was a lack of aggression to his game in some of those moments. It’s undeniable, even if you wish not to see it. He was content to fling the ball around from the elbow, shooting jumpers, pitching to Mike Bibby out of the pick-and-roll, or working a give-and-go with the ultra-aggressive Bobby Jackson. Webber had a beautiful face-up driving game, one that usually featured decisive right-to-left spin moves and artful finishes. But when he drove in these late moments, toward the behemoth Shaq, he’d pick the ball up early, rise in the air, and scan the court in a panic for an open player.
The gatekeepers of Springfield consider few sins worse than being afraid to shoot in decisive moments of big games. That perception exists around Webber, and it’s not entirely wrong.
But it’s partly wrong, and sometimes emphatically wrong. For one, Webber passing the ball was not a de facto bad thing. The Kings built their offense around the passing of Webber and Divac, and they almost always put Webber in positions that produced both scoring chances and natural passing angles. He was brilliant at reading defenses two steps ahead, both from the elbow and from the post, where he drew constant double-teams despite sometimes struggling against defenders who could match his strength. His inside-out passing started a lot of chain reactions that led to open 3s; the hockey assist stat might cement Webber as the best passing big man ever, if we had access to it.
These were not instances of an inept and fearful player flinging hopeless hot potatoes. If Webber was going to be a tad gun-shy, it at least meant he’d fall back on his best skill, and the Kings always put him in the best position from which to do that. “It’s not fair to say he shied away,” says Jon Barry, the ESPN analyst who played with Webber for three seasons in Sacramento. “He was a great passer, and he stayed within the confines of what we were doing.”
“To whatever extent there may have been some jitters,” says Geoff Petrie, the GM who brought Webber to Sacramento, “I really think he overcame that. The thing about Chris and guys like him is that they have such a high skill level, and so much talent in so many areas, that people knock them when they don’t necessarily reach what people think of as their potential.”
And there were other giant games in which Webber rose to the moment. They exist, on record, if folks choose to unearth them. Too much of the shouting about a player’s “clutch” performance comes without sufficient care or nuance. During the nadir of anti-LeBron hysteria, things reached a point at which any miss in the last 30 seconds would immediately erase a positive thing James had done less than a minute earlier. Old playoff buzzer-beaters, monstrous overtime performances, and crazy in-game scoring streaks were forgotten because they didn’t fit the preferred narrative. It was as if they’d never happened.
Webber had some monster playoff moments. I swear, it’s true! He carried the Kings down the stretch of Game 1 against the 2001 Lakers, a juggernaut that lost only a single playoff game; the Kings played through him on the block on nearly every crunch-time possession, and he responded with two late baskets and a 2-of-2 trip to the line en route to a 34-point masterpiece — in a loss. He seemed to be the only King willing to shoot for much of the winner-take-all Game 5 against the Lakers in 2000, to the point that Danny Ainge, calling the game, screamed repeatedly that Webber was “carrying them” — even as Webber shot poorly.7
At one point during the Infamous Game 6, Webber was 6-of-8 from the field and the rest of the Kings were a combined 9-of-30; the Lakers may have blown the Kings out of the building in that game, rendering shady officiating unnecessary, had Webber not shown up and caught fire. Remember: That team should have won the title. Had they done so, this is an entirely different conversation. Webber would likely be a shoo-in, the centerpiece of a champion that played some of the most visually pleasing basketball in recent NBA history. “We were the envy of the country for five years there,” says the legendary Pete Carril, the longtime Princeton head coach and Kings assistant during the team’s heyday.
Look, Webber didn’t raise his overall level on offense during the postseason, and his very best teams dropped off on offense a hair more than we’d expect, even given the heightened competition, per NBA.com. But it’s not as if he cowered.
If you’re going to point to postseason shortcomings, you might do better to look at the other end of the floor. Webber was never a great defender, despite a prodigious skill set — fast feet, a faster mind, and some solid rim protection ability. He reminds a bit of present-day Josh Smith, in terms of both his fundamentals and a tendency toward shortcuts. He would stand straight up against the pick-and-roll instead of getting into a proper stance, and he loved to reach with his arms — both at point guards dribbling around him, and into passing lanes — instead of sliding around to maintain proper position. He could get steals that way, with those magnet hands, but he never made himself the force he probably should have been.
“He loved to play defense with his hands,” Petrie says. “And honestly, he may have relied on that a little too much.”
He’s part of the reason the Kings, a so-so rebounding team, got absolutely shredded on the glass during the playoffs. Webber gobbled up a ton of rebounds, even leading the league once, but he did so relying on his athleticism and his hands. He liked to box out territory rather than individual opponents, and he was not active in pursuing contested rebounds outside of his area. If he shifted away from ideal rebounding position for some purpose — to double-team Shaq, or to contest a jump shot — he was not going to scamper back into the fray.
Webber for his career rebounded about 21 percent of opponent misses in the regular season, and during his best seasons, he reached into the 22-24 percent range. Those are above-average marks for a power forward. In the playoffs, he rebounded only 17.9 percent of opponent misses, below average for a power forward, let alone one of Webber’s ability. The difference might amount to two or three rebounds per game on a bad night, but an otherwise vulnerable rebounding team could not afford that kind of drop-off. The Kings recorded sub-70 percent defensive rebounding rates in all three of the early 2000s playoff series against the Lakers — rates that would have been dead last, or very close to it, in each of those seasons.
He was also prone to some very basic silliness in big moments. He committed an awful traveling violation on a fast break in the Infamous Game 6 while attempting an airborne behind-the-back pass for no reason.8 He seemed to not understand the illegal defense rule at times. There were some dumb technicals. This is the downside of the showmanship and the scowl.
Overall, it’s a spotty case, especially since that knee injury robbed Webber of the chance to cross some of the stat thresholds that nearly guarantee entry. A handful of players are going to retire soon with huge counting stats — Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, Antawn Jamison, Richard Hamilton, Jerry Stackhouse, Prof. Andre Miller — but none pass the Hall of Fame smell test, in part because they never had a two- or three-year peak as glorious as Webber’s.
The best contemporary comparable might be Elton Brand, and it’s an interesting comparison, because Brand doesn’t appear to pass the Hall of Fame sniff test — at least not yet. But Brand and Webber have eerily similar career numbers. Brand is about 900 total points behind Webber, but has snagged nearly 400 more rebounds in about 2,000 more regular-season minutes. Brand can’t touch Webber as a passer, but he has been a more efficient overall scorer, thanks to a slightly higher field goal percentage and much better (and more prolific) foul shooting. Like Webber, his PER crested in the 23-24 range, rather than in the 26-28 range that ensures enshrinement, and he hit those high marks for only a few seasons. They are about equal as rebounders, and Brand has probably been the more willing and impactful overall defender. Both suffered devastating mid-career injuries that robbed them of their killer explosiveness too soon.
Remember those 32 players in the 30,000 minutes/20.5 PER club I made up? Brand is the 32nd guy.
But people in and out of the league don’t consider Brand a Hall of Famer. That might be because he has labored mostly for bad and mediocre teams; he has played in only 30 postseason games, compared to 80 for Webber. It might also be because Brand’s workmanlike game didn’t make the same stylistic imprint on the sport as Webber’s all-around, all-court brilliance. How much should that matter?
The Hall’s own standards say Webber probably belongs. But nobody has a firm grasp on what standards the Hall’s series of voting committees actually use, and the Hall keeps the rotating members of those committees anonymous. Frustration over this lack of transparency is near a breaking point. Almost everyone I talked to threw their hands in the air over Hall criteria, and many sounded the popular call for an NBA-only Hall of Fame that would bring more focused coherence to the evaluation process.
But at this point, I’d say Webber’s best-case scenario is the same as those of Bernard King, Artis Gilmore, and others with only semi-prolific career numbers and limited/zero “rings” history — a long, long wait for enshrinement. But there’s a very real chance Webber is left out entirely; we haven’t even addressed the distaste he left behind early in his career in Golden State and Washington, and then later in Philadelphia.9 If Webber does get shut out, I hope it’s because voters have taken the time to really scrutinize his career instead of relying on hollow, one-sentence clichés.