by Paul Knepper
I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that Dennis Rodman is being enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame tonight. I usually have an intuitive sense as to whether a player belongs in the hall of fame or not, but in Rodman’s case I can’t decide. I just find the whole thing odd.
That may be the perfect word to describe Rodman’s career: odd. I’m not talking about the cross dressing, colored hair, assorted tattoos, kicking a cameraman in the testicles or run-ins with the law. I’m referring simply to his play on the court. His game was odd.
In a sport and society which places such a premium on scoring, Rodman shunned convention as he did in so many other aspects of his life and focused on rebounding and defense instead.
Traditionally, players who don’t score are described as role players. I’ve never liked that term because I believe every member of the team plays a role. The great players play a lead role, but it’s still a role. It was Larry Bird’s role to knock down shots, Michael Jordan’s to score and defend and Magic Johnson’s to initiate the offense. You didn’t see Shaquille O’Neal bringing the ball up the floor or bombing threes because that wasn’t his role.
Yet, I recognize that there is a pecking order, especially among championship teams. There’s a lead role or roles for the stars, often a supporting role or two and the rest of the team makes up the supporting cast. Rodman’s lack of scoring and his role as a defensive and rebounding specialist has relegated him to the supporting cast in many people’s minds, though that perception may be inaccurate.
By mastering his role, he played a greater part in his teams’ success than most scorers do. He led the league in rebounding by a significant margin seven years in a row, averaging at least 14.9 per game in each of those seasons and as high as 18.7 in ’91-’92. The Worm was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive first team seven times and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year twice. He brought an infectious energy to the floor and perfected the art of getting under his opponent’s skin.
Yet, it’s difficult to escape the notion that scoring, at least a little bit, is a prerequisite for being a great player. After all, the object of the game is to put the ball in the basket.
There have been other great defenders and/or rebounders who have also scored; Wilt Chamberlain, Moses Malone, David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Elvin Hayes and Hakeem Olajuwan to name a few. Even Bill Russell, who wasn’t known as a scorer, averaged in double digits every season of his career, except his last, in which he scored 9.9 points per game. Similarly, four-time Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo scored in double digits every year he was in the league until the age of 36.
Rodman averaged 7.3 per game for his career and just 5.5, 5.7 and 4.7 during his three seasons with the Bulls. The only player I can think of who’s comparable in terms of numbers and influence on the outcome of a game is a member of another Pistons championship team, Ben Wallace. But while Wallace may have matched Rodman’s defensive prowess, he didn’t dominate the boards like the Worm did.
That’s part of what makes it so difficult to determine how good Rodman was and why there’s been so much debate about whether he belongs in the hall of fame. We usually determine an athlete’s worth by comparing his statistics and impact on the game to that of similar players, but nobody else played the game the way Dennis did, so there’s no one to compare him to.
Even the significance of his five championships is difficult to decipher. Rings can be misleading. Steve Kerr has five and he barely got off the bench for two of them. Robert Horry won seven for three different teams and nobody would argue that he was a great player. Was Rodman more Kerr and Horry – supporting cast members – or a great player like Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas?
Rodman won his first two rings with the Bad Boy Pistons in ’89 and ’90 and the last three with the Bulls in ’96, ’97 and ’98. In both instances he played with two other hall-of-famers and for a hall of fame coach.
He was the third best player in Chicago behind Jordan and Scottie Pippen and in Detroit was the third most valuable player at best. Isiah and Joe Dumars were the two stars and you can argue that Bill Laimbeer, Marc Aguirre and Vinnie Johnson all played a greater part in those Pistons championships. Admittedly, he hadn’t reached his prime yet during the Pistons run.
Still, being the third best player on a championship team is impressive and is certainly not prohibitive to induction into the hall of fame. Hall-of-famer Bill Bradley was the fourth or fifth best player on the Knicks championship teams of the early 70’s and Russell’s Celtics teams of the 60’s went five or six hall-of-famers deep.
Nobody questions James Worthy’s hall of fame credentials even though he was number three behind Magic and Kareem. Bird, Kevin McHale and possibly Dennis Johnson were better players than their teammate, hall-of-famer Robert Parrish.
In recent years, a three-star lineup has become the model framework for a championship team. Ray Allen was the third best player on the Celtics 2008 team behind Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and he’s headed to the hall. Miami’s third option Chris Bosh may follow him to Springfield one day as well.
The difference is that Parrish, Worthy, Bradley and Allen all scored and were viewed as co-stars or at least supporting actors. They were building blocks to those championship teams. You didn’t build a team around Rodman; he was a supporting cast member for the stars you already had in place. At least that’s the perception.
In reality, if you were starting a team and had to choose between Rodman or hall-of-famers Parrish, Bradley, Worthy and Dumars, it would be a tough call. And even if the perception that Rodman was a supporting cast member is correct, then he was the probably the greatest supporting cast member to ever play the game.
Ultimately, the hall of fame should be reserved for great players. Dennis Rodman was great at what he did, but did that make him a great player? It’s hard to say. There’s never been anybody like him.