Artis Gilmore and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Artis Gilmore was finally elected to the Hall of Fame yesterday.  At this point, many NBA fans may not remember the A-Train.  Gilmore last played NBA basketball in 1988, or 23 years ago (really…. 1988 was 23 years ago?).  And although he played twelve seasons in the NBA, apparently it was for his work in the ABA – which hasn’t existed since 1976 (or 35 years ago) – that got Gilmore elected into the Hall of Fame (as ESPN.com note, Gilmore was elected by the Hall’s ABA committee). 

Gilmore was certainly a very productive player in the ABA.  As part of a research paper I am presenting this summer on the ABA, I have already measured performance of players in the ABA for the 1974-75 and 1975-76 seasons.  And in these two years, Gilmore posted the following numbers:

  • 1974-75: 23.7 Wins Produced, 0.326 WP48 [Wins Produced per 48 minutes]
  • 1975-76: 21.9 Wins Produced, 0.319 WP48

Gilmore’s Wins Produced mark in 1974-75 ranked 3rd in the ABA (behind Julius Erving and Moses Malone).  And his mark in 1975-76 was only topped by Dr. J.  So Gilmore was very good in the ABA.

When he moved to the NBA, though, he was also very good.  The NBA started tracking all the data we need to measure Wins Produced in 1977-78 (the ABA started tracking all the data we need in 1973-74).  And as the following table indicates, Gilmore – from 1977-78 to the end of his career in 1987-88 – was a very productive NBA player.

To put this performance in perspective, let’s compare Gilmore to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  The following table details Kareem’s production of wins from 1977-78 to the end of his career in 1988-89.

Kareem was selected for the Hall of Fame in 1995.  And it is easy to see why.  Even in his 30s, Kareem was a very productive player. 

But when we compare Kareem from 30-37 to Gilmore at the same age, we don’t see much difference.   Kareem posted a 0.266 WP48 from age 30 to 37.  At these same ages, Gilmore’s WP48 was 0.246.

And when we look at the individual stats, we can see that Gilmore offered more than Kareem with respect to shooting efficiency from the field, trips to the free throw line, and rebounds.  Kareem did more when we look at blocked shots, assists, and personal fouls.  But again, overall the two players were not very different in their 30s.

So why is Kareem considered one of the greatest NBA players of all time and Gilmore had to wait until he was 61 years of age to reach the Hall of Fame?

One possibility is that Kareem was probably a more productive player at his best than Gilmore was at his peak.  But that is not the only difference.

Player evaluation in the NBA is driven by two factors.  The first is scoring, and Kareem is the all-time leading scorer in NBA history.  Meanwhile, Gilmore only averaged 17.1 points per game as an NBA player.

In addition to scoring, people tend to think players on winning teams are better than those on losers.  In other words, people have trouble separating a player from his teammates (which is why we analyze player statistics in the first place).  Until Gilmore’s last season in the NBA (where he played 86 playoff minutes with the Celtics), Gilmore never got past the second round of the NBA playoffs.  In contrast, Kareem was part of six teams that won an NBA title.

Consequently – since scoring and winning drive perceptions – Kareem was an obvious choice for Hall of Fame voters.  And Gilmore – whose production rivaled Kareem’s production in the NBA when each was in their 30s – had to sneak into the Hall of Fame via the ABA committee. 

Let me close by noting that Stumbling on Wins offers a brief discussion of Gilmore and Kareem that focuses on the diminishing returns issue.  Brief summary – even if we take diminishing returns into account, Gilmore was still a very productive NBA player.  And now that career is finally going to be honored by the Hall of Fame.

– DJ

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