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While every Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame class is by nature one for the ages, the 2019 crop should take that phrase to the extreme.
Now that hoops immortals must wait only three years after their retirement for eligibility, a trio of legends figure to dominate one of the most decorated classes in history.
Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett are all eligible for enshrinement. Seeing as how they might fill three spots on the 2000s NBA Mount Rushmore, they are each undoubtedly first-ballot selections.
The rest of the 2019 class isn’t as preordained, but we have a few good hunches about how it may take shape.
While the rest of the basketball world celebrates the 2018 group, we’ll look ahead at the five retired NBA players most likely to make next year’s cut.
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Bryant’s accomplishments are too numerous to name, but these are some of his best:
- Five NBA championships
- 18 All-Star appearances
- 15 All-NBA selections, 11 on the first team
- 12 All-Defensive selections
- Four All-Star MVPs, two Finals MVPs, one regular-season MVP
- 33,643 points, third-most in NBA history
His was the kind of career that blows all best-case scenarios out of the water. He’s one of the most prolific scorers in league history, and his killer instinct (along with many of his moves) proved an almost perfect clone of Michael Jordan.
“Bryant was a jaw-dropping scorer who could be a high-level playmaker whenever he decided to be,” Sports Illustrated‘s Rob Mahoney wrote. “He was quick and physical to the point of controlling any defensive matchup he chose. His technique was so defined that he could (and often did) manufacture a makeable shot despite pressure from multiple defenders.”
Bryant has been destined for the Hall of Fame for more than a decade. The only debates he remains in surround his position among the greatest ever to lace them up. We’ll leave those arguments for a different day, but remember this: Only 14 NBA players produced more career win shares than Bryant’s 172.74.
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Duncan is universally regarded as an all-time elite and is widely viewed as the greatest power forward ever. And yet, he’s still probably underrated.
The San Antonio Spurs tied their fate to his by making him the first pick in 1997. They’ve yet to miss the playoffs since, winning an astronomical 71.0 percent of their games over his career. (For context, the Dallas Mavericks were the second-most successful squad over that stretch with a .607 winning percentage.) The Spurs won five titles with Duncan and had another five postseason runs reach at least the conference finals.
Duncan did it all. He was a Rookie of the Year, MVP (twice) and Finals MVP (three times). He was selected to 15 All-Star games, 15 All-Defensive teams and 15 All-NBA rosters. He still holds top-15 spots on the Association’s career leaderboards in points (14th), rebounds (sixth), blocks (fifth) and win shares (seventh).
But his career was bigger than bloated box scores and overflowing trophy cases. His willingness to play his role might be the reason the “Spurs Way” was even possible, let alone wildly successful.
“Timmy was the most coachable great player of all time,” longtime teammate Tony Parker wrote for the Players’ Tribune. “That was always our secret weapon, to me: You see this all-world player, this All-NBA First Team, MVP of the Finals, about to be MVP of the league guy, and here he is in practice, willing to be coached like he’s fighting for a spot on the team. It was unreal.”
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What was your favorite part about Garnett? Feel free to take some time, as there’s plenty from which to choose.
Was it his relentless approach and fiery intensity? Or his legendary trash talk, perhaps? Maybe his unforgettable interviews, the numbers you can barely believe or the size-skill combination that pushed the entire league forward?
“His skills were probably 10 or 15 years ahead of his time, but he was so good that he dominated the 2000s anyway,” Sports Illustrated‘s Andrew Sharp wrote. “Imagine Draymond Green, but five inches taller and better at every phase of the game. That was KG.”
Garnett played all three frontcourt positions at a time when traditional designations still tied most players to rigid roles. He could dominate as a scorer, rebounder, passer, shot-blocker or one-on-one defender, and he’d usually do more than one at a time. He sent the Minnesota Timberwolves to their first postseason appearance and later their first conference final. He returned the Boston Celtics to championship glory.
And he produced at an absurd rate in almost every category. He’s one of only three players in NBA history to rack up at least 25,000 points, 14,000 rebounds and 5,000 assists, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone. Tack on his 2,037 blocks and 1,859 steals, and he’s reached statistical heights no one else has matched.
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Chauncey Billups missed the 2018 cut, which wasn’t a total shock. His career per-game averages of 15.2 points and 5.4 assists per game hardly scream “Hall of Fame lock,” and he only once boasted a top-10 player efficiency rating.
But falling short in one Hall of Fame bid has no bearing on the next. In fact, it’s possible some voters might be more receptive to him next year, since many require first-ballot selections to reach even higher standards.
While Billups didn’t wow with numbers, his intangible leadership provided tangible rewards.
The Detroit Pistons weren’t title contenders until he came aboard. Two years later, they were world champs, and he was the Finals MVP. Similarly, he helped the Denver Nuggets break through their first-round ceiling and pushed them to the conference finals during his first campaign in the Mile High City. He was the inaugural winner of the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year award in 2012-13, too.
Not to mention, Mr. Big Shot was more accomplished than his per-game marks indicate. He was a five-time All-Star despite not being first selected until his ninth season. He made three All-NBA rosters and two All-Defensive teams. From 2002-03 through 2010-11, he produced the Association’s sixth-most win shares.
“His reliance on the three and ability to get to the free-throw line made Billups an efficient scorer despite a low shooting percentage, and he was at his best in the playoffs…” ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton wrote last December. “Remarkably, Billups’ 0.5 championships added in the playoffs ranks 20th in NBA history by my career value metric.”
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For the last two years, Chris Webber has been a Hall of Fame finalist who was left on the cutting room floor. The same fate could befall him 2019.
But this is silly. He’s a Hall of Fame-caliber talent who enjoyed a Hall of Fame-caliber career.
No matter what else happened at Michigan, he was still the best player on an iconic team that made consecutive championship games. And once he joined the NBA, he turned 20-point, 10-rebound double-doubles into nightly occurrences (20.7 and 9.8, respectively, for his career) despite often battling injuries.
Sure, his timing could’ve been better. Individually, he could get lost in the NBA’s power forward mix, due to the likes of Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Shawn Kemp early on and to Duncan, Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki later. From a team standpoint, Webber’s strongest squad just so happened to rise at the same time—and in the same conference—as the Kobe-Shaquille O’Neal Los Angeles Lakers.
But it isn’t as though Webber allowed himself to be overshadowed. He won Rookie of the Year. He received five All-Star nods and made five All-NBA rosters. He had five top-10 finishes in MVP voting. From his first campaign through his final healthy one (1993-94 to 2006-07), he had the seventh-most points and rebounds across the league. He’s one of only six players with career averages of at least 20 points, nine rebounds and four assists.
He helped the then-Washington Bullets snap a nearly decade-long playoff drought. He made the Sacramento Kings as relevant as they’ve ever been.
That’s a Hall of Fame-caliber impact from someone who routinely delivered Hall of Fame-caliber numbers. He deserves to get the call sooner than later.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.