Ranking the NBA's Top Hall of Fame Classes of All Time

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 15, 2021

Ranking the NBA's Top Hall of Fame Classes of All Time

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    Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

    Your favorite Hall of Fame class is personal. If you saw Steve Nash ping-ponging around the floor and shooting one-footed, off-hand leaners in traffic during a formative stage of your NBA fandom, his 2018 class subjectively means more to you than any other.

    The best group of inductees, though? Best is easier because it's mostly objective.

    Ahead of this weekend's enshrinement of a tremendous 2020 class (rest assured, more on that later) and the reveal of the 2021 entrants, we'll organize and order the top classes of all time.

    Doing that will require an emphasis on catch-all metrics and league awards to make cross-era comparisons cleaner.

    We'll lean on win shares, All-NBA teams, All-Star berths, championships, MVPs and any other recognition tools that translate across decades. We'll also limit consideration to players; it's too tricky to weigh, say, Pat Riley's impact as a coach and executive against the contributions made by someone who entered the Hall on the strength of a playing career.

    The Hall of Fame is about to get some new additions. These are the best classes that are already in.

Honorable Mention

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    1995: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

    The all-time leader in win shares (273.4), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has the longest list of individual accolades we'll see in this entire exercise. He made a record 19 All-Star games, won two scoring titles and led the league in blocks four times. 

    Six rings, six MVPs, 15 All-NBA teams—the list just goes forever.

    The sole reason the 1995 class doesn't rank in the top five is because it only includes one player. If that feels a little cheap, at least understand that all the classes in the top five have more combined win shares than Kareem managed alone.


    1979: Wilt Chamberlain

    Same deal here. Wilt Chamberlain's dominance is the stuff of legend, but the 1979 class was also a "party of one" situation.

    The 100-point game, a scoring average of 50.4 in 1961-62, leading the league in total assists in 1967-68 just to prove he could do it, no player's career borders more closely on myth than Chamberlain's. Maybe some of his achievements lose luster for having come during a bygone era when the game was demonstrably different, but 247.3 win shares (second only to Abdul-Jabbar), four MVPs and two rings are hard to scoff at—whatever you think of the 1960s NBA.


    2018: Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Grant Hill, Maurice Cheeks, Dino Radja, Charlie Scott

    In contrast to Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain's classes, this one has real depth. There's a reason for that, though: This is actually a double class, made possible by a change in the rules that reduced the waiting period for induction from five years to four.

    In other words: asterisk.

    Jason Kidd was one of the purest floor generals and best defensive guards to ever play, and two-time MVP Steve Nash basically assured his team would have a dominant offense. Throw in Ray Allen as the premium-sniper bridge connecting Reggie Miller and Stephen Curry, plus Grant Hill's brilliant start before ankle injuries took him out of the "next Jordan" conversation, and you've got a special class.

    Or, in this case, special classes.

5. 2016: Shaquille O'Neal, Allen Iverson, Zelmo Beaty, Yao Ming

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    Jessica Hill/Associated Press

    Shaquille O'Neal ranks among the most physically dominant players the NBA has ever seen. He bullied his way to two scoring titles while leading the league in field goal percentage an incredible 10 times. With four championships and three Finals MVPs to go with 14 All-NBA honors and the 1999-00 MVP award, Shaq's career resume—regular and postseason—is about as complete as they come.

    O'Neal's win share total (181.7) sits 12th all time, right between Oscar Robertson and David Robinson, making him productive enough to have made Honorable Mention all on his own.

    Fortunately, he's not the only iconic figure in this class.

    Allen Iverson's here, too.

    He collected an MVP award the year immediately after O'Neal earned his, the high point in a career that included four scoring titles and seven All-NBA appearances. Iverson's place in the historical record has taken a hit as efficiency has become a major factor in player value, but he's still 88th in win shares (99.0) and gets credit for influencing the style and attitude of an entire generation of NBA players.

    Zelmo Beaty might not be a household name, but he made five All-Star games spread across a dozen seasons in the ABA and NBA. The skilled center averaged 22.9 points and 15.7 rebounds while helping the 1970-71 Utah Stars to the ABA title.

    Last in the class, we've got Yao Ming, a player whose career, but not his impact on the NBA's popularity, was diminished by injury. The 7'6" Chinese import made the All-Star team eight times in nine years, only missing out in 2009-10, when he sat the entire season with a foot injury. That achievement was partly the product of his massive international fan base, which dominated All-Star voting.

    That said, Yao's five All-NBA seasons are a strong (and unbiased) reflection of just how effective he was.

    A smooth perimeter stroke and surprisingly good passing complemented Yao's size and interior touch. He finished his career with 486 games played and averages of 19.0 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.

4. 2010: Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Johnson, 1992 Dream Team

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    Gary Stewart/Associated Press

    Karl Malone never won a ring, but most of that owed to sharing his prime with Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. For what it's worth, the Mailman scored more points and made more All-NBA teams than either of those two.

    His two MVPs come with asterisks, as most agree Jordan should have been the winner in 1996-97, and the 1998-99 award came during a lockout-shortened 51-game season. That's not to say Malone was wildly undeserving in either case; he was almost certainly one of the five best players in the league in both of those years, and it's doubly impressive that he earned the NBA's highest individual awards during his age-33 and age-35 seasons. 

    Malone's longevity, which allowed him to dominate long enough to finish with 234.6 win shares (fourth all time) was a testament to his unbelievable physical condition. He entered the league with superhero strength and only seemed to add muscle throughout his career. That bulk combined with craft to help Malone lead the league in made free throws eight different times. He also averaged at least 25.0 points and 10.0 boards in nine seasons, second most all time behind O'Neal and Abdul-Jabbar, who had 10. LeBron James will eventually catch him, but Malone is still second in points scored for now—ahead of everyone but Abdul-Jabbar.

    It's appropriate that Scottie Pippen gets second billing behind a transcendent superstar. That's pretty much how he spent his criminally underrated career.

    Arguably the best perimeter defender in league history, Pippen's length and quickness made him a nightmare on the ball and in the passing lanes. It often seemed like he could sense cross-court passes before they happened, pouncing on them like a cornerback picking off a throw he knew was coming from the moment the ball was snapped.

    His 125.1 win shares, 41st in league history, would almost certainly have increased if Pippen had played a larger on-ball role. But with Jordan around, there was no chance of that—justifiably. That Pippen accepted second-fiddle status and found ways to dominate games without scoring (he averaged over 20.0 points just four times) is a testament to his team-first mentality.

    And yes, we've conveniently decided to forget about Game 3 of the 1994 East semifinals. 

    Dennis Johnson collected 82.6 win shares and was a key piece on three title teams—one with the Seattle Supersonics and two with the Boston Celtics. It's basically impossible to think of Johnson without hearing the gravelly tones of Johnny Most narrating the final seconds of Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals.

    Now there's a steal by Bird! Underneath to DJ, he lays it in!

    Gus Johnson deserves a quick nod here for being one of the NBA's best defenders in the 1960s, but the real reason this group lands in the top five is the 1992 Olympic team.

    The Dream Team dominated the international stage in Barcelona and was instrumental in expanding the popularity of the NBA throughout the world. We can't technically give credit to the 2010 class for inducting all the historic greats on that team, but with the fifth-ranked class somewhere near equal footing with this one, the Dream Team earns a tiebreaker and the No. 4 spot.

3. 1980: Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Jerry Lucas

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    Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press

    Triple-doubles are no big deal nowadays. Just ask Russell Westbrook.

    But when Oscar Robertson piled up enough to average one for a full season in 1961-62, it was a monumental achievement. While it's true the game's pace at the time gives skeptics a chance to minimize what the Big O did, we should probably just agree that any record or achievement that goes unmatched for more than a half-century is impressive.

    Robertson led the league in assists six times and ranks seventh in career dimes, nestled one spot ahead of LeBron James and one behind Magic Johnson. Throw in 189.2 win shares, an MVP, a ring, and 11 All-NBA honors, and Robertson belongs in any conversation about the best 20 or 30 players to ever lace 'em up.

    Jerry West would be in the Hall of Fame on the strength of his executive career alone. He was instrumental in building two separate Los Angeles Lakers dynasties, one in the 1980s and another in the 2000s. He also had a voice in the dynastic Golden State Warriors front office, which earned him his seventh and eighth rings as an executive.

    He only snagged one of those as a player, despite appearing in nine Finals during a career that included 162.6 win shares, 14 All-Star appearances, a scoring title and an assist crown.

    West is also, as everyone knows, the inspiration for the silhouette on the NBA logo.

    Jerry Lucas' career was over in 1974, far enough in the past that most reading this won't have a sense of his game or accomplishments. Some helpful context: His 98.4 win shares are good for 90th all time, right between Kyle Lowry and Andre Iguodala. Robertson could hardly have asked for a better running mate during his early years with the Cincinnati Royals.

2. 2020: Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Tim Duncan won rings in three different decades, collecting five in all and earning recognition as a Finals MVP in 1999, 2003 and 2005. And yet, his work in the regular season might be even more impressive.

    Duncan landed on 15 All-NBA teams and matched that total exactly with a record 15 All-Defensive nods and 15 All-Star appearances. He and Abdul-Jabbar are the only players to average at least 19.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.0 blocks for their careers, and Duncan's 206.4 win shares are seventh all time.

    I have Timmy ranked as the second-best defender in league history, behind only Bill Russell. If that seems excessive, note that Duncan is second all time in defensive win shares and led the San Antonio Spurs to top-five defensive ratings in 16 different seasons.

    Kevin Garnett is also an all-time top-five defender, albeit one who didn't enjoy the level of team success Duncan did. KG was, however, an even more dynamic and well-rounded offensive weapon who could guard all five positions and earned one accolade Duncan (inexplicably) never did: Defensive Player of the Year.

    With 191.4 win shares, a ring in 2008, an MVP in 2004, nine All-NBA honors and a dozen All-Defensive nominations, Garnett's trophy case is loaded.

    Coming in third in this ridiculously decorated class, we have the most iconic player of the post-Jordan era. The late Kobe Bryant's 172.7 win shares are 16th in NBA history, and his 18 All-Star appearances trail only Abdul-Jabbar's 19 in the all-time annals.

    Kobe, like Duncan, collected five championships, winning two scoring titles and making 15 All-NBA teams while cultivating a reputation as a relentless seeker of technical basketball mastery—a legacy that still lives on today.

    Considering all the 2020 class achieved, the one ahead of it had better be something special.

1. 2009: Michael Jordan, David Robinson and John Stockton

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    So, if Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain were great enough to basically get their classes listed under Honorable Mention on their own, does that mean Michael Jordan, who most fans under the age of 75 agree was better than both of those all-timers, would have been in the top five if he'd been inducted by himself in 2009?

    His 214.0 win shares rank fifth in league history, which is a fine start. Throw in six championships (and a matching six Finals MVPs), five regular-season MVPs, 11 All-NBA nods, nine All-Defensive honors, 14 All-Star appearances, 10 scoring titles and the 1987-88 Defensive Player of the Year award and... yeah, GOAT status.

    But hey! Jordan, the player who forever changed the NBA by spurring an individualistic revolution in a team game, doesn't have to do this on his own. He's got two historically productive classmates to push the 2009 crop over the top.

    David Robinson (178.7 win shares) is, for my money, the fifth-best defensive player of all time. He's one of two players with at least 7,000 defensive rebounds, 2,500 blocks and 1,300 steals for his career, and he won DPOY in 1991-92, a scant two seasons before he won a scoring title.

    The Admiral was one of the most breathtaking athletes the game's ever seen—a smooth, sinewy end-to-end runner with unfathomable lateral agility and the ability to elevate more quickly than the guards he constantly swallowed up near the rim. He was basically a decathlete who happened to be 7'1". 

    An MVP with 10 All-NBA appearances and two rings, Robinson is wildly overqualified to be the second-best player in an induction class.

    And the third member of our top class? Oh, just the guy who is still the NBA's All-time leader in assists and steals.

    John Stockton (207.7 win shares) played every game in 17 of his 19 seasons, made 10 All-Star appearances and 11 All-NBA teams while essentially becoming synonymous with the pick-and-roll, which remains the core of modern NBA offense.

    It was going to take an incomprehensibly brilliant class to outrank 2020. That's exactly what 2009 provides.


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.


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