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What If… Grant Hill

Posted by Neil Paine on March 3, 2009

If you were an Orlando Magic fan in the early 2000s, odds are you uttered this particular wistful phrase more times than you care to remember.

You see, back in the summer of 2000, the Magic managed to acquire not one, but two coveted free agents in Grant Hill (2nd-team All-NBA, 11.0 WS in 2000) and Tracy McGrady (#9 pick in '97 draft, 8.0 WS/3K in 2000) -- signing both to long-term contracts -- and if that wasn't enough, they also drafted eventual 2001 Rookie of the Year Mike Miller, seemingly solidifying themselves as major contenders in the East for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, Hill's body didn't cooperate with GM John Gabriel's master plan. That previous April, the ultra-gifted forward suffered what was initially diagnosed as an ankle sprain, limiting him to just 1½ games during the Pistons' 1st-round playoff loss to Miami. After an MRI, though, the injury was determined to be a full-on stress fracture, and Hill underwent surgery on April 28. Still, the prognosis looked good that summer (even if the ankle did keep Hill out of the Sydney Olympics), and Hill attracted a number of free-agent suitors, eventually settling on the Magic. But the ankle wasn't okay, and Hill was limited to just 4 games before another surgery shut his season down in early 2001. Thus began a frustrating 7-year stretch for Hill and Orlando, in which the superstar almost died after a major surgical procedure in 2003, and eventually suited up for just 181 out of a possible 492 regular-season games.

The story seems to have a happy ending for both parties, though: Hill moved on to Phoenix last year and is staying healthy -- in fact, he's played in every single Suns game this year, averaging 29 minutes a night and chipping in a 111.0 ORtg on 16.5 %Poss; meanwhile, after a difficult period in the middle of the decade, the Magic have gone on to build a championship-caliber team around Dwight Howard. Even so, you can't help but wonder what would have become of Hill -- touted by many as the league's trademark superstar of the post-Jordan era -- had he not been so misfortunate on the injury front for the majority of the 2000s...

Luckily, here at BBR we have what's known as the "Simple Projection System," which is exactly what it sounds like -- a relatively easy-to-use method by which we can project a player's future stats with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Using this system, I'm going to project what Grant Hill's career would have looked like had the initial ankle surgery in April 2000 been the extent of his injury problems. I'm not going to pretend that Hill's ankle would never bother him, though -- that's why for any given post-2000 season, I'll keep Hill's real-life performance in the games he actually played; I'm just adding on the projected numbers for the games he should have played but didn't. For each hypothetical season, I'm projecting his GP using Ed Kupfer's old rule of thumb (start at 76 games and subtract one game for each six missed the previous season, and one for each 20 missed two years prior). And since he has missed 0 games this year, obviously we're using his real-life totals for 2009. So here's what Hill's career would have (read: "should have") looked like if he recovered from the initial broken ankle and was only somewhat slowed by it in subsequent seasons:

Year G MP FG FGA 3P 3PA FT FTA ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS PPG RPG APG FG% 3P% FT%
1995 70 2678 508 1064 4 27 374 511 125 320 445 353 124 62 202 203 1394 19.9 6.4 5.0 .477 .148 .732
1996 80 3260 564 1221 5 26 485 646 127 656 783 548 100 48 263 242 1618 20.2 9.8 6.9 .462 .192 .751
1997 80 3147 625 1259 10 33 450 633 123 598 721 583 144 48 259 186 1710 21.4 9.0 7.3 .496 .303 .711
1998 81 3294 615 1361 3 21 479 647 93 530 623 551 143 53 285 196 1712 21.1 7.7 6.8 .452 .143 .74
1999 50 1852 384 802 0 14 285 379 65 290 355 300 80 27 184 114 1053 21.1 7.1 6.0 .479 .000 .752
2000 74 2776 696 1422 34 98 480 604 97 393 490 385 103 43 240 190 1906 25.8 6.6 5.2 .489 .347 .795
2001 75 2811 575 1278 19 68 411 572 102 427 529 413 111 44 248 191 1580 21.1 7.1 5.5 .450 .279 .719
2002 74 2773 551 1258 19 71 394 540 112 435 547 376 94 40 238 201 1514 20.5 7.4 5.1 .438 .268 .73
2003 74 2542 489 1110 17 63 351 480 105 421 526 342 87 39 230 173 1347 18.2 7.1 4.6 .441 .270 .731
2004 74 2667 489 1213 22 88 340 505 105 413 518 337 90 41 235 200 1341 18.1 7.0 4.6 .403 .250 .673
2005 74 2598 562 1134 5 23 311 389 87 281 368 251 105 32 184 164 1441 19.5 5.0 3.4 .496 .217 .799
2006 74 2493 458 1092 15 66 290 422 84 318 402 246 88 32 192 192 1222 16.5 5.4 3.3 .419 .227 .687
2007 74 2329 398 805 4 22 282 377 64 224 288 169 72 29 170 172 1082 14.6 3.9 2.3 .494 .182 .748
2008 74 2362 382 771 34 108 185 218 78 294 372 214 69 58 107 164 983 13.3 5.0 2.9 .495 .315 .849
2009 59 1692 254 490 19 60 116 144 29 248 277 123 60 38 86 128 643 10.9 4.7 2.1 .518 .317 .806
Career 1087 39274 7550 16280 210 788 5233 7067 1396 5848 7244 5191 1470 634 3123 2716 20546 18.9 6.7 4.8 .464 .266 .740

Let's run down where Hill would stand career-wise, since this is a player who many believed was tracking to be an inner-circle type of guy (i.e., the best of his generation) before his career was said and done. Here's how "Healthy Grant" would rank for his career, as of Sunday's game against L.A.:

Category Amount NBA Rank
Games played 1087 51st
Minutes played 39274 25th
Field goals 7550 34th
Free throws 5233 24th
Rebounds 7244 73rd
Assists 5191 46th
Points 20546 31st
PPG 18.9 70th
RPG 6.7 156th
APG 4.8 102nd

In addition, we can surmise that Hill would have played in the All-Star Game in 2002, and perhaps 2003 & 2004 as well, so we'll say he'd make 10 career ASGs in our little alternate universe. In terms of MVP voting, I'm positive the Magic would have made a huge jump in the standings from 2000 (when they went 41-41) to 2001, and the Hill/McGrady duo would have gotten all of the credit, with Hill receiving more as the older veteran of the two. That means we could expect an MVP share of 0.450 or more for Hill in 2001, and probably some residual voting in the seasons that followed (think Jason Kidd after the newness wore off of Jersey's turnaround). Incidentally, a healthy Hill would likely have precluded T-Mac from ever turning into a monster scoring machine -- but he would have also likely helped the Magic advance deeper into the playoffs than the 1st round, which in turn would have averted the McGrady-for-Francis-and-Mobley deal in June 2004 (which, of course, means no Dwight Howard). So I guess everything worked out for the best in the end, right, Orlando?

But I digress. I'm going to guess that Hill gets, say, 0.475 award shares in 2001, 0.017 in 2002, 0.009 in 2003, and maybe 0.003 in 2005. That brings his career award share total to 1.033, which would rank 29th all-time. And now we have all of the components necessary to calculate Healthy Grant Hill's Hall of Fame Probability (and remember, "The Real Grant Hill" already has an 80.9% chance of being enshrined):

height                        -0.20518 * 80      = -16.4144
last season indicator          4.21609 *  0      =   0
NBA points per game            0.45098 * 18.9016 =   8.5242
NBA rebounds per game          0.37523 *  6.6642 =   2.5006
NBA assists per game           0.39329 *  4.7755 =   1.8782
NBA All-Star game selections   0.48684 * 10      =   4.8684
NBA MVP award shares           3.18416 *  1.0330 =   3.2892
NBA championships won          1.03335 *  0      =   0
-----------------------------------------------------------
                                                     4.6462

P(HoF election) = exp(4.6462) / (1 + exp(4.6462))
                = 0.990

In other words, if he had stayed healthy, Grant Hill would be a Hall of Fame lock, with his 99.0% probability ranking 48th all-time, and 9th among active players.

Oh, what might have been.

Understand that this exercise isn't meant to highlight how disappointing the second half of Hill's career has been as much as it's intended to celebrate what an amazing player he was early in his career, and to recognize the vast potential surrounding he and the Magic that summer. In our alternate universe (which, remember, still contains his diminished real-life form in 45.5% of his games from 2001-08), Hill playing 74 games a year is legitimately one of the 40 or so greatest players in NBA history, and he and McGrady combine to make the Magic a force. Now, I don't believe even a healthy Hill/T-Mac early-2000s Magic team would beat the Lakers or Spurs for the NBA Championship in those days (that's why I kept the "championships won" value at zero above), but it's very possible that they would advance to the NBA Finals out of the East, which produced a number of unremarkable Finalists like the '01 76ers and the '02-03 Nets. All of this, if only Grant Hill's ankle hadn't been so fragile... It really makes you wonder, doesn't it?

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8 Responses to “What If… Grant Hill”

  1. Phil Says:

    Growing up in the Detroit area during Hill's "prime" was awesome, and I think his career is one of the more tragic injury-based stories in the NBA. Awesome article.

  2. Eddy Says:

    Great article. As a long time Magic fan, I always wondered the 'what if?' scenario with Grant Hill. As you stated in your post, he was a bonafide superstar and seen by some as the heir to M.J.

    We all know how the story goes, but nevertheless, it's interesting to surmise the possibilities had a healthy Grant Hill existed in Orlando. Obviously it would have been a much different story than it turned out to be. Either way, good stuff Neil.

  3. Ryan Says:

    What I'd be more interesting in seeing would be a hypothetical progression of his career from his peak onward. In other words, how would he have progressed (using this model), had he have not struck any injury at all.

    His amazing natural abilities coupled with his on-court skills are still something to behold. He was a hybrid in the sense that he had the flair and offensive talent of a Jordan, coupled with the knack for the game, team play and court vision of a Magic... while not falling into the same black hole that many premier guards do during the current Like Mike era.

    There's no question in my mind that he would've been able to post some monster seasons.

    Grant and Penny... The greatest mistake of the modern era.

  4. Josh Says:

    I think Grant Hill is a Hall of Famer regardless. His college success should push him over the top.

  5. Daniel Says:

    I remember watching some halftime report during the 2000 playoffs and one of the commentators (I think it was a former player...I was 13 at the time, my memory's pretty vague) was applauding Tim Duncan for sitting out with his injury, and criticizing Grant Hill for trying to be the hero, playing through his, and potentially making it worse. Duncan and the Spurs were the #4 seed and lost to Phoenix in the first round, while Hill and the Pistons were the 6 or 7 seed...and also lost in the first round. Ironically, the Magic pursued both players (later settling for McGrady when Duncan narrowly chose the Spurs). Anyway, no one knows if Hill did, in fact, make his foot worse by trying to "gut it out", but the point of my story is twofold:

    1) What if Hill never tried to play through his injury, never needed surgery, and went on to fulfill the "next Michael Jordan" status (as in, not quite Mike, but maybe Kobe or McGrady level). Instead of the diminished numbers above (most of which are based on a hobbled Hill), you have him averaging his '99-00 Detroit numbers: 26 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 5.2 APG. Meanwhile, McGrady is also averaging 26 PPG (hey, Shaq/Kobe and Carmelo/AI did it, why not TMac/Hill?)...no way they're not in the finals basically every year (contrary to the projections you made on thirdquartercollapse, which use the numbers above).

    2) What if Duncan tried to play through his injury, and was injury-prone the rest of his career? Suddenly the big rivalry of the decade is Lakers-Pistons? I'm not sure Shaq/Kobe break up after a potential 5th title in '04.

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  7. Pontillo Says:

    Really, great post to read, thanks

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