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:
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.:
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?