Posted by Neil Paine on July 13, 2009
When we think of the greatest teams in the history of the Chicago Bulls, we think of the core group of the 1990s -- Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Horace Grant, Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr, Bill Cartwright, etc. -- a squad that in one incarnation or another managed to win six NBA crowns in 8 years. But the Jordan-era Bulls were not the first Chicago team to rise to hoops prominence. Under coach Dick Motta in the the 1970s, the Bulls forged a top-flight defensive team that made the playoffs in 7 of 8 seasons between 1970 & 1977, including 2 consecutive Western Conference Finals appearances in 1974 & '75. Though they neither won a title nor were as strong as the 1990s version of the franchise, this was a terrific team that was always a threat in the seventies.
One thing that's interesting to me about the 1970s Bulls is the presence of a guy named Chet Walker. Walker has to rank as one of the most underrated players in league history, and I can't for the life of me understand why -- the man was a 3-time NCAA All-American, a 7-time NBA All-Star, he was super durable (he played the max number of games 5 times and only missed 13 games between 1965 & 1974), he scored almost 20,000 career points and averaged 20.3 per 36 minutes, and was one of the league's most efficient scorers to boot (top 10 in TS% for 5 seasons, top 10 in FT% 6 years). If we convert his Basketball on Paper stats to the 2008-09 offensive environment of 108.3 points per 100 possessions, this is what you get:
Those efficiency numbers would have statheads drooling if Walker put them up nowadays. But for some reason, Walker is so underrated that his name doesn't even come up frequently in discussions of underrated players... He's even too underrated to appear on "all-underrated" lists!
Why? Despite his more appealing statistical traits (at least among APBRmetric circles), his Hall of Fame probability according to our own metric based on past voting patterns is just 53.8%. One look at what the selectors tend to value tells you why Walker slips below the radar so often in all-time player discussions. Unlike the analytical community, the Hall committee likes gaudy per-game averages; Walker's 18.1/7.1/2.1 career line is nothing to scoff at, but it makes him look more like, say, Shareef Abdur-Rahim than Elgin Baylor. The HoF process also rewards players who won championships, as well as those who made strong bids in the MVP award balloting. As we mentioned earlier, Walker's Bulls never won a title, and when he did get a ring, it was as a third banana (behind
Rick Barry Wilt Chamberlain & Hal Greer on the 1967 76ers). Meanwhile, Walker's best showing in the MVP voting was a measly tie for 16th in 1975.
Don't let the reputation (or lack thereof) fool you, though: Walker was a terrific player, especially at his peak. His raw stats may be solid if unspectacular, but his advanced metrics -- his per-minute rates and his efficiency numbers -- are very impressive. Mark this down as another case of today's more informative statistics giving a measure of long-overdue credit to a guy that has, to some degree, fallen through the cracks of NBA history.