Posted by Neil Paine on February 22, 2010
When I made a post about young stars last week, reader Johnny commented that he didn't know Anfernee Hardaway was as good as his Win Shares make him look. Like Johnny, I also had largely written off Penny as a relic of a bygone era, one of those early "Next Jordan" wannabes (see the image to the left) who were obliterated when the real "Next Jordan" came along a decade later... But you might be surprised to see that for a brief time, Hardaway was truly one of the game's top players, and not just an over-hyped, oft-injured product of the Nike advertising machine.
Hardaway always had eye-popping stats; as a senior at Treadwell HS in Memphis, he averaged 37 PPG, 10RPG, 6 APG, & 3 BPG while being named Parade's Prep Player of the Year. Attending Memphis (State) before they were the C-USA powerhouse you saw under John Calipari, Hardaway led the Tigers to a Regional Final berth in 1992 and was seen by scouts as possessing a rare combination of size and skill: at 6'7" he could play PG and score seemingly at will, a package he frequently employed to take over games in college. When he was taken 3rd overall in the '93 Draft, there were no doubts about his ability, and whatever concerns there were about his character (Hardaway was shot in an altercation as a Memphis frosh) he seemed to put to rest in the intervening 2 years. As a rookie, people were already touting him as a sure-fire All-Star and a possible heir to Michael Jordan's throne, especially after MJ abruptly retired prior to the 93-94 season.
To put Hardaway's rookie campaign into context, let's compare him to another Memphis alum:
Offensively, Hardaway was basically equal to 2009 ROY Derrick Rose as a rook, and he was loads better on D thanks to superior size (plus, his size made for natural comparisons to Jordan, which the media loved). In his second year, Hardaway elevated his game beyond a mere Rose-level comp and into a higher stratosphere -- using the Win Shares comparison method detailed last week, Hardaway's greatest comp through Age 23 would have been Jerry West, another tall (for his era) guard who could score at will or be a setup man. And by Year 3, Shaq-n-Penny was an emerging candidate to eventually become one of the great Dynamic Duos in league history. Hardaway was totally brilliant on offense that year, becoming one of only 19 players since 1978 to post an offensive rating of 122 or better with a USG% of at least 25. The "Next MJ" hype was really coming fast and furious for the 24-year-old Penny, especially since the Magic had bounced the Bulls from the '95 playoffs, putting a painful cap on Jordan's first comeback season, and Orlando had handed Chicago one of its only 10 losses during the regular-season. Hardaway may not have been on MJ's level yet (as evidenced by Chicago's 4-0 beatdown of Orlando in the ECF)...
...But he was putting distance between himself and the other would-be "Next One", Grant Hill:
In 1997, O'Neal bolted for L.A. and Hardaway suffered his first major injury, a left hamstring problem that led to a tendon injury in his left knee and sidelined him for 23 games. However, supposedly healthy for 1997-98 and recommitted after leading a successful palace coup against coach Brian Hill, it was actually not that audacious for that magazine to think that a 26-year-old Penny would build on his monster '96 and perhaps even overtake the 34-year-old Jordan as the game's top guard in 1998. OK, so it was still pretty audacious... But you could at least kind of see where they were coming from.
Instead, though, Jordan won his 5th MVP award and Hardaway developed tendonitis from the previous year's injury, then suffered a catastrophic cartilage tear in his left knee and a calf injury from trying to play through the ailment and return to the court too soon. In retrospect, it would mark the end of his career as a possible Jordan heir: Hardaway missed all but 19 games in '98, and after playing a full slate with significantly diminished explosiveness in the lockout-shortened 98-99 season, Hardaway developed plantar fasciitis in his right foot (perhaps from compensating for the left leg injuries?) and spoiled the Suns' so-called "Backcourt 2000" plans to pair a healthy Penny with Jason Kidd in the desert. More soft-tissue damage in his left knee cost him all but 4 games in 2001, and by the early-to-mid 2000s Penny was more of a player in trade discussions (due to an absurdly large contract that maxed out at nearly $16 million in 2005-06) than on the basketball court. He attempted a comeback with the Heat in 2007-08 after not having played significantly since 2005, but was waived in December '07 after 16 mediocre games.
So, to return to the question of "How good was Penny?", the answer is either going to be "really good for a brief period of time, followed by a decade of injury-plagued mediocrity," or "we can't answer that question because we'll never know exactly how good he would have been without the injuries". If health is a skill, then Hardaway lost it forever in mid-November of 1996, when an inflamed left hamstring caused him to sit a game against the Raptors -- from there, it was the knee tendonitis, leading to the torn cartilage, leading to the calf strain, leading to the plantar fasciitis... etc. If health is a skill, Hardaway probably wasn't very good. But if you believe that the first injury that starts the snowball down the mountain is largely bad luck, then Hardaway was a legitimately great player, if only for an instant. Remember, in the Summer of '96 he was the young star of Dream Team III at the Atlanta Olympics, his Chris Rock-voiced alter ego was more popular than both the MVPuppets combined, and he was poised as the most likely player to take the torch from Jordan when the GOAT retired. Hardaway may not have delivered on that promise, but it's important to note that the promise was there, and it was legit, once upon a time.