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Keltner List: Bernard King

Posted by Neil Paine on December 10, 2008

Today we're going to run our first Keltner List, that tried-and-true staple of sabermetric-type analysis ever since Bill James introduced it way back in the 1985 Baseball Abstract. The format is simple: it's an inventory of yes-or-no questions designed to assess whether or not a player deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. It's not numerical, nor is it strictly objective, but after going through the list you typically get a pretty good feel for the player's HoF-worthiness. Our subject this morning is Bernard King, one of the best scorers of the 80s, but a guy who still hasn't been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Have the HoF's anonymous voters made the right call the past four years, or does King really belong in the Hoop Hall?

Position: Forward
Height: 6-7  Weight: 205 lbs.
Born: December 4, 1956 in Brooklyn, New York
High School: Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, New York
College: University of Tennessee
Draft: Selected by the New Jersey Nets in the 1st round (7th pick, 7th overall) of the 1977 NBA draft.

1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in basketball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in basketball? No. He did lead the league in PPG in 1984-85, however, and it's been suggested that he was the best pure scorer of the pre-Jordan era -- although the likes of Adrian Dantley and Alex English might disagree.

2. Was he the best player on his team? Yes... when healthy. He was the best player on the Nets in each of his first two NBA seasons, the best player on the Warriors from 1980-82, and the Knicks' best player right up until his devastating knee injury in 1985. He was also arguably the Bullets' best player at the turn of the decade.

3. Was he the best player in basketball at his position? No. Unfortunately for King, playing in the 1980s meant you had to contend with Larry Bird for "best SF" bragging rights, and Bird was just better, frankly. King made 1st-team All-NBA twice, but Bird won the MVP in each of those seasons.

4. Did he have an impact on a number of NBA Finals or Conference Finals? No. King's teams made the playoffs with him as a regular just 4 times, and only escaped the 1st round twice. His best postseason moments by far came in 1984, when King scored 34.8 PPG on .574 shooting as the Knicks upset the Pistons in the 1st round (BK scored 44 pts in the 5th and deciding game) and pushed the eventual-champion Celtics to 7 games in the East semis.

5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime? Yes. Not only was he good enough to play regularly after his prime, he was good enough to score 28.4 PPG as a 34-year-old, five years removed from surgery on a torn ACL.

6. Is he the very best (eligible) basketball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame? No, that's probably Artis Gilmore.

7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame? King is the only single-season scoring champion not to be enshrined. He and Tom Chambers are the only players to score 60 points in a game and not be in the Hall. Just 22 players have a higher career scoring average than King, and virtually all of them are either already in the HoF or are sure-fire future members. The overwhelming majority of players who put up seasons comparably productive to King's prime are in the Hall of Fame. The only problem here is King's career totals, which are deflated by the loss of basically 3 prime seasons to the knee injury.

8. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards? Yes, if barely. According to our Hall Probability metric, King has a 79.1% chance of entering the HoF, which is somewhat on the low end for players inducted, but higher than members like Nate Thurmond, James Worthy, Wes Unseld, Walt Bellamy, David Thompson, and Earl Monroe, just to name a few.

9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics? From King's basic stats, you don't truly get a feel for his defensive shortcomings. Here are his career defensive numbers, translated to the environment of 2007-08 (league avg. of 107.5):

Season  Ag    Tm       G       Min    trDRtg
1978    21    NJN     79      3092    107.3
1979    22    NJN     82      2859    105.6
1980    23    UTA     19       419    113.4
1981    24    GSW     81      2914    112.1
1982    25    GSW     79      2861    109.8
1983    26    NYK     68      2207    103.1
1984    27    NYK     77      2667    105.1
1985    28    NYK     55      2063    110.2
1987    30    NYK      6       214    114.5
1988    31    WSB     69      2044    109.5
1989    32    WSB     81      2559    110.7
1990    33    WSB     82      2687    111.8
1991    34    WSB     64      2401    110.7
1993    36    NJN     32       430    107.4

By any account, he wasn't very good at that end of the floor. With a career mark of 2.63 DWS/3K (average is 3.07), King's subpar defense has to be accounted for in any Hall of Fame discussion regarding the prolific scorer.

10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame? It's somewhat tough to say, but I'll go with "yes". Although other arguments can be made -- Mark Aguirre is a fellow big-time scorer who lit up the eighties, and Chris Mullin quietly had a really good peak (plus he has longevity on his side). Meanwhile, what do we do about European imports like Detlef Schrempf and Toni Kukoc? Still, I think King's best years give him the edge over the other eligible-but-not-in SFs out there.

11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close? King had one MVP-caliber year: 1983-84, when he posted 11.8 Win Shares and finished 2nd to Larry Bird in the award voting (The Sporting News actually gave King their MVP award over Larry Legend). He also finished in the top 10 in MVP voting in '84-85 (7th), although that time it had more to do with his league-leading 32.9 PPG than having an all-around, MVP-type season.

12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the players who played in this many All-Star games go into the Hall of Fame? King suited up for 4 All-Star games (1982, '84, '85, '91) and was probably an All-Star caliber player in 1981 and '83 as well. Still, players who only play in 4 ASGs typically do not get into the Hall of Fame (George Mikan, Earl Monroe, and Arnie Risen being notable exceptions).

13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win an NBA title? No. As we observed above, King was the best player on most of his teams, but they never achieved much success in the postseason.

14. What impact did the player have on basketball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way? Was his college and/or international career especially noteworthy? King was a great NCAA player, but you could say that about a lot of guys. I suppose his most noteworthy impact, then, was the fact that he was the first player to really come back from an ACL tear at anything resembling his pre-injury level of play.

The Verdict: He's a borderline candidate, obviously, but I think King deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. I can't recall another player with BK's scoring chops who isn't in the Hall, and his peak (pre-injury) years alone give him a decent HoF résumé. The fact that he returned from such a severe (and, at the time, generally career-ending) injury to post some decent seasons with Washington later in his career only enhances his case for enshrinement. That said, King's career totals aren't as gaudy as they should be because of the years lost to injury, and his history of substance abuse could be a factor for some voters (though it didn't hurt, say, David Thompson). All told, King's body of work -- particularly his best seasons in the early-to-mid 1980s -- is probably Hall-worthy... although it's unlikely that King will be enshrined in Springfield at this point. That's unfortunate, because when he was at his best, King was one of the most feared scorers in the game, a serious threat to explode for a monster point total on any given night.

11 Responses to “Keltner List: Bernard King”

  1. Mike G Says:

    "... Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in basketball?
    No. "
    Actually, many voices were raised to the effect that he was robbed of MVP when Bird first won.

    "Did he have an impact on a number of NBA Finals or Conference Finals? No. "
    The 1984 titling Celtics beat NY 4-3 before dispatching Mil 4-1. The Knicks therefore seem to be the 3rd-best team of the '84 playoffs.

    Against the all-HOF Celts, the Knicks had BK and 2 other above-average players, Bill Cartwright and Ray Williams. Not allstars by a longshot. Sparrow, Orr, Truck, Tucker, and the like, were Bernard's supporting cast.

    So he never reached the conference finals, but he certainly threw a scare into them. Next year, he was well on his way to MVP (some say) when he was struck down.

  2. Neil Paine Says:

    MVP doesn't always use "best player" as a criteria, though. Even at his peak, did anyone seriously suggest King could match Bird or Magic's all-around game? Being a high-volume, super-efficient scorer is fantastic, but King was one-dimensional in that manner -- he didn't rebound, defend, pass, etc. very well compared to those guys (especially Bird, who played the same position).

  3. Blake Kennedy Says:

    Another yes/no question for the HOF: Q: Was this player mentioned in Kurtis Blow's song "Basketball"? A: Yes, Bernard King was mentioned in the song. Therefore, he should be inducted into the HOF.

  4. Neil Paine Says:

    LOL, that qualifies him for automatic induction.

  5. Mike Hale Says:

    Bernard KIng aka Nard was awesome. I remember back in the day, checking the game stats with my homies. If we saw Nard had scored say 23 points the night before, someone would invariably say, "damn, Nard had an off game last night." Thats how bad he was. Everyone in the know, revered Bernard King. I recall once, Cornbread Maxwell, saying in a pregame interview, that he was going to be guarding Bernard that night and declaring, "he wont get 40 tonight." Nard went out and lit him up for 50. Nard was a bad boy, or what we used to call a bad actor. Also, alot of people have slept on James Silas, my Tallulah LA homie. He was the runner up MVP to Dr J one year. He aand the Ice Man was team mates for the spurs and James was the star. Gervin was his side kick. He got injured and wasnt able to come back fully. Only then did Gervin become the Ice Man. Phil Chenier was a bad boy. If he hadnt gotten injured, he would be an all time great. Bob Dandridge should also be in the Hall.

  6. Mark Steeneck Says:

    King was considered by many including HOFer Hubie Brown to be the MVP of 83-84. Tom Heinsohn said after the season that King's second half of that year was better than any he had EVER seen. During that second half of the year King had 50 points on back to back nights while shooting a very good percentage. The Knicks won both games on the road. Of course a team he was on while he was its best player could win a championship since he was either number 1 or 2 in 1984. King was a clutch performer and a very good passer. He didn't pile up assists because he didn't handle the ball much. He caught the ball in scoring position, made a quick move and released the ball. Not much opportunity to pass, but always made the good pass when it was the right thing to do. I remember when he was with the Warriors averaging 27 a game on 72 percent shooting for an entire month. In 1985 though averaging 32.9 per game he couldn't be even considered for MVP since his team was decimated by injuries and had no chance of making the playoffs. I think if you asked the other great small forwards of his era you would find that they rank Bernard much higher than the average person or sports writer and that matters. Ask Dr. J and Larry Bird whether King belongs in the Hall. Against the Pistons in the 1984 playoffs, King averaged almost 43 a game for 5 games. He was a great fast break player but the Knicks were a slow it down team. His Knicks took the Celtics to 7 games. Bird was guarded by King but King was guarded by Maxwell and McHale, both excellent defenders and they were platooned against King so they were always fresh. After the ACL injury he still was very good. How many players could have limped around like he did and still have a big impact for his team. I saw him torch Pippen in 1993 (his last year) for 20 points in one half---Pippen had no chance. This wouldn't even be a debate if not for the ACL injury but I think how good he was AFTER the injury proves that he belongs in the Hall Of Fame.

  7. doug blair Says:

    My reply is mostly subjective. I watched Bernard at Tennessee during his college years with Ernie Grunfeld. In the NBA and NCAA, anyone who ever watched BK pour his soul out onto the court, into the goal and into the game never really ever viewed the game in the same context again. Jerry West was my 1st favorite pro player, MJ the last. Bernard King took the spectators into the "zone" with him, and taught others how to find it themselves. Bernard not only elevated his team and the game, but the experience of being a spectator and observer of genius at work. Listen to many people who talk about watching BK, so many of them write about the experience and the energy. Too much is made of his difficulties in youth, many youth of high energy in intellect and performance struggle with learning to manage the energy of extreme focus and genius. Bernard King, for me personally you taught me how to play the game and to empathize with those burdoned with extreme giftedness. Sometimes giftedness can be a burden, until young folk learn the way. He Belonged In The Hall Of Fame years ago. Thanks for all you've done.

  8. kevin Says:

    I remember when King came into the league, SI did a story on who would replace Julius Erving as the league's best forward and the young lions they picked were Marques Johnson, Walter Davis and King. At the time, I thought King was the best of the 3 and at his peak, he was as good as Erving, maybe better. He had the quickest release on his shot I ever saw. In fact, he released on the way up, rather than at the peak of the jump like most players.

    I disagree with Neil on his passing. I thought King was an excellent passer and it is what separated him from the other high scoring forwards.

  9. john dough Says:

    lol that's becuz kurtis blow is from new york and bernard was playing for the knicks when the song came out so who else on the knick squad would u expect kurt to mention??

    still...he gets the "yes" vote from me for HOF

  10. JP Says:

    James Worthy on Bernard King:

    JW: "He was probably the most feared forward I ever came up against. He was just an endless worker. He was reckless abandon under control and you could not outwork him. Not only was he talented with an extremely unorthodox shot, but also he would beat you down. He was a miniature-sized Moses Malone or Shaq, just physically punishing to defend. And you could not guard Bernard King tightly because he just wouldn’t allow you to be on him like that."

    Taken from:

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