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Player Audit: How Good Was Penny?

Posted by Neil Paine on February 22, 2010

Penny HardawayWhen 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:

Player Yr Ag Tm G MP ORtg %Pos DRtg SPM DPA MPG P/36 TS% AsR ToR FTr OR% DR% Blk% Stl%
Penny 1994 22 ORL 82 3015 106.7 23.1 106.0 3.23 0.03 36.8 15.7 53.1 26.6 21.2 30.2 7.2 9.1 1.1 3.2
Rose 2009 20 CHI 81 3000 107.6 23.4 112.7 -2.26 -2.42 37.0 16.1 51.6 28.8 14.9 20.7 3.7 8.4 0.4 1.1

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)...

Player Yr Ag Tm G MP ORtg %Pos DRtg SPM DPA MPG P/36 TS% AsR ToR FTr OR% DR% Blk% Stl%
Penny 1996 24 ORL 82 3015 122.0 26.5 107.0 6.95 -0.34 36.8 21.3 60.5 32.2 15.0 47.7 5.1 8.5 1.0 2.9
Jordan 1996 32 CHI 82 3090 123.5 31.2 99.4 11.83 0.81 37.7 29.3 58.2 21.2 10.8 35.5 5.6 14.9 1.0 3.1

...But he was putting distance between himself and the other would-be "Next One", Grant Hill:

Player Yr Ag Tm G MP ORtg %Pos DRtg SPM DPA MPG P/36 TS% AsR ToR FTr OR% DR% Blk% Stl%
Penny 1996 24 ORL 82 3015 122.0 26.5 107.0 6.95 -0.34 36.8 21.3 60.5 32.2 15.0 47.7 5.1 8.5 1.0 2.9
Hill 1996 23 DET 80 3260 110.4 26.9 101.7 6.08 1.94 40.8 18.7 53.7 31.4 16.4 52.9 4.9 23.4 1.2 1.7

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.

43 Responses to “Player Audit: How Good Was Penny?”

  1. Drewg Says:

    Didn't Lebron put up a 122 with 36% usage just last year? Might be a rounding thing.

  2. Neil Paine Says:

    Good catch, Drew -- it was 121.7 for LBJ last year, so he just missed the cutoff.

  3. Mark Says:

    Penny was the mold for next generation guards like McGrady, who wore "1" because of his idol, however, his flaws were his pathetic work ethic and over-sensitivity to criticism moreso than freak injuries, which happen to everyone. His game was designed around his lateral quickness and getting into the "holes" (open areas) of a defense. He really did not have the one-on-one skills to break-down and pick-apart a defense, like Nash. He was more of an opportunity passer. Greatest passer I ever saw was Magic. He routinely made the fourth-option pass. When a defense went to double-cover Scott on the perimeter, or Worthy on the box, Magic could hit Green on a flash-cut to the basket on a dime. Penny was never that great, and despite hitting a game-winner, he often folded under pressue situations. He was the poster-child of a front-runner. Penny was product of mass-media marketing, just like Wade.

  4. Mark Says:

    Pardon the typos. At lunch at the moment, and watching the clock.

  5. Neil Paine Says:

    Wade? A product of mass-media marketing? You mean the guy who was better last year than Kobe Bryant has ever been at any point in his career? That Dwyane Wade?

  6. Jayson Says:

    I resent the fact that the guy who's considered the "real next Jordan" has yet to win anything.

    Jordan was a winner first and foremost.

    The "real next Jordan" has won nothing.

    Carry on..

  7. Fro Says:

    Well, then who is the "Next Penny"? Tracy McGrady?

  8. Mark Says:

    Wade has never been better than Bryant at any point his career. His game is entirely built around his screen/roll ability and getting to the foul line. He has a mammoth-sized gap in shooting effective-areas. Illustrated here: -- Notice the effective-areas on his left, 15-25 feet, but general effective around the basket. On the contrary, to a player like Bryant (and James): -- Or even to his peers, Anthony and Durant: -- -- Without the screen, Wade's effectiveness plumets dramatically. I don't know whether you watched their games last season. When Bryant covered Wade, in the 35-minutes the played together, Wade was 4/15 for 13-points; but if you only read boxscores, 10/22 for 27-points and 9 assists. Bryant limited Wade again this year, the game Bryant hit the winner over Wade, the only times Wade scored were when Bryant was picked off by the screener or on the foul line. -- You tend to understand those things, when you watch games. But alas, Neil. Those things don't show up in "boxscores". But, you probably already knew that Wade was much more effective going to his left, than to his right, and when he gets to the free throw line? -- If you want to know just how much: -- Play with it.

  9. Neil Paine Says:

    Jayson, by age 25 Jordan had won very little in the pros, and was roundly criticized as a selfish ball-hog who didn't have what it took to win a championship as the centerpiece of a team. I'd say that maturity and leadership-wise, LeBron James is arguably ahead of where MJ was at the same age...

  10. Aku Says:

    Neil, this was terrific. More player audits! Also, what are your thoughts on an All-Time Health-shortened Career Team? Penny is likely in the running, along with Hill, Walton, McGrady, Lewis, Bias, Stokes, Baylor...

  11. Neil Paine Says:

    Can't forget Bernard King...

  12. Johnny Says:

    I posted this on the other thread and Penny could clearly play at an elite level without Shaq before his injuries started.
    I noticed the FG% drop as well but I don't think all of it is attributed to Shaq. Look at his games without Shaq while he played in Orlando.

    93-94: 1 game 8/20 40%, 21 pts, 9 asts, 4 rbs, 4 stls, 1-0 record
    94-95: 3 games, 43/71 60.6%, 31 ppg, 5.7 apg, 4.7 rpg, 1.7 spg, 0.3 bpg, 2-1 record
    95-96: 28 games, 226/445 50.8%, 25.5, 6.4 apg, 4.9 rpg, 1.96 spg, 0.7 bpg, 20-8 record

    Totals: 32 games, 51.7 FG%, (277/536), 25.8 ppg, 6.4 apg, 4.9 rpg, 2.0 spg, 0.7 bpg, 23-9 record

    Also, I remember when Kidd was out that Penny stepped up big time near the end of '99-'00 and played very well in the Suns elimination of the Spurs in the 1st round that year. Unfortunately, the micro fracture surgery happened during 2000-01 and it was pretty much over at that point.

    One thing to note is that during the beginning of the 2001-02 season Penny put up a 18.5/5/5 line the first 25 games or so that season and that was after the micro-fracture.

  13. Jayson Says:

    Lebron has a FAR way to go to become the "next Jordan". Who knows if he'll ever win one title, let alone six. And when Michael was 25 he was only in his 4th complete season and accomplished more than Lebron James will after 7 seasons, both speaking awards-wise and in terms of statistics.

    We can talk about it purely on a statistics basis, which negates the other 80% of the game, but when considering pure skill, impact, consistency and just flat out winning; I'd argue Kobe Bryant has cemented himself as where the "next Jordan" argument stops.
    Sure he doesn't match up statistically (and a great emphasis is placed on this because this is a stats website), the two are so incredibly similar in terms of their skillset and attitude that it's remarkable.

    As a huge Jordan fan, I would honestly say it's a slap in the face to his legacy to compare him to Lebron James.

    But I'm taking the argument too far, since really the article is not even about any of these players (minus MJ).. But I also agree with Mark, in that Penny was highly overrated and a product of marketing. I never was amazed by his game like many others were.

  14. Johnny Says:

    Another thing I will say is that I give Penny a lot of credit for always trying to fight and come back from his numerous injuries even though he could have just stayed home and collect his guaranteed money.

    Marks, breakdown isn't very accurate. Penny had a great one on one game and even Scottie Pippen said he had a very hard time covering him.

    Neil did a great job of using statistical data and showing that Penny was in deed a legit elite player. He was an excellent passer, underrated defender, and had a great post up game. Three parts of his game that are severally underrated. MJ himself said that Penny was the heir apparent and who are we to criticize his opinion on that?

    Penny's injuries did him in as his prime was robbed.

  15. PrettyPaula Says:

    Thanks for this great article. I think people forget how good he really was. The guy was 1st team all nba and not because of lil' Penny

  16. Ryan Says:

    Fortunately for LeBron, he benefits from pre-existing scoring-title, championship-winning machine that was Jordan. Jordan's entire early criticism arose from comparative draws in Bird and Magic, two players who were "unselfish" on teams packed with talent. Jordan was dragging around one of the worst squads in the modern era, and was unfairly criticized for his scoring ways.

    That criticism now seems ridiculous in retrospect. His individual load was always clearly more efficient than his surrounding team, whether they were winning or not. His production dropped as the talent on his team increased and evolved.

    LeBron, in contrast, has a team that is deep and versatile. A couple may be choke artists at times, but for the most of the part they're an adept team all around. It can be argued that LeBron's apparent need to dominate the ball is a detriment to the develop of the team as a whole, although it seems to be more of a problem with the coaching system than LeBron's reluctance to handle the ball less.

    At any rate, LeBron benefits from Jordan's early criticisms.

  17. Bryan Says:

    The difference is at 25 lebron has had 7 seasons in the league compared to the 4 jordan had due to injury. Also Jordan led North Carolina to a championship so it wasnt exactly like he hadnt won anything. I also add that Jordans playoff "failures" came at the hands of all time great teams like the 80's celtics and pistons. Will the Magic be remembered as an all time great team 10 years from now? Can you do a statistical comparison of Bird, Mchale, and Parish compared to Howard, Lewis, and Turkoglu?

  18. Mo Says:

    [snark]Yeah Neil, all Wade does is drive to hoop and score 25 ppg for his career. And win a title as the feature player. Yeah, he's completely overhyped.[/snark]

    I'm sure there's some more meaningless shot charts that say so.

  19. Clubber Says:

    on point with that last comment bryan. off topic, add dajuan wagner to that health-shortened career team. i think he could have been just as good as youngmoney if he hadn't been playing with darius miles and ricky davis his rookie year. talk about all-time G squads, 02-03 cavs are on the short list with 90's knicks and jailblazers.

  20. Azeem Says:

    Lebron also says Penny was his favorite player, see:

  21. ChinuaAchebe Says:

    Much thanks, Neil.

    All that work for my absolute, without-a-doubt favorite player ever.

    Don't forget the acclaimed "Blue Chips" though (which, like Penny's game, was just THAT MUCH BETTER with the Shaqtus).

  22. Matt Says:

    Scottie Pippen once said that Penny ('94-'96) was his toughest cover. If you watch the 1996 ECF Game 1, Penny goes off for 39 pts and was covered a majority of that game by Pippen and really schooled him for the most part.

    This is a different game but check out the move at the 1:00 mark:

  23. Johnny Says:

    Here is a few clips of Penny on MJ:

    Just one of my favorite plays:

    A few more things to remember as well is that Penny's numbers were always better in the playoffs. Even when he was on his last legs as a Knick. He even averaged 25 pts/5 rbs/8 asts/ 50% FG in the '95 Final.. Also, in his short prime he was top 10 in MVP voting twice including 3rd in 1996.

    Another thing to remember with Penny is that he was putting up numbers and was an all nba 1st teamer despite averaging only 15 shots per game. He clearly wasn't a chucker.

    Finally, although he wasn't known as a defender he did finish in the top 6 in steals three different times and finished his career with a 1.6 spg average and 1,125 steals. Those are nice totals considering he wasn't a gambler for steals like Iverson for example.

  24. Stephen Says:

    Penny was so good. I was too young to appreciate how good he was before he got injured--my most salient memory was of his jumpstart move--but after downloading his playoff games against Indiana and Chicago, I was blown away. He could do everything on the court and he was a fabulous athlete. He absolutely torched Scottie Pippen. To do that against one of the best perimeter defenders ever shows how unbelievably talented he was. The most astounding thing about him was how good his post up game was. Despite not being meatier than Shaun Livingston, he could back down guys starting from the three point to all the way down to the hoop. He was on the level of Kobe and to me, a more interesting and dynamic player to watch. It's so sad that he was ruined by injuries. Those kinds of things are not supposed to happen to guy who could be legends. Strange that it happened to two guys, Grant and him, in the same era.

  25. Azeem Says:

    When Shaq sold out to Hollywood Penny was moved to 2 guard and they became reliant on him to drop 30 a night and carry the team. While he was a good scorer, I think it was a mistake to expect him to do that night in and night out. He was dominant as a PG and they should have kept him there. Its crazy how D Wade tries to do the same thing now, he is going to burn himself out. (no wonder he also gets hurt often).

  26. chillyfromphilly Says:

    im sure kids of today dont or wont remember penny hardaway or "lil penny" but penny was a great player, for a short amount of time. i can remember when shaq got hurt while in orlando and penny was putting up MVP type numbers for most of that season.penny was one of the last big( 6'7) point guards( jalen rose was another)i'd like to agree with azeem and say that shaq sold out by going to LA but, look how it turned out for shaq.. not only did he get paid, was in the biggest media market there is, he won 3 titles. i'd also like to think that if shaq had stayed in orlando with penny and enough role players that maybe shaq could have won those titles in orlando. i mean, no one, at that time could have predicted that in the very next season after shaq left that penny hardaway would get hurt and NEVER be the same again.

  27. Jason J Says:

    Great article, Neil.

    Basketball fans really missed out on a special team and possibly all-time great rivalry when that Magic team fell apart and conceded the East to Chicago for virtually the rest of the decade.

  28. steve norris Says:

    penny was a great player for a short time. anyone who watched could see. that being said, his game and personality changed when shaq left. injury and a bad attitude were eventually his career. i want yall to audit kobe. taking your celtic love out of it. when yall do this audit figure in his first two years as a potential 28mpg being his team was so stacked and del harris wouldnt play him. i know its not jordan worthy, but id like to see where he really stacks up behind jordan. im guessing if jordan is a 10 so to speak, i would say kobe is maybe an 8? just curious. keep up the good work. i really enjoy your site!

  29. Tyler Says:

    Cool article, interesting discussion, thanks for all the work. :)

    I am inclined to agree that Penny in his early, pre-injury years was truly spectacular and on his way up, big-time.

    There's no truth to the idea that he just used his quickness to get to spots. He had a post game, he had some serious handles, he had a mid-range jumper that even post injury hung around the 42-46% eFG mark (jumpers only, remember), and dipping as "low" as 39%. He was pretty useful, even with bum knees, no matter what people want to say of him. The reason he couldn't hang around after the injury was more related to stamina, defense, etc. Obviously, it impacted what he could do as far as carrying a team's offense, making it basically impossible for him to do it. Anyway, that's a tangent.

    Penny clearly had scoring ability. Maybe not consistent 30 ppg ability, but 25 ppg ability for sure. He really could have been something legendary if he'd managed to stay healthy. Besides, every player comes into the league with their full range of abilities, right? [/sarcasm]

    Jordan didn't have the post game or jumper he would later develop when he first hit the league. Flashes, glimmers, but not the consistency or depth. Hell, he relied HEAVILY on his athleticism as late as the 92-93 season. He had to almost completely reinvent his game for the 95-96 season because he couldn't consistently get to the spots he used to, so criticizing Penny for having that same approach to the game is a little weak; you use what you have as long as it works, and then adapt to whatever changes occur.

    Penny was great.

  30. Johnny Says:


    Well stated. I thought Penny was a good "glue" player on the 2003 Suns team that took the Spurs to 6 games. It was him that made the game tying free throws and made the pass for the game winning layup in game 3 to give the Suns a 2-1 lead in the series.

    I also think Penny had a good playoff series for the Knicks in 2004. I just think people remembered him as being so explosive that anything but that was considered a failure.

    Penny really had a good offensive game. He was one of the best post up guards in the league, had a mid range game, a decent 3 pt shot, and was a high 70s to 80s free throw shooter. Throw in the fact he could pass well and was an underrated defender and you have a player who could have had a great career.

  31. Drew Says:

    Jordan didnt win until his 7th season into the league! thats 1, 2, 3...7!! so when they say the "next jordan" they dont expect an nba championship in year 1.

    And D. Wade is not the product of mass media. Penny was a good player...was no Jordan though. Injuries really ruined his career. Same with Grant Hill.Both played for Orlando. Both never got the proper treatment until going to phoenix.

  32. Chronz Says:

    Bron is definitely the next MJ, I dont need to see him win a title to know this. Its only a matter of time anyways, and when it happens not a damn thing about him would have changed but the play of his teammates. Im not saying winning doesnt matter just not as much as how much you get out of your talent pool. Like if Bron wins a title with the squad he has, going up against the talent of Kobe's Lakers it will likely mean more than any title MJ or Kobe won. Measure you win and lose, more than simply winning and losing.

    Winning makes fools of everyone, how else do you explain James Posey going from making pittance to getting the full MLE coming off a chip? Despite being the same player hes always been, and already being a champion prior to that. Its like teams expect players to bring their magical voodoo ability to win and consistently hit shots at certain moments of the game.

  33. Chronz Says:

    I meant to say measure HOW you win and lose rather than simply winning and losing.

  34. Ricardo Says:

    "Also Jordan led North Carolina to a championship"

    I think you meant to say, "fourth option who made a huge shot in the title game" - quite different from "led the team". (James Worthy, Sam Perkins)

  35. Brian Says:

    There's never going to be another Jordan, so stop comparing people to him.

  36. Ball Says:

    "How else do you explain Posey going from making a pittance to getting the full MLE coming off a chip?"

    Well, if I'm not mistaken, Posey (along with Eddie House) agreed to sign on to the Celtics at a severely discounted rate in order to have the opportunity to play with KG.

  37. mrparker Says:

    Last night on sportscenter they showed a graphic.

    Which player had the most fgs with under 24 seconds left in the 4th quarter since 02-03. Answer: Lebron James.

    P.S- He didn't play in 02-03.

    I kept waiting for them to show it again today. But I think they figured out that it actually made Kobe look bad.

    LBJ has a versatile team is the funniest quote I've heard in years.

    Kobe's very good.

    LBJ is on a different planet in all categories except grimaces and twirling jumpers.

  38. Kevin Says:

    Kobe Bryant is the most overrated player of the past 10 years.

    Sam Cassell is the most underrated.

  39. Johnny Says:

    Watch Penny with Pippen guarding him on this video at the 3:40-4:00 mark.

  40. Chronz Says:

    Well, if I'm not mistaken, Posey (along with Eddie House) agreed to sign on to the Celtics at a severely discounted rate in order to have the opportunity to play with KG.

    Definitely not House, I could be wrong about Posey but I dont recall any team bidding for his services, the Heat werent even trying to resign him. Whatever the case he certainly wasnt thought of in that full MLE class.

  41. P Middy Says:

    Post game, finishing ability, passing, athleticism, vision, and at least 32 pieces of flare. As usual, KBLAZE has the goods:

  42. jack Says:

    check youtube and you"ll see how good penny was b4 injures. the new kids now adays cant do what he does. he wasnt overated. he was popular too as his jersey was one of best sellers next to mj

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