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Ranking the best basketball Hall-of-Fame classes of all time

Ranking the best basketball Hall-of-Fame classes of all time

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This coming weekend, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame will hold its annual induction ceremony, welcoming Paul Pierce, Chris Bosh, Chris Webber, Ben Wallace, among others. The nature of the Hall-of-Fame means every class is noteworthy — we’re dealing with the best of the best. But comparatively, this group isn’t quite as shiny as some other recent years.

Bosh and Pierce have three rings combined and a Finals MVP for Pierce but they were often of secondary or even tertiary importance on their best teams. Webber put up monster numbers and was a stylistic revolution but his teams were most famous for playoff disappointments. Wallace is one of the greatest defensive players of his generation — with a ring and four Defensive Player of the Year Awards coming in the span of five years. But he barely ever shot outside the paint and averaged just 5.7 points per game for his career.

This is not to demean their credentials, they are all incredible players and worthy inductees. But, collectively, this group doesn’t have quite the relevance of say, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant entering the Hall-of-Fame together last year.

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For the same of argument and distraction, I combed through every Hall-of-Fame induction class for the last three decades and tried to identify the five most historically relevant groupings. In this case, I’m only looking at inductions for players only. By my reckoning, here are the top five:

5. 2008 Naismith Basketball Hall-of-Fame class notables: Adrian Dantley, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon

Olajuwon is obviously the headliner here, with an MVP, two Defensive Player of the Year Awards and a pair of rings. He was also a revolutionary talent on the cutting edge for NBA big men play and someone whose Rockets teams — with four shooters spaced around him in the post — offered a sneak peek of the 3-point revolution to come. Ewing was a dominant big man in his own right but his personal history with Olajuwon (they battled in the 1994 NBA Finals) made it even more special to see them go in together. And don’t forget about Dantley, who led the league in scoring twice and averaged 30 points per game for four consecutive seasons from 1980 to 1984. He wasn’t just some reckless gunner either — Dantley recorded three of the first five seasons in NBA history with a usage rate better than 28 percent and a true shooting percentage above 60, statistical benchmarks that have become the standard for elite creators like Steph Curry and Kevin Durant.

4. 2016 Naismith Basketball Hall-of-Fame class notables: Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal, Yao Ming

This group was fascinating because of their individual accomplishments but also because of their personal connections and their stylistic differences. Obviously, we’re looking at disparate ends of the physical spectrum with Iverson against Yao and Shaq. But the intensity, fearlessness and physical risk Iverson incorporated into his game were completely at odds with the often fragile and injury-wracked careers of Shaq and Yao. Iverson also matched up with Shaq in the 2001 NBA Finals and the personal rivalry between Shaq and Yao was compelling for years.

3.1993 Naismith Basketball Hall-of-Fame class notables: Julius Erving, Bill Walton, Walt Bellamy, Calvin Murphy, Dan Issel

This is a loaded class, headlined by two of the most memorable players in NBA history in Erving and Walton. Erving was a stylistic trendsetter whose impact can still be traced to today’s high-flying, acrobatic wings. Walton was a fascinating player but also the epitome of a team player, someone who happily emphasized defense, passing and winning over individual accolades. Bellamy, Murphy and Issel might not be immediately familiar to younger fans but Murphy was an absolute steal machine and Bellamy and Issell both rank among the most prolific scorers in league history (Issel is No. 11 and Bellamy is No. 43, all-time).

2. 2009 Naismith Basketball Hall-of-Fame class notables: Michael Jordan, John Stockton, David Robinson

Michael Jordan alone makes this class noteworthy but he also went into the Hall-of-Fame with Stockton, the prototype for the pure point guard and the holder of career assist and steal records that legitimately might never be broken. Robinson may appear as a distant third to Stockton and Jordan but was an absolute monster in his prime and won Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and MVP in his career. Jordan is also in another class as an icon but Stockton and Robinson (along with Karl Malone and Tim Duncan) are the most iconic players in the history of two classic franchises.

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1. 2020 Naismith Basketball Hall-of-Fame class notables: Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant

I’m not sure you could envision a group with, collectively, more impressive credentials or one who so thoroughly represents an era of basketball. Duncan, Garnett and Kobe are seventh, ninth, and 16th, respectively, in Win Shares in the history of the NBA. They are each among the two or three greatest players in NBA history at their positions and would all place on a lot of people’s lists of the 10 overall greatest players of all time. For a 15-year span, from 1998-99 to 2014-15, the NBA champion featured one of these three players 11 times. They also, collectively, took home four MVPs and a Defensive Player of the Year Award during that era. These three were basketball in the 2000s and took them another half-decade to relinquish their stranglehold on the league.

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The WNBA is celebrating their 25th season with a massive list of the 25 best players in the history of the league. More modern fans don’t need to be worried because the list is heavily weighted towards the present.

Not to be outdone, at The Athletic Lyndsey D’Arcangelo has her list of the 25 most influential players in the history of the league, looking at both on- and off-court achievements.

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