The Hall Of Old And Pretty Good

It started with a simple statement from my friend, Peter.

“I think that too many players are getting into the Hall of Fame these days.”

We launched into a spirited discussion of the qualifications a player should have to enter the Hall of Fame. Eventually, we agreed that there probably ought to be some cutoff around needing to be in the top X percentile of the league to make it.

I realized that, in a way, we could try to quantify if that’s been true to this point. At the least, we could look to see how many players active in a given season eventually made the Hall of Fame – not the same thing, but an interesting view. I compiled data charting the growth of the league in terms of players and teams, and then looked at HOF inductees’ careers from their inaugural year to their last playing year. All data is from Basketball Reference or Stathead unless otherwise noted.

A few caveats:

  • This analysis will include some people, such as Rick Adelman, who played in the NBA but weren’t inducted as a player (he was inducted as a coach). There aren’t many like that, but there are a few, and they did make the HOF. After internal debate, I decided to include them (the fact that excluding them would’ve taken me a lot longer certainly did not factor into that decision).
  • I used the players’ first and final years of their careers to determine if they were “active” that year, which led to a slight overcounting. For example, Michael Jordan counts as an active HOFer even during his Chicago retirement years since he eventually returned to the league. I wasn’t going to go through and look at every individual player to see if injuries, wars, playing overseas, or temporary retirements were causing problems, so sue me. See the footnotes for an example.
  • There is currently a four-year waiting period post-retirement for former players to be eligible, which is a significant part of why active HOFers tail off so much in recent years.

With that out of the way and an acknowledgment that this is slightly overcounting in ways that won’t impact the narrative here, let’s take a peek at the data.

First, let us examine the league’s growth over time in terms of both teams and the number of players who played at least one game that season.

As you can see, the number of players was stagnant at roughly 100 players until the league achieved some stability in the late ‘60s (there were a ton of teams folding and opening up during this initial stretch; Wikipedia has a great entry on the league’s expansion timeline). That precipitated a consistent increase in the number of players and teams over time until it leveled out at 30 teams in 2004-2005 (we are currently in the midst of the longest stretch we’ve ever had without expansion, although it seems that streak will be broken soon).

The number of players playing each year has increased in recent years thanks to the introduction of two-way contracts (which allow teams to roster 17 players instead of 15 and keep two of them in the G-League for large stints) in 2017-2018 and COVID exceptions in 2022.

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So as we can see, the teams and players have generally increased yearly. But what about the Hall of Famers who were active in a given year?

Wow. Ok, not necessarily what I was expecting. The ‘60s and ‘70s had so many Hall of Famers! The number of HOF players who were active in a given year was generally between 25 and 40 until we get to the 2000s, which makes sense given the four-year post-retirement waiting period to enter the HOF.

If the absolute number of HOFers was reasonably consistent and the number of players was growing, that must mean that there was a whole bunch of HOFers in the early days on a per-capita basis. And yep:

So in 1965-1966, a full 32%(ish) of players active in the NBA during the season ended up in the Hall of Fame. Nearly a full third of the league!

When people talk about the Hall of Fame being the Hall of Very Good, I don’t think this is what they mean, but it is pretty wild. Given the way Hall of Fame voting happens, we’ll get a longer tail on this over time as the league expands, but the number of elected players stays roughly the same.

If anything, the imbalance may grow even greater. The creation of four direct-election committees for the Basketball Hall of Fame, each of whom may enshrine one person per year, has led to an influx of early-year players being enshrined. The four groups are titled: the Contributors, the Early African-American Pioneers, the International Game, and the Veterans (35+ years since retirement).

It’s possible that at some point, those committees will either A) be shut down or B) will begin to include newer players, but it’s tough to see that happening anytime soon.

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That’s not a bad thing. It’s important to celebrate the underappreciated and oft-forgotten contributors to the early successes of the league. And nobody is crying for the players of the ‘90s, 2000s, and today, who made massive amounts of money in a league that only grew thanks to its early (T)trailblazers. But it is fair to wonder where to draw the cutoff point.

In short, the odds of any random player in today’s NBA reaching the Hall of Fame are likely declining. People who make the cut deserve our approbation, not scorn.

*So that’s not quite true. Basketball Reference has 111 players having played at least one game that season. 34 made the Hall of Fame. Here’s the complete list: Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Rick Barry, Walt Bellamy, Hal Greer, Jerry Lucas, Zelmo Beaty, Sam Jones, Guy Rodgers, Bailey Howell, John Havlicek, Dave DeBusschere, Lenny Wilkens, Chet Walker, Richie Guerin, Nate Thurmond, Willis Reed, Billy Cunningham, Elgin Baylor, Cliff Hagan, Bill Russell, Tom Sanders, Al Attles, Rod Thorn, Don Nelson, KC Jones, Gus Johnson, Wayne Embry, Jack Twyman, Gail Goodrich, Jerry Sloan, Tom Gola, John Thompson. Bob Cousy (temporarily retired) and Larry Costello (international) did not play a game that season, but both had further NBA careers, so they’re still counted here. 

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.