Sam Smith: Horace Grant deserves to be in the Hall of Fame

If the game is ultimately about winning, perhaps it's time for history to take a closer look at players like Horace Grant, whose career was defined by winning.

He was an essential third of a Big Three which won three championships. He started for another dynasty team and won another NBA title. He also was a Big Three member of yet a third team that should have been a dynasty but only reached one NBA Finals (in which he averaged a double-double, by the way.)

Horace Grant, in a 17-year NBA career, was defined by winning. And aren't we always told that's the ultimate statistic? Grant was a full-time starter in all but his first and last NBA seasons and he never played for a team with a losing record. In more than half his seasons, his teams won at least 50 games and combined to win about 65 percent of their games. Though Grant never was the best player on his team, he always was part of its Big Three, first with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, then Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway and finally Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant before bouncing around to a few former addresses in his last few seasons.

The Bulls improved by 10 games in the first season with Grant and Pippen and declined by eight games the first season after Grant left for Orlando. And only eight games thanks to the late season return of Jordan in 1994-95 with a 13-4 close to the season. The Magic improved by seven games in Grant's first season despite already having O'Neal and Hardaway and declined by 13 games the first season after Grant left for the Lakers. Grant teamed with O'Neal and Bryant for his fourth NBA title and at 35 still was the team's third leading rebounder in the Finals. In one Seattle season in-between those Orlando and Los Angeles seasons, the Supersonics improved from a .500 team to 45 wins.

Michael Jordan and Horace Grant

Horace Grant won't be in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He has just one All-Star game appearance and was voted to only four NBA All-Defensive teams. The Hall of Fame, despite celebrating team success, primarily rewards individual accomplishment. It's how players like Tracy McGrady become Hall of Famers without ever having been on a playoff series winning team. Not that he isn't deserving since individual excellence shouldn't be marred by bad luck with geography.

NBA All-Star teams more often honor success with sometimes lesser players from winning teams being selected. Not as much the ultimate destination, the Hall of Fame, which acts as the final arbiter for careers.

I bring this up now with the Lakers' 2020 championship and the vital role played by Rajon Rondo and a recent podcast I did called Pod of Fame about Grant's possibility as a Hall of Famer.

I doubted it was possible for Grant (or Rondo) to make the Hall of Fame because of the historic criteria, albeit informal. There have been all-time role players who have been enshrined, most notably the 76ers and Nuggets Bobby Jones, who averaged about 12 points in his career. Jones was named to eight defensive teams. However, he's in an extremely small Hall of Fame team picture.

We tend to demand defense and winning. And then we celebrate stats.

It's understandable because it's easier quantified and witnessed.

Though players like Horace Grant, who played seven years for the Bulls from 1987 through the 1993-94 season, are vital for success, they tend not to be celebrated at a comparable level. Go ahead, discuss.

Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen being interviewed by Bob Costas following the Bulls' third championship

But consider some of this:

There can be little debate that Grant was an invaluable third of the Bulls Big Three for the first three championships. Though Jordan and Pippen were justifiably celebrated defenders, it was Grant who generally defended the most athletic interior scorer and who defended the full 94 feet. It generally was Grant harassing the inbounder in the Bulls effective trapping schemes and who then would have to race back to protect the basket along with Bill Cartwright.

Just about every third member of a title Big Three dynasty is in the Hall of Fame with Magic, Kareem and Worthy; Bird, McHale and Parish: Robinson, Duncan and (take your pick with Manu or Kawhi) and Curry, Thompson and Durant also to come. And there was Grant to support Shaq and Kobe in Los Angeles that one season. Forget the dynasty Celtics since they often had eight Hall of Famers on the roster.

Grant's career numbers are modest, about 11 points and eight rebounds. What gets lost in the stats is impact on the game, which was not always pleasant for Bulls fans after 1993-94.

It was following that season Grant left as a free agent to Orlando. Pippen is much celebrated for that fabulous 55-27 season post-Jordan with that infamous one foul call in the conference semifinals perhaps denying the Bulls a chance to return to the Finals without Jordan.

Pippen was a league MVP candidate that season. But it was Grant who averaged a double/double at 15.1 points and 11 rebounds, leading the team in rebounds, shooting and blocks and second in points and steals. It was Grant's departure, as Phil Jackson often noted, which led to the .500 record for most of 1994-95 before Jordan's return and the need to get a replacement power forward following the playoff loss to Grant's Magic, which eventually led to Dennis Rodman.

Horace Grant, as a member of the Orlando Magic, chats with Scottie Pippen pregame

Though it seemed to alienate Grant from the Bulls for a time, it was Grant who sent Jordan out of the playoffs in his return. It was Grant averaging 22 points and 13 rebounds in a four-game stretch of the 1995 conference semifinals for the Magic. That became the difference in the series, Grant eventually carried off the floor by Magic teammates in the United Center Game 6 clinching win.

Both sides seem to have gotten past that as Grant has become the most active of Bulls ambassadors with fan appearances.

Though Grant's career statistics are not special, he did average barely below a double/double in a nine-year stretch. When measured against Hall of Fame players who are winners, Grant fares well.

In NBA history, 37 players have won four championships or more and 25 of 37 of those players (68 percent) are in the HOF or are soon to be in the HOF. Out of the 12 players who have four championships and are not in the Hall of Fame, Grant is the only one who has been an All-Star. That would be assuming Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli make the Hall of Fame. Grant, according to the advanced statistical research, is 47th all-time in NBA win shares. Only three players ahead of him on that list (Chauncey Billups, Shawn Marion and Buck Williams) are not in the Hall of Fame already or not first ballot type players once they become eligible.

It doesn't suggest Grant should be in the Basketball Hall of Fame, or that he will be. But perhaps the largest gap in acknowledging success.

If the game is ultimately about winning, perhaps it's time for history to take a closer look at players like Horace Grant, who didn't always make the big shot—though he did make the big pass to John Paxson for the 1993 title and then blocked Kevin Johnson's attempted winner—but who helped give the superstars like Jordan and Pippen and Shaq and Kobe the opportunity to finish the job.