Bill Walton: Was He Any Good?

In the first article in this series looking back at historical NBA players and whether their impact matched their reputation, the central question revolved around whether only six years’ worth of NBA games in a career was enough to qualify someone for the Hall of Fame, no matter how good those six years’ worth of games actually were.

And in Yao Ming‘s case, the verdict was ultimately Confirmed; he was and remains a true Hall of Famer.

But Bill Walton adds another wrinkle to this question. The man’s career was so plagued by injury that he made only two All-Star appearances, played more than 70 games only once (on the 1986 Celtics, where he was Sixth Man of the Year), and won MVP in a year where he played in only 58 contests (the 1977-78 season a year after his Portland Trail Blazers won the franchise’s only championship.)

In total, Walton played in just 468 games, scored just 6,215 career points, and racked up a comparatively paltry 39.3 Win Shares.

Indeed, of the 150 NBA players who are in the Hall of Fame, Walton ranks 118th in Win Shares, and most of the guys behind him are either foreign players (Drazen Petrovic, Sarunas Marciulionis), guys who got most of their Win Shares in the ABA and therefore don’t factor into Basketball Reference’s all-time NBA stat rankings, or guys who played briefly in the NBA but made their Hall of Fame career as coaches (Pat Riley, John Thompson, Phil Jackson) or executives (Rod Thorn.)

Of guys who were actually NBA players for their entire basketball career and made the Hall of Fame as players, Walton is arguably the worst of them all.

So what gives? Is there a statistical case for Bill Walton to be in the Hall of Fame besides the context of two of the teams he was on that won titles? Or is he the most overrated player in NBA history?

Let’s crack this one. Valid Hall of Fame case = Confirmed, anything less = Busted.

The Counting Stats

Walton was a fantastic rebounder. He led the league in 1976-77 with 14.4 boards a game and posted 13.5 rebounds per contest in his first four years in Portland.

Later, with the Clippers in 1984-85, Walton led the league in rebounding percentage, which is an advanced stat but which provides some context to the 9.0 rebounds per game Walton grabbed in just 24.6 minutes a game.

Walton was a terrible scorer relative to the expectation of a dominant big man—he never cracked 19 points per game despite playing in a fast era—but peel back the numbers and you see a guy who did everything else well.

Besides the rebounding, Walton led the league in blocks in 1976-77 as well. He was a deft passer for a big man, averaging 4.4 assists in his early seasons in Portland. And he had remarkably quick hands for a big guy, which gave him a full 1.0 steals per 36 minutes for his career.

You look at the numbers and you’re like “great, an 18/13 guy. Be still, my beating heart, he was Andre Drummond or DeAndre Jordan before they were cool.”

Well, except for the part where Walton could actually make a free throw—he shot 66.0 percent from the line for his career, far above Drummond’s 46.1 or Jordan’s 47.4 percent.

But where we really want to focus our attention here is on…

The Advanced Stats

Man, the advanced stats paint a picture of a guy who wasn’t just “a good defender” but “one of the best defenders of all time when he was healthy.”

Walton was two-time All-Defensive and should’ve won Defensive Player of the Year in 1978 (but settled for MVP.)

He led the league in defensive rebound percentage four times and overall rebounding percentage twice.

He posted block percentages better than 6.0 twice—for comparison, while that’s not as good as 2018-19 block percentage leader Myles Turner (8.4), Walton’s 6.1 and 6.3 in 1979-80 and ’82-83 compare well to Turner’s 6.4 in 2019-20. If we acknowledge Turner is an elite shotblocker and apply that gold standard, Walton looks pretty good.

Walton led the league in Defensive Box Plus-Minus in 1978 and of those 39.3 career Win Shares, 24.6 came on the defensive side of the ball.

Put simply, if Walton was your center, your team was elevated defensively (unless your team was a garbage fire otherwise, as the Clippers learned.) If Walton hadn’t destroyed his foot in the 1978 playoffs, there’s no way the Seattle SuperSonics—who ended up beating Portland in the West semis—would’ve sniffed the NBA Finals that year. The title was Portland’s to win before that injury.

And not for nothing did the ’86 Celtics lead the league in Defensive Rating.

But…

Man, it is hard to take a guy like Walton and try to give him the benefit of the doubt for so few seasons of excellence when he was otherwise plagued by injury and barely stayed on the floor even when he was relatively healthy.

He played 65 games in 1977 and 58 in ’78, winning MVP in the latter season in a way that is hard to justify.

He missed three full seasons with that foot injury and finally retired after missing a fourth in 1987-88 after playing just ten games in the previous year with the Celtics.

And that 39.3 Win Shares total is way below the caliber of a Hall of Famer even after you try and give him the benefit of the doubt. Yao had 65.9 Win Shares in his NBA career. Giannis Antetokounmpo, through 465 games (as in, not counting this season), had 53.2, and he didn’t even get good until 2017.

Plus, Walton managed just .142 WS/48 for his career, mediocre at best for a big man, never topped .215 because his offense simply didn’t match his defense, and had three years below the .100 mark with the Clippers.

For context, even the worst big men in the league in any given year usually crack .100; in 2018-19, the worst center to play at least 2,000 minutes was Marc Gasol, who ended up with .118. Only three out of 14 guys (Gasol, rookie Deandre Ayton, and Brook Lopez) came up short of Walton’s career mark of .142.

Which leads to…

THE VERDICT!

Does Bill Walton have a Hall of Fame case? A real one?

Well…if you want to consider his pivotal role on two title teams and ask a bunch of what-if questions about the 1978 playoffs, and if you want to argue (and you can absolutely argue) that even advanced stats don’t capture just how elite a defender Walton was, then you can make the same case the voters did when they put Walton in back in 1993.

But if you want to say that a guy’s got to actually do something on an NBA floor besides get hurt and make people ask questions, there’s simply no case for Walton. He wasn’t the guy that Yao Ming was or even that Giannis—if he were to suffer a career-ending injury during the playoffs, for example—might already be (and ask yourself, is Antetokounmpo already a Hall of Famer? And if not, why is Walton, whose advanced stats are far worse in fewer games?)

I really don’t want to say Busted. To do so would be to gloss over the whole problem with defensive advanced stats in the NBA.

But there’s no way in heaven, earth, or hell I’m saying Confirmed.

Plausible it is. What an enigmatic career, as strange as the man himself.

NEXT: Rik Smits.