Detlef Schrempf is the patron saint of Goofy Foreign White Guys Who Wear Number 11 in the NBA.
If you prefer your goofy tall white dudes to be American, you can see them wearing number 11 as well—just look at Meyers Leonard and Chris “Birdman” Andersen.
But we’re not here to talk about goofy white dudes. We’re here to talk about a guy who, before he got traded to Seattle and established himself as the prototype of the slick-shooting German tall 3/stretch 4 that would later be refined to its final form by Dirk Nowitzki, put up two of the four best seasons by a sixth man in NBA history and not only won Sixth Man of the Year twice in row but managed to pick up the only MVP vote of his career in the second of those two seasons—while starting four games.
But there are plenty of sixth men whose ceiling was as a sixth man. Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams leap immediately to mind, as does Domantas Sabonis if you’re not sold on him as a starter in Indiana.
So we’re going to take a look at the career of Schrempf and ask and answer the question of “was this guy actually good enough to make a meaningful impact as Seattle’s starting small forward or would his career have been better served by him playing the role that made him famous on the Pacers and being a sixth man his whole NBA life?”
If the numbers as a starter justify the three All-Star appearances, he’s Confirmed. If the numbers don’t add up, Busted. And if the lofty heights of super sub land just look too good for even a good career as a starter to match up? We’ll call that Plausible and be done with it.
The Counting Stats
To call Schrempf a “reserve” is to play pretty fast and loose with the definition of the term. Schrempf played 32.1 minutes per game in 1990-91 while starting only three games, and in 1991-92, he started four games yet played 32.6 minutes a game.
And sure, it was the early ’90s, when starters routinely played something more like the 35.0 minutes Schrempf averaged per game in Seattle and often far more than that, closer to 40 minutes a contest, but the sixth man was the roving super sub who was always out there with one or more of the starters while chewing up minutes at multiple positions.
In Schrempf’s case, the data only goes back to 1996-97, but the last five years of his career paints the picture even when he was nominally the starting small forward.
He’d play the 3 to start the game then morph into a 4 when Shawn Kemp sat. Likewise, in his 1990 campaign, when he was back into the sixth man role, you’d find him playing the small forward when Scottie Pippen sat and the power forward when Rasheed Wallace took his turn getting a breather.
The upshot of all this is that per 36 minutes, Schrempf’s amazing Sixth Man of the Year seasons are actually fairly comparable to when he put similar numbers up as a starter, skewing the perception that he should be “doing more” just because he was on the floor when the game tipped off.
As such, we look at his 18.1 and 19.1 points per 36 minutes in 1991 and ’92, compare them to the 18.6 he put up in ’93 (his first All-Star season and his last with the Pacers) and the 19.6 he put up in ’95 (the second All-Star campaign, this time in Seattle) and look in awe.
What’s perhaps more interesting is the rebounding expectations Indiana had for him—he averaged 10.6 boards per 36 and a career-high 9.6 a game in the second Sixth man year—and contrast that with his fit in Seattle.
Nobody on the ’92 Pacers even came close to Schrempf’s 9.6 rebounds a game. It’s clear from the numbers that even though Schrempf was nominally backing up LaSalle Thompson and Dale Davis, his job when he was on the floor was to be the primary defensive rebounder when shots went up.
Davis matched Schrempf’s 2.5 offensive boards per game despite playing 20.1 minutes per game to Detlef’s 32.6, which makes all the more interesting that clear use of the big German at the defensive end.
My point? Rebounding isn’t going to be a fair comparison when in Seattle it was Shawn Kemp pulling down all those rebounds (10.8 in 1994 to Detlef’s 5.6.)
For that matter, Schrempf “only” scoring 15.0 points a game that year makes a lot more sense when you consider Kemp and Gary Payton were the team’s leading scorers at 18.1 and 16.5 points per game respectively and the Sonics’ spectacular share-the-ball offense led to Kendall Gill and Sam Perkins averaging 14.1 and 12.3 while seventh man Ricky Pierce averaged 14.5. The “sixth man” was Nate McMillan, but his job was assists and defense, as he scored just six points in his 25.8 minutes on a nightly basis.
So we’re not going to get anywhere with counting stats, and we’re beginning to see the whole problem with trying to make the “reserve vs. starter” discussion apples to apples. So…
The Advanced Stats
Of the four best seasons by total Win Shares since 1981-82 (when the NBA counted Games Started as a stat), Detlef Schrempf has two of them if you limit the discussion to true reserves, guys who played at least 70 games while starting 10 or fewer of them.
Kevin McHale‘s insane 1983-84 season with the Celtics is the only trip into double digits, with 10.5 WS in 31.4 minutes per game. That was McHale’s first All-Star appearance, but he wouldn’t become the nominal starter in Boston until Cedric Maxwell departed for the Clippers after the 1985 season.
Maxwell, oh by the way, played 31.3 minutes a game in ’84 and posted just 6.4 Win Shares, but I’m getting off the point. It’s just an interesting side note.
Schrempf clocks in at second (9.8, ’92) and tied for third (9.0, ’91, tied with Antawn Jamison‘s one year in Dallas where for the only time in his career he came off the bench.)
Jamison’s ’03-04 season is getting its own deep dive on this site at some point because it was one mother of an outlier.
Anyway, the point here is that Schrempf set the bar with nine Win Shares in two consecutive seasons, good for .165 and .181 WS/48…
…and then he went out and shattered that as the starter in ’95 when he put up a career-high 12.9 WS and .215 WS/48 in his second All-Star year.
Throw in the ’93 season, his last in Indiana and his first as a starter and an All-Star (10.4 WS, .161 WS/48, and over four VORP for the first of two times) and you start to see that Schrempf was just good whether he started or not.
Speaking of VORP, Schrempf’s best season (4.7 in ’95) is the same VORP Kawhi Leonard put up last year and Kobe Bryant put up in three separate seasons of his career, including on the 2001 title-winning Lakers.
Well, we don’t really need to go much further than that, do we?
The thing you notice about Schrempf’s amazing Sixth Man years is that they don’t look statistically out of place given his role and his production, statistically speaking, with any other season in his career.
“If the numbers as a starter justify the three All-Star appearances, he’s Confirmed.”
So did the numbers as a reserve. So did the numbers of a guy who set the bar incredibly high for Dirk to clear as the greatest German-born NBA player.
Schrempf ended his career with 15,761 points on 49.1 percent from the field, 38.4 percent from long range, and 80.3 percent from the line while playing in an era before efficient basketball was invented and spending five years in his thirties on a team that had an offensive design based on a total team effort, usually enough to put a damper on anyone’s advanced stats…and yet the guy put up a 4.7 VORP in his best year which not only matched three Kobe seasons, but exactly matched two seasons from Dirk as well.
Schrempf was better than anyone who wasn’t a Pacers or a Sonics fan in the ’90s remembers, one of the unsung heroes of an incredibly talent-rich era. And while he’s not in the Hall of Fame, that’s not the question we asked.
This one’s Confirmed.
NEXT: Adrian Dantley.