1992: The Glorious Apex of Horace Grant

There have, at points in NBA history, been seasons where a good-but-not-great player came out of absolute nowhere to reach such lofty heights that, when they regressed back to their natural talent level, lapsed into history as one of those seasons that becomes a gee-whiz moment like “wait, he did WHAT?”

Josh Smith did it in 2010, finishing fourth in the league in VORP in the only season he hit more than half of his shots before shooting his way out of the NBA entirely.

Brandon Roy did it a year before—he was always very good during his brief but injury-shortened career, but in 2009, his 6.0 VORP (also fourth in the league) and brain-bending .223 WS/48, by far the best of his career, put him ninth in the MVP voting.

But here’s the thing. There have been guys who came out like a house of fire and put together a season that was even better than the accepted understanding that they were good at basketball. Smith, Roy, Detlef Schrempf having his best career season in 1995 in Seattle, Kevin McHale putting up the best season by a sixth man of all time after three years as a mainly overlooked part of the Celtics’ roster in the days when Cedric Maxwell occupied what would become McHale’s starting spot.

All of those guys were All-Stars in their breakout years.

But there was one guy who came out of nowhere, had a season that was not just good, not just great, but a season where he had a legitimate argument for being one of the top five most valuable players in the entire league…and he didn’t even make the All-Star team, never mind garnering the attention due him for having a year worthy of a superstar.

The season was 1991-92. The player was Horace Grant, and the fact that he was the third-best player on the Bulls stands testament to just how insanely dominant Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were in their dynastic tenure in Chicago.

Just look at the stats. Grant had 14.2 points per game on 57.8 percent shooting…on a team that had Jordan (30.1 ppg) and Pippen (21.0) on it. Grant was the only other player on the Bulls who averaged even 10 points per game, and he was by a country mile the most efficient shooter, feasting on good looks in close. His .618 True Shooting dwarfed Jordan’s .579.

That’s not a knock on His Airness—in an NBA world where the midrange jumper was king for guards, nobody posted eye-popping shooting efficiency like would be seen 30 years later in the era of threes and layups—but it only illustrates further just how critical Grant was to Chicago’s absolutely bananas 115.5 Offensive Rating in a year when the entire league averaged just 108.2.

In 2021, eight teams have at least a 115.5-level offense (Atlanta, through games of April 20, is exactly on that number), but unlike 1992, the league average is 112.1 thanks to all those threes and layups.

Grant’s 1992 Bulls had the best record in the league by 10 full games, winning 67 games in a year where the Cleveland Cavaliers and eventual Bulls Finals opponent Portland Trail Blazers both won 57.

For perspective, the 2001 Seattle Mariners won an MLB-record 116 games in a season almost exactly twice as long as the NBA’s. They finished only 14 games (or 7 times 2) ahead of the second-best team in baseball.

The New England Patriots went 16-0 in the NFL in 2007, a season-length about a fifth as long as the NBA’s, and they finished three games ahead of three other teams that went 13-3. That 15-game difference over 82 games is the same margin as the Bulls came from going undefeated in 1992, and just five games above the margin the Bulls put up against the rest of the NBA.

That’s what having a guy with .237 WS/48 and 5.2 VORP as your third-best player buys you in pro basketball.

Grant was third in the league in FG%. Fifth in True Shooting. Third in both Win Shares and WS/48. Ninth in VORP. Grant’s 144.7 points added from the field compared to a league-average shooter was higher than even Jordan’s 142.6.

Even in the playoffs, Grant was, in his capacity as the Bulls’ third option, a major contributor to the team’s championship run, his .184 WS/48 better than Pippen’s and his 1.5 VORP the only other besides Jordan and Pippen that was even as high as 0.4. He was once again the only scorer besides the big two to average in double digits. His whole season, from November to June, was a masterclass in how to be the big man in an offense dominated on the wings.

And he wasn’t even an All-Star. He didn’t make an All-NBA team. He received zero MVP votes.

If there has been a more underrated player over the course of a single season in NBA history, I can’t think of one. Horace Grant was, for one glorious season, a superstar who got lost on a team that already had two of them.

So here’s to you, sir. Someone in the basketball media has to give you proper due, and I guess it just fell to me.

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