If you grew up in the ’80s and forgot Bernard King existed after his knee injury in 1985 basically wiped out what was left of his career, welcome to my childhood.
As is so often the case in this twice-weekly affair, we’re looking at the statistical footprint of a guy who is in the Hall of Fame even though he couldn’t stay on the floor, flashes of former glory (and one magical season with the Bullets in 1991 at age 34 followed by what was essentially a career-ending injury a year later) leaving just enough of that “he was great, wasn’t he?” echo to get the guy past the gatekeepers with the ballots and into Springfield.
On the other hand, if you take the nostalgia goggles off, what you’re left with is a guy who could dunk the ball but made just five playoff appearances in his entire career and won exactly zero best-of-seven series; his only two times out of the first round were a best-of-three in 1982-83 and a best-of-five a year later, a Great Stats Bad Team guy for the ages who won his only scoring title on a team that went 24-58.
Regular readers of this site in general and this running feature in particular know how ill-disposed I am toward counting stats on bad teams (don’t get me started on Carmelo Anthony or, before he became the Robin to LeBron James‘ Batman, Anthony Davis), so we’re going to have to take a long look at all the numbers to decide whether that Hall of Fame case was about as meaningful to a real legacy of greatness as the All-Star Weekend dunk contest is to the NBA Finals.
Remember, he’s in the Hall of Fame. The highest possible standard for Confirmed applies.
The Counting Stats
As a general matter, if you take enough shots in an NBA game, you will score lots of points.
Exhibit A, Allen Iverson, who won four scoring titles while putting up some of the most cover-your-eyes-horrific inefficient shooting seasons of all time (31.4 points per game on 27.8 attempts, shooting just 39.8 percent from the floor, all while playing a league-high 43.7 minutes per game in 2002 is pretty much the quintessential Iverson hater’s statistical benchmark.)
Exhibit B, Bernard King, who in 1984-85, on that 24-58 Knicks garbage fire that got a frozen envelope for their effort and ended up drafting Patrick Ewing, scored 32.9 points per game on 23.7 shots, which is massively more efficient than anything Iverson ever did. But King was a forward in an era where making a bunch of two-point shots close to the basket—often close enough to just dunk the thing—was de rigeur, unlike Iverson’s bombs-away approach from anywhere on the floor he felt like hoisting up a bad shot.
But King’s 23.7 shots per game not only led the Knicks, it was nearly as many as the next two most-frequent shooters on that team combined. Pat Cummings (12.7 shots per game) and Darrell Walker (12.1) combined for 24.8 shots a contest, only five percent more shots between them than King had by himself.
Considering Cummings and Walker combined to score just 29.3 points between them per contest, fully 3.6 points short of King’s mark, it’s fair to say that it’s a lot easier to win the scoring title when you’re the only guy shooting the basketball.
Of course, King also wrecked his knee in March of ’85, cutting short his season after only 55 games played, so that’s another big asterisk on that statistical showing out.
It’s also noteworthy that King didn’t do much more than score. He was a non-factor (5.8 a game) as a rebounder, dished 3.3 assists per game for his career but did it while turning the ball over 3.2 times a contest and wasting more possessions than any “playmaker” should ever be allowed to without having that moniker revoked, and was in simple point of fact, a high-usage-rate, one-dimensional scorer whose team got blown out in the playoffs by Philadelphia in 1983 and took the Celtics seven games in a weird Eastern Conference semifinals a year later where the home team won every game…except the Knicks won by an average of five points in their three wins while the Celtics won by an average of 17.8 points in theirs.
But no matter. From the injury onward, King’s ’86 Knicks went 24-58, then in four years in Washington, the Bullets went 38-44, 40-42, 31-51, and 30-52, making the playoffs just once with a motley assortment of castoffs, nobodies, and has-beens (kids in the ’80s may remember when 7-foot-7 Manute Bol was photographed with his 5-foot-3-inch teammate Muggsy Bogues for a poster. I had that poster.)
It was another case of a scorer exiled, who couldn’t stay healthy, never put up the gaudy stats he posted before his injury (sure, he averaged 22 a game, but on sub-50-percent shooting and that 28.4 points he put up in ’91 came on just one tenth of a field goal attempt per game fewer than when he’d scored 32.9 and won the scoring title six years earlier. And, as before, that season ended with the All-Star King getting hurt.
But enough about counting stats.
The Advanced Stats
King’s defense was an absolute steaming Dumpster fire. He broke zero DBPM exactly once and usually fell miles short of the mark, finishing his career with a minus-0.8 in that stat.
Except for one year, 1983-84, he never broke the “superstar threshold” of .200 WS/48, and his usage rate was so high (he led the league in that stat in both of his biggest scoring seasons) that the advanced stats punished him for it.
King posted .070 WS/48 in 1991, a year in which he scored 28.4 points per game. You have to be a special kind of inefficient to fail to crack the Starter’s Mendoza Line when you’re the primary scorer.
Even Iverson, mostly thanks to competent defense in Philadelphia, was never that bad (although a comically absurd 2.6 Offensive Win Shares in a year in which he won the scoring title, that 2002 season I mentioned earlier, would’ve been full-fledged Andrew Wiggins territory had Iverson not had one of his best defensive seasons that year, posting a career-high 2.8 steals per game to lead the league.)
The advanced stats love to tear apart a guy for whom all he does is shoot unless he’s absurdly, stupidly all-time great efficient at it like, say, Stephen Curry, who doesn’t pull the James Harden/Russell Westbrook gunning for triple-doubles but still has averaged .207 WS/48 for his career and posted a comically absurd .318 WS/48 in 2016, which is eighth all time and second among guards behind only Michael Jordan in his first championship year in 1991.
Bernard King not only is not that level of efficient (apples-to-apples, we should probably compare him to LeBron, who appears four times in the top 12 as the only small forward in that tier; the other guys besides James, Jordan, and Curry in those lofty heights are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain), he’s not even good enough to have been “solidly mediocre” as advanced stats go for volume scorers.
Talk about a guy who benefited from the way NBA media covered the game in his time, because his Basketball Reference page is littered with echoes of being basically a higher-usage-rate Josh Smith.
Couldn’t stay healthy, couldn’t play defense, gunned for lofty point totals by hogging the ball and taking far and a way the most shots, leading the league in usage rate twice and yet only actually winning the scoring title once in a year he got hurt in March…
…and unlike, say, Bill Walton, his flashes of brilliance didn’t involve two championship rings.
Call me stodgy, call me elitist, call me what you will, but I know a Hall of Fame career when I see it…and Bernard King did not have a Hall of Fame career. This one’s Busted. If you can say anything about him, he might’ve been ahead of his time, because at least he’s better than any of the volume scorers in the Hall from the Dark Ages.
But yeah. Busted. Stupid voters.
NEXT: Marcus Camby.