Dirk Nowitzki making another piece of NBA history got me thinking. There are only six NBA players with over 1400 regular season games (Nowitzki needs 23 to get there). Four of them (Robert Parish, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John Stockton and Karl Malone) are already in the Hall of Fame. Another, Kevin Garnett, will be in a few years. The sixth man on the exclusive list? Kevin Willis. And he’s not getting in.
Want to read about another Willis stat? Only five NBA players have played for 20 seasons or more. Parish and Abdul-Jabbar are in that group. So are Garnett and Kobe Bryant, who’ll also get into the hall in a few years. Willis is tied with Parish and Garnett for most seasons, 21.
Longevity doesn’t always translate into excellence. You can be good enough, healthy enough to stick around for a long time, which is true in Willis’ case. He didn’t miss a lot of games during his career. Yes, there was an injury that took him out for the entire 1988-1989 season, but other than that, he didn’t miss too many games during the 1990’s, while the 00’s absences had more to do with his role on the team and less with any type of injury.
So why isn’t Willis in the hall of fame or even close to it? Basically, he was never great. His career averages are 12.1 points and 8.4 rebounds. If you’re a defensive phenom, that won’t stop you, but Willis doesn’t have any all-defensive mentions. His most impressive accolades are the 1992 NBA All-Star game selection, and All-NBA third team at the end of that season. Willis played his best basketball in 1991-1992, averaging 18.3 points with 15.5 rebounds, surprisingly not enough to win the rebounding title due to Dennis Rodman becoming the most effective rebounding machine since the days of Wilt & Russell.
That season Willis had two games of over 30 rebounds, including one game in which he was one point short of pulling off a 30-30. How big would it have been? Kevin Love is the only player since 1982 with a 30-30 game. Willis is the only other player in that timeframe with a 29-29 game or better. Bob Weiss, the Hawks head coach from 1990-1993 said after that game “Who knew that all this time he had it in him”. The Hawks, with Willis and Dominique Wilkins made the playoffs almost every season, but never got past the conference semifinals. The Hawks actually missed the postseason during Willis’ best year.
Willis played with the Hawks until the beginning of the 1994 season. After 10 years in Atlanta, he was traded to the Miami Heat, which was one of many stops along the way. One of them was in San Antonio, where he didn’t do much, especially in the 2002-2003 season, but he still ended up winning an NBA title ring, playing a small part in the Spurs second championship. His time in San Antonio also includes a terrific story, as told by Steve Kerr:
Willis was never consistent or reached impressive highs during his career. He stayed around for a very long time, which is commendable, but far from historic. In Basketball-Reference similarity score system (based on win shares), he’s compared to Tom Chambers, Antonio McDyess, Zach Randolph, Shane Battier, Charles Oakley and Jermaine O’Neal. We can argue quite a lot about whether it’s a fair assessment or not, but I think most of the guys on this list are closer to making the Hall of Fame (and they probably won’t) than Willis.