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Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Ranking Allen Iverson’s Hall of Fame class: How good was ‘The Answer’?

Where does his class, with Shaquille O’Neal and Yao Ming, rank in the history of basketball greats?

Allen Iverson. Shaquille O’Neal. Yao Ming. Sheryl Swoopes. Tom Izzo. The 2016 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class is headlined by some true basketball legends.

The 10-member class being inducted this weekend in Springfield, Mass. is one of the best collective hoops groups to be named to the Hall in years.

Could this be the best class ever? No, surely not. But this class is up among the best of all time, and with AI now officially included on the most illustrious list in the history of the game, this year certainly means more to those of us in Philly than other great years.

Over parts of 12 seasons, Iverson played 784 regular season and playoff games for the Sixers, and he left his blood, sweat and (sometimes) tears out on the court in each of them. The Answer almost never took himself out of a game, averaging more than 41 minutes and scoring a ridiculous 27.6 points per game in his Sixers career.

Pound-for-pound, Iverson was the toughest, and arguably the best, player in the NBA for more than a decade. He finished his career with a points per game average of 26.66, seventh best in NBA history behind only Jordan, Wilt, Durant, Elgin Baylor, LeBron and Jerry West.

Iverson averaged more points per game in his career than Kobe, Bird, Dr. J, Kareem or Shaq. He was incredible to watch play, and the Sixers have never been the same — certainly never as much fun to watch — since he left (the first time).

Iverson enters the Hall alongside Shaq, Yao, Izzo and Swoopes, as well as former ABA great Zelmo Beaty, African-American basketball pioneer Cumberland Posey, longtime Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, 27-year veteran referee Darrell Garretson and John McLendon, the first African-American coach in a professional league.

The list of those presenting the 2016 class this weekend is equally as impressive. From HoopHall.com:

2016 INDUCTEES AND PRESENTERS

  • Zelmo Beaty, presented by Lenny Wilkens (’89, ’98, ‘10)
  • Darell Garretson, presented by David Stern (’14)
  • Allen Iverson, presented by Larry Brown (’02), Julius Erving (‘93), John Thompson (’99)
  • Tom Izzo, presented by Gary Williams (’14)
  • John McLendon, presented by Wayne Embry (’99), Sam Jones (‘84), Isiah Thomas (’00), John Thompson (’99)
  • Shaquille O’Neal, presented by Julius Erving (‘93), Alonzo Mourning (’14), Bill Russell (‘75), Isiah Thomas (’00),
  • Cumberland Posey, presented by Earl Monroe (’90)
  • Jerry Reinsdorf, presented by Phil Jackson (‘07), Scottie Pippen (‘10)
  • Sheryl Swoopes, presented by Van Chancellor (’07), Nancy Lieberman (’96)
  • Yao Ming, presented by Dikembe Mutombo (‘15), Bill Russell (‘75), Bill Walton (’93)

So, with all that talent on the stage this weekend, where does the 2016 Hall of Fame class stack up?

There’s not one universal way to quantify greatness in basketball, especially when comparing inductees from a Hall of Fame that includes not just NBA players, but international stars, college legends, women’s players, coaches and contributors at all levels of the game. Just looking at the NBA stars — the big-ticket names that will get people to pay $500 a head to go to Friday’s presentation and $300 a seat for Saturday’s dinner celebration — the combination of Shaq, Yao and AI is almost as good as it’s ever been.

Almost.

Iverson, Shaq and Yao at the Naismith Hall of Fame media conference

Iverson, Shaq and Yao at the Naismith Hall of Fame media conference

Hoop Hall/Twitter

The Hall of Fame has been inducting members since 1959, and sure, that class featured the guy who invented the game, James Naismith, as well as George Mikan, Amos Alonzo Stagg and Phog Allen. The next year, ULCA coach John Wooden was inducted…as a player. In 1969 both legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach and Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp got in the Hall together.

It wasn’t until 1971 when really, true legendary players went in together, as Bob Cousy and Bob Petit were both inducted that year. In 2011, SLAM Magazine put out a list of the 500 greatest players in NBA history. At the time, Cousy was ranked 24th and Petit was 14th. For context, Shaq was ranked 4th on that list, and Iverson was 40th.

It was nearly a decade later when Wilt Chamberlain got in, but he was the only player in a group of seven inductees in 1979.

There have been other years with only one great player as well; in 1999 Kevin McHale was the only player in a five-person class that included Iverson’s old college coach John Thompson from Georgetown, while in 2001, Sixers legend Moses Malone went in with just two other men, John Chaney of Temple and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke.

That 2001 year might top this year. Still, that’s not the top Hall class. Not even close.

In 1980, one year after Chamberlain got into the Hall, the trio of Jerry Lucas, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West were all inducted together. To put how great a class like that is in perspective with the 2016 class, we looked at Basketball Reference’s advanced metric Win Shares of every Hall of Famer (an estimate of the number of wins a player contributed in his career) and Win Shares per 48 (the same stat, broken down per 48-minute increments) to illustrate how much of each game that player would get “credit” for winning.

The three NBA players in the six-person 1980 Hall of Fame class had an average of 150.1 Win Shares in their careers, with an average of .189 WS/48. In total, the three players had a collective 450.2 Win Shares.

Including Beaty’s ABA numbers, the four atop the 2016 Hall class averaged 113.15 WS and .176 WS/48. The four totaled 452.6 Win Shares, though without Beaty, the NBA players alone totaled 346.6 WS, with an average of 115.5.

In other words, this year’s class isn’t in the same class as the 1980 class.

There were a few other great classes in the 1980s. Willis Reed and Hal Greer headlined the ’82 class. Celtics legends John Havlicek and Sam Jones shared the stage in 1984. Rick Barry, Walt Frazier and Pistol Pete Maravich all got in together in 1987, but it wasn’t until 1993 when a class came close to the overall excellence of that 1980 class.

In 1993, the Hall of Fame added eight players, including Ann Meyers, Calvin Murphy, Dan Issel, Walt Bellamy, Bill Walton and some Doctor from Long Island named Julius.

The 1993 class, led by Dr. J. had an average of 107.2 WS and .153 WS/48, though did total 643.2 WS between them. Quantity and quality.

In terms of all-time greats, though, the 2016 class surely compares. Sports Illustrated ranked the 50 greatest players in NBA history back in February and put Erving at 18th, with Walton 32nd. On that list, Iverson was 45th, while Shaq was 15th.

In 1995, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led a class with Vern Mikkelsen and women’s basketball legends Anne Donovan and Cheryl Miller. Just Kareem alone should put that class above most.

The same goes for the 1998 class, which featured Larry Bird, as well as Lenny Wilkens, who got in as a coach, nine years after getting in as a player.

There were other good classes in that era. In 1996, George Gervin, David Thompson, Nancy Lieberman-Cline and Gail Goodrich highlighted the Hall of Fame class; a good class, for sure, but not as good as this year’s group.

In 2000, Isiah Thomas, Bob McAdoo and Pat Summit received the honor. Perhaps Summit, alone, would warrant a place in the conversation of best classes ever, but the NBA numbers of those inducted just didn’t add up.

In 2002 — the year after Moses, Coach K and Chaney — the Hall of Fame class was equally great, and surely better than this year’s class.

Magic Johnson, the late Drazen Petrovic, who had a good NBA career before his passing but was an international basketball legend, Arizona head coach Lute Olsen, women’s basketball coaching legend Kay Yow, Larry Brown and the Harlem Globetrotters. That’s hard to beat.

The following year was headlined by James Worthy and Robert Parish, whose WS of 114.1 and WS/48 of .142 fell short of this year’s class. But if we’re counting championship rings, even with Shaq, that class belongs in the conversation.

In 2006, Charles Barkley, Dominque Wilkins, Joe Dumars, Connecticut head women’s coach Geno Auriemma and Dave Gavitt, who created the Big East, were inducted. That NBA groups WS averaged 126.9 (and totaled 380.9 for the three of them), yet a per-game WS/48 of .160, lower than this year’s class.

While that class is comparable to this year, the impact Yao has had on the growth of the game globally, specifically in China, it’s hard to compare any previous year to that. Kobe and LeBron wouldn’t be anywhere near as popular in China were it not for Yao. That, along with his injuries, is part of his lasting basketball legacy.

Plus, while we’re being subjective, SI had Barkley ranked 20th all time, but left both Dumars and Wilkins off the list they made 20 years ago, and they’re still not on it now.

In 2008, Patrick Ewing, Adrian Dantley and Hakeem Olajuwon highlighted a class that included Dick Vitale as a contributor and Pat Riley as a coach. SI had Hakeem ranked 16th all time and Ewing 39th. Their collective Win Shares totaled 423.4, averaging 141.1 with a WS/48 of .172. In other words, if Yao had been able to play longer, his numbers might compare, but since he didn’t, the whole class doesn’t.

To be fair, while that class is comparable to this year, Riley may put 2008 over the top. Still, obviously, not the best class of all time.

The 2010 class may be comparable to this year as well. Led by Karl Malone and Scottie Pippen — 17th and 23rd on the SI list, respectively — that class had an average NBA WS of 119.8 and a WS/48 of .136. Add in Dennis Johnson and Cynthia Cooper and it was a nice class, but perhaps just short of this year’s.

But wait.

One class in that chronology was missing.

Where’s Michael?

In 2009, the Naismith Hall of Fame inducted Michael Jordan, David Robinson and John Stockton with coaches Jerry Sloan and C. Vivian Stringer. Jordan is arguably the best player of all time — SI had him tops on their list — while David Robinson was ranked 28th and John Stockton 30th.

No other Hall class in history has three players ranked in the top 30 all-time. The only class that was close — and collectively ranks better overall — was that 1980 class with Lucas (33rd), West (9th) and Robertson (6th).

This year’s class, with Iverson, Shaq and Yao, is not the 2009 class, nor the 1980. But it’s in the conversation with those other great classes, as one of the best collections of basketball legends on one stage, ever. For Philly fans, seeing Iverson up with the legends of the game, is inspiring.

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