[Note: Forgive the anachronisms, but since this page is still the landing-spot for a lot of new readers, I’ve added some links to the subsequent articles into this post. There is also a much more comprehensive outline of the series, complete with a table of relevant points and a selection of charts and graphs available in The Case for Dennis Rodman: Guide.]
If you’ve ever talked to me about sports, you probably know that one of my pet issues (or “causes” as my wife calls them), is proving the greatness of Dennis Rodman. I admit that since I first saw Rodman play — and compete, and rebound, and win championships — I have been fascinated. Until recently, however, I thought of him as the ultimate outlier: someone who seemed to have unprecedented abilities in some areas, and unprecedented lack of interest in others. He won, for sure, but he also played for the best teams in the league. His game was so unique — yet so enigmatic — that despite the general feeling that there was something remarkable going on there, opinions about his ultimate worth as a basketball player varied immensely — as they continue to today. In this four-part series, I will attempt to end the argument.
While there may be room for reasonable disagreement about his character, his sportsmanship, or how and whether to honor his accomplishments, my research and analysis has led me to believe — beyond a reasonable doubt — that Rodman is one of the most undervalued players in NBA history. From an analytical perspective, leaving him off of the Hall of Fame nominee list this past year was truly a crime against reason. But what makes this issue particularly interesting to me is that it cuts “across party lines”: the conventional wisdom and the unconventional wisdom both get it very wrong. Thus, by examining the case of Dennis Rodman, not only will I attempt to solve a long-standing sports mystery, but I will attempt to illustrate a few flaws with the modern basketball-analytics movement.
In this post I will outline the major prongs of my argument. But first, I would like to list the frequently-heard arguments I will *not* be addressing:
- “Rodman won 5 NBA titles! Anyone who is a starter on 5 NBA champions deserves to be in the Hall of Fame!” [As an intrinsic matter, I really don’t care that he won 5 NBA championships, except inasmuch as I’d like to know how much he actually contributed. I.e., is he more like Robert Horry, or more like Tim Duncan?]
- “Rodman led the league in rebounding *7 times*: Anyone who leads the league in a major statistical category that many times deserves to be in the Hall of Fame!” [This is completely arbitrary. Rodman’s rebounding prowess is indeed an important factor in this inquiry, but “leading the league” in some statistical category has no intrinsic value, except inasmuch as it actually contributed to winning games.]
- “Rodman was a great defender! He could effectively defend Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal in their primes! Who else could do that?” [Actually, I love this argument as a rhetorical matter, but unfortunately I think defensive skill is still too subjective to be quantified directly. Of course all of his skills — or lack thereof — are relevant to the bottom line.]
- “Rodman was such an amazing rebounder, despite being only 6 foot 7!” [Who cares how tall he was, seriously?]
Rather, in the subsequent parts in this series, these are the arguments I will be making:
- Rodman was a better rebounder than you think: Rodman’s ability as a rebounder is substantially underrated. Rodman was a freak, and is unquestionably — by a wide margin — the greatest rebounder in NBA history. In this section I will use a number of statistical metrics to demonstrate this point (preview factoid: Kevin Garnett’s career rebounding percentage is lower than Dennis Rodman’s career *offensive* rebounding percentage). I will also specifically rebut two common counterarguments: 1) that Rodman “hung out around the basket”, and only got so many rebounds because he focused on it exclusively [he didn’t], and 2) that Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were better rebounders [they weren’t].
- Rodman’s rebounding was more valuable than you think: The value of Rodman’s rebounding ability is substantially underrated. Even/especially by modern efficiency metrics that do not accurately reward the marginal value of extra rebounds. Conversely, his lack of scoring ability is vastly overrated, even/especially by modern efficiency metrics that inaccurately punish the marginal value of not scoring.
- Rodman was a bigger winner than you think: By examining Rodman’s +/- with respect to wins and losses — i.e., comparing his teams winning percentages with him in the lineup vs. without him in the lineup — I will show that the outcomes suggest he had elite-level value. Contrary to common misunderstanding, this actually becomes *more* impressive after adjusting for the fact that he played on very good teams to begin with.
- Rodman belongs in the Hall of Fame [or not]: [Note this section didn’t go off as planned. Rodman was actually selected for the HoF before I finished the series, so section 4 is devoted to slightly more speculative arguments about Rodman’s true value.] Having wrapped up the main quantitative prongs, I will proceed to audit the various arguments for and against Rodman’s induction into the Hall of Fame. I believe that both sides of the debate are rationalizable — i.e., there exist reasonable sets of preferences that would justify either outcome. Ultimately, however, I will argue that the most common articulated preferences, when combined with a proper understanding of the available empirical evidence, should compel one to support Rodman‘s induction. To be fair, I will also examine which sets of preferences could rationally compel you to the opposite conclusion.
Nicely presented overview – clear and unambiguous positions mixed with acknowledgement of how different sets of preference could support different conclusions. If only most academic research was written in this way.
Amazing article, very insightful.
Just wanted to say that I consider your analysis of Rodman the gold standard for statistically-based effectively-argued claims of “greatness” in team sports. By far the most thorough I’ve ever seen, and I’ve looked far and wide (this being a long-standing personal interest of mine).
The only remotely comparable analysis I’ve seen that tries to establish a player’s dominance of a particular sport is FiveThirtyEight’s piece on football (soccer) player Lionel Messi, which dissects his game at a play-by-play level from almost every imaginable angle, and it’s still nowhere near your masterpiece for two reasons – it’s one article, not thirteen (!), for one; the case it makes is the majority view (Messi being by general acclamation the greatest football player in the world, probably even the greatest player in the history of the world), while you argue for a case held by such a minority as to be almost singular. And to do so convincingly? To actually change my mind on the topic?
Hats off to you, sir.
I don’t know if you’ll ever see this comment, but it’s pretty hilarious because Ben Morris now works at FiveThirtyEight and he in fact wrote the Messi piece you refer to. So you were definitely right to call them comparable – written by the same guy!