We will never see another Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction like the Class of 2020.
Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett form the greatest class in the history of the NBA. No other comes close. They will be inducted at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut on Saturday, nine months after the pandemic delayed their enshrinement and an hour’s drive from Springfield’s newly renovated Hall of Fame.
You would be hard-pressed to find a greater Hall of Fame class in any sport.
The rare timing of this year’s ceremony — on the precipice of the 2021 NBA playoffs rather than the middle of the summer — and Bryant’s posthumous induction only add to the uniqueness of this year’s event. Bryant will be presented by Michael Jordan, and his widow, Vanessa, will deliver the induction speech. The sheer star-power of Saturday’s ceremony will be matched only by its solemnity. This is basketball church.
They will be joined by four-time Olympic gold medalist Tamika Catchings, former FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann and head coaches Rudy Tomjanovich, Eddie Sutton, Kim Mulkey and Barbara Stevens.
By most accounts, Bryant and Duncan are two of the 10 greatest players ever. They have 21 First Team All-NBA selections, 10 championships, five Finals MVPs and three regular-season MVPs between them. It is rare two top-10 players even share a prime. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Bryant and Duncan. At no point has one been inducted with a peer, unless you have Class of 1980 inductees Jerry West and Oscar Robertson on your list of 10 best, and we are not here to argue if you do.
You can easily make a case Garnett belongs in the top 20. Plenty of outlets have. We were beyond lucky to watch three top-20 players competing simultaneously. That they all retired in the same year is extraordinary. If you were not there to witness the entirety of their careers, imagine Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony were exponentially better and retire alongside LeBron James. Or if Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and James Harden all manage to elevate their status historically over the next handful of seasons and exit the game together.
Bryant, Duncan and Garnett made a combined 39 All-NBA appearances, by far the most of any class. Only four others — probably the next four greatest classes ever — had more than 25 combined All-NBA nods:
2009: Michael Jordan, John Stockton and David Robinson (32)
1980: West, Robertson, Jerry Lucas (27)
2010: Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Johnson and Gus Johnson (27)
2016: Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Yao Ming and Zelmo Beaty (26)
(That Jordan has more MVPs than this year’s class combined is remarkable on another level.)
It would be a celebration if one of Bryant, Duncan and Garnett were being inducted this weekend. The accolades are almost too many to list, but they deserve their flowers, so let’s indulge in some nostalgia.
Bryant was an 18-time All-Star, 15-time All-NBA selection, 12-time All-Defensive selection, five-time champion, four-time All-Star Game MVP, two-time scoring champion, two-time Finals MVP, the 1997 slam dunk champion and the 2008 regular-season MVP. His Nos. 8 and 24 are retired by the Los Angeles Lakers.
He was a child prodigy, the highest-picked high school wing player at the time the Charlotte Hornets drafted him 13th overall in 1996 and traded his rights to the Lakers. He was the heir apparent to Jordan, nearly matched his reluctant mentor’s six championships and surpassed His Airness in career longevity.
The audacity it takes to model yourself after Michael Jordan and come as close to mirroring him as anyone is only outdone by Bryant’s competitiveness and killer instinct. Those traits may have led to his divorce with Shaquille O’Neal after they won three consecutive championships together, but they also drove Bryant to two more rings alongside Pau Gasol. Few scorers were ever more feared than Bryant, whose 81 points are the most in a game by anyone not named Wilt Chamberlain. Bryant’s 60-point farewell at age 37 in 2016 made him the oldest player ever to achieve that mark and raised his career total to 33,643, fourth all-time.
Duncan was a 15-time All-Star, All-NBA and All-Defensive pick, a five-time champ, three-time Finals MVP, two-time regular-season MVP and the 1998 Rookie of the Year. The San Antonio Spurs retired his No. 21.
He spent four years at Wake Forest before the Spurs made him the No. 1 overall pick at age 21 in 1997. Nicknamed The Big Fundamental by O’Neal, Duncan spoke softly and carried a big stick as the backbone of a dynasty. His quiet commitment to winning made for an ideal match to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s gruff demands, and together they fostered a culture that kept Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in tow.
Duncan’s understanding of angles made him methodically devastating on both ends of the floor. He pinned blocks and banked jump shots with equal precision. The result was more than 25,000 career points, 15,000 rebounds, 4,000 assists, 3,000 blocks and 1,000 steals — numbers only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar matched.
David Robinson will present Duncan at Saturday’s ceremony.
Garnett was a 15-time All-Star, 12-time All-Defensive pick, nine-time All-NBA nod, four-time rebounding champion, the 2003 All-Star Game MVP, 2004 regular-season MVP, 2008 Defensive Player of the Year and a 2008 champ. His No. 21 with the Minnesota Timberwolves and No. 5 with the Boston Celtics will be retired.
There has never been a more intense player than Garnett, whose ferocity commanded respect from both teammates and opponents. He arrived a 19-year-old unfinished product and left arguably the most skilled big man in NBA history. There was no give to Garnett’s game. He slammed his head into stanchions during pregame warmups, talked trash tip to buzzer, blocked shots after the whistle and delivered some of the most memorable postgame interviews in NBA history. He embodied one franchise and resurrected another.
Garnett was the prototype for today’s unicorns. Before there could have been a Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis or Joel Embiid, there had to be a Garnett. It is one thing to have his skill, but you do not get to 26,071 points, 14,662 rebounds, 5,445 assists, 2,037 blocks and 1,859 steals without Garnett’s will.
Isiah Thomas will be present Garnett on Saturday.
Who knows what the careers of Bryant, Duncan and Garnett would have looked like had they been toggled around Los Angeles, San Antonio and Minnesota. It is an interesting thought experiment that goes off the rails once you remember how defined each of them was by those experiences. Regardless, they all arrived in the same place at the same time as the greatest Hall of Fame class in history, now and probably forever.
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