Hall of Fame: The Case For and Against Dennis Rodman

During a barrage of stories concerning the NBA All Star game, Jerry Sloan’s retirement, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and the trade deadline, a story caught my eye that hasn’t really received a lot of attention.

On February 18th, the NBA announced a list of the twelve finalists for induction into the Hall of Fame this year. The list includes Maurice Cheeks, Chris Mullin, Tex Winters and Dennis Rodman.

It caused me to think about Rodman’s career in the NBA, but it also forced me to take a good hard look at what I think qualifies a player to be enshrined. Should a player’s on-court resume stand alone, or should a player’s off-court behavior affect his candidacy, and if so, to what degree?

Let’s take a look.

The Case For

If you include non-NBA teams, Dennis Rodman played professional or semi-professional basketball for 20 years. Over that time, he earned 5 NBA championships (1989 and 1990 with Detroit, ’96, ’97 and ’98 with Chicago). He was an All-Star twice, the Defensive Player of the year twice, he was voted to the All-defensive first team seven times and was the regular season rebounding champion seven times.

After a particularly unconventional basketball development (barely playing in high school, working as a janitor before flunking out of one school, joining Southeastern Oklahoma State) Rodman joined the Detroit Pistons in the 1986 Draft. He quickly adapted to Chuck Daly’s Bad Boys philosophy, coming off the bench and generally raising hell whenever he could.

In 1986, his Pistons battled to the Eastern Conference Championship before losing to Larry Bird’s Celtics in what is still considered one of the most physical series in NBA history. The next year, Rodman continued to be a force off the bench and helped the Pistons make it to the Finals, only to lose to the Lakers in seven games. The Pistons would go on to win the next two NBA titles, the first over the Lakers, the second over the Blazers.

In that time, Rodman evolved from a 6.5 PPG/4.3 RPG rookie playing 15 minutes a game to a bonafide defensive monster. He was known for being able to defend any player from the point guard to the center, and grind their game to a halt. On top of that, He earned 1,530 rebounds in 1991-92 (18.7 RPG), the most since Wilt Chamberlain in 1971-72. No one has come close to that season total since.

Unfortunately, Rodman took a rough turn when Chuck Daly, his coach and father figure, retired from the NBA. Rodman’s on-court intensity began spilling out over his locker room and his life, and he eventually demanded a trade in 1993. He was dealt to San Antonio, where he continued battled his demons – and his teammates – until he was again moved to the Chicago Bulls before the start of the 1995-96 season.

With the Bulls, Rodman found a dynamic that worked for him, and a coach who could handle him. Phil Jackson figured out how to use Rodman’s talents in a balancing act with Michael Jordan’s offensive prowess. While you got the impression that Rodman and Jordan may not have always got along, they clearly understood that they could help each other.

While Rodman made a clear impact on the Chicago Bulls during his three season run, perhaps his most tangible contributions came in the playoffs for those seasons. During the 1996 playoffs, Rodman led all players in rebounds, and help to slow the Sonics offense in the Finals (from 94.1 PPG in the playoffs to 89.2 in the Finals). Rodman played a big part in slowing down Shawn Kemp on the boards. In all, Rodman earned 88 rebounds to Kemp’s 60.

Or, as George Karl said:

“As you evaluate the series, Dennis Rodman won two basketball games. We controlled Dennis Rodman for four games. But Game 2 and tonight, he was the reason they were successful.”

In 1997 and 1998, the Bulls went into a back-to-back Finals matchup against John Stockton, Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz. Here again, Rodman was not only tasked with defending a dominate Power Forward, but a Power Forward who had just been minted the league’s MVP. Karl Malone was enjoying his best year, averaging 27.4/9.9 in the regular season and 26.0/11.4 in the Playoffs.

Rodman wasn’t able to stop Malone’s game entirely, but he was able to make an impact. Malone’s average dropped from 27.4 in the regular season to 23.8 in the Finals, which doesn’t seem like much of a swing, but considering that the average margin of victory was six, Rodman’s impact went a long way. Moreover, Phil Jackson quickly realized Malone’s weak point at the free throw line. As a result, Rodman committed 21 fouls in that series, most of them on Malone. The gambit paid off, as Malone shot only .603 from the line (35 – 58) for the series.

There’s a similar story to be told in the 1998 Finals, only this time it was Rodman finding a way to force Malone to turn the ball over more than usual. Over the course of that regular season (and in the playoffs), Malone averaged 3.0 turnovers a game. In the Finals, he turned the ball over 23 times (3.83 a game). Again, I know it sounds like I’m splitting hairs here, but Malone was widely considered the best power forward in game (and maybe one of the best all-time), and while no body could really shut down Malone in those days, Rodman was the guy who made him mortal.

By the way, if you ever want to see a dominate big man get outsmarted in crunch time, go back and watch the last 2 minutes of game 6 in the 1998 NBA Finals. With 36 seconds left in the game, the Jazz called a timeout, holding onto a 1 point advantage. If you look closely, you can see Jordan and Rodman each walking out of that timeout with a smirk on his face.

Everyone in the building – Hell, everyone in the world – knew the ball was going to Karl Malone. When the pass came in, Dennis Rodman appeared to be WAY out of position. Rodman played Malone abnormally high in the paint, leaving the baseline wide open for Malone to make a spin move to the basket. Malone felt Rodman and instinctively started his spin, but in doing so, he missed Michael Jordan waiting for him in the paint. Jordan swiped the ball from Malone and calmly brought the ball back upcourt, waited for the clock to wind down and then hit THE SHOT…..

After his successful run with the Bulls, Rodman did time with the Lakers and Mavericks before leaving the NBA. He’d continue to play in the ABA and various other semi-professional outlets until 2006, when he left the game for good.

Dennis Rodman’s on the court resume is certainly impressive. Only 26 guys in history have as many championship rings as he does, and if you look around the NBA, it’s not too hard to see Rodman’s influence in the modern game. Guys like Chris ‘Birdman’ Andersen are clearly Disciples of The Worm, and even Ron Artest used to wear number 91 in homage of Rodman’s lockdown energy.

Amazingly, Rodman’s defensive skill set was so strong that it seemed to completely overshadow his indifference to developing on the offensive side of the ball. All told, Rodman is a career 7.3 PPG player, dishing out only 1.8 APG.

Still, it’s hard to argue with five championship rings.

The Case Against

Now this is where things get more interesting, both from ‘Does he belong in the HOF’ perspective and, well… a psychological perspective.

In his book, Bad as I Wanna Be, Rodman talks in detail about a night in February 1993 where he was found asleep in his car with a loaded rifle. He admits that he seriously considered suicide, however:

“I decided that instead [of killing myself] I was gonna kill the impostor that was leading Dennis Rodman to a place he didn’t want to go… So I just said, ‘I’m going to live my life the way I want to live it and be happy doing it.’ At that moment I tamed [sic] my whole life around. I killed the person I didn’t want to be.”

He goes on to discuss that the person he didn’t want to be was the happy-go-lucky NBA star with shiny teeth and a glint in his eye. He didn’t want to sell shoes or soda, and he did not want to be considered a role model for America’s youth.

By the time he was dealt to the Spurs, his commitment to being ‘himself’ began to take form when he shaved his head and dyed his hair blonde. Before long, the hair was red, then purple, then came the tattoos and the figure nail polish, and then, well, things just kept on rolling.

He head butted Stacey King and John Stockton, he had a famous affair with Madonna, he kicked a camera man in the groin, he was fined for saying he was out of sync because of ‘all the f***ing Mormons out here,’ he joined the World Wrestling Federation, wrestled with Karl Malone at the “Bash at the Beach,” he showed up to a book signing in a wedding dress (and attempted to marry himself). He wed Carmen Electra, divorced her 10 days later… and on, and on, and on.

In Summary

So here’s the question: how much crazy behavior, fines, suspensions and general malarky factor into the bottom line of a player’s legacy? In my opinion, there’s no greater exhibit to evaluate this question than Dennis Rodman.

He’s an infamous NBA player, but as what? He’s either the quintessential defensive role player, or the worst example of a head case armed with millions of dollars and a basketball. He’s either the guy that inspired Ron Artest to develop a strong defensive mindset, the same mindset that led him and the Lakers to a championship, or a thug that laid the groundwork for Ron Artest to barrel into the stands and attack a fan in Detroit.

In my opinion, I think the truth is somewhere in between. Like all players (and all of us, really) Dennis Rodman is a little bit good and a little bit evil. As fans, I think it’s up to us to decide how we want to perceive the game.

Do we want to see LeBron James as a guy who irredeemably screwed over his hometown, or do we want to see him as a guy who was given a choice and foolishly allowed the hoopla surrounding said choice get insanely, ridiculously out of hand?

Do we want to see Carmelo Anthony as the guy who ruined the fortunes of the team that drafted him, or do we want to see him as another guy with a different choice; a guy who decided to leverage his talents to hold out for the team he’s wanted to play for since he was a kid?

Was Rodman a pain in the ass? Of course he was. He was intentionally, aimlessly, foolishly pissing people off just because he could do so. Should that be factored into the Rodman Candidacy? Absolutely, but at the end of the day, I want to be the kind of fan that believes that controversies fade and that people eventually forget who said what to who and why. I want to believe that when it comes to a player’s legacy, the first and most important thing that people remember is the basketball.

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Matt Moore

Matt Moore is a Senior NBA Blogger for CBSSports.com's Eye on Basketball blog, weekend editor of Pro Basketball Talk on NBCSports.com, and co-editor of Voice on the Floor. He lives in Kansas City due to an unbelievably complex set of circumstances and enjoys mid-90's pop rock, long walks on the beach and the novels of Tim Sandlin.