Backpicks GOAT: #30 Bob Pettit

Key Stats and Trends

  • Never played on a dominant team
  • Despite strong box stats, limited evidence for elite peak

Scouting Report

There’s almost no video of Bob Pettit – the closest thing we have to a continuous reel of game tape is probably the 1962 All-Star game – so this will be the briefest scouting report in this series. It’s clear from the limited evidence that Pettit was a fluid athlete who had a good first step and an effective outside jumper. (He hit two shots near 3-point range in the first half of that ’62 ASG.) He could drive and finish around the hoop, was an active offensive rebounder and seemed to constantly probe for better position off the ball. Pettit himself felt his offensive rebounding was his best attribute, discussed below in this wonderful video on his career:

In the limited archives, there aren’t many instances of Pettit finding a great pass. However, there are some clips of decent assists or outright creation, setting up teammates after drawing defensive attention. Combined with his typical assist per game figures (often in the 3s) it’s likely that Pettit was a moderate creator for his time.

On film, his defense looks like a mixed bag. He occasionally reached when guarding the ball, but otherwise constantly swiveled his head to check his positioning. His recovery and shot-blocking don’t pop in any available footage, and he wasn’t known for verticality. However, it appears he was a strong defensive rebounder, but not quite elite in that realm.

Using estimates of rebounding, it’s likely that he was around 17 percent in total rebounding rate during his best seasons, comparable to modern bigs like Anthony Davis or Pau Gasol. In the first five seasons rebounding percentage were officially tallied — when defensive rebounding rates were chronologically closest to the ’60s — Pettit’s numbers would have ranked about 10th in a given season, or around the 80th percentile among big men.

As his career unfolded, Pettit’s physical condition changed dramatically. According to his account, he was a slender 210 pounds when he entered the league. After taking punishment in the paint, including 140 career stitches in his face and a broken hand that forced him to wear a cast at times in 1957 and ’58, he added 35 pounds with weight training, bulking to 245 pounds (at 6-feet-8 in socks). Pettit retired at 32, tearing a ligament in his knee in his final season in 1965.

Impact Evaluation

The shot-clock was to the NBA what the Cambrian explosion was to biology. Before Danny Biasone’s timekeeping innovation, the league was in a dull place, contracting a team in 1953 (Indianapolis) before another disbanded in 1954 (Baltimore). In 1951, there was even a 19-18 game. With the clock’s implementation in the 1955 season, the league entered a period of exponential growth in which racial barriers eroded, rules evolved and money poured in, all of which attracted a larger talent pool. The game grew so fast (pun intended) that there were conversations about banning tall players.

One measurement of this growth is the prominence of new players, and as you can see below, an influx of rookies played larger roles at the outset of this period:

In the last 65 years, there have been only five seasons where rookies topped 13 percent of the 1500-minute players, and all five were between 1955 and 1963. The league was immature then, and the teams tightly packed; the hardest period in history to create any separation was in the late ’50s and early ’60s. So while parity prevented a dominant team until the Celtics empire, some of those 50-win teams were quite impressive.

Pettit entered the league in ’55 and immediately assumed a leading role, nearly doubling his second-best teammate in scoring. Despite frequent roster turnover and coaching turmoil during his first few years, the Hawks gradually improved, climbing from an also-ran to a .500 team, adding notables like Slater Martin and Ed Macauley. And a .500 team was good enough to win back then, as St. Louis took the ’58 title with a quotidian SRS of 0.8.

Pettit was the first great scorer of the shot-clock era and claimed two scoring titles in the ’50s. Thanks to his outside touch (visible on film), his efficiency was bested by only a handful of players during the post shot-clock explosion. Here’s how he stacked up in the first 15 years of the clock:

The Hawks peaked in 1959, playing at a 50-win pace (prorated to an 82-game schedule). Macauley moved to coaching and All-Star center Clyde Lovellette joined the team. More importantly, Pettit, free of his cast, spiked in scoring and efficiency while his assists ticked back up. Commensurate with Pettit’s individual improvement, the St. Louis attack finished first in the league in relative offensive rating in ’59. After two average seasons of offense, they posted +2.9 rORtg in ’59, a near identical number to their 1960 mark of +3.0. So while the defense remained steady, the offense turned them into potential challengers to Boston in those years.1

With rookie and future Hall-of-Famer Lenny Wilkens aboard in 1961, the Hawks produced another 50-win pace season. But the ’62 team fell apart, despite Pettit and Hagan logging big minutes. The defense betrayed St. Louis, dropping from well above average to well below it, losing 7.4 points in relative efficiency overnight.2 Lovellette was injured for half of the season, but the team wasn’t so hot with him either. Wilkens also missed most of the year for military service, and in the 20 games he played, St. Louis looked average (+0.6 SRS). Another key factor, along with any regression from aging, was St. Louis’s coaching carousel; the Hawks trotted out three coaches that season, including Pettit himself for the final six games! (He was the eighth Hawks coach in six seasons.)

After that, St. Louis strung together a few more runs behind Pettit (the player), Zelmo Beaty and Wilkens, playing at a 45 to 49 win pace for Pettit’s final three seasons while returning to defensive performances that were comparable to their pre-’62 numbers.

Unfortunately, we have limited data from those years to gauge Pettit’s impact. If we examine his missed time, his WOWY score in 35 missed games during his prime is unimpressive (+0.9), although some scaling of those numbers is required given how tightly compacted the league was then. Using a more robust method like WOWYR demonstrates decent positive impact, but his numbers are closer to Sam Jones than the giants of the era. Given his injuries, It’s likely these studies understate his peak play, although I do think they accurately reflect a lack of dominance compared to that period’s transcendent stars.

I could easily see Pettit a slot or two lower on this list. However, it’s harder for me to see him much higher. This is largely due to a lack of information and rapid change during the era; Pettit is really the earliest star of the shot-clock period, and because of that, some curving is required to account for the influx of talent that would hit the league in the ’60s. Still, I give him nine All-NBA type seasons with a peak that barely touched MVP status, good enough for the 30th most valuable career since 1955.

 

  1. The Hawks won the title in 1958, the year before they “peaked.” This was well inline with normal variance, as Pettit and the Hawks were better statistically across the board in ’59. To win the ’58 title, they needed to defeat the below-average Pistons and then upset the 5-SRS Celtics, something that will happen 20 percent of the time based on the home-court margin-of-victory of those teams. Additionally, Bill Russell was hobbled by injury in those Finals, playing only 20 minutes in Game 7 and causing some to question whether it flipped the series to the Hawks.
  2. That’s the seventh largest drop in defensive efficiency in the shot-clock era.

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