Welcome back to the GOAT Atlanta Hawks Series. Missed the previous entries? Check them out here:
Criminally underrated by yours truly during his first go-round with the Hawks, our #11 GOAT Hawk brought a tenacity and toughness to the Hawks that impacted a championship team during his time in Atlanta....unfortunately it wasn't the Hawks.
The #11 Greatest of All-Time Atlanta Hawk: Kevin Willis
In 1991-1992, Willis had a season to remember for the Hawks, especially on the glass. His 15.5 rebounds that season makes him one of only three players to clear that hurdle since Willis' rookie year in 1984-85. (Dennis Rodman did it six times, and Ben Wallace once, in 2002-2003.)
Ok, so we teased a couple of things in the lead-in, so let's get to the second one first.
Kevin was drafted by Stan Kasten with the 11th pick in the 1984 draft and while it was seven seasons before he authored his finest season (as highlighted above) and made his only All-Star team, his rebounding prowess and physical toughness was evident immediately.
Willis finished in the top 10 in total rebound rate his first two seasons as a starter and his toughness, as stated in the lead-in, likely spurred a future champ to make a pivotal move.
According to the "From Sweet Lou to 'Nique" historical epic, Jeffrey Denberg recalls:
...his (Willis') strong armed tactics had a profound and very quick impact on the Detroit Pistons' championship seasons. After seeing his team bullied by Willis one night in the Silverdome, Detroit coach Chuck Daly decried the absence of "manhood" on his team's front line. The following summer, the Pistons dumped their own power forwards, acquired Rick Mahorn from Washington and became a dominant team.
It's fitting that Willis, who may have created a monster in those Detroit "Bad Boys" teams, ultimately played against and then for the coach who took those Bad Boy tactics to its extreme in the 90's, Pat Riley.
The Hawks used Willis as part of the strong Hawk front line that framed the Atlanta Hawks teams under Mike Fratello, Bob Weiss, and finally Lenny Wilkens. Willis spent 9 seasons with the Hawks and enjoyed the greatest successes that the franchise has ever seen, including (5) straight 50-win seasons under Fratello, and a (57) win campaign in 1993-94 under Wilkens.
Willis was sent to Miami just after his 10th season as a Hawk began and in return the Hawks received Steve Smith and Grant Long, two essential pieces to the next two Hawk 50-win seasons.
If folks thought that Willis was almost done at Age 32 when he went to Miami, Willis had a surprise for them as he was an above average caliber player well into his Age 39 season in 2001-2002 with the Rockets. He won a title with the Spurs at Age 41 and made one last trip through a Hawks uni at age 42 in 2004-2005.
For his career in Atlanta, he is the all-time rebounder, with 7,332 total rebounds and is 2nd for the ATL all-time in rebounding rate and defensive rebounding rate. He is #1 in Offensive rebounding rate and 4th in rebounds per game (9.7 over 753 games in the ATL).
So for all of that, why did I underrate Willis all those years?
Well, for one, I wasn't alone in lamenting that, while Willis was tall, he was no Tree Rollins in the middle. I, along with my fan brethren, noted constantly that, for a seven footer, Willis had comparatively short arms and did not block many shots. Shallow analysis, indeed.
Willis' career blocked shot rate with Atlanta was 1.1%, on par with such players as Marvin Williams, Steve Hawes, and Stacey Augmon. For fans who grew up with the ever-present deterrent that was Tree in the middle, Willis looked like he was missing something that a seven footer should have.
Willis also used a lot more possessions than Rollins did, 10th all time for Atlanta with 21 percent. And since all of us were more eager to watch Dominique use possessions than Willis' back to the basket game, each one that Kevin used bothered me.
Looking back, Willis was an efficient player offensively, one of the two best ever on the glass for the Hawks, and provided a toughness that I didn't recognize as a teen Bird Watcher infatuated with the Namesake every night. Toss in the fact that he didn't feed my insatiable blocked shot lust, and it's easy to see why myself, and other Hawk fans like me, underrated Willis. Of course, we also didn't have the Internet or stats galore that make values far more easy to see.
No longer, Mr. Willis. Your efforts and productively are obvious now, and are more than worthy of the #11 slot on the list of GOAT Atlanta Hawks.