Anfernee Hardaway was well on his way to making the Hall of Fame. But unlike another former injured Orlando Magic star in Grant Hill, he never recovered.
In his best season in 1996, the team finished 60-22 and Anfernee Hardaway averaged a career-high 21.7 points per game with 7.1 assists and 4.3 rebounds. In 369 regular-season games for the Magic, Hardaway averaged 19.0 points, 6.5 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game.
On top of that, he was a two-time All-NBA First Team selection (1995 and 1996) and a third-team selection in 1997. He made four All-Star games while a member of the Magic from 1995-98. To Magic fans, he is clearly one of the top four players in the franchise’s history and one of the first members of the team’s Hall of Fame.
Hardaway was the consummate playmaker for the one of the best teams in the NBA during the mid 1990s. Along with Shaquille O’Neal, he formed without a doubt the most star-studded duo in Magic history.
If it were just based on his Orlando career, Hardaway seemed well on his way to the beginnings of a Hall-of-Fame career.
But injuries cut Hardaway’s career short. Hardaway played in only 19 games in the 1998 season as he dealt with knee injuries. That slowly progressed into an ankle issue. He played all 50 games in the lockout-shortened 1999 season, but his explosiveness and athleticism were clearly sapped as he averaged a Magic-low 15.8 points per game.
To say the least, his promising career ended before it was really going to get going. Basketball-Reference’s Hall of Fame probability tool gives him a 28.7-percent chance of making the Hall of Fame with his statistical profile.
It is easy to compare Hardaway’s entire career with another former Magic player beset with injuries. Another former Magic player who has found himself in the Hall of Fame.
When Grant Hill joined the Magic in the summer of 2000, he arrived as one of the most popular and best players in the league. Hill was the 1995 Rookie of the Year, a five-time NBA All-Star and a four-time All-NBA 2nd Team player (with one first-team thrown in there in 1997).
His 1997 season saw him average 21.4 points, 9.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game. He was putting up early-career numbers that put him in the same breath as Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson. Hill was a no-brainer for the Magic to put their free-agent efforts — even if he was on crutches.
Hill never lived up to that reputation. A nagging and complicated ankle injury kept him on the sidelines for the majority of his seven seasons in Orlando.
Hill only played more than 60 games in a season for the Magic twice, in 2005 and 2007 (his final in Orlando). Hill averaged 19.7 points per game in the 2005 season, but summing up his Magic career would be disappointing in comparison to Hardaway.
Yet, Hill found himself in the Hall of Fame on account of his stellar college run with the Duke Blue Devils and his early work with the Detroit Pistons. Not to mention, he found a second life after leaving Orlando, playing six more seasons after leaving the Magic.
It is difficult to compare the two because of that longevity. Hill and Hardaway certainly four or five -year runs where they were among the elite. But Hill found a way to recover from his ankle issues while Hardaway never did.
The numbers reflect this.
Hill showed tremendous value for the Pistons early on in his career, as he was a consistent 20-point-per-game scorer during his tenure. He reached his career-high in points per game during his age 27 season at 25.8 points per game, a season in which he accrued 10.7 win shares during the 2000 season. That was the year before he joined the Magic.
Meanwhile, despite how good Hardaway might have been during his days as a Magic player, he does not even enter the top 250 all-time in terms of win shares.
For Hardaway, it all went downhill in 1997 when he suffered a devastating knee injury that kept his out of action for 63 games. From there, he never again averaged 20 points per game. He was never again the uber-explosive player that led the Magic to the NBA Finals.
When he moved on to Phoenix, there was one good season when he was paired with Jason Kidd with what was marketed as BackCourt 2000. He averaged 16.9 points, 5.3 assists and a career-high 5.8 rebounds that first season with the Suns.
But as his Suns career moved on, he would become a bench player as Joe Johnson and Stephon Marbury entered the fray. He did manage to play in 80 games and average 12 points per game in 2002. But again, his impact was just never what it could have been.
Hardaway could not recover his health or his impact enough to be a Hall-of-Fame caliber player again. And while both Hill and Hardaway were both hit with injuries, only Hill regained his former form. Or at least a part of it.
Hill also had a stronger Hall of Fame base to stand on thanks to his stellar collegiate career that featured two national championships.
As a Magic player, Hardaway will always be fondly remembered. He earned his place in the team’s Hall of Fame — and maybe one day, his jersey retired if the Magic ever honor players that way.
But when it comes to the Hall of Fame, there just does not seem to be a place for him. He was simply a role player later on in his career and he didn’t live up to the potential that he showed during his first four seasons.
Hill showed consistent production during each of his 17 seasons when he was a catalyst on a team, averaging double digits in each of those seasons. In his 18th season, he played for the Los Angeles Clippers and averaged 3.2 points, but that is an outlier here.
One can only wonder what could have been for Hardaway, a player who was once so great, but became just another guard after his body betrayed him.