It's hard to believe, but Phoenix Suns small forward Grant Hill is 37 years old. The first college basketball game I remember watching was Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner, and the rest of the Duke Blue Devils taking on the Michigan Wolverines led by the Fab Five at Chrysler Arena.
Now I think of where Grant Hill is today. The last two years with the Suns, at the ages of 36 and 37, he has played the most games in back-to-back seasons than any other two years of his career.
If I would have told you in 1995, after Hill split the NBA Rookie of the Year Award with Jason Kidd, that playing in over 80 games in consecutive seasons was going to be considered a major career accomplishment, I'd say you were nuts.
It's crazy to go back and think about, but there was a time when Grant Hill was "the next Michael Jordan" before Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
When Hill and Jordan were meeting for the first time, Julie Deardorff from the Chicago Tribune wrote, "The awe, although appropriately masked, was still present in a game cleverly billed 'Heir vs. Air' in both Detroit newspapers. But the fresh-faced Hill was learning as he went along, studying the master."
Those were the type of expectations Grant Hill had to deal with, just like LeBron James does today.
Hill and James' careers do have some similarities in their early years, while Hill was on the Pistons and LeBron was/is (not really sure what tense to use there; we will know in less than a month ... WOHOOO!!!!!!!!!!) a Cavalier. Hill was with the Pistons for six years and James has been with Cleveland for seven. They were both clearly the best players on teams with inferior supporting casts. Both did a little bit of everything -- rebounding, scoring, passing, and playing excellent defense.
Neither was known as a great shooter, but Hill did a better job understanding what he was good at while James continues to insist to attempt over 300 3s a season (done it in every year except his rookie year) and has never shot over 35% from behind the arc. Hill never attempted more than 98 3s in a season with Detroit.
The biggest difference was Grant Hill had to deal with an ultra-competitive Eastern Conference. While LeBron has been in the NBA, the higher level of competition and depth has been in the West.
Overall, Hill made it to the playoffs four out of his six seasons with Detroit, but never advanced past the first round.
James made it to the playoffs in five out of his seven years with Cleveland. LeBron went deeper because, as I mentioned before, the Eastern Conference was easier to navigate through during LeBron's time. In '06-07, when the Cavs made it to the NBA Finals, there were no 60-win teams in the EC and only two 50-win teams.
If Grant Hill in his younger years got to play against the competition LeBron saw, he most certainly would have had more success in the playoffs than he did.
The similarities between James and Hill don't end there.
Jackie MacMullan in 1996 wrote an article for Sports Illustrated titled He's Not Michael. She talked to then Pistons Head Coach Doug Collins for the article. Here is a quick excerpt:
"Grant doesn't have the killer instinct in scoring that Michael has," says Collins. "He can dominate a game more subtly by getting the ball to open people, by rebounding and, with two dribbles getting his team into the open floor the way Magic did as a rookie."
Collins made Hill into a point forward which reduces his opportunity to pick up transition baskets and high-percentage shots in the paint. On defense, Collins, at various times, assigned Hill to guard muscular Knick forward Anthony Mason in the post and harass Magic point guard Anfernee Hardaway in the backcourt. Because of Hill's success in these diverse roles, Collins now compared him not to Jordan but to Julius Erving and another Bull -- Scottie Pippen.
The day after the Celtics finished off the Cavs in the Semifinals of this year's NBA Playoffs, ESPN.com's Bill Simmons wrote this about LeBron:
Because the other part feels as if we learned something substantial about LeBron James this spring. I always though his ceiling looked like this: Jordan's DNA crossed with Magic's DNA, crossed with Bo Jackson.
Nope. Take the Jordan DNA out. Have to. Jordan was a ruthless mother******. Jordan was a killer. Jordan didn't care if his teammates despised him. Jordan never, ever, not in a million years, would have allowed his team to quit in the final two minutes of Thursday night's game the way LeBron did.
His teammates feared him, loathed him, revered him, and played accordingly. Bird had that same quality. In the second half of his career, so did Magic. Winning meant so much to those guys that their teammates almost didn't have a choice, they had to follow suit. Or else.
And last night, LeBron's DNA finally made sense to me. Throw Jordan out. Throw Magic out, too, except for the "controls sections of the game with passing/rebounding" part. Keep Bo. Now add this guy ... Julius Erving.
Aren't MacMullan and Simmons essentially saying the same thing about Grant Hill and LeBron James?
Their tones are different; MacMullan gives off a positive vibe for Hill and Simmons gives off a negative vibe for James, but the message is the same. Neither writer believed Hill or James would live up to the "next" label.
For the record, I don't agree completely with Simmons' take on LeBron's DNA. He is still young and has time. As he said himself in the first paragraph I quoted, Magic didn't develop the leadership/killer instinct quality till the second half of his career. I'm not ready to give up on LeBron possibly being the greatest player ever yet.
In the year 2000, Grant Hill was in the same position LeBron James is today, with the opportunity to change the landscape of the entire NBA headlining a phenomenal free agent class. Hill was joined by Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady, and Reggie Miller. Miller and Duncan re-signed with their respective teams, and McGrady joined Hill with the Magic.
Because of ankle injuries, Hill missed a ton of games with Orlando. He never played more than 67 games, and he never was able to reach the expectations of the max contract he received.
Hill eventually moved onto Phoenix, where he reinvented his career as a role player. "I think the last couple years have been a learning process," Hill said. "It's not an easy transition for guys to go from being the guy and having all the shots to more of a supportive role."
As difficult as the change from main focus of the offense to role player is, Grant was able to pull it off successfully. Hill this postseason finally got to advance to the Conference Finals, where we all thought he would have been a long time ago. It wasn't as the lead actor, but in a supporting role flanking Steve Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire, and Jason Richardson.
Grant Hill's career arc didn't end up as projected, when he was touted as the "next Michael Jordan."
Sometime after July 1, LeBron James will make a decision that will affect his career arc, just like Hill did when he left Detroit for Orlando.
Hopefully for LeBron, we get to see how it will all play out instead of having a Hall of Fame career derailed by injuries.
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