Article Length: ~1,100 words or about 6-8 minutes of reading.
Horace Grant was the third-fiddle to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen during the Bulls’ first three-peat from 1991-1993. If he’s mentioned at all, Grant is often lumped in with the other role players like John Paxson and Bill Cartwright, but he is clearly on a tier above anyone else on the team. According to Basketball Reference and during the 1991-92 season for the Bulls, Grant was 2nd in OBPM, 1st in DBPM, 2nd in BPM, 2nd in WS/48, 2nd in Goldstein’s PIPM, and 3rd in VORP (here’s some background information on advanced analytics). While I’m not arguing that Horace Grant was better than Scottie Pippen, he’s clearly bringing immense value to the Bulls.
To find the answer, I watched some film from the 1992 season. Specifically, I closely watched game 7 of the 1992 Eastern Conference Semi Finals between the Bulls and the Knicks. I’m a big supporter of deeply analyzing a microcosm to make claims about a broader topic, but I admit that I’m definitely missing details from not watching more games throughout the season.
When playing with ball-dominant players like Pippen and Jordan, it’s necessary to carve out a niche as a 3rd option (I discuss this more thoroughly here). The aspect of Grant’s game that stood out to me the most was his ability to thoroughly dominant in subtle ways. He’s definitely not flashy on either side of the ball, but he is the clear glue for the Bulls especially on defense.
At 6’10” and 215, Grant was a typical power forward for the nineties, but his play style would make him a near-perfect center nowadays. Looking at his lateral quickness, endurance, and foot speed, Grant was a phenomenal athlete who covered the most ground in their defensive scheme. In the Bulls’ full-court press, Grant would often guard the inbounder or point-guard (he’s #54 and wearing white goggles).
Notice how he provides pressure the entire length of the court before recovering to cut off any paint penetration. This is just one example I found, but the Bulls often used him in this role. I couldn’t find any instances of this hurting the Bulls because Grant is spectacular at guarding in space.
In the half-court, Grant often blitzed the pick-and-roll ball-handler while still recovering to his man.
Here, he blitzes the ball-handler, recovers to his man, and leaves his man to contest Ewing’s jumper which he blocks and recovers.
Again, Grant blitzes the pick-and-roll ball-handler, but he finds himself on the wrong side of the court. He easily recovers to his man before helping on Ewing again for the block and rebound.
One might argue that this level of aggression on the pick-and-roll wouldn’t work in 2019 because of the roller’s ability to pop out for a three which would stretch Grant’s recovery distance. I would need to investigate this more, but I see no reason why he wouldn’t be an elite pick-and-roll defender right now.
Beyond the pick-and-roll, he showcased savvy awareness and length to disrupt half-court defenses. Here he contests Ewing (it’s probably a foul) and reads the entry pass in time to steal it.
In what I consider to be the most impressive defensive play of the game, Grant switches onto point-guard John Starks and completely shuts him down. He strips the ball, dives, and recovers in time to force a pass. The ensuing basket is definitely not Grant’s fault.
That ability to anticipate made him a fearsome shot blocker. I wouldn’t quite call him elite at this, but this might change if he were the sole paint protector on the court. Here is able to block Ewing’s jumper which is definitely not a low release.
Players didn’t often drive into Grant, but here’s an example of Grant timing a Mark Jackson layup perfectly for the block. His anticipation and length are on full display as he tips it at the apex.
Grant’s role on offense is a bit more difficult to pin down. His Offensive Box Plus Minus ranks as 7th in the league that season despite not having any eye-catching skills. He doesn’t stretch the floor like a modern forward nor does he have near the passing game that Draymond boasts. His best offensive skill is definitely his offensive rebounding: a skill that doesn’t encroach on the skillset of anyone else on the court. Here he is jostling in the paint for position.
In general, Grant happily battles near the basket. When he’s not chasing guards in the open court, he’s almost always making contact with a player in the paint. Guys like Rodman would rub their physicality in their opponents’ faces, but Grant fought stoically.
This offensive board showcases Grant’s anticipation and IQ rather than his strength and willingness to get physical.
Interestingly, what stood out most about Grant was that nothing stood out. Besides a sole end-of-the-shot clock heave, I don’t recall seeing Grant do anything outside of his skillset. He never took a heat check, he never tried to take his man off the dribble, he rarely gambled, and he never attempted risky passes. The most that I can recall him creating on offense was a simple post-fade.
His willingness to stay within his role is invaluable especially on a team with guys like Jordan and Pippen. Grant doesn’t create much on offense, but he doesn’t need to, and what he does do, he does efficiently. The advanced numbers reflect not that he was a premier offensive player in the league but that he was fully maximized in his offensive role.
Defensively, Grant was a frenetic fiend who held together the Bulls aggressive style by covering every square inch on the court. His endless motor (he played 42 minutes in this game), length, speed, and IQ helped him dominate without racking up all-league numbers. He’s definitely not at the level of Garnett or Olajuwon, but he was certainly worthy of all-league defense.
Role: Top 3, third, fourth, or fifth best player on a team (this means that in any given year, he would rank as one of the three best, third best players in the league).
Skillset (portability is defined as how well the player would fit on a given team. Grant suffers from lack of a 15+ foot jumper and average to below average passing. Defensively, he is extremely portable).
Perception in Current NBA: Loved by the analytics crowd (with a few pushing for DPoY candidacy), but viewed as a sub-all star by most fans. Secret backbone to a phenomenal defense.