What If Penny Hardaway Stayed Healthy?
Updated: Mar 25
The NBA has been put on hold, but OTG is still hitting you with fresh content. During this hiatus we will be running an NBA 'What If" series. We will be looking at some of the most pivotal moments in NBA history and how a different outcome could have changed the course of the league forever.
The term "generational talent" is one of the more cliche and ubiquitously used phrases in all of basketball, it feels like standard practice for fans to re-evaluate a player's resume after a decade. There is usually some type of alignment between "generational talents" and the league's torch-bearers, those elite few who've come into the league and have utterly stifled opposing defenses on a nightly and ultimately yearly basis.
When you think about LeBron James, it's his rare combination of size, athleticism, and instincts. When you're talking Steph Curry, you can't go 30 seconds without referencing his otherworldly shooting ability and vision. When you bring up Kevin Durant, it starts and ends with his freakish dimensions and undeniable scoring prowess, same for Kyrie Irving and his ball-handling wizardry. These players left an indelible mark on the game; their names will live on in the hearts and tongues of NBA fans for eternity. These singular talents have transcended the sport and become living benchmarks for the basketball community at large, permanently altering the lens in which the hoops community views talent. In all my years of fandom, I can't remember a point guard who captured my heart and imagination like Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway.
For me, the 1990s were the "Golden Era" in NBA basketball, dominant frontcourts, elite backcourts, a bevy of future Hall of Famers littered across NBA markets. The Dream Team's dominance at the 1992 Summer Olympics shifted the global narrative on the sport and helped shine on the light on the league's colorful cast of characters. Player marketing, sneakers contracts, and television deals made players more visible than they had ever been, resulting in a spike in the league's popularity.
Penny's ascension to NBA superstardom perfectly aligned with the NBA's broadening influence. If you are unsure of how popular Penny Hardaway was during his 90's run, look no further than Nike's iconic commercials for Hardaway's signature shoe, the "Air Penny," starring legendary comedian Chris Rock. The ads featured the likes of Spike Lee, Tyra Banks, Ken Griffey Jr, Tiger Woods, David Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Barry Sanders, a "who's who" of 90's musicians, athletes, and entertainers. If social media were around during the 90's Hardaway would have been the "belle of the ball."
On the court is where Penny shined the brightest. Standing at 6'7" Hardaway was an impossible cover for smaller guards, he consistently punished teams with a post-game that seemed way too polished for his age. Taller defenders didn't fare any better, Penny's speed and first step allowed him to create separation in a moment's notice.
Unlike many point guards of his stature, Hardaway was just as comfortable in the half-court as he was in the open court utilizing his frame to weave in and out of traffic to finish with either hand. Penny passing was a sight to behold as well, like Jason Kidd and Magic Johnson, Hardaway possessed what the French would call a certain "Je Ne Sais Quoi," an innate instinct to find the open man in spectacular fashion.
Defensively, Hardaway put his size and length to good use as he averaged 2 SPG in his first 3 seasons. Penny's dimensions made him a versatile and valuable defensive asset, the type of "swiss army knife" that coaches cherish for his ability to match up with multiple players on the perimeter.
The most recent modern comparison I'd feel comfortable making at least from a size perspective would be the LA Clippers version of Shaun Livingston, which is an enormous stretch when you consider Penny's ridiculous athleticism and perimeter polish.
Reggie Miller was on the Dan Patrick Show, and he said had Penny stayed healthy, he would have been "easily a first-ballot Hall of Famer" and that Penny "saw the floor like Magic but he was a better scorer and probably had a better post-up game." That's high praise coming from one of the best shooting guards of all time and holds weight considering all of the greats Reggie has seen and played against during his time as a player and television analyst. There's even footage of an interview with Julius Erving and Michael Jordan discussing the passing of the torch to the younger generation, and Michael Jordan identified Penny as the player best suited to wear the crown.
For my money, Penny Hardaway was and is "pound for pound" one of the most talented and capable lead guards the game has ever seen. Penny's game was clean, smooth, and efficient. Hardaway found success in one of more physical eras in basketball against some of the game legends. It's difficult imagining there being a better archetype for the position. Had Penny Hardaway been able to stay healthy, there is no doubt in my mind he would have carved out a career as one of the greatest guards the game had ever seen.