To grasp how one can be underrated, the definition for rated must be first observed, obviously.
Taking a page out of the apathetic/lazy/Jeff Winger best man speech how-to guide and textbook, Webster’s Dictionary states that rate (and its many tenses) is to “assign a standard or value to (something) according to a particular scale.” In which case, such an understanding makes rating a list of basketball players – perhaps the best 330 or so in the entire world, give or take – even harder.
What are the criteria to determine what is or isn’t properly rated? Would it be to find the best value compared to their draft position? To their current contract? To their existing or nonexistent league-wide popularity? To a team’s successes? As examples, look no further than ESPN’s The Last Dance to find how subjective and varied the question of being underrated can really become.
Scottie Pippen, universally hailed as one of the greatest players of all-time, was criminally underpaid compared to his statistical output during the Chicago Bulls’ six championship-winning seasons. In that sense, Pippen was underrated, but as a seven-time All-Star and Hall of Famer, can that label really be applied to him?
Or for Dennis Rodman, who wasn’t drafted until the second round in 1986, a rebounding machine and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, does an underrated tag belong on him too? And, as the second and third ponies alongside Jordan, the greatest of all-time for most, does that make them underrated even more?
In the cases of Pippen and Rodman, two extreme resumes, admittedly, the answer would be a resolute and resounding no.
So if there’s no true, foolproof way to determine eligibility for underratedness, then anything becomes fair game. Too often, the NBA’s biggest and brightest stars are viewed through a single, frustrating lens: Count the rinnnnnnnnnnnnngs, baby! And if you don’t have any championships, too bad, you might be a loser. Or worse, gasp, overrated. Yet, in 2020 and with so many wonderful vantage points, numbers and angles to pitch a story, almost anybody can be underrated if you put your mind to it.
With that in mind, here’s the Northeast Division’s most underrated contributors, all in their own particularly unique way.
Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers
With Anthony, that first rule of thumb comes into play immediately: Forget the statistics.
Forget the numbers, percentages and whatever fancy-pants metrics support the inane task of taking down a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. Carmelo Anthony, today, is underrated.
Sure, he probably won’t hoist a trophy before he bids farewell, but so what? Hell, the chances of him even reaching the NBA Finals at this point appear to be a lost dream. But these recent (and strange) seasons have done years of irreversible damage to Anthony’s status in basketball history, for reasons that are often difficult to understand.
Anthony is a 10-time All-Star, six-time All-NBA team member, national champion, three-time Olympic gold medalist and likely would have finished the 2019-20 season as the 14th-highest scorer in NBA history. For 14 seasons in a row, Anthony tallied more than 20 points per game, topping out at a whopping 28.7 in 2012-13. Ultimately, his status as a basketball legend is not up for debate, yet many wonder if he should even make the Hall of Fame at all.
He’s slowed down today, of course, but Anthony remains underrated in the long-time NBA canon and will be lionized correctly years after his career ends, almost undoubtedly. So why wait?
Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and other superstars got emotional farewell tours, so where is Anthony’s? Those who fail to appreciate greatness while they still have it will be the first to unironically post a highlight reel with the smoke-from-nostril emoji on Twitter in 2030 asking for retweets to prove how underrated Anthony truly was.
Don’t be that person: Anthony is ready to be loved right here and now.
Bojan Bogdanovic, Utah Jazz
For all of his big-time shotmaking, out-of-nowhere explosions and general cold-bloodedness, where has that gotten Bojan Bogdanovic in terms of popularity? Honestly, outside of Brooklyn, Indiana and Utah, the answer is sadly very little.
Bogdanovic, a winner of championships in both Turkey and Croatia, came over to the NBA in 2014 and fast became a reliable source of buckets for the Nets. Although streaky, watching a red-hot Bogdanovic is an absolute treat, a flamethrower with reckless abandon and supreme confidence.
In 2016, the Croatian dropped 44 on the Philadelphia 76ers, a number that equaled the one on Drazen Petrovic’s jersey – the oft-go-to inspiration for many international basketball players. Three years later, in 2019-20, Bogdanovic was sporting a career-best 20.2 points and 4.1 rebounds, plus a ridiculous 3.0 three-pointers on 41.4 percent.
His defense comes up short in crucial moments, but when has that ever stopped a player from growing wildly in popularity? Perhaps always hidden in smaller markets or behind a bigger star, he has always played second fiddle. And at 31, his chance to ascend has come and gone – but the true ones know: Bojan Bogdanovic is one of the most underrated scorers in the NBA today.
Underappreciated, too, was Bogdanovic’s measure of self-worth and inherent ability to stay off the hellscape called Twitter for three consecutive seasons. On Mar. 27, the sharpshooter sent out a simple message: “I just realized I have Twitter account” and accompanied it with a playful emoji.
Gosh, the world would be a better place if we all had that kind of control.
Will Barton, Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic this. Jamal Murray that. (Sometimes) Gary Harris in between. But Will? Poor Barton is an afterthought in most conversations about the Nuggets’ team-wide and team-first spectacle. But with 15.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game on 45 percent shooting, Barton is playing better than ever before.
And at $12.7 million in 2019-20, he’s also a steal too.
He averages more points than Harrison Barnes ($24 million), Aaron Gordon ($19.8) and Al Horford ($28), while coming in just under Terry Rozier ($19.9), Goran Dragic ($19.2) and Tim Hardaway Jr. ($18.1). That’s value. Moreover, Barton leads Denver in minutes at 33 and brings down the second-most rebounds per game at just 6-foot-5. When Barton knocked down three or more attempts from deep this year, the Nuggets went 11-4.
With the added bonus of underrated nicknames aside – of note, the rhyming nickname scheme rules and collective sports society got worse when we moved onto ‘cooler’ processes like the uber-unique first initial + last initial + number method – Will ‘The Thrill’ fits most of our aforementioned criteria.
D’Angelo Russell, Minnesota Timberwolves
Thus far, we’ve tackled the sentiment of being underrated via overall career resume (Anthony), popularity (Bogdanovic) or even on his own roster (Barton) – so, next, how about underrated in the category of underappreciation?
All those years ago, Russell was a can’t-miss prospect. But after an improved sophomore season, he was pawned off so the Lakers could draft Lonzo Ball. Then, following his first-ever All-Star-worthy berth that pushed Brooklyn back into the playoffs for the first time in four years, he was jettisoned for Kyrie Irving. And when the Warriors acquired Russell in a sign-and-trade for Kevin Durant last July, the young sharpshooter lasted just half a season – one without Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson for most of it – before Golden State shuffled him off for an Andrew Wiggins-sized lotto ticket.
So, for the love of all that is holy in our sport, the question is this: What must D’Angelo Russell do to earn your respect?
At 23, Russell has seen the world around and then some, bouncing between franchise cornerstone and trade chip so fast it would give onlookers second-hand whiplash. Through 12 games with Minnesota, his potential forever home, Russell was averaging 21.7 points and 6.6 assists on 41.2 percent from the floor. Adjusting to Karl-Anthony Towns, the Timberwolves’ No. 1 asset and Russell’s No. 1 BFFL, shouldn’t be difficult – but with his ceiling, it’s insane that such a talented player is on his fourth team already.
When the NBA flashes its cruel, business-sided approach to feelings, it’s hard not to ache for the player caught in the crosshairs. And through five years, Russell has been on the losing end of that deal three times already. Healthy and confident, the talented up-and-comer won’t be shopped again soon – hopefully, then, being properly rated is just around the corner for Russell as well.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
Rounding out the bunch is our annual Mr. Underrated In His Own Draft Class, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
In 2018, Gilgeous-Alexander was taken with the No. 11 overall pick and promptly swapped for Miles Bridges. Coming out of an illustrious Kentucky program wasn’t enough as he fell behind the well-deserved hype for Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr., Deandre Ayton and Trae Young. Most of the draft class chatter remains loudest about a couple of those previously named – but sooner rather than later, Gilgeous-Alexander will own as big of a star.
After a promising rookie season, the guard was reluctantly included in the trade that landed Paul George (and, subsequently, Kawhi Leonard) and he’s since flourished with the Thunder. As a 21-year-old, Gilgeous-Alexander has doubled his points (19.3) and rebounds (6.1) while starting 63 games next to Chris Paul, the absolute perfect veteran to study. The once-All-Rookie First Team member finished 5,798,243 tallies behind Doncic in All-Star voting in 2019-20 – but was the gap really that large between the two second-year cornerstones?
Gilgeous-Alexander has caught the eye of writers everywhere and everybody is fawning over his electric potential, both as a scorer and a playmaker. In the end, he appears to be a more than formidable choice to take over as the franchise crown jewel from Russell Westbrook, which might say more about Gilgeous-Alexander than anything else in these paragraphs.
When the fearless court general scored 25 or more this year, Oklahoma City was a ridiculous 9-1, a record that includes wins over the Los Angeles Clippers, Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz. For the Thunder, the budding star ranked first in minutes (35.1), first in points, fourth in field goal percentage (47.3 percent), second in rebounds, third in assists (3.3) and second in steals (1.1).
And if that weren’t enough, Gilgeous-Alexander had his new squad in fifth place in the Western Conference, a game out of fourth and in a dogfight with James Harden, Donovan Mitchell and the aforementioned Doncic for homecourt advantage in the first round. Not bad for a former No. 11 overall pick, and one that is leading a team that was supposed to tank out and rebuild six months ago.
Today, class, we’ve learned that the notion of being underrated is not a definitive, singular point of view – as it can often refer to one’s popularity amongst peers, legends, fellow draftees and even teammates. In Russell’s case, the classic bridesmaid-but-never-the-bride adage kicks in and it’s easy to imagine how the All-Star point guard might still be considered underrated as well.
While Basketball Insiders’ series continues on, keep putting these players through different frames of reference – you never know, it may just change everything.
What We Learned: Eastern Conference Week 4
What did we learn about the Eastern Conference this week? Jonathon Gryniewicz takes a look in the most recent edition of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.
It’s not even a month into the NBA season, but the 2020-21 Eastern Conference has already looked super competitive, with 14 teams within six games of each other. There’s bound to be some separation in the coming weeks, don’t expect any team to go down easy.
But which have paced the East? Who’s flopped? Let’s take a look.
The New Look Brooklyn Nets
The Brooklyn Nets big three of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the newly acquired James Harden recently played their first game together against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The back-and-forth game ended in a double-overtime, 147-135 Nets loss. The three of them had plenty of time on the court together and divvied up the scoring; Durant scored 38 points on 25 shots in 50 minutes; Irving 37 points on 28 shots in 37 minutes; and Harden 21 points on 14 shots in 51 minutes.
But, outside of the box score, what did we learn about this team from their first performance?
You never want to jump to conclusions, but it’s easy to see that their offense could be dominant. When those three were on the court together, Harden served as the de facto point guard while Irving and Durant took their turns in isolation situations. Of course, in such an iso-based offense, there wasn’t much player movement beyond the trio, but they are so good at taking their own man off the dribble they can always get a good shot. What should make them even harder to guard is the fact that they’re all prolific three-point shooters; two can space at the three point line, while the other can use that extra space to either score themselves or collapse the defense and kick it outside.
Of course, there’s some work to be done. Harden and Irving combined for nine of the team’s 16 turnovers, while each of the three took their fair share of shots maybe just a bit too early in the shot clock. Defensively, Brooklyn is a major work-in-progress. Their closing lineup of Harden, Durant, Irving, Jeff Green and Joe Harris would appear to be solid but doesn’t offer much in terms of switchability and consistent rim protection. Beyond that, there isn’t much to be excited about.
Depth could also be an issue. They recently added Norvel Pelle to compete with two-way rookie Reggie Perry for backup center minutes. The team may have to look into an addition on the wing, too; while they currently roster Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, the three are young and, so far this season, have proven inconsistent at best. A veteran that could provide some bench stability should be the priority.
Kendrick Nunn is Emerging for the Miami HEAT
In recent days, Kendrick Nunn has played his best basketball in nearly a year.
The 2020 Rookie of the Year runner-up, Nunn struggled in the Orlando Bubble last season as he saw a continually diminished role in Miami’s run to the NBA Finals. He started this season on a similar note, as he averaged only 5.5 points and played in just six of the HEAT’s first 12 games.
But, with Jimmy Butler and other key players dealing with injury, Nunn has seen a resurgence. In Miami’s last six games, not only has he played heavy minutes, but Nunn has flourished to the tune of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He’s also shot 37.8 percent from three and 50 percent from the floor.
Of course, there’s the question of the competition. Nunn’s success has come against the Nets aforementioned suspect defense, as well as the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors, two teams that have struggled mightily to start the year. Still, the spark he’s shown should help him maintain a role going forward, even after Butler and the rest return to the court.
If he can maintain hold down a role, or at least a bit of that spark, Nunn could prove a massive boon for Miami, whose offense has been pretty mediocre in the early going.
The Indiana Pacers Injury Woes
Under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Pacers’ 2020-21 season has seen a terrific start. Through 12 games, Indiana is 8-4 and have played a fun, up-tempo brand of basketball.
That said, they’ve had to deal with a lot on the injury front. After they netted Caris LeVert in the four-team blockbuster that sent Harden to Brooklyn, a mass was found on one of LeVert’s kidneys and he has since been ruled out indefinitely.
Myles Turner, meanwhile, just returned from a two-game absence due to an avulsion fracture in his right hand. In his absence, the Pacers’ defense just didn’t look the same, giving up 129 and 124 points to the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, respectively. The team started the season without Jeremy Lamb and has since lost T.J. Warren to a foot injury that is expected to hold him out for most of the season as well.
No team can lose two starters and expect to continue playing at the same level. If they can’t get healthy, expect it to play a major role in their standing and playoff position at the end of the season.
It will be interesting to watch the East over the next month to see which teams can separate themselves. Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.
Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player
Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.
The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.
But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.
Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112 – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.
Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.
What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.
First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.
But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.
However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.
It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.
While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.
It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.
So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.
Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.
“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”
But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.
Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?
Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.
But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.
The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in 2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!
Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.
It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.
The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.
NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans
Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.
Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.
But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.
In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.
Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.
Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.
That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.
So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.
When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?
That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.
Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.
While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.
He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.
That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.
The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.
In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.
The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.
Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.
Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.