NBA Superstars Hiding in Small Markets
There are inherent benefits that go with being a superstar in a big market.
Bigger markets mean more coverage, and in a league as narrative driven as the NBA, that's important. Take, for example, Derrick Rose's MVP victory in the 2010-11 season. Do you think he wins that trophy if he plays in Milwaukee or Memphis rather than Chicago? Probably not.
Fortunately, at least some semblance of market parity still exists, and there are a few superstars playing in smaller markets. But, unfortunately, these superstars sometimes get swept under the rug and don't quite get the recognition that their play merits.
So even if it's only for a few minutes, let's give these guys the attention they deserve.
(Note: Some obvious small-market superstars—guys like Kevin Durant—get just as much recognition as the bigger market stars and thus can't be considered hidden.)
Kyrie Irving was handed a virtually impossible task when he joined the Cleveland Cavaliers. He was asked to fill the LeBron James-sized hole in the hearts of Cleveland fans everywhere.
It was an enormous burden to put on the shoulders of a 19-year-old rookie. But somehow, Irving has carried that burden with the grace and the ease of a veteran.
Statistically, Irving is phenomenal. He’s averaging 23.9 points per game, tops among all NBA point guards, and is doing so while shooting 47 percent from the floor and 42 percent from three. His Player Efficiency Rating (22.39) is 14th in the league and fourth overall among point guards (per ESPN).
But statistics alone don’t tell the full story when it comes to Irving. It’s how he does all of this stuff that’s so impressive.
He played just 11 games at Duke before turning pro. So he essentially came straight out of high school and was expected to be the Cavs’ leader and best player from Day 1. And he’s done it.
You can literally watch Irving grow on a day-to-day basis. He’s like a basketball sponge—he just absorbs everything.
His ball-handling (already superb) has improved this year, as has his jumper. He’s obviously not perfect—he’s still a poor defender, for example— but his game is astonishingly well-rounded considering his age.
What’s really impressive is that Irving has virtually no offensive help. His best teammate, Anderson Varejao, is a great player, but he’s not a scorer. Varejao gets his points off putbacks or if he’s set up by a teammate. That’s it.
And outside of Varejao (who’s now hurt), not a single one of Irving’s teammates has a PER above the league average. Kyrie does it alone.
When Irving was out earlier this season with injury, Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins told The Plain Dealer’s Mary Schmitt Boyer:
I hope that this is not going to be something that he's going to be nicked up in his career because he's a fabulous player. To me he's sort of a combination of Isiah Thomas and Chris Paul when I watch him play. He can get anywhere he wants to get on that floor with the ball. He can shoot it, gets to the free-throw line. He plays at a great pace. When you're out there with him, if you're his teammate, you can read what he's doing.
That’s about as high as praise gets.
He may be hidden in a smaller market, but Irving is a bona fide superstar. The NBA has never been so full of great young point guards, and Irving may just be the greatest of them.
Honestly, the reason Zach Randolph isn’t widely hailed as a superstar isn't just due to the Memphis Grizzlies’ small-market status (though that certainly plays a big part).
Randolph also doesn't get the recognition that he should because his game is so dang ugly.
Randolph is one of the premier post players in the league. Yet he lacks inherent “watchability.” He doesn’t have Hakeem Olajuwon’s grace and fluidity, David Robinson’s tremendous athleticism or Karl Malone’s raw power.
If anything, Randolph’s defining quality is his ability to completely muck it up in the post. What he lacks in athleticism, he makes up with sheer toughness and an uncanny ability to do the dirty work inside.
Everyone in the league can outjump Randolph, and yet he always seems to come down with rebounds in traffic. He scores on putbacks and awkward-looking hooks and runners that just seem to go in. His game is about as ugly as it gets, but it's effective.
He’s genuinely the best possible fit for the grit-and-grind Grizzlies. His mentality has become the team’s mentality. It’s the source of the Grizzlies' identity.
Randolph’s averaging nearly 17 points and 12 rebounds per game while shooting better than 50 percent from the floor. And no one talks about it, but there have been times this season when he’s been flat-out dominant, like in his ridiculous 38-point, 22-rebound game against the Phoenix Suns last month.
The game’s highlight was Randolph’s last shot, when he hit Marcin Gortat with about four different fakes before taking him off the dribble and burying a stepback jumper.
No doubt, Randolph would get more superstar-worthy attention in a bigger market. But the noise the Memphis crowd makes when he hits that last shot and the Z-Bo chant that he receives just after make it sound like he’s in the exact place that he needs to be.
It’s hard to say that Tim Duncan’s been hiding in a small market because the greatest power forward ever can’t really hide anywhere.
But the San Antonio Spurs’ small-market status has concealed the fact that Duncan’s still playing like a superstar.
Duncan’s been the target of “he’s getting too old” jokes and articles for a while now—and for good reason. The Spurs' big man is 36 years old and knee-deep into his 16th NBA season. Moreover, up until this year, it really looked like he was slowing down.
It’s not that Duncan was playing poorly, he just wasn’t the same dominant force he used to be. And that’s what makes his play this year (and the fact that no one’s talking about it) even more surprising.
Over the course of this summer, Duncan somehow morphed back into the Tim Duncan of old. He’s playing fewer minutes this season (just 30 per game), but his numbers per 36 minutes are almost exactly the same as they were from 2001-03—his two MVP years (per Basketball Reference).
It just looks like it's coming easy for Duncan this year. The 15-footers off the glass, the impeccable defense and the knack for getting a big bucket when the Spurs need it most…everything screams vintage Duncan.
But while something like Kobe Bryant’s offensive renaissance has gotten plenty of mention this season, Duncan's been given very little love for his own play (and unlike Kobe, he actually plays defense).
Duncan’s in the midst of an MVP-caliber year, and relatively few people seem to be noticing. He's as good as ever, guys. Pay attention.
How many people would name Kevin Love as one of the top 10 players in the NBA? Certainly a few would, but would most people? Probably not.
Love is a top-notch NBA player, but he gets very little exposure compared to other superstars. He was in the public eye for a bit last season (when Ricky Rubio was making headlines), but he's been swept under the rug for the most part.
That's partially due to the fact that he's never led the Minnesota Timberwolves to the playoffs, but it's primarily just because he plays in Minnesota. If Love was in Los Angeles or New York, things would be very, very different.
Love has been pretty banged up this season and hasn't had his best year statistically. But he's still an absolutely phenomenal player.
Last season, Love put up 26 points and 13.3 rebounds per game. To put that in perspective, Kevin Durant (the league's scoring champ) scored 28 points per game, and Dwight Howard (the league's rebounding champ) snagged 14.5 boards per game.
Love was basically one basket and one rebound per game away from leading the league in both scoring and rebounding. He's somehow evolved into one of the most dangerous scorers and rebounders in the game.
And while most people know that Love can crash the glass, how many would name him as a top-shelf scorer as well?
Love has become the ideal stretch forward. He's mastered the art of splitting time between the perimeter and the post, and he doesn't sacrifice his rebounding when he chooses to play a more perimeter-oriented game.
It also doesn't hurt that his defense has improved vastly since he entered the league, or that he's one of the best passing big men in the NBA.
It's about time to give the man some credit. Love's currently wrestling with Blake Griffin for the “best young power forward” title, and he might just be the favorite to win it.