5 Most Overrated and Underrated Big Men from the 2013-14 NBA Season

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 9, 2013

5 Most Overrated and Underrated Big Men from the 2013-14 NBA Season

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    Even though we have a solid idea of how good most NBA players are, the dreaded "overrated" and more acceptable "underrated" tags still apply to some. 

    Players change each and every year. That's an inevitable truth in a league that features a lengthy offseason and plenty of time to improve or decline during the season without appearing on national television. 

    New moves are added to arsenals. Steps become slower. Effort and concentration levels change. 

    And with those changes, the overall evaluation has to shift as well. But it doesn't always happen that easily, so in this article, I'll be breaking down specific portions of players' games and seeing how they compare to the public perception.

    Take Brook Lopez, for example. 

    The Brooklyn Nets center is commonly viewed as a terrific offensive center, a terrible rebounder and a mediocre (at best) defender. Is that still true? 

    If his offense isn't as good as it's thought to be, he'd be overrated. If he's been a surprisingly competent rebounder or a solid defender, the opposite would be true. I won't spoil it quite yet for you, though. 

    It's also possible to be considered one of the best players in the league and still be underrated. On the flip side, an overrated player can still be a favorite for an All-Star spot.

    Finally, I'd also be remiss in my responsibilities if I failed to deliver the standard small-sample-size warning, as we're working with rather limited data from only a handful of games. 

    At the heart of this analysis, context matters. So pay close attention, because this whole exercise is designed to challenge what you think you know about these 10 big men. 

    Note: All data, unless otherwise indicated, comes from NBA.com's SportVU database

Overrated: Spencer Hawes

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    Team: Philadelphia 76ers

    Position: C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 16.0 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.5 steals, 2.2 blocks, 23.3 PER

    Reason For Being Overrated: Opportunity and rebounding efficiency

    At first glance, you might think that Spencer Hawes was having an All-Star-caliber start to the season. After all, he's averaging a strong double-double with 16 points and 10.3 rebounds per game while shooting some scorching percentages. 

    Not only is he sitting pretty at well over 50 percent from the field, but the court-stretching big man is also shooting 11-of-21 from beyond the arc. That's one of the reasons Hawes' numbers are a little bit overrated, but I'm ignoring that because it's the product of small sample size, not playing style and ability. 

    The two main reasons are opportunity and the illusion that he's actually a good rebounder. 

    Hawes is putting up big offensive numbers both because he's shooting an unsustainable percentage from the field and because the Philadelphia 76ers need someone to score. This is not a talented team, despite what the 4-2 record would lead you to believe, and there aren't many offensive options. 

    How many other teams would Hawes start for? If you start scratching your head to try coming up with even a handful, I wish you the best of luck. 

    As for his rebounding, there's a reason Hawes has never averaged this many rebounds per 36 minutes. His previous career high was 10.6 back in the 2011-12 campaign. 

    Throughout the early portion of the 2013-14 season, only Kevin Love has received more rebounding opportunities per game than Hawes. That's it, and it seriously diminishes the impressive nature of Hawes' gaudy per-game figures. 

    Among all players averaging five or more rebounds per contest while playing at least three games, only seven players are pulling down a lower percentage of the opportunities. On top of that, Hawes is thriving off uncontested rebounds. 

    He's not even in the top 25 in contested rebounds per game. Hawes is still a pretty soft player, much to the contrary of what his double-digit rebounds would try to tell you. 

Underrated: DeAndre Jordan

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    Team: Los Angeles Clippers

    Position: C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 10.8 points, 13.0 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 2.0 blocks, 16.6 PER

    Reason For Being Underrated: Ridiculous rebounding

    Only one player has been better at rebounding than DeAndre Jordan. 

    Yes, that's right. Not two players in the entire NBA. Not Dwight Howard. Not Nikola Vucevic. Only one, and there's no shame in losing to Kevin Love. 

    Right now, Jordan is No. 4 in rebounds per game, and there's a pretty sizable drop-off before getting to Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin and the rest of the top board-crashers. Let's take a look at some more advanced stats for the top four guys: 

    PlayersRPGChances Per Game% of Chances GrabbedContested RPGUncontested RPG 
    Kevin Love14.723.2 63.3 6.7 8.0 
    Dwight Howard14.521.567.43.311.2
    Nikola Vucevic13.2 21.2 61.45.0 8.0 
    DeAndre Jordan13.016.778.05.37.7

    You can make an argument for Kevin Love because of where he spends so much time on the court (more on that later), but it's Jordan who boasts the other set of the most impressive numbers. Playing next to Blake Griffin, he doesn't get nearly as many chances as the other guys, but he grabs—by far—the highest percentage of the opportunities. 

    Additionally, the final two columns are quite important. 

    Jordan, Vucevic and Love all fight for their rebounds. Dwight is commonly gifted them because of a Houston system that keeps him in the paint as much as possible (more on that later too). 

    While Jordan's defensive efforts are a little overrated, his rebounding and efficient offensive numbers/self-awareness don't get nearly enough credit. He still hasn't morphed into the center the Los Angeles Clippers hoped for when inking him to a big contract, but he's been quite valuable in 2013-14. 

Overrated: Marc Gasol

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    Team: Memphis Grizzlies

    Position: C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 15.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.6 blocks, 17.3 PER

    Reason For Being Overrated: Defensive impact in new system

    Marc Gasol and Dave Joerger just haven't gotten along very well. While we don't know what their relationship is like off the court, the system has minimized the impact the reigning Defensive Player of the Year can make. 

    Through five games, Gasol has only blocked three shots, and he's been remarkably porous around the basket. 

    While he spent the 2012-13 season minimizing the amount of impact that players could make in the paint, Gasol may as well not be protecting the rim at all this year. Players aren't attacking him too often, but they're succeeding when they do on those 4.4 looks per game at the rim. 

    In fact, they're making 63.6 percent of those takes, and that's a remarkably high percentage against a man who was expected to at least factor heavily into the DPOY conversation for the second year in a row. 

    It gets worse. 

    The only qualified players (three-plus games played and faced at least four attempts per game at the rim) in the NBA allowing a higher percentage are Marcin Gortat, Nene, Shane Battier, Kelly Olynyk and DeJuan Blair. Players like Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Love, Nicolas Batum, Josh McRoberts, Carlos Boozer and so many more have all fared better while guarding the most efficient part of the court. 

    What happened, Marc? 

    He's playing the same type of basketball, but his lack of elite quickness actually matters this year. Under Joerger, Gasol isn't inherently aware of where he and his teammates are supposed to be. Communication and understanding of positions—the two skills that made him last year's DPOY—are causing him to struggle. 

    Sad as it is for one of the league's most cerebrally talented players, he just isn't in sync with everything that's going on. 

Underrated: Brook Lopez

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    Team: Brooklyn Nets

    Position: C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 21.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.6 blocks, 29.2 PER

    Reason For Being Underrated: Defensive improvement

    Brook Lopez is an interesting center. 

    He's one of the best offensive big men in all of basketball—you could make a convincing argument that no center is better at scoring—but he's not without his flaws. Defense has always been troubling, and he's one of the worst per-pound rebounders ever. 

    That's not an exaggeration. 

    The rebounding hasn't changed. Averaging less than six boards per contest just slightly under 30 minutes per game is not going to cut it. But everyone is well aware that Lopez doesn't do so well on the glass. 

    It's his defense that is now massively underrated. 

    Lopez developed into a solid shot-blocker last year, averaging three rejections each outing, but he still didn't do much to protect the hoop. He was abused in the post with far too much frequency and lacked the quickness and instincts necessary to contest shots in other situations.

    So much for that in 2013-14. 

    Partially based on his reputation, Lopez has been one of the most frequently attacked players at the rim throughout the early portion of the season. But players are soon going to learn that it doesn't work, as he's turned away well more than half of the shots that have been attempted at the rim. 

    In fact, he's allowing opponents to shoot just 31.8 percent right at the basket, a mark topped by only nine players among all who are qualified. 

    It's getting hard to deny Lopez's status as a truly elite center. His offense is superb, and rebounding now looms as the only major weakness.

    But hey, what player isn't without flaws?

Overrated: Serge Ibaka

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    Team: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Position: C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 10.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.4 steals, 1.6 blocks, 14.2 PER

    Reason For Being Overrated: Difference between blocking the shot and protecting the rim

    Serge Ibaka has led the league in blocks per game each of the last two seasons, so he's clearly an elite defender. Right? 

    Not exactly. 

    There's a big difference between rejecting shots and making a positive defensive impact. The latter requires discipline, proper positioning, quality rotations and good instincts. Ibaka has yet to show all of that. 

    In fact, the Oklahoma City Thunder were only a marginally better team last year when he was on the court, despite the fact that Ibaka recorded a league-high three swats per games. With the power forward playing, the Thunder allowed 102.3 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.com. When he sat, it only rose to 102.8. 

    It hasn't been different this year. Well, I suppose the fact that Ibaka is averaging only 1.6 blocks per game is different. 

    Ibaka is facing 7.8 attempts per game at the rim and allowing opponents to make 51.3 percent of them. Do those sound like the numbers of an elite defender? 

    Not in the slightest, yet Ibaka's name gets thrown around as a Defensive Player of the Year contender. He actually finished third in the voting last year, drawing a ridiculous 14 first-place selections, and it's pretty easy to find plenty of complaints about him not winning

    I have one word about that: ugh. 

    Here's hoping NBA analytics become so ubiquitous that overrated stats like blocks per game and points per game slip out of the collective consciousness of the basketball-watching public. 

Underrated: Anthony Davis

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    Team: New Orleans Pelicans

    Position: PF/C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 23.0 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 2.0 steals, 4.3 blocks, 31.3 PER

    Reason For Being Underrated: Everything

    If you want it, Anthony Davis has got it. 

    Seeking offense? Sure, let's just turn to Davis' 23 points per game (fresh off a career-high 32 against the Los Angeles Lakers). He's baffling opponents with his mid-range game, ability off the bounce and jaw-dropping athleticism. 

    Davis is only shooting 47.1 percent from the field, but his impressive work at the charity stripe and ability to minimize turnovers have helped him earn a league-best 31.3 PER. 

    However, that offense isn't what makes him underrated, even if it's a small part of it. 

    Rebounding and defense do the trick, as Davis doesn't get nearly enough credit for his elite work in either category. Yes, elite. 

    While "The Unibrow" got pushed around during his rookie season, bullied by players with more strength and size than he possessed, that hasn't been the case in 2013-14. Instead, he's been a shot-blocking menace who can protect the rim with the best of 'em. 

    In fact, Davis has allowed opponents to shoot only 24.2 percent at the rim while he's guarding it, and that's coming on 5.5 attempts per game. Among players who have suited up at least three times and are facing four or more shots per game at the basket, only Taj Gibson boasts a lower percentage. 

    See? Elite. 

    As for rebounding, Davis' prowess goes well beyond his 11.5 boards per game. 

    Only including players averaging at least seven rebounds per game who have stepped onto the court in three or more games, the New Orleans Pelicans big man ranks No. 5 when discussing percentage of rebounding opportunities grabbed. DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins, Carmelo Anthony and Blake Griffin are the lone four above him. 

    But it gets better. 

    Davis has done so much of his work with other players in his general vicinity. Not only is his percentage of contested rebounds much more impressive than the aforementioned quartet, but only 10 players beat him in that category. 

    See? Elite. 

    It's time to consider Davis something more than just an All-Star candidate. If he keeps up this level of play, he's a legitimate MVP contender. 

Overrated: Nikola Pekovic

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    Team: Minnesota Timberwolves

    Position: C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 11.7 points, 9.0 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.7 blocks, 10.3 PER

    Reason For Being Overrated: Interior touch

    Little did the beasts who run the streets of Pamplona know, but they'd end up being perfect descriptors for a certain center on the Minnesota Timberwolves. 

    When Nikola Pekovic steps onto the court, he effectively functions as a bull in a china shop, using his immense physicality to push aside opponents on both ends of the court. Problem is, the lack of interior touch hasn't served him well. 

    Not only is Pek one of the worst passing centers in basketball, but he struggles to finish moves around the hoop that aren't dunks. His post moves are rather limited, and it's tough for him to consistently get around opponents for the slams and easy layups that serve as his bread and butter. 

    In this situation, close shots are defined as attempts that originate from within 12 feet of the hoop. Drives to the hoop don't count (as they fall under the separate "drive" category), but mid-range jumpers, close-range shots and attempts from the post all matter. 

    That's unfortunate for Pekovic, because he's struggled mightily. 

    Among everyone in the NBA who has averaged at least three points per game on close shots, only four have failed to shoot at least 50 percent in the situation: Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, Kosta Koufos and Nikola Pekovic. 

    Of the quartet, Pekovic is in dead last, shooting just 44 percent. 

    That said, it's important to note that of the five "overrated" players featured in this article, Pekovic is the one most likely harmed by small sample size. He showed off his scoring touch in Love's absence last year, and this is likely more of an aberration than anything else. 

    At least the 'Wolves hope so. 

Underrated: David Lee

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    Team: Golden State Warriors

    Position: PF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 19.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.3 blocks, 20.2 PER

    Reason For Being Underrated: Defensive effort

    At this point, David Lee feels like a fairly well-known commodity. Most NBA fans are aware of his reputation: all offense, no defense. 

    Lee has remained a constant threat to pour in 20 points and pull down 10 boards on any given night for the Golden State Warriors, but his defensive play has taken a major step forward. No longer has he functioned as an incredible liability on the less glamorous end of the court, as he's helped the Dubs morph into an out-of-nowhere defensive juggernaut. 

    During the early portion of the season, only the Indiana Pacers have posted a lower defensive rating, and according to Basketball-Reference.com, Golden State's mark of 93.6 points allowed per 100 possessions is clear of the rest of the field by more than three points. That doesn't happen when giving a supposed defensive sieve like Lee over 30 minutes per game, the third-highest mark on the team. 

    Ipso facto...

    Lee has actually done a nice job protecting the rim this season, much to the surprise of everyone. Hell, Mark Jackson may even be taken aback. 

    In fact, while facing 5.3 shots per game at the rim, Lee has held opposing players to 43.8 shooting from that range. Those are identical numbers to the ones posted by David West, commonly regarded as one of the better defensive power forwards in the NBA. 

    Golden State is quite the dangerous team in the Western Conference this year, and Lee's improvements in the point-preventing department have played a large part thus far. During the early portion of the season, he's let Blake Griffin and Kevin Love get the best of him, but that's not exactly fair; everyone has done that thus far. 

    Everyone else has been kept in check by Lee. Again, it's a surprising development. 

Overrated: Dwight Howard

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    Team: Houston Rockets

    Position: C

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 17.0 points, 14.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.3 steals, 1.3 blocks, 18.3 PER

    Reason For Being Overrated: Inefficient/unimpressive rebounding

    It would be foolish to deny Dwight Howard's skill as a defensive stopper and finisher of alley-oops off pick-and-roll sets. So, I'm not going to do that. 

    Instead, I'm including him in the "overrated" category simply because his gaudy rebounding numbers are a product of the systems he plays in, not an overwhelming, league-best amount of skill.

    If you asked the average basketball fan who the best rebounder in basketball was, you'd hear quite a few people spit out D12's name. Then they'd probably look at his 14.5 boards per game and radiate self-satisfied smirks. 

    They'd still be wrong. At this point, you may be worried that I'm wrong because everything is built on a straw-man argument. Don't fret, though, as the numbers back up Dwight's overrated nature on the boards. 

    As you've probably realized by this point in the article, there are two types of rebounds: uncontested and contested. The latter is the significantly more impressive category, because it means that there was actually an opposing player within 3.5 feet when the board was grabbed. 

    D12 leads the league in uncontested rebounds, and it's not even close. However, his 3.3 contested rebounds per game aren't even in the top 25. Among players who have suited up at least three times and are averaging seven or more rebounds per contest, only Josh Smith and Paul George have generated a lower percentage of their rebounds from the contested category than D12's 23 percent. 

    The next-lowest center? That would be Tiago Splitter at 30.6 percent. 

    Howard is in the right place at the right time, which is a skill in itself. But it's not as impressive a skill as the ones boasted by so many of the other competitors for the rebounding crown. 

Underrated: Kevin Love

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    Team: Minnesota Timberwolves

    Position: PF

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 27.2 points, 14.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.5 blocks, 31.0 PER

    Reason For Being Underrated: Underappreciated rebounding difficulty

    Even though Kevin Love is viewed as one of the best rebounders in basketball, the difficulty of his ridiculous totals on the boards isn't fully appreciated. Averaging 14.7 rebounds per game as a stretch 4 who is commonly asked to step out and play a bit of defense on the perimeter isn't just difficult; it's impossible. 

    Well, it's impossible for mortals. And Love apparently isn't one of those. 

    Blessed with tremendous instincts, superb athleticism and an incredibly physical frame, Love is a terror on the glass. Seriously, if you don't think Love is athletic then you need to A) watch the Minnesota Timberwolves more, B) re-define athleticism to include more than just high-flying dunks and C) look at his numbers from the draft combine.

    Although he does admittedly benefit from a lot of rebounding opportunities, as the 'Wolves have recognized his prowess and acted accordingly when determining who leaks out for his world-class outlet passes, Love doesn't take advantage of easy boards. They're still ones he has to fight for. 

    Among players who have suited up at least three times, Greg Monroe (5.0), Nikola Vucevic (5.0), Anthony Davis (5.2), Enes Kanter (5.2), DeAndre Jordan (5.3) and Love are the only players with at least five contested boards per game. 

    Love has 6.7. 

    The 'Wolves power forward shouldn't be a part of the conversation about the league's best rebounders. He is the conversation. 

    While Love is widely viewed as a superb crasher of the boards and arguably the best 4 in the league, he'll continue to be underrated until he's universally recognized as the best rebounder and a true MVP candidate.