NBA Power Rankings 2011: The 7 Most Underrated Teams in the NBA

Harrison MooreAnalyst IIJanuary 21, 2011

The 7 Most Underrated Teams In The NBA

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    It has been said that the NBA offers the least parity of any American professional sports league. I am not here to debate that.

    Many of the teams on this list do not have even an outside shot of capturing the title. Despite that, many of those same teams are not given their just dues because of their lack of title aspirations. Here, we attempt to do those teams just.

    I present to you the seven most underrated teams in basketball. Does your team make the list?

1) Portland Trailblazers

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    Even with injuries to two of their premier players, Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, the Blazers are still a competitive, rough basketball club.

    There are not too many other teams in the universe that could withstand injuries to their best all around player and their most talented center and sit over .500 in the Western Conference.

    But do not get it twisted: the Blazers are not a heartwarming story of a bunch of nobodies coming together and scrapping for attention. 

    Anytime you boast a power forward like LaMarcus Aldrige who can step up and shoulder a team’s offensive needs and other big men like Joel Pryzbilla and Marcus Camby who are still capable of protecting the rim you have got yourself a playoff-worthy front court.

    The only thing really stopping the Blazers from being a force in the playoffs has been their unfortunate clashes with the injury bug.

    Given what we saw from this team last year, there’s no doubt in my mind that they would have already established themselves as a elite team in the West had they been able to keep most of their team intact in the playoffs.

    Though they faced a somewhat capable Phoenix Suns team in the 2010 playoffs, the Blazers were able to push the series to 6 games despite missing Oden and getting almost nothing from the injury hampered Roy. 

    Though often overlooked, this team has shown glimpses of its true potential, pushing the Lakers as hard as anyone over the last few years and being a factor in the Northwest Division,  which is arguably the deepest in all of basketball.

    Last year, the Northwest accounted for half of the Western Conference’s playoff seeds and was one of only two divisions since 2004-05 (when the NBA created the four division system in place today) to feature four 50-win teams.

    Despite facing such adversity, the Blazers are still one of the most consistently productive teams in the league and are currently in possession of the eighth and final playoff seed in the West.

2) Memphis Grizzlies

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    The talent is there. 

    OJ Mayo was not in contention to be the face of the NBA, but had established himself as a quickly rising talent before his current down-slide.

    Though Mayo is averaging about nine fewer minutes a game than he was in his previous two seasons, his production has seen an even steeper drop off, he averages 12.5 points per game, down from his 17.5 average last year and his field goal percentage has dipped from 45 percent last year to 40 percent this year.

    Mayo is not the Grizzlies’ only concern however, the 98.9 points they give up per game earn rank 16th in the league and the 99.3 points per game they score secure them squarely at 15th.

    The Grizzlies are not vastly underachieving but given their overall talent of their roster, consisting of at least three All-Star caliber players in Mayo, Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph, one would think that their record would be a bit more competitive.

    The Grizzlies are the only team in the NBA to rank 16th or higher in both points scored and allowed in possession of a sub .500 record.

    Rudy Gay is doing all that he can to prove himself worthy of the max contract extension he signed in the off-season but is a B level talent trying to do an A level’s job.

    Though the Grizzlies have the talent to be a playoff contender in the West, they lack the consistency and the dedication to get the job done. There are only a handful of guys in the league that can carry an unmotivated or inconsistent bunch into the playoffs and Gay is not one of them.

    That said, this overlooked bunch is often judged by their sub par production rather than the considerable talent their roster possesses. 

3) Houston Rockets

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    Ever since they pushed the Lakers to seven games in the 2009 Western Conference semifinals without Yao Ming for much of the series the Rockets had made a name for themselves as a scrappy team up and coming team with untapped potential.

    As they say, all good things come to an end. 

    Last year was expected to be a down year since the Rockets knew they would be without Ming for the season.

    Losing Ming again this season as he teeters on the verge of retirement, has doubtlessly set the Rockets back both in their production and in their morale. 

    There is no telling how far the Rockets could have gone with Daryl Morey doing his best to save Ming for the playoffs, but the now-undersized Rockets are continuing to suffer on both ends of the floor, particularly defense.

    Ming’s last season registering 70 or more games was in 2009 and not coincidentally saw the Rockets rank in the top seven teams in points allowed at 94.4.

    The Rockets were even higher the season before, ranking 4th in the league allowing 92 points per game, despite missing Ming for 27 games.

    With Ming out of the fold entirely, the Rockets’ defense has folded.

    No player on the Rockets’ roster listed at 6-10 or above averages 20 or more minutes per game and their core of Luis Scola, Shane Battier and Chuck Hayes boasts the size of a college team, not a playoff contender.

    However, despite all of this, the Rockets’ back-court, featuring 2010 Most Improved Player of the Year Aaron Brooks, Kevin Martin and Kyle Lowry has been a large reason why the Rockets haven’t fallen apart entirely.

    The Rockets seem to be stuck in between a new offensive identity, which the talent gap between their front-court and back-court has made necessary, and the defensive identity they once made a name for themselves with, as they still employ the role players that were meant to support Ming.

    The Rockets are quickly falling out of playoff contention, ranking 10th in the West at 20-23, but make no mistake, even as presently comprised the Rockets would be battling the Knicks for the 6th seed if they were in the considerably weaker Eastern Conference.

4) Orlando Magic

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    In all likelihood, the Magic won’t be the 2011 Eastern Conference Champions.Though the East is still the weaker of the two conferences, in Boston, Miami and Chicago there’s more depth at the top than there has been in recent memory.

    Sending out Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis and Marcin Gortat for Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson has given this team a much needed jolt, though the effects of trading center Gortat without having another big man to back up Dwight Howard won’t likely be felt in full force until the playoffs.

    Lost amid all of the different pieces the Magic have to work with is the fact that Howard is having the finest offensive season of his career, posting just under 22 points per game, while maintaining his unmatched efficiency. 

    Despite Howard’s improvement, he has still shown the tendency to disappear on that end of the floor in big games and the Magic will likely need another player they can consistently go to in crunch time. 

    The Magic had hoped they were getting that type of player 2009 when they traded for Vince Carter, but Carter being on the downward slope of his career, did not meet expectation and the Magic still find themselves without that consistent 2nd option.

    Gilbert Arenas does not appear to be that guy either.

    However, despite the Magic’s flaws they are still capable of taking out either Miami or Boston in a seven game series, the operative word being either.

    The Magic have to be very careful as the season progresses because the last thing in the world they want to do heading into the post-season is concede the third seed to Chicago and be faced with the task of beating both Miami and Boston to advance to the Finals.

    As I said, in all likelihood we are not talking about the 2011 Eastern Champs, but if they get a few lucky bounces, anything’s possible.

5) L.A. Clippers

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    Maybe, just maybe the “toenail Clipper” era is over. Maybe its time to give this team the respect that any future playoff contender in the West deserves.
    Maybe.

    Then again, these are the Clippers. The Cavaliers once had a savior that seemed destined to elevate them from laughing stock status to the pinnacle of the basketball world and that didn’t turn out too well.

    Have you ever noticed how certain franchises always manage to screw things up? The Raiders have been laughable almost since the infamous “tuck rule” and for years before despite adding several notable names to their roster they could never put it all together.

    They also had a supposed savior in JaMarcus Russell, but to the best of my knowledge he isn’t even in the NFL anymore.

    The Raptors had a young Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter on the same team, and later Chris Bosh yet they only managed a single playoff series win in the last decade (and in all their existence for that matter).

    So why compare a bust of a QB, T-Mac, Vince Carter and the probably most hated man in the universe to the Clippers’ golden boy?

    Well because one way or another things almost never seem to work out for franchises that have made names for themselves by being terrible.

    So before all you Clippers fans start counting rings before you win them, you might want to take a step back and look at the other teams around the league.

    Having said all of this, the season that Blake Griffin is turning in so far is easily among the top 3 we have seen from any rookie in the last 10 years and possibly beyond.

    The Clippers also have a all-star talent in a few other places, such as the good-but-not-as-good-as-his-mouth-would-indicate Baron Davis and in Chris Kaman. 

    We can halt all the crazy talk right now though, the Clippers will not be appearing in the 2011 playoffs.

    They are too far behind the 8 ball, and despite their recent winning ways, they simply are not good enough to make a turn around that drastic in the Western Conference, despite being in the relatively weak Pacific Division.

    I would not expect Griffin to miss too many more post-seasons though.

    That said, be warned Clipper fans. Don’t let that feeling of hope turn into arrogance. The once haughty Cavalier fans have learned that lesson all too well.

6) Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Thunder are probably the trickiest team of all that will be listed here.

    They have fallen short of the break-out season many predicted for them and are on pace to finish within two games of last season’s 50 win total. 

    Its not that the Thunder have underachieved. 

    They still lack front-court size and are not very good on the defensive end of the floor.

    Though the Thunder led the league in shot blocking last year and are currently ranked ninth in that category at five and a half blocks per game, these are the results of isolated, inspired plays fueled by the team’s youth and athleticism, not of defensive consistency and commitment.

    Perhaps what’s most telling about the blocks per game stat is that the Celtics allow 92 points per game, the fewest in the league, and they are tied for 19th in shots blocked per game at four and a half.

    One could even argue that the only pleasant surprise the Thunder have offered all season has been the almost overnight maturation of Russell Westbrook. 

    He’s improved in most statistical categories across the board, points, assists and field goal percentage.

    He’s always been quick, but has grown even more dangerous on the fast break as he’s gained a softer touch inside and has evolved from a second banana to a legit 1B option for his team.
    In fact, Westbrook and Kevin Durant combine for 50.7 ppg, tied with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade for the highest point average of any duo in the league.

    Anyway, getting back to the Thunder as a team, how can I point out so many flaws and still consider them underrated?

    Two words: Kevin Durant.

    Durant, the 2010 NBA Scoring Champion, has not exploded the way some predicted he would and he actually finds himself less likely to win the award than he was last year. However, that can be chalked up to the emergence of Westbrook and the fact that the Thunder are not as offensively dependant on Durant as they have been up until this point in his career.

    At the start of the playoffs its likely that Westbrook and Jeff Green will find their offense harder to come by as the level of defensive resistance they’re faced with will increase exponentially. 

    That is when I expect Durant to perform at his highest.

    The Thunder have been all but overlooked in a conference featuring the NBA leading Spurs and the two-time reigning champion Lakers, but there is no offensive force that can match Durant’s pure production, not even Kobe Bryant at this stage in his career.

    Looking back on NBA history, legendary players have almost universally made names for themselves by toppling established powers when no one expected them to.

    If Durant, the youngest scoring champion in league history, is to be taken seriously as a potential legend then overlooking the Thunder in the playoffs is nothing short of foolish.

7) Denver Nuggets

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    Lost amid all the confusion circling the Nuggets’ organization that is grown so large that it has taken a name of its own, “Melo-drama”, is the fact that there is still a very good team in Denver.

    The Nuggets not only boast size in Nene and Al Harrington, shooters in JR Smith and Chauncey Billups, shrewd coaching to keep the somewhat combustible locker room in line thanks to George Karl, but they still have Carmelo Anthony.

    For now at least.

    Though Melo is on pace for one of his lowest scoring averages in his career, he is also on pace for a career high rebound average and is still a large part of the reason why the Nuggets are still right in the mix to secure a mid-level seeding in the West.

    What many, perhaps even Anthony himself, has forgotten is that the Nuggets have the pieces to win in NBA Championship.

    As unpopular as it may be to say, what likely inspired Anthony’s emotional detachment from the Nuggets is James’ departure from Cleveland and the all-star team James became a part of as a result.

    Though the Nuggets may not match up to the Heat on paper, when healthy they are every bit as talented as the 2004 NBA Champion Pistons and perhaps even the 2005 Champion Spurs.

    Though the level of competition in the NBA has undoubtedly risen since then, Anthony cannot reasonably expect to be any closer to title contention in New York than he currently is in Denver. 

    Though the Knicks boast Amar’e Stoudemire, there’s no doubt that the team the Nuggets currently have in placed is more stacked than what New York has to offer. 

    Aside from the rugged, but not often used Ronny Turiaf, there is no semblance of a defensive presence in New York.

    What New York does offer is a boat load of shooters, a fair amount of athleticism but a system that succeeds only when ran completely through Stoudemire.

    When the Miami Heat came together, one of the biggest question facing the team was whether or not there would be enough ball to go around.

    However, James has made a living for himself impacting the game in more ways than sheer scoring, Bosh has proven the potential to be one of the game’s better rebounders and all around post players and though Wade does not impact the game in as many ways as James, he too has established himself as a premier perimeter defender.

    I had little question that the Heat would eventually work it all out.

    Stoudemire is not nearly as notable a force on the defensive end and impacts the game almost solely from his offense.

    If the Carmelo joined the Knicks, he would be taking away a size-able portion of the time Stoudemire has his hands on the ball and would also threaten the balance of a system that drives on Stoudemire’s sheer dominance and perimeter passing.

    In Phoenix, Stoudemire has proven capable of producing on a team with a ball dominant presence, but he was not nearly the MVP candidate he’s established himself as today.

    Getting back to the Nuggets, I would even argue that part of what is preventing them from taking a step up and becoming true title contenders is the fact that Anthony has not done much to step up his game.

    Though he’s improved considerably on the defensive end of the floor since the arrival of Chauncey Billups in ‘09, he still is not a premier defender and he also wavers in his offensive production.

    Even worse, Anthony does not possess all of the intangibles that those in the Bryant/James/Wade class do.

    He was never as aggressive in looking for his shot as those three were to begin with and it seems that he’s even less aggressive this season. 

    To sum it all up, I would not want to be in a dark alley in between Kobe Bryant and the Larry O’Brien trophy.

    Hell I would not want to be in the middle of a police station standing in between Kobe and the trophy.

    Though Anthony talks about his desire to win, it seems that his desire is simply to play on a bigger stage and its really a shame.

    The Nuggets had a chance to be something really special.

Conclusion

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    Well, there you have it—my take on the seven most underrated teams in the league.

    I am sure fans of the Hawks may feel slighted, but then again the Hawks were blasted out of the playoffs last year, being swept out of the second round by an average of about 25 points a game.

    Knicks fans may feel similarly disrespected, but the Knicks are as one-dimensional as the Suns were from 2005-2009 and we saw how far that got them. Besides the Knicks, as they are right now, are a still far cry from were those Suns were talent-wise.

    The Bulls are getting their just dues and are respected as a top-tier talent in the Eastern Conference that should make it to the second round of the playoffs.

    I am sure there are teams I have left out in my acknowledgement here, but I do not feel that those teams have done anything to get more credit than they have already been given.

    So which team do you feel is the most underrated in the league? The Thunder, Magic or Nuggets? A team not listed here?

    Please discuss respectfully.