B/R's Favorite Underrated Players in NBA History
History isn't always kind.
Far too often, great NBA players get brushed under the rug and fail to receive the recognition their stellar play merits. They're doomed to the back pages of the history books and play second fiddle to the more prominent stars of their era.
We're not talking about presently underrated players. Mike Conley may join this list someday, but not while he's still playing and receiving opportunities to solidify his reputation as a premier point guard talent. We're also not talking about those whose names conjure up an appropriate amount of respect but who don't get brought up nearly enough—Clyde Lovelette and Vern Mikkelsen, for example.
These are the players who are typically perceived as lesser contributors, even though they were actually far better than public opinion may dictate. Some just aren't well known these days. Others are Hall of Famers who somehow still get sold short.
We've already covered eight overhyped players. Now, we're checking out the opposite end of the spectrum.
Years Played: 1990-2002
Career Per-Game Stats: 13.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.3 blocks
Career Accolades: One-time All-Star, Six-time All-Defensive
Point guards don't need to score in order to have immense value, and Mookie Blaylock was a great example throughout the '90s. During his best year with the Atlanta Hawks (1996-97), the 6'0" floor general averaged 17.4 points while shooting 43.2 percent from the field, 36.6 percent from downtown and 75.3 percent at the stripe.
Those are good numbers. They're not great.
And that's fine.
Blaylock added a tremendous amount of value to his teams with passing and stellar defensive steadiness, even if memory of those traits has largely faded since his retirement with the Golden State Warriors. Few now realize that he was one of the leading players at his position during what's often referred to as the golden age of the sport. As Frank Urbina pointed out for NBA Math, he finished No. 3 at the point in cumulative TPA during the '90s, trailing only Gary Payton and John Stockton
The former Sooner thrived as a dynamic playmaker who could fit the ball into tiny gaps. During his time in the Association, Stockton, Mark Jackson, Rod Strickland, Tim Hardaway and Payton were the only players who racked up more assists. And that wasn't even his primary calling card.
With excellent instincts and quick hands, Blaylock emerged as one of the league's best defensive forces, constantly poking the rock away from careless opponents. Though defensive box plus/minus (DBPM) is by no means a perfect measure of defensive ability—no metric on the less glamorous end is, for that matter—it's still notable that his career score ranks No. 2 in NBA history among players 6'0" or shorter.
- Mark Eaton, 1984-85: 400.34
- Hakeem Olajuwon, 1989-90: 388.58
- Ben Wallace, 2003-04: 379.78
- Marcus Camby, 2007-08: 378.11
- Ben Wallace, 2002-03: 363.65
- Mark Eaton, 1988-89: 362.89
- Tim Duncan, 4,261.0
- Hakeem Olajuwon, 3,934.5
- Ben Wallace, 3,788.18
- Kevin Garnett, 3,586.1
- David Robinson, 3,222.77
- Mark Eaton, 2,993.98
Years Played: 1983-93
Career Per-Game Stats: 6.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.4 steals, 3.5 blocks
Career Accolades: One-time All-Star, Five-time All-Defensive, Two-time Defensive Player of the Year
Let's stick with the defensive theme.
Mark Eaton got the recognition he deserved during his playing days with the Utah Jazz, even winning Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts. But for whatever reason, his star has faded away with the progression of history, and he's rarely mentioned as one of the best point-preventing players of all time.
Just look at the top single-season scores in NBA Math's defensive points saved, which admittedly only dates back to 1973 and can't include the exploits of Bill Russell, among others:
Boasting two of the top six single-season scores (and five of the top 25) is impressive enough. And yet, Eaton's career mark might be even more telling. His time in the NBA only lasted for 11 campaigns, but he outpaces so many legends who boasted superior longevity:
Think about all the names that don't appear above.
Defensive points saved is meant to be used as a baseline, not gospel. But that baseline is still pretty darn impressive for the 7'4" center whose offensive shortcomings prevented him from earning the enduring recognition he still deserves.
Years Played: 1952-59
Career Per-Game Stats: 19.4 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists
Career Advanced Metrics: 24.7 PER, 53.4 TS%, 92.0 WS
Career Accolades: Hall of Fame, Six-time All-Star, Three-time scoring champion, NBA champion, Five-time All-NBA
How many members of younger generations know that Neil Johnston was once one of the most dominant basketball players on the planet? Even though he's in the Hall of Fame and boasts an impressive list of accolades, the brevity of his career cancels out his rightful reputation.
Johnston never really got a chance to compete against the legends who are still renowned today. He retired after his age-29 season in 1958-59, thanks to a knee injury that made playing too painful. That pesky joint prevented him from facing off against Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Pettit and the other dominant bigs of the '60s, and the lack of head-to-head exploits forces him to fall through the cracks.
But during his eight-year stint with the Philadelphia Warriors, he threw up some monstrous numbers.
Johnston led the NBA in scoring during three consecutive seasons. He paced the league in true shooting percentage twice, and when he retired with a career mark of 53.4 percent, that was the No. 3 score among players with at least 200 games logged. Perhaps even more impressively, he finished with the most win shares in five straight seasons.
Win shares are not perfect. They're estimates and aren't truly reliable measures in heated basketball conversations. But they also reward players who suited up for winning squads—more victories means more win shares to go around. And it's that point that makes Johnston's tally even more impressive.
Philadelphia struggled to put talent around him. He made the playoffs in only 50 percent of his go-rounds, and the Warriors advanced out of the first round just twice—most notably when they won the 1956 title with Paul Arizin and Tom Gola joining Johnston.
This team wasn't a dynastic force. And yet, Johnston kept emerging above all the rest in win shares—a true testament to his status as the NBA's first true one-man powerhouse.
- Bill Russell, 10.42 ring shares
- Sam Jones, 6.35
- John Havlicek, 6.0
- Michael Jordan, 5.13
- Tom Heinsohn, 5.12
Years Played: 1958-69
Career Per-Game Stats: 17.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists
Career Advanced Metrics: 18.7 PER, 50.3 TS%, 92.3 WS
Career Accolades: Hall of Fame, Five-time All-Star, 10-time NBA champion, Three-time All-NBA
Yes, Sam Jones was a 10-time champion.
Bill Russell is typically hailed as the preeminent lord of the rings, but the shooting guard isn't far behind. He trails by only a single championship, leaving him two ahead of John Havlicek, Tom Heinsohn, Tom Sanders, K.C. Jones and everyone else. Even according to NBA Math's ring shares, which give credit for playing time during a run to glory such that not every piece of jewelry is equal, Jones is nearly in a class of his own:
Yes, winning a title was easier with fewer teams in the league. Yes, Jones teamed up with Russell for every one of his championships, just as Scottie Pippen did later on with Michael Jordan. But he was so much more than a mere sidekick who capitalized on the league's early years.
If you ask Russell, Jones was a preeminent crunch-time player. Here's what the legendary center had to say in the autobiographical Second Wind:
"I never could guess what Sam was going to do or say, with one major exception: I knew exactly how would react in our huddle during the final seconds of a crucial game. I'm talking about a situation when we'd be one point behind, with five seconds to go in a game that meant not just first place or pride, but a whole season, when everything was on the line. You're standing there feeling weak. The pressure weighs down on you so brutally that it crushes your heart as flat as a pizza, and you feel it thudding down around your stomach. During that time-out the question will be who'll take the shot that means the season, and Red would be looking around at faces, trying to decide what play to call. It's a moment when even the better players in the NBA will start coughing, tying their shoelaces and looking the other way. At such moments, I knew what Sam would do as well as I know my own names. 'Gimme the ball,' he'd say. 'I'll make it.' And all of us would look at him, and we'd know by looking that he meant what he said. Not only that, you knew that he'd make it."
Chances are, the ensuing jumper would bank off the glass and fall through twine for the game-winning points.
Jones used his 6'4" frame and toughness to create separation from defenders before rising and firing as one of the game's first deadly jump-shooters. He thrived in so many other elements of the game, but his shooting and scoring prowess reigned supreme, making him an underrated commodity to this day.
Years Played: 1971-84
Career Per-Game Stats: 20.1 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.5 blocks
Career Accolades: Hall of Fame, Eight-time All-Star, All-Rookie
Fear not, because Bob Lanier is the last of the three historically underrated players who's already made the Hall of Fame. And yes, men who have already earned their Springfield inductions can still be rather overlooked by modern-day fans.
How often does Lanier earn credit as one of the greatest centers in the NBA annals? How frequently is he mentioned alongside Isiah Thomas in the competition for the pole position in the Detroit Pistons archives? How many members of younger generations know who he is?
Even on the most basic level, Lanier's prowess should be more obvious.
He averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds with a true shooting percentage north of 55 percent throughout his 14-year career, and that leaves him in a rather exclusive group. Only the following men have also done so over the course of at least 200 games: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charles Barkley, Walt Bellamy, Larry Bird, Anthony Davis, Karl Malone, Moses Malone, Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson.
Already, alarm bells should be going off. With the exception of Bellamy (still a Hall of Famer) and Davis (career still in progress), all those names are legendary ones. They're immediately associated with unabashed greatness.
And that's not even where Lanier's excellence ends.
He also thrived on the defensive end, becoming one of the few players with career scores of at least 3.0 and 1.5 in offensive and defensive box plus/minus, respectively. Again, here's the full list of those who join him with at least 200 games played: Abdul-Jabbar, Barkley, Bird, Clyde Drexler, Julius Erving, LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Kawhi Leonard, Karl Malone, O'Neal and Robinson.
Legends all the way through.
So, why isn't he truly considered one?
Years Played: 1983-94
Career Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.3 blocks
Career Accolades: Two-time All-Star, All-NBA, All-Defensive
Fat Lever crawled his way back into NBA conversations during the 2016-17 campaign when his name kept popping up in triple-double conversations. While Russell Westbrook went on his season-long rampage, Lever's trip-dub habits throughout the 1980s finally got some more shine.
As they should. The 6'3" point guard piled up 43 such performances throughout his career, leaving him at No. 8 on the all-time leaderboard, behind only Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd, Westbrook, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird and LeBron James.
But triple-doubles are arbitrary measuring sticks. It's possible to have a bad game and emerge with a qualified performance. Round-number bias reigns supreme.
We don't have to rely on triple-doubles to prop up Lever.
He might not have possessed a working perimeter jumper, but his leaping ability and athleticism got him to his spots within the half-court set. Plus, he was even better in transition, often yanking down a rebound and jump-starting the Denver Nuggets' fast-break proclivities. A no-nonsense player who tried to maximize every possession—on both ends of the floor, no less—he somehow stayed in control while probing the opposition.
The triple-doubles are fun. His defensive abilities don't get talked about nearly enough. But how about his knack for racking up dimes with nary a turnover?
Assuming (faultily) that every assist is worth exactly two points for simplicity's sake, only four players in NBA history have contributed more points per game as a scorer or passer while averaging fewer than two turnovers: Earl Monroe, Calvin Murphy, Dirk Nowitzki and Brandon Roy.
Years Played: 2000-15
Career Per-Game Stats: 15.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.1 blocks
Career Accolades: Four-time All-Star, NBA champion, Two-time All-NBA, All-Rookie
Don't ask me. Ask Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle, who coached Shawn Marion when the two won a championship by taking down LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals.
"The most underrated player in NBA history," Carlisle called him upon Marion's retirement announcement in 2015, per Cleveland.com's Chris Haynes.
If The Matrix doesn't generate serious Hall of Fame consideration once he's eligible, the signal-caller will prove prophetic.
Marion could do everything.
He was a deserving Defensive Player of the Year candidate during his prime seasons with the Phoenix Suns. He could capably hit cutters as they burst to the basket. He thrived on the glass. Using his bizarre push shot, he could knock down spot-up jumpers from both the corners and above the break.
All he lacked were go-to scoring instincts, which is why he remains so tremendously underrated. And yet, he still averaged 20.1 points per game for a five-year stretch in which he made at least 79 appearances during every single season.
Steve Nash won back-to-back MVPs for the run-and-gun Suns, but the rise of analytics has helped show why Marion might have been every bit as valuable to those squads. Not only was his spot-up ability and offensive versatility crucial to the scoring units, but he almost single-handedly kept the defense afloat while Nash served as an unmitigated sieve.
Contrary to popular belief, those "seven seconds or less" squads weren't one-way juggernauts. Thanks in large part to Marion, they floated right around league average in defensive rating, ranking No. 17 during 2004-05 (Nash's first MVP season) and No. 16 the next go-round.
Years Played: 1972-83
Career Per-Game Stats: 16.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.1 blocks
Career Accolades: Two-time All-Star, All-NBA
Perhaps Randy Smith's career would be remembered more fondly if he'd experienced a bit of playoff success. Alas, even suiting up alongside Bob McAdoo on the Buffalo Braves couldn't get him over the hump; he made the playoffs only four times in his career and never made it past the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
But during the regular season, he was pretty darn dominant. Plus, he just never sat out. Until A.C. Green came around, Smith was the record-holder for most consecutive games played—a whopping 906.
Few players in the 1970s could keep up with this swingman. He boasted a significant set of wheels that helped him jet up and down the floor to thrive in transition, and his first step allowed him to burst by nearly any stationary defender during half-court action.
Most defensive metrics don't shine a light on Smith's preventing prowess, but anecdotal evidence points in the opposite direction. As Clippers.com shared in 2011, Walt Frazier had this to say about the talented athlete he often squared up against: "I hate playing against that guy."
Succinct and simple, but powerful.
When Smith entered the league out of State University of New York College at Buffalo, he was a seventh-round pick taken after 103 other young men had joined the NBA fraternity. But by the time he'd grown comfortable using his left hand and parlaying his speed into production, he'd emerged as one of the game's most versatile—and overlooked—contributors.
During the '70s, Smith averaged at least 20 points and four assists while shooting no worse than 45 percent from the field on four separate occasions. The only other players to do so? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Frazier, Tiny Archibald, Rick Barry and Paul Westphal.
Maybe Smith doesn't quite belong on the level of that quintet, but he certainly deserves more recognition than he currently receives.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.