The Most Underrated Players in NBA history
Guest post by Cort Reynolds
What makes a player underrated? In my mind, there are several key elements. One is often playing in a smaller media market. Another is playing on non-winning teams throughout a career. Yet another big key, perhaps the biggest one, is playing on the same team as a more popular and/or greater player or players. Or sometimes one is followed at the same position on a team by a greater and or flashier player. Players from the past before more media coverage, TV and Internet are also at a disadvantage. Fans used to short-sighted ESPN style sports reporting often suffer from "now-ism", a disease that tends to stamp whomever is best now as the greatest of all time. Another trait often associated with being underrated is playing in a non-flashy fashion, and not drawing attention to one's self on or off the court. Since the early 1990s and the explosion of highlight-style shows, there has been a tendency to equate spectacular play with great play, denoting a preference for sizzle over substance. Still more top players may not have been grossly underrated while they played, but have been forgotten over time due to various reasons.
Other relatively unsung fine players also suffered from an increasingly visually-oriented (and short attention span) culture, and thus don't fit the eye test of looking like the stereotypical NBA player, let alone like a standout. Career-shortening injuries can also lead one to being forgotten. In pro basketball, if you played at a high level and met some or most of those criteria before the holy trinity of Bird, Jordan and Johnson trod the NBA hardwood - or even moreso if you did it before the highlight-saturated 21st century, then you are fairly likely to be an underrated or forgotten standout player. Jamaal Wilkes. Bobby Dandridge. Bob Pettit. Richie Guerin. Bob Davies. Mark Price. Bobby Jones. Lafayette Lever. Dan Issel. Paul Westphal. Dick Barnett. Randy Smith. Don Ohl. Hal Greer. Sidney Moncrief. Gail Goodrich. Those are just some names who fit the bill of being underrated ex-NBA standouts.
Dandridge is very close to fitting the archetype on many criteria, although he played on winning teams. He played collegiately at little-known Norfolk State, then was overshadowed as a starter on the fine Milwaukee teams of the early 1970s by great teammates in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. Then when Dandridge went to Washington and led the Bullets to the 1978 title (and the 1979 finals, outplaying the ballyhooed Dr.J along the way), he was passed over for the MVP award in favor of long-time Bullet Wes Unseld - even though Dandridge probably deserved the honor. The unspectacular 6-6 Dandridge, whose trademark move was a back down, turnaround midrange baseline jumper, still achieved the rare distinction of being the only man in the 1970s to win a title as a starter for two separate franchises - the '71 Bucks and '78 Bullets (http://www.basketball reference.com/players/d/dandrbo01.html). In the 1978 playoffs he improved his 20.4 ppg season average to 21.2 in the playoffs, and in 1979 he upped his playoff total to 23.1 per game as Washington lost to Seattle in the championship round.
Bill Walton. As a rookie at Golden State, he won an NBA championship but was overshadowed by playoff MVP and high-scoring forward runningmate Rick Barry. When he moved on to the Lakers, the silky smooth yet workmanlike forward won multiple crowns in the 1980s but was always overshadowed by Earvin Johnson and Jabbar. In Johnson's much-hyped 1980 Finals game six tour de force, Wilkes, who was a fine defender and a smart player, outplayed Dr. J to the tune of 37 points and 10 rebounds (http://www.basketball-reference.com/boxscores/198005160PHI.html), but few remember that in the wake of the upset with the Johnson hype and Jabbar sidelined with a badly sprained ankle back home resting up for a potential seventh game that never came. Perhaps the most notable thing about Wilkes was his unique corkscrew, behind the head shot he delievered with surprising accuracy. After Wilkes began to slow down in the mid 1980s, he was replaced by the bigger and more flashy James Worthy, and the subtle game of the silent assassin was quickly forgotten. Yet none other than John Wooden called Jamaal (then Keith) the smartest player he ever coached. High praise, indeed.
Bill Russell in six games that year in the Finals. Furthermore, in that decisive sixth game Pettit scored 50 points, including 19 of his team's last 21 points in a 110-109 thriller over the Celtics, despite being guarded by Russell, the greatest defensive force in NBA history (http://www.basketball-reference.com/boxscores/195804120STL.html), who tallied just eight points. Unfortunately few people know of or recall this event. If that happened today, his accomplishment would be all over the news and Internet, ESPN, etc. and hailed as an all-time great performance.
Pete Maravich" by Mark Kriegel). In addition, Guerin performed a rare and incredible feat as one of the last player-coaches. At age 37, the Hawk activated himself due to team injuries for the 1970 playoff western finals vs. the mighty Lakers of West, Wilt and Baylor. In game four of a sweep at the hands of LA, Guerin scored 31 points on 12 field goals and seven of seven foul shooting (http://www.basketball-reference.com/boxscores/197004190LAL.html). Imagine if a retired player and current coach like Doc Rivers did that in 2013! It would be hailed as incredible.
Bob Cousy, as is commonly believed. The handsome, clean-cut guard was the inspiration for the character of Chip Hilton in Hall of Fame coach Clair Bee's series of sports books for kids. In 1970, Davies was named to the 10-man NBA Silver Anniversary all-time team (The Pro Basketball Encyclopedia, Zander Hollander). Yet when the NBA named its "50 Greatest" list just over a quarter century later, Davies was not named to the exclusive club. How one could go from one of the 10 greatest in the NBA's first 25 years to NOT one of the top 50 just over 25 years later is hard to fathom, as well as a slap in the face of the pioneers of pro ball who paved the way for future generations. True, the silver anniversary list was limited to retired players at the time, but Davies should still be on the all-time 50 greatest list. By contrast, baseball greats such as Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, who were also playing in the early 1950s, are household names, so the forgetting of Davies can't be all linked to the passage of time. Of course, the NBA does not revere its distant past like baseball or even hockey. Unfortunately for Bob, he played his entire career for the small-market Rochester Royals. Even though he led them to the 1951 NBA championship - the only time between 1949-55 that someone other than George Mikan's Lakers won it all - and was a four-time first team all-league selection (http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/d/daviebo01.html), he has been forgotten. Davies also led Rochester to a pair of NBL championships in the mid-1940s, but those titles are not recognized by the NBA, even though the NBL and BAA are the two leagues that merged to form the league as we know it back in 1949. Davies won the 1946-47 NBL MVP award, and also was the first assist champion of the BAA/NBA in 1948-49. Nicknamed "The Harrisburg Houdini" for his sleight of hand floor game, he averaged six assists (and 16.2 points) per outing in 1951-52, before the shot clock and three-point line, which is roughly equal to nine assists and 20 points a game today.
Early gunner "Jumpin' Joe" Fulks, one of the first great jump shooters, won the first two BAA/NBA scoring titles and averaged 22.2 ppg in the playoffs to lead the Philadelphia Warriors to the initial league title in 1947 (http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/f/fulksjo01.html). The 6-3 Fulks from rural Kentucky was also named to the silver anniversary team but did not get a whiff of the 50 Greatest list, and although he may not deserve inclusion, he does deserve to be remembered and considered as a scoring ace forerunner to such greats as Rick Barry, Pete Maravich and George Gervin.
Isiah Thomas has said that Price was the toughest player he ever had to guard. Blessed with the looks (and voice) of a choirboy, the religious and humble Price was nonetheless a great competitor, passer, penetrator and shotmaker. Generously listed as 6-0, the little-known Price led the vaunted ACC in scoring as a sweet-shooting freshman at Georgia Tech, outscoring such luminaries as Michael Jordan of North Carolina and Ralph Sampson with 20.3 ppg. The Yellow Jacket program began its ascent on the shoulders of Price under coach Bobby Cremins, but since Mark never quite got them to the Final Four and was considered as much suspect as prospect, he was not drafted until early in the second round by Dallas. Then he was traded to Cleveland, where after beatinbg out Kevin Johnson for the starting spot, he blossomed into a first team All-NBA point guard in 1993 and made third team all-league three times. Price retired with a career-best 90.4 free throw pct. and upped that to an incredible 94.4 in 47 career playoff games (http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/p/pricema01.html). In six of his seven playoff seasons, he missed one or less free throws, capped by a perfect 30-for-30 showing in the spring og 1990. Price shot 40.2 percent from beyond the arc for his career and won consecutive All-Star three-point shootouts in 1993 and 1994 (http://www.allstarnba.es/3pointcontest/winners.htm.) He was a standout on the 1983 Pan-Am team (http://www.usabasketball.com/mens/panamerican/mpag_1983.html) but was a late cut from Bob Knight's 1984 U.S. Olympic squad, being passed over for lesser guards like Leon Wood and Vern Fleming, adding to his under-the radar status. Frequently was he double-teamed on pick and roll plays because of his lethal ability to stop on a dime and connect from anywhere, so the high IQ Price devised a "split the defense" move to combat this defensive strategy meant to stymie the sharpshooter. This lightning quick "split" move has become standard practice today among speedy, small guards. Mark's father was an assistant coach during the late 1970s, and thus the young Price was inspired by an ambidextrous star guard at the time for Phoenix, ex-Celtic Paul Westphal.
Former USC standout Paul Westphal started his career as a backup on the great Celtic teams of the early
Don Chaney, a pressure-packed situation to say the least for the young guard. All Westphal did was score 12 big points, help harass Oscar Robertson into a 2-of-13 shooting night in his final game, and help lead the Celtics to a 102-87 title-clinching win on the road (http://www.basketball-reference.com/boxscores/197405120MIL.html). When Boston traded him to Phoenix in 1975, he blossomed into a superstar once he finally got the chance to start. In his first season, he led the Suns to the Finals, where he almost led the Cinderella Suns to the title over the Celtics in a memorable championship series known for the triple overtime fifth game classic (http://www.basketball-reference.com/boxscores/197606040BOS.html), which they lost 128-126 despite 25 Westphal points. None other than red Auerbach acknowledged the trade of Westphal just as he was about to emerge as a star was a rare big mistake, and helped precipitate the demise of the Celtics in the late 1970s.
Meanwhile, over the next five years out west, Westy became a fixture on the first or second all-league team (http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/w/westppa01.html), and became a perennial All-Star by scoring over 22 ppg, shooting well over 50 percent from the field and doling out over six assists per game while playing opportunistic defense. In five All-Star Games from 1977-81 he averaged 19.4 ppg and shot an astounding 63.2% from the field, yet never won an MVP award. He was definitely robbed of the award in 1977 after making the game-clinching dunk and then blocking a potential winner by Pete Maravich in the waning seconds of a one-point West win. Yet somehow the voters gave the MVP to the flashy Dr. J in the first post-merger ll-Star Game, even though he was on the losing team. The fans in Milwaukee actually booed the cchoice of Julius Erving as game MVP and voiced their support for Westphal, to no avail. Westphal missed only four games in seven seasons from 1973-80, playing 570 of a possible 574 games. Yet after he was traded to Seattle in June of 1980 in the celebrated "changing of the guards" deal for fellow star backcourt man Dennis Johnson, he suffered a series of stress fracture foot injuries that effectively ended his career as a standout by age 30. He then moved from Seattle to New York and back to Phoenix, but injuries and age kept him from regaining his All-Star level. Ironically, he ended up on the bench again for a team that lost in the conference finals with Phoenix in 1984, the same as he did as a rookie for Boston in 1973. So his career as a major star was shortened by being underused as a backup his first three years in Boston, then by injuries in the final third of his 13-year career.
Westphal became a successful coach at the college and NBA levels, leading Grand Canyon College to the 1988 NAIA national title (http://www.nba.com/coachfile/paul_westphal/) and then Phoenix to the 1993 Finals, where the Suns lost to the Bulls. Incidentally, he became the only man to be involved in two three-OT championship series Finals games (this time the Suns won the game but lost the series again in six). Many people today know him as a coach, but he was the most ambidextrous shot-maker of his time, very smart and was a creative high flyer known for his left-handed dunks. His first NBA coach, Tom Heinsohn, rated his improvisational moves and off-hand skills on par with that of Larry Bird during a 1980s Finals telecast on CBS. Thus, Westphal was a standout on CBS' H-O-R-S-E segments of the time as well due to his body control and creativity. And his intentional extra technical in game five of the 1976 Finals allowed Phoenix to move the ball to halfcourt with a second left, making Gar Heard's rainbow at the buzzer that forced another OT possible.
Bobby Jones was the premier NBA defensive forward of the late 1970s and early '80s. He was an incredible leaper who high jumped seven feet in high school, an unselfish passer who took just 8.5 shots per game, and an efficient 12.1 ppg career scorer who shot 56 pct. from the field (http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/j/jonesbo01.html) and filled the lane on the fast break as well as any 6-9 forward in NBA history. Yet he was very humble, even volunteered to be a sixth man and helped the 76ers finally win the elusive 1983 title in their fourth trip to the Finals in seven years despite being a multiple-time All-Star. He was overshadowed by Dr. J and Moses Malone, even Andrew Toney and Mo Cheeks, the underrated and undersized fine 76er backcourt, but preferred to stay in the background. He was first team all-defense every year from 1975-84 and won the inaugural NBA Sixth Man of the Year award in 1983 (http://www.basketball-reference.com/awards/smoy.html).
The religious, soft-spoken Jones was a standout for a dozen years, never received a technical foul, was renowned for his clean play, and excelled despite a heart murmur and epilepsy. Until Larry Bird came along, he may have been the most ambidextrous forward in the NBA as well. Yet no Hall of Fame for Bobby because he did not put up eye-popping stats or draw attention to himself, and was too unselfish to worry about piling up stats he could easily have padded. His quiet career was one of many close but no cigar disappointments - he lost in the 1972 Final Four with North Carolina, lost in the NBA Finals twice with the 76ers and once with Denver in the ABA (1976), and was a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team which lost the controversial gold medal game to the Soviet Union 51-50 (http://www.basketball-reference.com/olympics/games/1972-09-09-USA-URS).
Calvin Natt, a rugged forward, was also an unsung standout of the 1980s, as was Dan Issel, the 15-year veteran who centered Lever's first Nugget team in 1985 when they lost to the Lakers in the conference finals. Issel became just the fourth player to score over 30,000 season and playoff points in a 15-year career with the Kentucky Colonels and Denver Nuggets that saw him average 22.6 points and 9.1 rebounds a game. He scored as many as 30.6 ppg in the ABA in 1972. Yet he never is mentioned as one of the snubs from the 50 Greatest List.
Dick Barnett was a fine shooting guard for 15 years with the Lakers, Nationals and Knicks, averaging 15.8 ppg over his long career, topped by 23.1 ppg in 1965-66 in his first season with NY. With LA he was overshadowed by great backcourt mate Jerry West. In New York, he played on two title teams and started on the classic 1970 New York squad that won the first championship in Knick history, scoring 21 big points in the seventh game win (http://www.basketball-reference.com/boxscores/197005080NYK.html). An accurate southpaw marksman with a unique, pulled-up leg kick jump shot, he was overlooked even in the Big Apple by his more interesting teammates Walt Frazier, the courageous captain Willis Reed, all-around everyman star Dave DeBusschere, memory expert Jerry Lucas and Princeton Rhodes Scholar/sharpshooter Dollar Bill Bradley. Yet Barnett, who came out of the ghetto of Gary, Indiana, eventually earned a Ph.D. and was a stalwart on arguably the smartest team in NBA history.
Randy Smith was one of the fastest and best guards of the 1970s, but played most of his career with Buffalo and Cleveland and never came close to winning a title. His personal high point came when he won the 1978 All-Star Game MVP at the Omni when he scored 27 points on 11-14 shooting, including a pair of 30-foot buzzer-beaters at the end of the second and third periods (http://www.basketball-reference.com/allstar/NBA_1978.html). Smith, a soccer star at Buffalo State, outshined six East teammates who made the 50 Greatest List (Cowens, Erving, Havlicek, Hayes, Moses Malone, Gervin) to win the MVP. He averaged 18.6 ppg from 1971-83. Don Ohl was a high-scoring and fine defensive guard of the 1960s but could not measure up to West or Robertson, and played for non-title teams in Baltimore, Detroit and Atlanta. He averaged 15.9 ppg from 1960-70 and made five consecutive All-Star Games from 1963-67 but never came close to an NBA Finals showing (http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/o/ohldo01.html).
Hal Greer was a perennial all-star shooting guard from the late 1950s to the early '70s who was also always overlooked in favor of the superior West and Robertson. Indeed, he was named second team all-league seven times, but never first team. When he finally won a title in 1967 as part of the great 76er team that ended Boston's run of eight straight crowns, he was a distant star behind Chamberlain and shared billing with Chet Walker (another fine underrated player) and Billy Cunningham. Greer topped out at 24.1 ppg in 1968, but ended his career ignominiously by coming off the bench at age 36 for the worst team in NBA history, the 9-73 Philly 76ers of 1972-73 (http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/g/greerha01.html).
Marques Johnson on his own team. Even in college, he couldn't get past Larry Bird - Larry Legend and Indiana State edged his Arkansas team in the 1979 NCAA elite eight 73-71 on a last-second off-handed shot that rolled in off the hands of reserve Bob Heaton. Bird outscored Moncrief 31 to 24. Sid's centers on the 1980s Bucks, first Bob Lanier and then Jack Sikma, were also underrated and overshadowed by other great centers of the time but were starting to decline when they reached Milwaukee.
Joe Dumars in Detroit, once called the 6-1 lefty guard the most underrated player in NBA history. Goodrich won two NCAA crowns with UCLA in the mid 1960s, the first two of John Wooden's incredible run. Wooden began recruiting the speedy sharpshooter when he was a freshman and was barely over five feet tall and 100 pounds at LA's Polytechnic High. In 1965, he set an NCAA finals record with 42 points in a win over Michigan, making 18 of 20 free throws and 12 baskets (ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia pages 727-730). The 42-point outburst is still second on the finals list to Bill Walton's 44 scored in 1973, but Wooden himself has said Goodrich's effort was better because his shots were tougher than Walton, who made most of his shots from close in on incredible 21-22 accuracy (but only two of five free throws). In 1965, he set an NCAA finals record with 42 points in a win over Michigan, making 18 of 20 free throws and 12 baskets (ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia pages 727-730). The 42-point outburst is still second on the finals list to Bill Walton's 44 scored in 1973, but Wooden himself has said Goodrich's effort was better because his shots were tougher than Walton, who made most of his shots from close in on incredible 21-22 accuracy (but only two of five free throws). Still, Goodrich somehow did NOT win tournament Most Outstanding Player honors, despite averaging 35 ppg in four NCAA wins that year. The honor went to Bradley, who scored a tourney record 58 points in the third-place game. Imagine scoring 42 points, winning the title a second time in a row, and not being MOP. Drafted by the Lakers, Goodrich played behind and with West for three learning seasons where he scored about 12 ppg. He then went to Phoenix in the expansion draft where he bloomed into an All-Star in 1969 by scoring 23.8 points and 6.4 assists per game (http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/g/goodrga01.html).
LA re-acquired him in a trade, and he then teamed with West to become the most potent offensive backcourt in NBA history. In their historic 1971-72 campaign, West (25.8) and Goodrich (25.9) combined for 51.7 points and over 13 assists a game. Those Lakers set the record for most wins (69), longest win streak (33) and cruised to the breakthrough first crown in Los Angeles Laker history, despite seven previous fruitless and frustrating trips to the title round. In the western finals they took out defending champion Milwaukee 4-2, then faced New York, which had beaten them in a classic seven-game 1970 Finals. Goodrich was the leading scorer of the 1972 Finals, which LA won fairly handily, 4-1. With West suffering through an uncharacteristic bad-shooting series, Goodrich stepped up to score 25.6 ppg on 47% FG accuracy and 36 of 41 foul shooting. He was so deadly accurate that he made 97 of 108 free throws over the entire 1972 playoffs (97-108). His more ballyhooed NY counterpart, Hall of Famer Earl Monroe, played so poorly against Gail that he was benched in favor of defensive ace Dean Meminger, who also failed to contain Goodrich. Monroe scored just 6.8 ppg and shot 28% from the field in a miserable 1972 title series, tilting the advantage to the Lakers in a surprisingly lopsided matchup with Goodrich. But the more sympathetic aging Wilt, who averaged 19 points and 23 rebounds per game (compared to 21 and 10 by 6-8 Knick center Jerry Lucas), was named Finals MVP instead of Gail. Nicknamed "Stumpy" due to his short legs by early Laker teammate Elgin Baylor, Goodrich went on to earn first team all-league honors in 1974 and was later dealt to New Orleans, where he scored almost 15 ppg in three seasons despite a ruptured Achilles before retiring at 36. He averaged just under 19 points and five assists a games over a long 14-year career, and shot 46% from the field and 81% at the line in a career that ended just before the three-point line. Gail's speed and quickness, shooting ability, ballhandling skills and fine driving ability made him almost impossible to guard one-on-one in his prime. Even though he was barely over six feet tall, he maximized his reach by holding the ball extremely high over his head to release a deadly mid and long-range jumper. Had he hung around one more year, he would have been the shortest man to score 20,000 career regular season points. Yet including 1,450 playoff points, he surpassed the milestone mark by over 600 points (http://www.basketball-reference.com/players/g/goodrga01.html). But still, no 50 Greatest or MVP awards for Goodrich, who was overlooked in favor of Bradley at the Final Four, then West, Wilt and later Kareem with the Lakers, and then Maravich with the Jazz.
Maurice Stokes, Nate Thurmond, Bobby Gross, Geoff Petrie, Dick Snyder, Maurice Cheeks, Joe Dumars and Jeff Hornacek are just a few others deserving of the most underrated distinction. Stokes had had his Hall of Fame headed career shortened by encephalitis. Gross had a promising career curtailed by foot and knee injuries, while Petrie had to retire due to a knee injury after six fine sharpshooting seasons of 21.8 points per game. The heady Hornacek was simply overlooked by other flashier backcourt men in a 15-year career as one of the best shooters and creative shotmaking guards of his era. Incidentally, Hornacek's father was headmaster of St. Joe's in Chicago, the school that Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas attended. Who would believe that connection between two future NBA All-Star guards from Illinois?
Snyder came out of tiny Davidson College and enjoyed several fine seasons with Seattle, and shot 53 percent from the field in four of five seasons in the early 1970s during a span where he consistently averaged in the high teens, topping out at 19.4 in 1970-71. A 49 percent career shooter from the field and 82 percent foul shooter over 13 years, he is best-known for making the running banker to win game seven of the eastern semifinals in 1976 for Cleveland over Washington by a point. But he was also a good defender and unselfish team player. After four seasons nearing the end of his career with his native northeastern Ohio Cavaliers, he returned to Seattle to play for ex-teammate Lenny Wilkens. Fittingly, he won a ring in 1979 with the Sonics before retiring quietly. Cheeks was a lightning fast quintessential pass first playmaker who led the 76ers to the 1983 title and two other Finals appearances. The 6-1 guard was a quiet man who led by example, yet was a defensive demon. A poor shooter when he first came into the league, he worked hard ot become a fine open shooter. Still, he was always overshadowed by Julius Erving, the flashy Darryl Dawkins and then Moses Malone on the star-studded, flashy 76ers of the early 1980s and late '70s.
Dumars played second banana on the great, undersized Piston backcourt of the late 1980s and early '90s to the more flashy Isiah Thomas, who was his idol coming up the ranks from little McNeese State in Louisiana. Drafted as a backup to Isiah, Dumars quickly impressed all with his tremendous all-around skill and made star scorer Kelly Tripucka expendable. His development began turning the Pistons from a run and gun offensive team that couldn't win a title to the defensive squad that won consecutive crowns in 1989-90. Compared to the more heralded Thomas, Joe D was the superior defender, more consistent and a better shooter, as well as a comparably smart player. Quiet and not flashy, he could still bring you out of your seat with a great pass or spectacular play when needed, and no less a great than Jordan called him his toughest defender. Viewed as the "good guy" on those physical "bad boy" Pistons, the 6-3 Dumars was nevertheless a powerful guard built like a linebacker more than capable of tough play. As teammate Bill Laimbeer put it, when people talk about the most spectacular member of their great backcourt (which included muscular instant offense sixth man Vinnie "the Microwave" Johnson, so named by Danny Ainge) they think of Thomas, but when they talk about the best all-around Piston guard, they think of Dumars.
More recently, players like David Lee and LaMarcus Aldridge had to put up several excellent seasons with also-ran teams before earning All-Star status. But of course this list is not exhaustive and could go on and on. Perhaps even the most unheralded players still remain underrated precisely because they are so overlooked and unsung.
Guest post by Cort Reynolds