In their LockedOn podcast, John Hollinger and Nate Duncan took a stab at naming some of the most underrated players in NBA history. Some of their picks were spot-on — Artis Gilmore, Jack Sikma, Dennis Johnson, Gilbert Arenas. Others, were iffy — Kevin Garnett, Hakeem Olajuwon.
I get the basic argument — they thought Garnett and Olajuwon would be top 25 all-time for most people, but they have both guys more like top 10. Which wouldn’t hit “most underrated” for me. The episode is worth a listen.
Part of what makes an “underrated” list fun to make is its subjectivity. It’s a comparison of what I subjectively think other people have a player rated, and my own absolutely correct subjective rating of the player’s actual value. In other words, everyone’s list is going to be partially correct and partially wrong.
I thought this list would be pretty easy to make, in part because the franchise has been so bad for so long. As I wrote when Mike Prada was working on his project to identify the best team to never win a championship,
...This is a team with a deserved reputation for futility. When I ran a search on Basketball-Reference to see where they stood in winning percentage throughout NBA history, the franchise ranked 31st. There are currently 30 teams in the league.
I re-ran the search with a screen to eliminate teams that folded after a few seasons and the Bullets/Wizards rose all the way to 25th. Only the Charlotte Hornets, New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers and Minnesota Timberwolves have done less winning than Washington/Baltimore through their histories.
Bad teams have good players, but the exercise isn’t just to pick the guy or two who was actually decent from a crap team. It’s to find guys who were better than their reputations. And in sifting through the wreckage, it was tougher than expected. Bright side: the overrated column I write next week is gonna be easy.
Here’s my stab at most underrated players for the Wizards/Bullets (no particular order except how they came to mind):
- Phil Chenier — At this point, most fans think of Chenier as the long-time analyst on the team’s TV broadcast, who was inexplicably shoved aside for the terrible Drew Gooden. Chenier was a baller, though. Taken by the Bullets 4th overall in the 1971 “Supplemental Hardship Draft,” Chenier was All-Rookie, 2nd team All-NBA, and three-time All-Star. He got actual league MVP votes in three different seasons, and he was part of the 1978 championship team, though he missed the playoffs with a back injury. That injury effectively ended his career. He tried to resume his career for another three seasons, but was never the same. He was out of the league at age 30. I think most fans would rank him below Bradley Beal on the team’s all-time SG list. Beal would love to have Chenier’s resume.
- Marcin Gortat — Fan sentiment on Gortat seemed to vary from “decent player” to “garbage”. In reality, Gortat was a productive and useful — not an All-Star level performer by any stretch, but a good center who helped the team in a lot of ways. His production hit a wall when Scott Brooks arrived and his offensive opportunities plummeted. It hit another wall when the dreaded age-related decline began. How underrated was he? He was still a decent player when they dealt him for Austin Rivers and fans actually thought the Wizards got the better end of the deal.
- Brendan Haywood — Online arguments with fans who thought Haywood was terrible drove me to hand track the Wizards defense for about four years. What I found was that despite whatever deficiencies fans and coaches may have thought they noticed, the team’s defense was significantly better when Haywood was on the floor. My defensive tracking explained why: he was the team’s most active player challenging shots and lowering opponent shooting percentage. An NBA scout once told me Haywood helped on offense too by leading with elbows and knees when he set screens.
- Otto Porter — Many fans have a fairly low opinion of Porter. They use words like average, limited, and passive. They seem to think that nearly anyone could do what Porter did if paired with Wall. In fact, his long-range shooting, offensive efficiency, effective defense and solid rebounding were extremely valuable to the Wizards.
- Gilbert Arenas — Arenas was three-time All-NBA and All-Star and was named on MVP ballots in two different seasons, and yet I agree with Nate Duncan that he doesn’t really get his due. Part of that is self-inflicted — Gun Gate, offensive and idiotic comments after his playing days. But some of it is because a) his “threes and free throws” game was ahead of its time, and b) his career was wrecked as he was entering his prime.
- Wes Unseld — I know, he’s widely acknowledged as the best and most important player in franchise history. Somehow, that undersells what he did. Rookie of the Year and league MVP in the same season (Wilt Chamberlain is the only other player to do that). Finals MVP. Five All-Star games. First team All-NBA as a rookie...in a league that included Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Nate Thurmond. My guess: his debaculous time as coach and general manager hurt his reputation.
- Darrell Walker — Walker is a player mostly forgotten at this point. He couldn’t play in today’s game, which emphasizes shooting, but he was a superb defender with an all-court game that basketball aficionados would love. His best season in Washington was 89-90 when (per 100 team possessions) he averaged a triple-double — 12.9 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 10.9 assists. Yes, the 6-4 PG led the Bullets in rebounding that season.
That’s my list. Who did I miss? Who doesn’t belong?