- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Who is the most underrated player, and who gets the least out of his talent?
Cavaliers point guard Andre Miller is cited so frequently as underrated that he almost ceases to be. At the All-Star break he was leading the league in assists (10.4 per game), which is all the more impressive given that his fellow starters are Jumaine Jones, Chris Mihm, Lamond Murray and Wesley Person. "He's one of the better point guards in the NBA—not just the East," says one Eastern Conference executive.
Miller received five votes, most in our poll. The others receiving multiple votes—Mavericks guard Steve Nash, Celtics forward Paul Pierce, Kings forward Peja Stojakovic and Timberwolves guard Wally Szczerbiak—were each selected to the All-Star team for the first time, suggesting that perhaps they're not all that underappreciated. One Eastern Conference coach mentioned Pierce's All-Star teammate in Boston, power forward Antoine Walker, long considered by many to be an underachieves. "The fans and the media beat him up early in his career, but he gets 20 [points] and 10 [boards] consistently," the coach says. "The Celtics are running their offense through a four."
And who are the underachieves? The players cited most often were Trail Blazers forwards Shawn Kemp and Rasheed Wallace (five mentions each) and a perennial favorite, 76ers forward Derrick Coleman (four). A six-time All-Star, Kemp was averaging only 13.1 minutes at the break and is a shadow—albeit a vast one—of his former self. "A good player is hidden in there somewhere," says one Western Conference G.M. "In 1996 he was considered one of the two best players in the league," says one Eastern Conference exec. "Now look at him." The tempestuous Wallace missed making the All-Star team after being selected the past two seasons. His response? "They freed me for the weekend to party." Says a Western Conference G.M., "That dingbat should be one of the great players. The elevator's not stopping on every floor."
Of our 29 respondents, 20 picked the Kings; only the Spurs (4�), the 76ers (two) and the Bucks (a half) received other votes. (Two panelists abstained.) Some of it may be wishful thinking: With a league-high seven players scoring in double figures, Sacramento displays many of the traits—shooting, teamwork, a willingness to fast-break—that make the game appealing. If Shaq's arthritic right toe is unbearably painful come April, the Kings might be the prettiest champion since Bill Walton led the Trail Blazers to the 1977 title. " Sacramento's style is fun," said one Eastern Conference G.M., "and it's tough to prepare for."
The Kings had a league-best 37-12 record at the break, and while they may be a year or two from peaking, they do possess the ingredients of a champion. Peja Stojakovic has become an All-Star complement to Chris Webber at forward, and their potential Kobe-stopper, Doug Christie, is having his finest year. If O'Neal is healthy, they have no answer for him, but then who does? " Shaq plays at a higher level in the postseason," Webber says. "We would have to hold him to 30 points and 15 rebounds, instead of 40 points and 20 rebounds."
Could Webber & Co. unseat a Los Angeles team at full strength? The Lakers have a daunting advantage on D: They ranked second in defensive field goal percentage (42.1) through Sunday, while Sacramento was 13th (43.9). To succeed, the Kings would have to 1) milk the pick-and-roll, which is a strength for both Webber and center Vlade Divac and a relative weakness for Shaq; 2) take advantage of the new rules, which prohibit O'Neal from camping in the paint, by using their passing skills to reverse the ball and keep him on the weak side; and 3) force a quick tempo to beat Shaq down-court for easy baskets. "You know why [the Kings] are so tough?" says a Western Conference G.M. "Their point guard, Mike Bibby, is their worst passer, and he ain't bad."
The Kings will have that toughness tested as they try to hold their 2�-game lead over L.A. while playing 18 of their final 33 games on the road, where they were 12-11 before the break. The Lakers are still getting accustomed to guard Mitch Richmond, power forward Samaki Walker and point guard Lindsey Hunter, whom coach Phil Jackson believes may be better as the starter, with Derek Fisher taking charge of the second unit.
After a 16-2 start the two-time champions have gone 17-11. They've also lost five games to last-place teams. That may be no more significant than Muhammad Ali's putting on a few pounds between successful title defenses—or it may mean L.A. is vulnerable. " Sacramento has the best chance of winning, including the Lakers," said an Eastern Conference G.M. "The Kings now have the maturity. They've stepped out of the Lakers' shadow and realized what they can do."