— Unless you’re willing to dole out the approximately $170 required to finance a subscription to NBA League Pass — which, depending on your outlook, is either an obscenely good deal or an obscene waste of money — odds are you won’t be getting much of an opportunity to see some of the truly outstanding players in the NBA.
"But wait a second," you say. "I see Kobe, LeBron, Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett on national TV all the time." And on that front, you will receive no argument. But those are not the truly outstanding players we’re talking about.
What we’re talking about here is a group of premier players stuck on less-than-premier teams. These are talents who can at times look otherworldly, yet are stuck playing in an occasionally vacant arena downtown. A place where losing is the norm, and the playoffs — at least for this season — are a luxury for the other cities’ superstars to consider.
Here is a look at some of the most underappreciated stars on the league’s most unappreciated teams:
Gerald Wallace, Bobcats
He’s the leading scorer (16.2 points per game) and arguably the best all-around player on a team that has missed the playoffs in each of its four seasons of existence. But year five in Charlotte has presented a new challenge: a coach (Larry Brown) who demands a slightly more conservative style of play instead of letting the wrecking ball known as Wallace run rampant. Brown surely has some sort of plan in place, but for the sake of pure entertainment (and pure production), this is not a good thing.
The high-octane Bobcats forward is at his best (or at least his most enjoyable) when he's playing reckless help defense to come up with steals and blocks, driving headlong toward the basket and cruising at inappropriate speeds on fast breaks. These are things he still gets to do on occasion, but he doesn’t get to do them nearly often enough.
Under Brown’s regime, Wallace’s shots per game are down (14.7 last year, 11.4 this year), as is his scoring average (19.4/16.2). Unfortunately, Brown has been around long enough for it to be clear he’s not going to suddenly turn Wallace loose, so we’ll have to live with the slightly muted version for now. The good news is, the slightly muted version is still more exciting than many other players at full blast.
Rudy Gay, Grizzlies
A noteworthy contrast was on display Jan. 6 after Memphis' home loss to Minnesota. The Grizzlies' best player, Rudy Gay, was seen smiling and greeting former teammate Mike Miller (who now plays for Minnesota), while Memphis’ other top player, O.J. Mayo, was walking off the court scowling (presumably in anger because of the loss).
Seeing Gay smile after a loss is concerning, if only because you fear that with a combined record of 55-146 through his first 201 NBA games, the 22-year-old may have already gotten used to losing. Either that, or he’s just a reasonably affable individual who’s not so preoccupied with winning that he can’t smile and say hi to an old friend.
The "affable individual" theory actually gains some credence when you study the way the former UConn star plays, but that's not exactly a compliment. Gay is an outstanding leaper with the ability to finish powerfully at the rim, but all too often he settles for his jumper, which is far less reliable. That lack of pure aggression aside, Gay is a developing offensive force (19.1 points) who will only improve as he learns the nuances of being at the center of the opposing defense’s game plan.
Kevin Martin, Kings
His most common nickname (in an uncreative poaching of the handle first given to Kenyon Martin) is K-Mart, but the Kings’ two guard should probably be referred to as something along the lines of The Mad Gunner, Sir Shoots-a-Lot or Captain Hoist.
Seemingly always on the move, floating up an unorthodox one-footed runner or jacking up his gun-slinging, shoot-from-the-hip jumper, Martin is perennially in the hunt for the next field-goal attempt. He missed much of November and December with an ankle injury, but in his first six games of January, Martin averaged 29.8 points on 17.8 shots and 11.7 free-throw attempts. Sacramento’s perpetual motion machine is now up to 24.1 points per game this season, which would rank sixth in the NBA if he had played enough games to qualify.
Al Jefferson, Timberwolves
During a game against Portland last March, Jefferson’s shorts unexpectedly plummeted below his waist (presumably because of an untied drawstring) in the midst of a possession. Impressively, the Wolves center still had the presence of mind to catch a pass in the paint and kick it out for a jumper while grappling with his waistband. Of course, if Jefferson ever were to lose his pants for any extended period of time, Minnesota would be in trouble, because he is the unquestioned pants-wearer for this basketball team.
The 23-year-old leads the Wolves in minutes (37.0), points (22.5), rebounds (10.4) and blocks (1.8), and surprisingly helped Minnesota win its first five games of 2009. If that trend keeps up, Jefferson will no longer belong on this list, but we’re guessing that much like the occasional losing of pants during a basketball game, the Wolves’ recent hot streak has been something of an anomaly.
Andris Biedrins, Warriors
Golden State has held some similarity to M. Night Shyamalan’s "The Happening" this season, except that instead of dropping dead, players have been falling victim to injuries en masse or falling in and out of coach Don Nelson’s whimsical playing rotation. However, one player who has stayed immune to whatever’s in the air in Golden State is Biedrins.
The 22-year-old Latvian center is among the league leaders in field-goal percentage (55.6 percent), rebounds (12.0) and dispensation of hair product (8.0 dime-sized dollops per game, second only to Nuggets center Chris Andersen, who uses 15.2). While Biedrins’ hairdo is notable — his slick-back would make the great Pat Riley jealous — it’s his overall play that has truly stood out. In addition to his accuracy and rebounding, Biedrins has averaged 14.0 points, 1.3 steals, 1.6 blocks and 2.2 assists (tied with Marcus Camby for fourth-best and trailing only Brad Miller, Al Horford and Rasho Nesterovic among all centers).
One of the league’s best finishers at the rim, Biedrins’ game only has one outstanding issue: free-throw shooting. His lefty stroke is a vicious and erratic line drive that connects just 56.4 percent of the time, but fortunately for the well-being of spectators, that particular "happening" only occurs approximately five times per game.
Danny Granger, Pacers
We sent Granger’s game back to the lab for exhaustive analysis, and after an extremely thorough battery of tests and hours upon hours of examining the results, the guys in white coats finally found a weakness: Granger’s two front teeth are fake. That’s right, he lost them diving to the floor in the Pacers’ second game of the season against Boston.
Granger has no clear weaknesses on the basketball court. The dynamic Pacers forward shoots well from the field (46.0 percent), free-throw line (86.5 percent) and three-point range (39.3 percent). He rebounds (5.0) and is a developing passer (3.5 assists on the season and 4.4 since the start of December). He’s also active on defense (1.1 steals and 1.4 blocks), and — we almost forgot — he’s fourth in scoring (26.5) behind some guys named Wade, LeBron and Kobe.
At 6-foot-9, Granger has the size to shoot over just about any small forward in the league, and he has a constantly-under-control ability to slash and finish at the rim. But perhaps the best thing about Granger: His game is fueled by a little bit of crazy. After his front teeth got knocked out by an unforgiving Conseco Fieldhouse floor in early November, he smiled.
Kevin Durant, Thunder
Durant presents a compelling paradox. Visually, he looks nothing like a threat on the court — his defining physical characteristics are his complete and utter lack of bulk and his oversized, somewhat clunky feet — yet he happens to be an absolute assassin. Relentless on offense, the second-year pro is averaging 23.8 points thanks to a smooth and surprisingly effortless release, an understanding of how to find a seam and a tremendous ability to run the floor.
Much like Granger, Durant can affect a game in a number of ways — scoring, three-point shooting (41.9 percent), rebounding (6.2), steals (1.2) and blocks (0.8) — but unlike Granger, he doesn’t look the part of a high-profile scoring threat.
Ultimately, it makes perfect sense that Durant represents a contradiction in terms. Because in many ways, the pairing of great player and bad team is as significant of a contrast as there is. And if you happen to catch it at the right time, it can be blindingly brilliant.