Basketball is (maybe, hopefully) on the horizon. To help reintegrate us to a life of Giannis hammer dunks, James Harden dribbling for 24 seconds, and 76ers fans yelling at you for some reason, we’re rolling out top-five rankings in 20 different categories. All rankings were voted on by the Ringer staff unless noted.
Everyone draws the short straw at some point, and so it is that my contribution to this project is a post seemingly designed in a laboratory to invite people to yell at me: to write about players tabbed by our voters as “overrated” due to being in “great situations,” two descriptions left open to interpretation by the electorate. Well, here goes nothing:
5. Eric Bledsoe, Bucks
Bledsoe’s a damn good player—an All-Defensive first-team selection last season, the tip of the spear for a Bucks squad that leads the league in defensive efficiency this season by a margin wide enough to prompt inquiries about whether it’s the best regular-season defense ever. He pairs that lockdown perimeter defense with an offensive game that makes him a near-perfect complement to top options Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton; the 30-year-old is one of just 11 players to average at least 20 points, six assists, and five rebounds per 36 minutes of floor time over the past two seasons.
But what stands out about Bledsoe in many minds are his postseason struggles—when he got outplayed by Terry Rozier in Milwaukee’s seven-game first-round loss to an undermanned Celtics team in 2018, and when he shot 29.4 percent from the floor against the Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference finals, with Malcolm Brogdon and George Hill looking like steadier options at the controls than Milwaukee’s $70 million man. An excellent postseason in which he authors a few big performances for a Bucks team that makes the Finals would go a long way toward knocking him off of lists like this one.
4. Jamal Murray, Nuggets
This feels awfully harsh for a player who has averaged a shade under 19 points, five assists, and four rebounds per game over the past two campaigns—numbers that only 19 other players have matched by their age-22 seasons, by the way—while serving as the no. 2 offensive option on a 50-win team. I’d guess the pick is based more on Murray’s contract and context—getting to play off of Nikola Jokic sure helps conceal your blemishes—than it is on production, though.
Murray signed a five-year maximum extension last summer that could pay him as much as $169.7 million. That’s a lot of money for a boom-or-bust player who frequently alternates soaring highs, like his 48-point incineration of the Celtics, and dispiriting lows, like a 6-for-21 scud in a loss to the Grizzlies in the very next game. He sometimes makes that journey within one night: Recall, if you will, Game 2 against the Spurs in the first round of the 2019 playoffs, which Murray began by missing his first eight shots and managing just three points through three quarters before pouring in 21 in the fourth to save Denver from an 0-2 hole.
The Canadian combo guard’s shot selection can be a bit, shall we say, heroic for his own good, too, and he’s not the most efficient bucket-getter; among 40 qualifying players who used at least 25 percent of their team’s offensive possessions, Murray ranked 28th in effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. (It feels like Murray is a better-than-league-average 3-point shooter, but he’s hit just 34.5 percent of his triples this season, and a comparatively pedestrian 35.8 percent for his career.) Murray made strides this season as a secondary playmaker, posting the highest assist percentage of his career, and as an individual and team defender, with Denver allowing 3.9 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the court than off it. He’s still got work to do in those areas, though, to live up to that hefty deal and to become the second star that can propel the Nuggets into title contention.
3. Russell Westbrook, Rockets
It feels nuts to consider a former MVP who averaged a triple-double for three consecutive seasons “overrated,” especially after watching him remake his game midway through his first year in Houston to become one of the most productive drivers and creators in the league. From mid-December through the season’s suspension, Russ averaged 31.3 points in 37 minutes per game on 50.3 percent shooting; it’s tough to poke too many holes in that.
And yet, we’re just a year removed from Westbrook sharing “most overrated player” top billing with Draymond Green in The Athletic’s anonymous player poll. Many have argued through the years that Westbrook’s all-encompassing output often comes at a cost to his team—it saps rhythm from his teammates, and it demands sacrifices from complementary players that bar them from growing (think Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis suddenly becoming All-Stars in Indiana). The pursuit of individual achievements (all those times Steven Adams boxed out so Russ could grab the 10th board) are prioritized over the goals of the whole (that time Westbrook vowed to “shut [Ricky Rubio’s] shit off” in the playoffs only to open the door for Donovan Mitchell to end Oklahoma City’s season). Westbrook altered his shot diet this season, taking fewer 3-pointers than he had in seven years; the shift was long overdue, considering he’s one of the least accurate high-volume long-range shooters of all time.
For all the assists he’s piled up over the years, he’s a clear tier below the league’s top playmakers when it comes to setting the table for his teammates. As disruptive as he can be as a defender racking up deflections and steals, his tendency to fall asleep off the ball can be even more disruptive to his own team. As good as he is, Westbrook on his own hasn’t been enough to elevate his team to elite status; the Thunder didn’t crack 50 wins or make it out of the first round of the playoffs in his final three seasons in Oklahoma City, and both the 2018-19 Thunder and 2019-20 Rockets kicked ass when Westbrook shared the floor with a second star (Paul George and James Harden, respectively) but were roundly outscored when Russ ran the show without them. Westbrook is still a superstar. When you’re the second-most important superstar on your team, though, the sharp knives come out.
2. Donovan Mitchell, Jazz
The case against Mitchell bears similarities to those against Murray and Westbrook. Yes, he’s a dynamic force with the ball in his hands, averaging 24.2 points and 4.2 assists per game in his age-23 season, something only 25 players in league history have done. Yes, he’s the primary creative engine for Utah; the Jazz have averaged 3.7 more points per 100 possessions with Mitchell on the floor than when he sits this season, equivalent to the difference between the league’s no. 2 offense and and its no. 19 outfit. On a team of complementary pieces who can finish what’s fed to them, Mitchell creates shots and opportunities for himself and others.
At issue, though, is how efficiently he maximizes them. Of the dozen qualifying players whose usage rate topped 30 percent, Mitchell ranked 10th in true shooting percentage and last in assist percentage. And as Mitchell’s offensive responsibilities have increased, his defensive performance has dipped: The Jazz allowed 3.6 fewer points per 100 in his minutes as a rookie and 0.5 fewer points per 100 in his floor time as a sophomore, and conceded 5.7 more points-per-100 with him on the court this season, according to Cleaning the Glass. Mitchell’s ability to create shots and rack up numbers draws eyeballs, but it’s Rudy Gobert who is the true bellwether for Utah; the Jazz got crushed by nearly nine points per 100 with Mitchell in the lineup and the Frenchman resting, and outscored opponents by 5.6 points per 100 in Gobert/no-Mitchell minutes. When Mitchell’s got it going, breaking defenders down off the dribble and getting to the rim for all those creative finishes, he can be a game-breaker. The greats, though, find ways to impact the game even when their shot’s not falling, and how much Mitchell can do that at this stage of his career remains an open question.
1. Kyle Kuzma, Lakers
OK, so we’re ending with a Laker. That should go over well.
Kuzma likely landed on a lot of staffers’ lists for two reasons. First, while he has shown a capacity to contribute in other areas of the game on occasion—a few tough contested rebounds here, a quality string of defensive possessions there, the pleasant surprise of a handful of assists every now and again—Kuzma’s most notable NBA skill is his natural scoring ability. The issue: He doesn’t do it all that efficiently, ranking in just the 16th percentile among all NBA players in points per shot attempt this season, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Kuzma is not quite a stretch 4, shooting 30.1 percent from 3-point range on 658 attempts in the past two seasons. Nor is he a playmaking 4, notching an assist on a lower share of L.A. possessions than he has committed a turnover in his career thus far. He ranks 103rd out of 142 forwards in rebounding rate since entering the league. He’s improved as a defender, especially when tracking wings on the perimeter, but he’s not really a lockdown artist; he’s big and mobile enough to theoretically hang as a small-ball 5 in the modern game, but the Lakers struggled defensively in that brief experiment last season.
Kuzma is a fine basketball player, with the tools, temperament, and talent to have big games and contribute to a contender. And as the no. 27 pick in the 2017 draft, he’s on a rookie contract for less than $2 million this season and $3.6 million in 2020-21, so he’s certainly not overpaid. But he shows up here because by dint of him being a Laker—and the team’s only significant remaining moveable piece, after emptying out the coffers to land Anthony Davis—it sure seems like people talk about him a lot for a “fine basketball player.” Being a more frequent topic of conversation comes with wearing the forum blue and gold and being on the same team as LeBron (who, despite one of the most sparkling résumés in NBA history, still gets called overrated by some maniacs). Sometimes, though, what they’re saying about you isn’t all that nice.
Others receiving multiple votes: Tobias Harris, Kristaps Porzingis, Khris Middleton, Rudy Gobert, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, Gordon Hayward