The NBA's Unsung Heroes

Which of the best players get the least ink? Herewith, SI's NBA All-Underrated team
March 09, 1987

As last month's NBA all-star game tipped off in Seattle. Lafayette (Fail Lever was enjoying lunch with his daughter, Elyse, at Peter Piper Pizza, in Phoenix, his off-season home. "I didn't even watch it on television," said Lever.

You were missed, Fat. As Seattle forward Tom Chambers said just two days before he won the game's MVP award. "Fat Lever deserves to be on the All-Star team this season more than any other player in the United States. I feel bad that he's not here." Well, never mind, Fat. Please accept this consolation prize: You've just been named to SI's first NBA All-Underrated team. Congratulations and pass the pizza.

Our criteria in selecting the team were simple: We looked for versatile players who had been in the NBA at least three full seasons and had never made a coaches' a team. Eliminated then, were players such as Philadelphia's Maurice Cheeks, New Jersey's Buck Williams, Dallas's Rolando Blackman and Boston's Dennis Johnson. They may be underappreciated, but they're sure not underrated: DJ has played in five All-Star Games, Williams in three, Cheeks and Blackman in two.

There are several reasons why players become underrated, lack of media attention being the most obvious. In fact, it may be impossible for a member of the NBA's glamour teams, the Lakers and the Celtics, to be underrated. Big scorers generally aren't underrated, because that's the one statistic everyone knows about; indeed, only one member of our team is in the top 10 in scoring. Many underrated players perform in the shadow of superstars, and most of them came out of college lacking big reputations and simply stayed that way.

There are several second-and third-year players who do not yet qualify for our team but have that underrated look about them: forwards Karl Malone of Utah, Sam Perkins of Dallas and Kevin Willis of Atlanta, and Utah point guard John Stockton, among others. Let's watch their progress.

In selecting this team our research was extensive. We polled some 20 NBA players, including seven members of this year's All-Star team. We also queried a number of head coaches and assistants, as well as broadcasters who can dribble behind their back—namely Bob Cousy (Celtics) and Rod Hundley (Jazz). We didn't count the ballots with Price-Waterhouse looking over our shoulder. Rather, we let their collective effect wash over us and tried to sniff out prejudice and tainted critical judgment. Here are the results:

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Point guard: Lafayette (Fat) Lever. Denver Nuggets, 6'3", 175 pounds, Arizona State, fifth season.

Career stats before this season: 11.0 points, 6.2 assists, 3.96 rebounds, 2.07 steals per game.

This season (through February): 18.8, 8. 8.8, 2.47.

What's amazing is not just that Lever leads the Nuggets in rebounding—it's that he leads them by so much. Denver's next best rebounder, at 5.2 per game, is 6'10" center Wayne Cooper. Considering Lever's work on the boards, it's not really surprising that he has more triple-doubles this year (12) than anyone in the NBA (Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, by comparison, have 3 and 1. respectively). Without Fat. the mystifyingly bad Nuggets (24-34) might be listing even more precipitously to the land of Spurs and Kings.

The only thing Lever can't do is shoot straight (.437 career. .459 this season), but then, no one on the Nuggets can. Instead they shoot often, and Lever is the guy who distributes the ball, both on the break, where he makes excellent open-court decisions, and in coach Doug Moe's half-court passing offense.

"Fat might be the best ball handler in basketball." says Nuggets assistant Alan Bristow. "If you had to pick a guy to play the role of Marques Haynes, it would be Fat Lever."

Lever must stay on his toes, though, because he has a challenger for underrated honors in Dallas's Derek Harper, another fearless competitor who takes care of the ball and plays tough defense. Harper was recently asked his choice for the league's most underrated player. "Fat Lever," said Harper, who, among other fine qualities, has excellent taste in point guards.

Shooting guard: Dale Ellis, Seattle SuperSonics, 6'7", 205, Tennessee, fourth year.

Career stats: 8.2 points. 0.71 assists, 3.11 rebounds. 0.60 steals.

This season: 24. 2.76. 5.65. 1.5.

Has anyone checked to see if Ellis is glowing in the dark these days? What else could account for the 15-point jump in scoring average that has Ellis on the top 10 list, the largest one-year increase in NBA history? Well, in the immortal words of Dick Vitale.

PT, baby. Honest to goodness, major league, blue-chip, prime-time, no-pine minutes. In Seattle he's a starter. In Dallas he was a sitter. And when he did doff the warm-ups, it was usually as a three-point shootist. "Help him. help the bombardier." Yosarian shouted in Catch-22, and he could have been talking about Ellis. Finally the Mavs did help—by trading him to the Sonics. Ellis responded like a man freed from a prison. "I doubt if even Dale himself thought he'd be this good." said Chambers.

Dallas's Dick Motta may be the only coach in NBA history to improve his team by trading away a 23-point scorer. Part of the reason is that by moving Ellis. Motta relieved a crush of humanity at the big guard-small forward positions. For another reason, see below.

Center: James Donaldson. Dallas Mavericks, 7'2", 280, Washington State, seventh year.

Career stats: 9.1 points. 7.12 rebounds, 1.51 blocked shots, 8.12 awkwardness quotient (10 being perfectly awkward).

This season: 10.3. 11.8. 1.56. 5.56.

In a trade that elicited many a yawn, the Mavs acquired Donaldson from the Los Angeles Clippers for Kurt Nimphius on Nov. 25. 1985. Well, the Western Conference is wide awake now because Donaldson's consistent play in the pivot has made this one of the most significant trades in recent years. The Mavericks have gone from being one of the NBA's jelly doughnut teams—sweet on the outside, squishy in the center—to one of the few clubs (the Lakers. Celtics, Rockets, Hawks and, possibly, Pistons) with a force in the middle and a chance to win the NBA title The no-longer-docile Donaldson even looks better out there on the floor which accounts for the dip in his AQ.

Fortunately Donaldson doesn't have to do it all for Dallas because, like most centers, he can't. The Mavs are more than happy with his scoring and positively ecstatic about his rebounding. The fact that he has inexplicably raised his career free throw percentage from .716 to .801 is gravy. Before most games, Donaldson and rookie power forward Roy Tarpley place a friendly wager on who will grab more rebounds. That never happened before in Big D. which has long been No D. "When you talk about our success." says Blackman. an All-Star guard, "you have to talk about James " And so we have choosing him as our big man over Utah's Mark Eaton and Seattle's Alton Lister.

Small forward: Rodney McCray, Houston Rockets, 6'7". 220. Louisville, fourth year.

Career stats: 11.9 points, 6.21 rebounds, 3.39 assists.

This season: 13.4.7.5.64.

McCray keeps his feelings under lock and key, holding them in place if they try to emerge, hiding them behind a persistent scowl. This season he has been playing under a terrible mental burden—his young daughter, Apryl, is suffering from brain cancer—but no one would know it by his performance.

A lot of people don't know about McCray's all-around game, either. It's tough to get sunlight when you're surrounded by Twin Towers, but McCray is a big-league rebounder, an excellent ball handler who frequently moves out to point forward, and one of the NBA's best finishers on the break—a thundering, ambidextrous long-jump dunk artist. If he ever ponders his own varied skills, McCray will discover that there's nothing in his game to scowl about.

Power forward: Steve Johnson, Portland Trail Blazers, 6'10", 235, Oregon State, sixth season.

Career stats: 11.6 points, 5.68 rebounds, .597 shooting percentage from the field, 4.85 personal fouls.

This season: 16.8, 7.51, 540, 4.27.

O.K., we cheated. Johnson, a San Antonio Spur last year, is actually a center, or at least that's where he's playing this season with Sam Bowie injured. Whatever you call him. his low-post moves are among the sweetest in the game—just a notch or two below those of Kevin McHale and Adrian Dantley—and he's always among the league's top percentage shooters. He's not a bad rebounder, either. His presence in the middle has made many observers forget Bowie's absence. "We'd be dead in the water if Steve didn't come this way," said teammate Kiki Vandeweghe.

Actually Chambers was our first choice at power forward, but he played himself off the all-underrated team by becoming an All-Star. Foolish fellow, Still, we're satisfied with Johnson, who is entertaining on offense and an adventure on defense, where he's a personal foul waiting to happen.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Point guard: Glenn (Doc) Rivers. Atlanta Hawks, 6'4", 185, Marquette, fourth year.

Career stats: 11.5 points, 5.75 assists, 2.94 rebounds, 2.02 steals.

This season: 13.8. 9.8. 3.8. 2.27.

In a conference rife with good guards, Rivers was a popular choice. He's the kind of guy whom other players like—tough but not dirty, confident but not cocky, efficient but not unexciting. And as the Hawks' stable of young big men improves, so will Rivers, whose numbers are up in every category after an injury-plagued '85-86 season.

"It used to be that he only went to his right and couldn't shoot." says the Pistons' Isiah Thomas, whose presence in the East makes it difficult for Rivers to become an All-Star. "But he worked hard and now he's as tough as anybody."

Shooting guard: Vinnie Johnson, Detroit Pistons, 6'2", 200, Baylor, eighth year.

Career stats: 12.0 points. 3.34 assists, 3.18 rebounds, 1 point every 2 minutes.

This season: 14.6, 3.5, 3.09, 1 point every 1.7 minutes.

Drawing more nominations than any other, the shooting guard position divided voters, inflamed emotions and kept us awake at night. Milwaukee's Ricky Pierce, Atlanta's Randy Wittman and Indiana's John Long were all possibilities. But it finally came down to a choice between Johnson, a sixth man. and Boston's Danny Ainge a marked man.

Forget his bad haircut, the result of a botched effort to look like Bruce Willis, and forget his pouty expression, which he'll be wearing at age 80. Ainge plays hard every minute at both ends of the floor. We even asked Rivers if Ainge would be a good choice to play alongside him. "Definitely." he said. "Guys don't like him because he does everything it takes to win." How about Vinnie Johnson? Rivers smiled and shook his head slowly. "Vinnie is tough, so tough. He'd be a good choice, too."

Vinnie leaves a lot of defenders shaking their heads. He comes off the Piston bench hotter than a microwaved sandwich. Detroit coach Chuck Daly calls it "a high-wire act." Get the ball, swing those long arms left, swing 'em right, dribble, lean, shoot that line-drive jumper. He's doing the routine so well this season that he's the early favorite for the NBA's Sixth Man Award.

And he's not just an offensive player. "He comes after you," says Lever, "and he's got the body to make you feel it. He's the little bear in a trench coat." Consider: Joe Dumars, who starts ahead of Vinnie is rightly considered a tough, athletic, all-around player. But in 25 minutes per game, compared with Dumars's 31, Johnson has one less steal (60 to 61) and more rebounds (170 to 110). Any day in Detroit is apt to be V.J. Day.

Center: Vacant.

Given our criteria, there were only three serious candidates—New Jersey's Mike Gminski, Atlanta's "Tree" Rollins and Indiana's Steve Stipanovich—and we couldn't get anything resembling a consensus. Centers, we discovered, are rarely underrated or overrated. "What you see is pretty much what you get." said Nets coach Dave Wohl.

If you want to fill the position, combine Rollins's size (7'1", 235), Gminski's shooting touch and the intensity in Stipo's eyes. But that still doesn't come close to making one Akeem Olajuwon or Moses Malone.

Small forward: Paul Pressey. Milwaukee Bucks, 6'5", 185, Tulsa, fifth season.

Career stats: 11.4 points. 4.35 rebounds, 5.08 assists, 1.51 steals.

This season: 10.2.3.5.5.25. 1.24.

"I don't think Pressey belongs, because he gets a lot of publicity for being underrated," said one player. Said another: "It's hard to tell what position to put him at."

Never mind, we'll take him. If not at point forward, where he was the NBA's prototype, then at small forward, where Bucks coach Don Nelson will station him most of the time, barring further injury to Sidney Moncrief. Anyway, because the Milwaukee team consists largely of unsung heroes, it would be sinful not to include a Buck on an underrated team, and Pressey's the guy. "He's the most important player on our team." said Nelson. When he recovers completely from an injury to his right ring finger, watch the Bucks really start to roll in the Central Division

Power forward: Herb Williams. Indiana Pacers, 6'10", 242, Ohio State, sixth season.

Career stats: 16.3 points. 8.08 rebounds, 2.03 blocked shots, 2.73 assists.

This season: 13.2.6.75. 1.05. 1.67.

Williams has been bothered by bruised ribs this season, and his below-average numbers reflect it. But he's coming on now, and he'll be even more effective on offense when Indiana's opponents start doubling up on rookie Chuck Person. We also considered Philadelphia's Roy Hinson, but he has been inconsistent. Williams gets the nod for his tough, steady play on a team just now-beginning to emerge.

Besides, for a few minutes each quarter we can play Williams at center. And that's important for a team that doesn't have anyone in the middle.

PHOTOBRIAN DRAKESteve Johnson's strong inside game turns a lot of heads—in this case, Danny Schayes's. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERLever's league-leading 12 triple-doubles have kept Denver in the playoff picture. PHOTOSCOTT CUNNINGHAMRolling to his best season ever, Rivers ranks among the leaders in steals and assists. PHOTOERIC BAKKE/PHOTOSTAFFThe long shadows of Houston's Twin Towers have obscured McCray's all-around play. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONDonaldson fills a tall order in the middle, making Dallas a threat for the NBA title.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)