NBA All-Decade 2000s: The Underachievers
When David Stern memorably handed over the Larry O’Brien Trophy to "Lakers Alternate Governor" Joey Buss back in June, he effectively closed the book on the decade of the 2000s in the NBA, as the next championship will be won in 2010.
With that in mind, we wanted to take a look back at some of the highlights of the NBA decade. In the third installment of this NBA All-Decade series, we discuss the biggest underachievers of the decade.
Previously in our NBA All-Decade series, we have explored our choices for the best players (MVP: Tim Duncan) and best teams (best franchise: L.A. Lakers) of the 2000s. (Note: On Dec. 31, we also posted our Best of the Playoffs post for the decade.) Today, we explore the players and teams who should've been great, the biggest underachievers of the decade.
We're discussing underachievement in the cosmic sense: players and teams who had the chance for immortality and squandered it. Note that our definition of underachiever does not include guys who were drafted too high, like Kwame Brown or Darko Milicic. Those are players who were poorly evaluated, and overrated, in our definition. Yes, they may have underachieved as players, but they never had the potential to be superstars in the first place. We are looking for the players who had the ability and talent to be superstar players, potentially Hall of Famers, and let it slip away.
So, please note that these are not necessarily the biggest underachievers we've seen overall. They are guys in whom we've seen glimpses of superstar talent at one point or another, but who have failed to deliver on that promise.
As we watched Greg Oden crumple to the floor with another season-ending injury just as he was beginning to come into his own, we realized anew that - as much as anything as fans of this game - we just want to see every player reach his full potential. Note that, for our purposes, we are not including players whose careers were derailed by major injury, such as Grant Hill, in this survey.
Here is our all-decade underachiever team - more info below:
All-NBA First Team
C Rasheed Wallace
F Tim Thomas
F Lamar Odom
G Baron Davis (MVP)
G Stephon Marbury
Team: Dallas Mavericks
BARON DAVIS, Guard (MVP)
You saw it, I saw it, the world saw it: the 2007 Playoffs, a glorious 11-game run in which Baron Davis was completely, utterly unstoppable on both ends of the court. He averaged 25.3 pts, 4.5 reb, 6.5 ast and 2.91 stl on .513 FG% in that postseason. It was really one of the more dominant displays of point-guard play that I've seen, with a box-score production level of 26.8 PER in a career which never topped 21.0 in a single season (and is 18.1 for his career) or 21.4 in another postseason.
As much as that performance stands as the great aberration of Baron's career, I feel like it should have been something closer to the norm. Baron Davis was blessed with quite possibly the best body for playing point guard which has ever been doled out, an impossible combination of power, speed and explosiveness wrapped in a frame listed at 6-3, 210 in its ideal form.
I still remember one episode of Inside the NBA in which Kenny Smith relayed a conversation he had once had with Baron Davis, which went something like this (paraphrasing from memory here):
Kenny: "On offense, is there anyone who can stop you on the basketball court?"
Kenny: "On defense, is there anyone who you can't stop on the basketball court?"
Kenny: "Then why aren't you one of the ten best players in the league?!?!"
Kenny touches upon the underrated aspect of Baron's lost potential: defense. In 2008, Devin Harris was asked about which point guards were the best at different elements of the game (best shooter, best penetrator, best handle, etc.). For best defender, part of his answer was this: "Baron is a major pain when he's motivated." Indeed, dude was an absolute terror on the ball - the equal of smaller players in terms of speed and quickness, but with overwhelming strength - when motivated. When motivated.
On offense, Davis has hampered himself with a horrendous shot selection, a crippling willingness to repeatedly settle for ill-advised three-pointers ahead of going to the basket. For his career, Davis has a field-goal percentage of .409, with five seasons under 40%. Perhaps the most damning statistic of his career is that he has attempted 5.3 three-pointers per game, and just 4.3 free throws per game.
Yes, Baron has had some injuries along the way, but they have been more of the variety of nagging injuries - quite probably produced in part by being out of shape - than major structural problems.
You may be thinking that Allen Iverson had a similarly bad field-goal percentage, but consider that even The Answer is at .425 for his career, with just two seasons under 40% (and one of those was at .398), and more importantly, Iverson has always compensated for it a little just because of the frequency with which he's gotten to the line: his ratio is 3.8 3PA career vs. 9.0 FTA. With his body, Baron Davis should have a similar ratio, and if he did, I dare say we'd be talking about a Hall of Famer.
Instead we're left with the memory of the Warriors run in the 2007 Playoffs - maybe the most exhilarating basketball we saw all decade, when Baron Davis was a force of nature unlike any other point guard - but little else. Two All-Star games, and one All-NBA Third Team nod in 2003-04. It's a shame.
[One note: one way in which Baron did not underachieve was in the category of facial hair. Dude had the beard of the decade. That thing was a force of nature all of its own.]
RASHEED WALLACE, Center
In my memory, the 1995 ACC Tournament is one of my favorite college basketball competitions ever. Randolph Childress was the headliner, as he went bananas in averaging 36 pts and 7 ast to lead Wake Forest to an improbable, exciting tournament championship.
What I remember as much as anything were the ferocious battles among quality bigs, something rarely seen in the college game today. The '95 ACC tourney included the no. 1 pick in the 1995 NBA Draft (Joe Smith of Maryland), the no. 4 pick (Rasheed Wallace of North Carolina), and the young man who would have been the no. 1 pick had he come out of college (then-sophomore Tim Duncan of Wake Forest), all going head-to-head inside.
I thought that we were going to be looking ahead to years of battles among these bigs in the league, but it was not to be. It was another young big, high-schooler Kevin Garnett, who became the best player of the 1995 draft class (he was the no. 5 pick), and the definitive comparison of power forwards of the 2000s is Duncan vs. Garnett.
I firmly believe that Rasheed Wallace has had enough talent that the comparison could have and should have been Duncan vs. Garnett vs. Wallace instead.
Yes, Sheed was a key contributor to a championship team after being acquired by Detroit at the trading deadline in 2004, but he could have been so much more. Wallace has made four All-Star teams, but never an All-NBA team.
The first topic that comes to mind when discussing Rasheed Wallace will always be technical fouls, of course. The 41 technicals in 2000-01 was one of the truly epic single-season performances of the decade. Make no mistake, Wallace has hurt his teams in big games, many times, with his technical fouls and ejections. No one has taken the air out of a home building or the energy out of his team quite like Rasheed with one of his ugly, explosive technicals.
Strangely, a related issue which has prevented Sheed from ascending to superstar level has been his unselfishness. Wallace's teammates and coaches have consistently lauded him for being a great team player and for having a high basketball IQ. The problem with this is that Wallace has too often been reluctant to step up and be The Man even when that's exactly what his team has needed.
Rasheed has the talent of a franchise player, and has been paid like a franchise player, but he's never truly stepped up and accepted the responsibility of being a franchise player, whether that's meant being a team's stand-up guy with the media, keeping his emotions under control as a team leader, or demanding the ball repeatedly when his team has needed it.
What's most depressing to me is that we should be talking about how Rasheed's turnaround jumper in the low post was one of the definitive offensive moves of the decade. It's a thing of beauty - those long arms reaching up to a release point so high that the shot is essentially unblockable, with a soft touch to boot. Sheed's turnaround J is a rare move that is truly unstoppable, yet he's preferred to roam around on the perimeter and launch long-range shots increasingly as his career has gone on.
Wallace's career marks of 2.9 threes attempted per game vs. 3.0 FTA per game are almost shameful. Moreover, with his reluctance to demand the ball, Sheed's averaged just 12.5 FGA per game, which has only served to hurt his team. Compare the career numbers:
FGA 3PA FTA
Duncan 16.1 0.1 7.2
Garnett 16.1 0.5 4.9
Wallace 12.5 2.9 3.0
Rasheed Wallace should have been a player who averaged 15+ 2-point attempts, primarily from the low blocks, over the last decade. And yes, we list him as a center on this team because he should have spent much more time near the basket.
It's also worth noting that Duncan and Garnett are considered by many, including me, to be the two premier defensive players of the decade, and Wallace is gifted enough - with his length and smarts - that he should have been part of that conversation, too. His defensive brilliance was on display in 2004, when I thought the interior defense of the Wallace boys was the most important factor in the Pistons' championship, but Rasheed has not brought the focus or the effort on a consistent-enough basis to be considered as productive a defensive player as Timmy or KG overall.
TIM THOMAS, Forward
Tim Thomas is probably the biggest dog of this whole group, as he has easily achieved the least of any member of this team, never making an All-NBA or All-Star team, or ever coming close, really.
But I swear this guy had the whole package of gifts - a 6-10 player with the coordination and ballhandling ability to take people off the dribble, and the explosiveness to dunk on them with authority at the rim, plus a sweet shooting touch from outside. I still remember seeing a game at Key Arena (excuse me while I pause to pour out a little 40) in which Thomas basically ran the offense as a point forward, expertly finding cutters from the top of the key, easily able to see over the defense at 6-10. He scored off the drive and with his outside shot, as well - Thomas was unstoppable, frankly, and I walked out of the building thinking I had seen one of the 10 most talented players in the league.
On Thomas's Wikipedia page, Ray Allen is quoted as saying: "If he wanted to, Tim Thomas could be the best player in the league."
That's the thing about Thomas - he wasn't really a selfish player, he has shown signs of being a willing passer with good court vision at times. He's just been a supremely unmotivated player.
Statistically, the most telling number is probably the 2.5 FTA per game career, for a guy who could take people off the dribble at 6-10. The 4.1 rebounds per game career is not too far behind.
The Tim Thomas story which sticks in my head is the vignette from Seven Seconds or Less, when the 2005-06 Suns - struggling to replace the lost firepower of Joe Johnson and injured Amare Stoudemire - sign Tim Thomas for the last third of the season in the hopes that he can help get them over the hump. Mike D'Antoni is quoted as saying that maybe he can "fool somebody into another contract."
Even serving as little more than a designated shooter, Thomas did just that. He was a valuable piece of Phoenix's 20-game playoff run to the conference finals, averaging 15.1 pts and 6.3 reb. Then the Clippers signed him to a 4-year, $24 million deal, and his game went back into the tank.
The lasting memory I have is of a friend who is a lifelong Bucks fan, helplessly, plaintively screaming at Thomas through the television: "You're 6-10! You're 6-10!" Indeed, he's always played so much smaller.
LAMAR ODOM, Forward
Let me start by just saying, "Sorry, SoCal" and "Sorry, Queens". It really hurts me to write this, believe me. I love Lamar, who seems like one of the true good dudes in the league.
I'll also point out that the first thing I wrote after the Lakers championship this year was called "In Praise of Lamar Odom", a nod to how his unselfish acceptance of a sixth-man role in training camp was a key to L.A.'s whole season, and I think L.O.'s performances in Games 5 & 6 of the Nuggets series were as pivotal to the Lakers' season as anyone's.
I'll also remind you to consider our criteria for this post - it's not just based on straight underachievement. Has Lamar Odom underachieved more than, say, Eddy Curry? No way. But we see Curry's ceiling as a guy who pumps in 20+ ppg on a consistent basis, while not providing much else. Lamar Odom, meanwhile, is a guy who's shown us glimpses of superstardom, while never reaching that level as a whole.
Odom has never made an All-NBA or All-Star team. His career numbers of 15-9-4 (16.8 PER) look pretty good. But consider that Lamar's best season statistically was at age 21 in 2000-01 with the Clippers, a 17-8-5 (18.9 PER) which seemed to be a scratching of the surface rather than a high-water mark. After a couple seasons lost to drug suspensions and a variety of injuries, Odom regained his mojo after going to Miami at age 24 in 2003-04, with a 17-10-4 (18.5 PER) stat line.
I don't think it's a stretch to say that Lamar has just a touch of Magic in his game. In my memory, that rebirth season in Miami is one big blur of L.O. grabbing a board and leading a beautiful coast-to-coast run, with that long lefty limb reaching for the goal, or dishing to the open man.
Then, Odom became a Laker and, instead of his career taking off at age 25, he took a step back and became an enigmatic ballplayer - alternately brilliant and invisible, too often disappearing into passivity and seeming deference to Kobe.
When Lamar came back to L.A., many thought that he could become Kobe's Pippen. It's a bit simplistic and unfair to Odom, since they are different players, but the numbers are still telling.
At age 24 in 1989-90, Pippen posted a 17-7-5 season (16.3 PER) which was a taste of things to come, as he was essentially a 20-7-6 (20 PER) guy for the rest of the Bulls championship run, even in Jordan's shadow.
In the summer of 2004, I thought Lamar was headed in the same direction statistically, no matter who he played with. We've never seen a big breakout 19-10-6 season from Odom, which I was certain he had in him, as he's settled in as around a 15-9-4 (17 PER) player.
One of the more interesting numbers is Odom's Usage Rate. (Basketball Prospectus defines Usage Rate as a "the percentage of a team's possessions a player 'uses up' while he is on the floor. The skill being measured is a player's ability to create his own offense for his team. It's one of the most underrated metrics in basketball.")
In his pre-Lakers years, Odom was in the range of a 23-24 Usage Rate, never below a 22.3. In L.A., he's hovered around 18-19. It's yet another indication that Lamar has been too passive and deferential too often as a Laker. Even Pip still managed a Usage Rate of around 24 next to Jordan during the Bulls' championship years.
Given that Lamar Odom has a chance to end up as a key piece of two or three championship teams, we doubt Lakers fans will ultimately care all that much. But as a basketball fan in general, I'm bummed just because I thought in 2004 that Lamar Odom was on the cusp of becoming a perennial All-Star and one of the most consistently joyous players to watch in the league. But it was not to be. We get glimpses, but it's not enough.
STEPHON MARBURY, Guard
On one hand, I'm not completely sold that Stephon Marbury was a Hall-of-Fame talent. On the other, I think that you may forget how productive this dude was in the first half of the decade. For a seven-season stretch from 1998-99 (age 21) through 2004-05 (age 27), Marbury averaged 21.7 pts and 8.3 ast per game. His PER was above 20 in six of those seven seasons. And for a guy with the reputation of a malcontent, he missed just 26 games in the eight seasons from 1997-98 to 2004-05.
Of course, the defining characteristic of Marbury's career was that he was the best player on a losing team, year after year after year. The Nets improved drastically after trading Marbury for Jason Kidd (although they added several other new players as well), and the Suns did the same after Steph was replaced by Steve Nash.
I can't argue with the notion that Marbury wasn't fit to be the leader of a championship contender, but I still believe that he had the ability to become a Hall of Famer because he had the perfect situation in which to do so in Minnesota.
You see, there was a brief time, long ago, when Stephon Marbury was on a winner. As a 20-year-old in 1997-98, Steph was teamed with Kevin Garnett (age 21) and Tom Gugliotta (age 28) to win 45 games in Minny. Then, the T-wolves were 12-6 in 1999 when Marbury threw it all away with his decision to demand a trade.
I do believe that Starbury/KG could have been junior heirs to the Stockton/Malone throne, rolling out 50+ wins consistently, with a handful of deep runs in the playoffs in an admittedly tough Western Conference. If only Marbury could have accepted playing second fiddle to KG, I think his career would be viewed in an entirely different light, with his 20-8 seasons in a winning context.
But Marbury couldn't accept making far less money than KG, whose contract was grandfathered in after a new collective bargaining agreement capped maximum salaries. Then he became an NBA vagabond whose career careened off the tracks, seemingly permanently, beginning at age just 28. Just two All-Star Games, just two All-NBA Third Team nods.
Really, it's amazing: after all of the promise and acclaim for Marbury as a high-school legend and a strong college player in one year at Georgia Tech... just two All-Star Games?
I still remember a quote from then-Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders at the time of the trade, wondering if, many years down the road, all parties would look back and regret having squandered such a golden opportunity. It still seems like a fair question.
Marbury could play, and he could have been viewed as a winner. It was his choice to give it all up.
Here are the overall regular-season records of the five winningest teams of the decade, for the seasons stretching from 1999-2000 through 2008-09:
- SAS 576-244 .702
DAL 548-272 .668
LAL 530-290 .646
DET 497-323 .606
PHX 491-329 .599
The Spurs and the Lakers were the teams of the decade, and the Pistons managed to sneak away with one championship, even though they couldn't capitalize on excellent opportunities for more rings in 2005 and 2006.
That the Suns had to experience yet another tantalizing but ringless decade is certainly a disappointment to their faithful fan base. While Phoenix was struck with plenty of misfortune during its 2005-07 prime, there was never a year in which I thought they were the best team in basketball - I never thought that they flat-out blew a chance to win a title.
That honor would be reserved for the Dallas Mavericks. In general, their decade has to be considered a huge success. Pro basketball was brought back from the dead in the Metroplex: the Mavs went from 24.6 wins/season in the '90s to 54.8 in the '00s, after Mark Cuban took over the franchise in January, 2000.
Indeed, the mark of 55 wins per season is a fairly staggering number - 5-plus wins per season over both the Pistons and Suns. Dallas clearly deserves to share the top tier of the NBA decade with the Spurs and Lakers, if not for the harsh fact that the standings of titles won reads LAL 4, SAS 3, DAL 0.
It has to be a bitter disappointment to end such a fruitful decade without a championship, especially because the title was within their grasp in 2006. They won the best playoff series of the decade - a seven-game thriller over San Antonio - which seemed to decide the best team in the league. Dallas held a 2-0 series lead over Miami, and blew a chance to go up 3-0 after giving up a 13-point fourth-quarter lead. Blame Bennett Salvatore for Game 5 all you want, it never should have been that close. Dallas should have been the 2006 NBA champions and blew it.
Maybe the Mavs weren't better than the champion Spurs in 2007, but it's pathetic that we never even got a chance to see a rematch of their 2006 playoff epic to find out. Dallas' 67-15 record tied the '99-00 Lakers for best single-season record of the decade, yet they were famously upended by the 42-40 Warriors in the first round.
Take a look at the biggest playoff upsets of this decade, using the metric of teams which overcame the biggest deficits of regular-season wins. Here's the entire list of series where a team overcame a deficit of 5 wins or more in the '00s:
- '07 GSW v DAL 25
'06 MIA v DET 12
'06 MIA v DAL 8
'09 ORL v CLE 7
'04 DET v IND 7
'07 NJN v TOR 6
'05 DET v MIA 5
It's been a remarkable decade for the Mavericks in many ways, but in the end they stand on the side of the 25 franchises who went ringless.
More NBA All-Decade 2000s Review:
- Players (Duncan is MVP) | Teams (Lakers are Team of Decade)
- Best of the Playoffs (Horry, Shaq, Mavs-Spurs)