The NBA Middle Class
The NBA markets itself with its best players. That’s the smartest free market, closed market, any market strategy even a layman like me can figure out. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose drive revenue and casual fan interest; which make up most of the money. And this year, names like Stephen Curry, Kevin Love and Damian Lillard are going to become, or have already become, household names. But having the stereotypical bar-chat or barbershop conversation, which, for me, usually consists of yours truly and a couple guys laying around on couches at home and balance balls at the gym, has made me realize the middle-tier superstar class of the NBA is inconveniently underrated, and unknown.
Geographical differences play a massive role in how players are perceived. That’s only normal, and an unfortunately dubious distinction, which result in many on the West Coast bemoaning every waking second of ESPN coverage. Iman Shumpert gets a lot of publicity when he’s likely an average or barely above-average player at best. The Warriors are a peculiar case in that they are rarely a good basketball team, but in the last two years the franchise has shifted into a frenzied mecca of fandom. Once the League Pass darlings, they are now the Main Event. And that has helped transform Klay Thompson, a likely middle-class tiered player I’m about to wax on, a near superstar in his own right. It also helps his cause when Mark Jackson proclaims statements like this.
Of course, being born into early NBA fame is also a cause of relative popularity. Anthony Bennett will remain slightly popular and relevant, if only because he was the number one overall pick. Perhaps he will grow into a solid role player in four to five years, but everyone will no doubt have numerous think-pieces on the added pressure of draft selections and economic upbringing. No matter what Bennett does, he will never be under-the-radar, and that comes with his stature the moment he entered the league. These aren’t singular indicators of very good players going relatively unnoticed but a grey area between the two contribute to the lack of proverbial ink spilled on them.
The one percent, or the elite players, are obvious. For the sake of this terrible analogy, role players like Shane Battier and Kendrick Perkins (say what you will about him, but if need be, he’s going to shut down Dwight Howard in the postseason, though that doesn’t necessitate a huge effort right now but is the principle reason why OKC still has him), are considered the lower-level players. Judging on the relativity of popularity, we’ll exclude bench players like Alexey Shved and unknown rookies like Shane Larkin. That means the higher ratio in the aggregate number of superstars, role players and underrated-but-very-good players lie in the latter.
Jeff Teague, a former 19th pick, is blossoming into a very good point guard. His excellent quickness and burst of speed combined with adequate vision and finishing ability make him one of the better guards in the Eastern Conference. But most would not care to break his game down or set up an Atlanta Hawks narrative.
Nikola Pekovic, drafted in the second round by the Minnesota Timberwolves, played overseas being coming over and has since established himself as a powerful finisher and underrated defender. Always seemingly fighting through a bout of injuries, Pekovic is a top-ten center in the league. Playing in Minnesota certainly doesn’t help his cause; neither does playing alongside noted star Kevin Love and beloved point guard Ricky Rubio.
Nikola Vucevic, 16th overall pick by the Philadelphia Sixers, and Arron Afflalo, 27th overall pick by the Detroit Pistons, are cornerstone players for the Orlando Magic. Neither receive much fanfare despite posting solid careers with this year coming as a breakout season for each. There’s a couple reasons for their lack of notoriety; low draft status, bad team, non-flashy games, but all it takes is a trade to a good team to change that. Just ask J.J. Redick. And perhaps that goes for everyone in the middle class but it’s not often that a player that’s good enough to receive a sizable contracts finds himself in a perfect situation like the Los Angeles Clippers. Most of the time, Eric Gordon happens.
There are many players to add to the list; Mike Conley, Gordon Hayward, Isaiah Thomas are some that make up the morass of above-average players that are nameless national media icons. A popular thought in NBA circles is the notion remaining stuck in neutral in the middle of the NBA, like the Atlanta Hawks or Milwaukee Bucks is the worst way to move towards the ultimate goal of winning a championship. You don’t receive high draft picks, thus the lack of elite talent and a higher reliance of luck than others. If you’re not a top contender, you may as well tank, remains a crude determination of management. And as it is for us, because why do players care if we know them as long as they get paid and get to play, we tend to eschew the middle-class players in deference to role players on great teams and great players doing great things.