What the average fan knows
One of the more common parlor games in NBA circles is debating which players are underrated. However, these conversations are often unproductive because it’s hard to know how players are perceived by fans in the first place. If you don’t know how the average fan feels about a player, then there’s no way to prove whether they’re overrated, underrated, or just properly rated.
Since we can’t survey every living basketball-knower we’re left with proxies for estimating how the average fan feels. In the past, I’ve tried to use Wikipedia pageviews, but players who are in the news for reasons other than basketball tend to get more pageviews than we’d expect based on how good they actually are.
What we really want is a measure of how fans feel about players’ on-court performance.
Last week, the NBA released data on the number of fan votes every player in the NBA received for the All-Star game. LeBron James led the way with over 5 million fan votes — last place went to Dallas’ Nate Hinton with just 238 votes. Fan voting for the All-Star game isn’t perfect, but it’s about as good a proxy as we’re going to get to the gold standard of surveying the larger basketball-watching world.
So now we have a reasonable approximation for how the average fan feels about every players’ on-court performance. To identify overrated and underrated players all we need to do is look at how those feelings compare to player’s actual on-court performance.
The chart below shows the relationship between the total number of fan votes a player received for the All-Star game (logged) and their regular season Estimated Plus/Minus (EPM) from Taylor Snarr’s dunksandthrees.com.
In general, the better a player is according to EPM the more fan votes they tend to receive. That’s a good thing! I think we should reward players who play well with more votes than players who don’t.
But it’s the exceptions to this rule that we’re interested in. Any player receiving more fan votes than we’d expect based on their on-court performance could be considered overrated, while any player receiving fewer votes than we’d expect could be considered underrated.
A quick aside: EPM, like ESPN’s Real Plus Minus (RPM) or FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR, is an impact metric that attempts to measure how much a player effects winning after controlling for things like the strength of a player’s teammates and opponents. It’s not perfect, but I think if you spent some time browsing the EPM leaderboard you’ll end up nodding your head in agreement more often than not. I chose to use EPM because I had a week-old copy of the data laying around and since we want to know how a player was performing when fans were casting their votes it made sense to use this particular dataset. Also, many of these all-in-one metrics tend to be at least somewhat correlated with one another so chances are if I had used another metric — like RPM or RAPTOR — we’d get similar results. But we’re not electing the Pope here so let’s just agree that EPM is good enough for this exercise.
Okay, so as I was saying, the higher a player’s EPM, the more fan votes they tend to receive. But the relationship isn’t linear. Even the worst players in the NBA can get their Mom and some friends to vote for them. So it’s more accurate to say that the relationship between EPM and fan voting is flat at first and as a player’s EPM increases so does the number of fan votes they receive at an increasing rate. You can see the relationship more clearly in the chart below where I’ve included a dotted trend line.
If we assume that fans ought to give more votes to better players and fewer votes to worse ones, then the further a player is above the dotted trend line, the more overrated they are. Conversely, the further a player is below the dotted trend line, the more underrated they are.
For instance, Carmelo Anthony is the player furthest above the dotted trend line, which would make him this year’s most overrated player. Anthony received half a million fan votes for the All-Star game, which was 30th most in the NBA. That’s the amount we’d expect for a borderline All-Star, not someone who ranks 330 out of 475 in EPM.
Meanwhile, Mike Conley has a compelling case for being this year’s most underrated player. Conley received just 135,000 fan votes (67th most), but has been among the league’s most impactful players according to EPM. While it’s true that Conley missed some time due to injury, I don’t think that explains why fans didn’t vote for him. Klay Thompson, who’s been out all year with an Achilles injury, received three times as many fan votes as Conley. Fans didn’t vote for Conley for the same reason they never vote for Conley — he plays in a small market and doesn’t post the type of box score stats that make fans pay attention.
Melo and Conley fit neatly into the stereotypes of overrated and underrated players, but there are gradations to this. Some overrated players are legitimately good players that just aren’t as great as fans thinks. Meanwhile, some underrated players are just solid role players who’s impact goes largely unrecognized. Let’s take a closer look at some additional overrated and underrated players.
Aside from Nikola Jokic — who, by virtue of being the league leader in EPM by a country mile, will appear underrated no matter what — I think we can group underrated players into three broad categories.
The first is the most traditional of the three. Players like Conley, CJ McCollum, and Jrue Holiday are as good, if not better, than many All-Stars but don’t get half the shine. When people talk about the league’s most underrated, I think these are the players that most often come to mind. However, one of the nice things about the NBA being more of a player-driven league than in the past is that the number of star-level players that the average fan isn’t paying attention to is probably smaller than ever.
Then there’s the group of underrated players who the average fan probably has heard of, but are having better seasons than they might have realized. This group includes break-out players like DeAndre Hunter, Robert “Timelord” Williams III, Dario Saric, Bobby Portis, and the injured Thomas Bryant. These guys won’t get much attention in the regular season, but they’re the type of players who have the potential to unexpectedly swing a playoff game.
Lastly, there’s the group underrated players who the average fan almost definitely hasn’t heard of, but are a lot better than many of the players they have heard of. This group includes De’Anthony Melton in Memphis, Kenrich Williams in Oklahoma City, Garrison Mathews in Washington, Cameron Payne in Phoenix, Jaylen Nowell in Minnesota, and David Nwaba in Houston. All of these players are rotation-level or better, but are among the league’s least recognized. This might be my favorite group of underrated players because in the grand scheme of things their presence doesn’t move the needle that much, but they’re just good enough to endear themselves to local fan bases.
While it’s true that someone like De’Anthony Melton is a lot better than his Q Score, no one outside of fans of Central Barbecue is interested in hearing me discuss his hidden value. (For what it’s worth, I performed a similar exercise to this last year using Basketball-Reference pageviews instead of All-Star voting and Melton graded out as one of the league’s most underrated players then as well.) So let’s move on to the players who are furthest above the dotted line.
Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, and Russell Westbrook all fit into the same category of overrated-ness. These are players that used to be good, aren’t any more, but are still popular. I think most fans of these players understand on some level that they’re past their prime, but the overall perception of these players is still anchored to their past performance.
Meanwhile, Kyle Kuzma, Talen Horton-Tucker, RJ Barret, Kelly Oubre, and James Wiseman are all overrated for the same reason. These are league average players who have the privilege of playing for a team in a large market with fanbases that overrate role players. Through no real fault of their own, these players get overhyped and overexposed to the average fan.
Ja Morant and Collin Sexton also appear on this chart because at some point this season they had a stretch of excellent play and have cooled off since then. The problem is fans are voting for them as if their hot streak was representative of their performance this entire season. Thus, they both ended up with more fan votes than we would expect based on their overall play.
Devin Booker and Tyler Herro make this chart because both players broke out last year and haven’t played up to those expectations. Neither player grades out as especially impactful this season and yet both are among the league’s most popular. In fact, Booker received 200,000 more fan votes than his backcourt partner, Chris Paul, despite placing 100 spots lower on the EPM ladder. Meanwhile, Tyler Herro has become the face of NBA Top Shot, which helped him earn more fan votes than someone like Khris Middleton, despite playing no better (and arguably worse) than he did last season.
Personally, I think Morant, Sexton, Booker, and Herro are legitimately good players who have their best playing days ahead of them. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that none of them are as good as the average fan thinks they are— at least not yet. EPM isn’t the only advanced metric that’s low on these players. Below is a table showing how each of these players rank across several different advanced metrics.
It’s worth emphasizing that if a player is overrated right now, it doesn’t mean they’ll be overrated indefinitely. Of all the guys in this group of overrated players, I think Booker has the best chance of moving into the properly rated category by the end of the season so long as his hype doesn’t continue to outpace his production.
One Last All-Star Chart
Below is a chart showing the total number of All-Star fan votes a player received this year compared to last year (values have been logged for readability). My only takeaway other than that there were a lot more votes last year compared to this year (about 13 million more) is that playing in Brooklyn next to Durant, Harden, and Irving can do wonders for a player’s Q Score. Jeff Green received around 45,000 fan votes this year compared to around 200 last year.