Posted by Neil Paine on December 22, 2008
Today we're going to introduce a series "highlighting" some of the more overrated players in NBA history. The concept is pretty straightforward -- just like in the last post about one-dimensional scorers, we're looking for players whose flashy scoring exploits belie a rather substance-less all-around game. As for the methodology, we simply take a player's career per-minute scoring average, divide by the league per-minute scoring average (weighted by minutes played), multiply by 15 (making the league average 15, like PER), and then look at the difference between the player's "adjusted scoring rate" and their PER. The players whose PERs lag the most officially qualify for our All-Overrated team.
To kick things off, we're going to profile Isaiah "J.R." Rider, perhaps the biggest poster child for this method of determining "overratedness". Rider, of course, was a scoring-minded guard who averaged 19.0 points per 36 minutes for his career and ranked among the NBA's Top 10 in usage rate twice during his 8 years as a regular. The man could certainly get his shot off against most any defender, and he had more than a little flash and dash to his game (remember the "East Bay Funk" in '94?). He was even named 1st-team All-Rookie in 1993-94, and made one of the league's most memorable long-distance shots during the '95 season.
Unfortunately, Rider's superior ability to create shots -- some would call this a euphemism for "ball-hogging" -- was undermined by his mediocre ability to make them actually go in the basket, his penchant for turnovers, his staggering lack of consistency, and his failure to attend to any other aspects of the game (defense, rebounding, passing, etc.). And then there was the epic spate of off-court problems, ranging from chemistry-killing insubordination to gambling and drug charges, plus a bizarre scheme in which he bought and sold illegal cell phones. Suffice to say, it was never a dull moment with J.R. Rider!
But what's the point, you ask? I mean, why re-hash the shortcomings of a rather forgettable gunner from the 1990s? Well, to illustrate the gulf between perception and reality during the majority of Rider's career. While his lifetime adjusted scoring rate was 19.50, his career PER was just 14.70 (a difference of 4.8, the biggest among players with at least 15,000 minutes); meanwhile, his career ORtg was 102.3 and his career DRtg was 110.0, in an environment where the league's average rating was 105.9. In other words, efficiency was a huge issue: Rider could certainly score in volume, but he needed a lot of possessions to do it, and as a result he was only a significant contributor to 2 above-average offenses in his career.
Of course, it's easy to sit back and pick apart Isaiah Rider as a selfish head case now, as his post-NBA rap sheet has consisted of kidnapping, drug possession, and grand theft auto investigations. But for the majority of his playing days, he was actually viewed as a viable #1 scoring option by NBA execs -- especially Pete Babcock of the Hawks, who dealt the underrated Steve Smith to the Blazers in a 1999 exchange for Rider, hoping J.R. would be the spark Atlanta needed to get over the playoff hump. Instead, he became symbolic of the Hawks' abrupt and total destruction at the turn of the millennium, a pit from which the franchise is only now re-emerging. It would be overly simplistic to blame Rider for all of Atlanta's woes since the Portland trade... but the same type of thinking that brings him in as a go-to guy also tends to lead to 13-69 seasons. Just saying.
So, to summarize: The chasm between Rider's reputation as a player and his on-court production was as wide as it's been for any player, ever. He managed to combine empty, inefficient scoring with an indifferent all-around game and profound character problems in a way that few, if any, players have in NBA history. Plus, his acquisition is generally seen as the prime catalyst for one of the worst-ever 8-year runs by a team. And that's basically why we chose Isaiah Rider to be the inaugural member of our All-Overrated Team. Any Rider fans out there disagree?