Commentary: The League’s Most Underrated Backcourt
To be underrated in the NBA is the ultimate form of short term acknowledgment. As noted by several league observers, a player can only be underrated for so long before his increased exposure magically catapults him to the opposite end of the spectrum, overrated. (Paul Millsap, Kendrick Perkins, and David West are great examples to this rule.) Right now, as Houston finds themselves fighting to squeeze into the Western Conference’s final playoff spot, two of the league’s perpetually unnoticed players are beginning to form one of the most formidable and consistently dangerous backcourts in the NBA: Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin. The two are under contract to play alongside one another until at least 2013 (with Lowry locked down an extra year) and both define being underrated. From earlier this week on True Hoop:
Kevin Martin scored 34 points to lead the Houston Rockets to a 110-108 win over the Utah Jazz, moving them within two-and-a-half games of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Martin was 18-for-18 from the free-throw line, the most free throws without a miss by a Rockets player in the past 25 seasons. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it’s the eighth time in Martin’s career that he shot 15-for-15 or better from the foul line, tying Dolph Schayes for the second-most such games in NBA history. Oscar Robertson did it 11 times. Martin’s teammate Kyle Lowry chipped in 28 points, a career-high 11 rebounds, and 10 assists for his first career triple-double. It’s the fifth-highest point total in a triple-double in the NBA this season.
With Lowry proving game after game he’s more than capable of leading a team as its starting point guard, and a healthy Martin putting together yet another elite scoring season that’s all but ignored by the national stage, the Rockets are set at two very important positions. Championships can be won with this backcourt. Martin is ninth in the league in usage percentage which might be one of the reasons why Houston isn’t a better team. Not to knock him, but with their foundation set in their starting rotation’s backcourt, all the Rockets need to compete for a legitimate championship is an All-Star caliber frontcourt presence. I realize this solution sounds elementary—like a Bulls fan saying “wait a minute, all we need is Dwyane Wade to take Bogans’ place, and we’re unbeatable!”—but more of it is realizing that whenever Houston chooses to quit treading water and swing a multiple assets for impact player type deal, they’ll be right there at the top.
Kyle Lowry: Thought to have a suitable career backup ceiling, a door opened for Lowry when Aaron Brooks went down with an injury early in the year. Opportunity presented itself and Lowry has more than taken advantage. Coming off the first triple double of his career, he was recently named the Western Conference Player of the Week, and his growing ability as a crunch time scorer (anybody who saw the loss to Phoenix last week knows what I’m talking about) has really raised his profile. According to 82games.com, this season the Rockets have scored 5.6 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, tallying a net total of +382 points. Going back to his days at Villanova, I’ve always liked Lowry for his pugnacious style of play. He doesn’t back down from anybody, he attacks the basket (three shots at the rim per game) while still being able to create his own three-point shooting opportunities (37.5% of his three-pointers are unassisted), and he’s improving. His win shares, assist percentage, assists per game, effective field goal percentage, points per game, and three point percentage, are all career bests. I unfortunately was never able to watch Calvin Murphy play, but from what I’ve read and heard, Kyle Lowry might be a poor man’s Calvin Murphy. Certainly not an insult.
Kevin Martin: Kevin Martin’s career defines underrated. As mentioned in my brief blurb underneath his Grant Hill crossover clip, Martin leads the NBA in free throws made; he’s taken 27 fewer attempts than Blake Griffin yet has converted on over 100 more. He’s both attempted and made the fourth most three-pointers in the league and rarely has off shooting nights. He’s scored nine or fewer points in just three games this season, and in the eight games where he’s scored 33 or more points, the Rockets have won seven of them.
Taking a quick look at the league’s probable playoff teams, how many backcourts could you exchange Houston’s with and hardly skip a beat? By my count there are 11: Denver, Portland, Dallas, New York, Indiana, Philadelphia, Orlando, Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans, and Memphis. Boston, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles, San Antonio, and a Derrick Rose heavy Chicago are the only playoff ready teams who would see a drop off with Lowry and Martin replacing their starting ones and twos. No disrespect to Luis Scola, yet another underrated Rocket, but it’ll be interesting to see whether Morey can swing some sort of deal to bring in a legitimate front court dominator once the CBA situation clears itself up. Someone along the lines of a LaMarcus Aldridge would be nice…if you like science fiction. Dwight Howard is more realistic although not likely; maybe Brook Lopez is a suitable solution. Whatever Houston does to improve their team, breaking up the league’s most underrated backcourt shouldn’t be part of the solution.