A lot of NBA players are underrated; right now, I would argue Chris Paul is one of the most underrated players ever (there are people who believe Paul isn’t the greatest living point guard, and those people just can’t be helped).
A lot of other players are properly rated; no one would dare argue Michael Jordan is anything other than a top-two player in NBA history. But for every Paul or Jordan, there are also a number of players which fit into…well…the other group: dudes who were really, really overrated. Some of these guys landed in the perfect situation for them historically, the absolute right team to make use of their specific skills. Some of these guys were overrated because their teams kept winning titles over and over, leading to an inflated sense of their abilities. And some of these guys are Manu Ginobili, which means every single one of those things applies to them (Manu is going to take a beating here).
So who are the most overrated NBA players in history? Who are the guys who weren’t remotely as good as everyone seems to think? Here’s a list of 14 of them, picked from nearly every era post-1980. As an honorable mention, I almost included Andrew Wiggins here (seriously, how did that guy make an All-Star team in 2022?!), but ultimately I decided that since nobody really thinks he’s any good, he shouldn’t really count for this list. But the rest of these guys are not as good as their reputations.
The 14 Most Overrated NBA Players of All Time
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A disclaimer here: when he was healthy, Yao Ming was an absolutely fantastic player, a brilliant shooter and scorer who was better defensively than he got credit for. But there’s the rub: he was never healthy after his first three seasons in the league, his 7-foot-6 body breaking down by his mid-20s. Despite that, he sailed into the All-Star game and Hall of Fame for a simple reason: the NBA let fans in China vote out of a desperate desire to appease their Chinese audience, and they were going to vote him in even if he was literally propped up on the court Weekend at Bernie’s-style (this basically happened in 2010). Yao was good, but he wasn’t that good.
This one is more about what’s going to happen than what already has. Twenty years from now, NBA fans who weren’t there are going to look at Russell Westbrook’s career numbers and go “holy crap, this guy was the best point guard ever!” Statistically, Westbrook’s achievements look shocking: only one player had ever averaged a triple-double before Westbrook, but he’s done it four times. He’s always been a good defender, he won an MVP award — so what gives? Westbrook’s problem has always been inside his own brain: the guy just cannot be persuaded not to hoist up terrible shots and cost his team winnable games. There’s a reason the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards all dumped him. Westbrook will be a deserving Hall of Famer one day, but his career really should come with a giant asterisk.
There are overrated NBA players, and then there is Allen Iverson. AI was a great shot-maker, but it’s in no way surprising he never won a ring. Of every perimeter scorer in NBA history, Iverson is by far the least efficient: his 42.5 career field goal percentage and 31.3 three-point percentage are absolutely putrid numbers. He was a decent-ish defender and a better facilitator than he gets credit for being, but the guy relentlessly chucked up shots all game despite most of them not going in, yet somehow made 11 All-Star teams and is now a Hall of Famer. If Iverson had even two years in the NBA Finals, maybe I would revise this opinion, but nah.
I will die on the hill that Manu Ginobili is the single most overrated player in NBA history. The San Antonio Spurs forward only made two All-Star teams, never averaged 20 points in a season, and only started three seasons of his career — and yet somehow he sailed into the Hall of Fame. By any measure you’d care to use, Ginobili was a solid starter but not remotely a star. Sure, he made a couple of big shots in his career, but so did Steve Kerr and Robert Horry, and nobody says those guys belong in the Hall. Meanwhile, Ginobili got in comfortably while Larry Nance is still waiting. There’s no justice.
Ben Simmons is the weirdest basketball player ever. He’s an incredible defender, a great rebounder, and an all-world passer…and I’ve never seen a worse-scoring guard. Simmons has no jump shot — just none whatsoever — and was so memorably scared to shoot in the 2021 postseason that he passed up multiple open dunks. Ultimately, it’s kind of fitting that the Philadelphia 76ers traded him to the Nets for the next guy on this list.
James Harden is like an unholy math problem come to life: how do we win basketball games in the most boring yet mercilessly efficient way possible? Harden has spent his career with three offensive moves: dribble over and over until he hoists up a three, drive to the basket and fling himself onto the ground hoping for a foul call like he’s been shot, and the second thing, but with passing to a teammate. At no point during his career could his defense even be considered competent, and the postseason? Good lord. There’s a reason the Golden State Warriors pantsed his Houston Rockets teams over and over despite Harden arguably having more talented squads (OK, except for the Kevin Durant years); he just can’t show up when it matters. The Warriors just proved what anyone who was watching already knew: don’t believe the Harden Hype.
I do feel kind of bad for Carmelo Anthony, because neither the Denver Nuggets nor the New York Knicks put even a halfway decent team around him for his entire tenure in either city. In the right situation, maybe he could’ve been a truly great player — his performance in the Olympics certainly seems to indicate it. But he was never going to be the best player on a title team, and there’s a reason he got bounced from the first round of the postseason over and over and over. Anthony’s game was one-dimensional (scoring and shot-making), but it wasn’t good or efficient enough for that to be enough; the guy’s career field goal percentage is an execrable 44.7 percent.
I don’t care what Los Angeles fans say, Kobe Bryant is not a top five player all-time. Hell, he’s barely a top-20 player all time. While the Lakers star is actually underrated historically on defense (he’s one of the three best defensive guards ever), he was wildly, comically overrated on offense. Bryant spent his whole career hoisting up turnaround fadeaway long-2’s (aka the worst shot you can take in basketball), and because he occasionally hit them, a generation of young players decided to emulate it. Kobe Bryant broke basketball and it took a decade for it to recover, but because he looked good doing it, we’re supposed to ignore how wildly inefficient he was (44.7 career field goal percentage), not to mention how badly he wilted in big games in the playoffs. The fact he died tragically young does not make him better than he was.
Nobody’s reputation has been helped more over time than Artis Gilmore. The ABA/NBA Hall of Fame big man was not all that well regarded during his playing days; there’s a reason he earned the nickname “Rigor Artis.” Gilmore was just a half-step slow in his reactions on both ends, and he always had to dribble the ball after catching it in the post — tendencies that would be mercilessly exploited now. But he was huge (7-foot-3, nearly 8-feet when you took into account his giant afro), and in his era with the Chicago Bulls, that was kind of all he needed. Artis was a Hall of Famer, but a truly great player? Not so much.
This hurts me as a Washington basketball fan, but it’s true: the Big E did not show up in big games. Hayes had all the talent in the world — a ferocious rebounder, defender and scorer who made 12 All-Star teams — but nobody wilted more in clutch moments, not even Karl Malone. Hayes did win a title in 1978, but memorably no-showed in Game 7 of the NBA Finals with 12 points and 8 rebounds. He was ostensibly the best player on that championship team…but every DC fan knows the real MVP of that team was either Wes Unseld or Bob Dandridge.
Every time I see that Vlade Divac is in the Hall of Fame, I get deeply, incredibly confused. Forget Divac not being a superstar; he wasn’t even a star, at any point during his career. Sometimes, you can’t measure a player’s impact by their statistics (Draymond Green is the perfect example here), but in Divac’s case, I was there and you absolutely could. This dude never averaged even 17 points per game for a full season and was decent-but-unspectacular on defense and the boards…honestly, it’s baffling he even made a lone All-Star team. Divac was a decent role player, but nothing more. I will never, ever understand Vlade Divac making the Hall of Fame as long as I live.
I promise this isn’t about his love of conspiracy theories; Kyrie just isn’t that good. It’s hard to argue Kyrie Irving isn’t a transcendent shot-maker, which is exactly how he’s made three All-NBA teams. But for whatever he gives you on the offensive end, Irving takes plenty off the table on the other side of the court: he’s been an atrocious defender his entire career. This would be fine if he was an otherworldly passer and floor general like Steve Nash…but he isn’t — he’s average at best as a distributor, never averaging even seven assists per game for his career. Irving won a title when LeBron James (and to a lesser extent Kevin Love) carried his ass to one in Cleveland; he likely won’t win another.
Can you make a career out of one unconventional otherworldly skill? Bill Laimbeer did, only that skill was pissing opposing players off. Nobody ever took more cheap shots and got under opponents’ skins like Laimbeer; he was like if PatBev was 6-foot-11, white, and constructed of pure coalesced smugness. Somehow, this is a guy who made four All-Star teams — although, mercifully, at least no one has yet suggested he belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Let’s just say I wasn’t surprised when Kemba Walker’s career tanked with the Boston Celtics. Sure, nagging injuries weren’t exactly helpful, but anyone who watched him with the Charlotte Hornets (nee Bobcats) knew the guy wasn’t as good as his rep. He could score, sure…at an atrociously inefficient rate, going 41.8 percent for his career. He’s been an average distributor at best, never averaging more than 6.1 assists in any one season. He’s a decent three-point shooter, but he’s never shot even 40 percent for a full season. At best, he’s an average defender, never even sniffing an All-Defense team. I’m still amazed Walker made four All-Star teams.