You are right, base labeling capability is far from professional.
At my work it is by far the most contentious subject (in mapping discussions)...
when to label, what to label, how to label.
everybody's a cartographer.
Maplex is a great step in the right direction but still a far cry from perfect.
(I've spent many hours in front of autocad placing labels into tight areas where labels were required)
My MO is to use KISS first. Especially whith the technology availble. Make popup information and report information to try to overcome using too much labeling.
If the map is interactive much more information can be extracted/drilled down to than any bad labeling can accomplish.
if that doesn't work then using some labeling tricks
tips and tricks pdf
and sometimes just using a crowbar - like a.making multiple copies of a layer and labeling with one and displaying symbology with another, b.creating graphic blocks and grouping objects, c.placing ballon callouts, and d.using inset maps.
I have even used autocad map to place ALL labels for streets and then displayed that georeferenced drawing (with text only in it) in arcmap. It ansered two of the main problems of all esri labeling. ALL streets were labeled, and they all STAYED where they were placed.