The NBA is a place where superstars rule the roost, but it's hard to really have a great basketball team if the guys surrounding the superstars are sub-par players.
Sometimes you can get by without a superstar if you've got a number of very good players on the staff ready to work together and create a team capable of playing a cohesive offensive and defensive game to trump any one or two player punch out there. The last time that really happened in earnest was with Detroit back in 2004.
Even with a system like that, there's a hierarchy in place in which some players are more valuable than others in the eyes of the team, the fans and the ownership holding it all together. Often, those guys are the ones who aren't necessarily overlooked, but are under-appreciated by those outside of the situation.
Each team has the player or players who are quite obviously on the top of the food chain, but it's not always a huge distance between those guys and the next guys in line as is the belief by quite a few people.
These players can sometimes be more coveted than the actual star player in that they hold the team together and command less attention from the public. They're stealthily superb.
Over the past few months all the talk has been surrounding Joe Johnson, the trade that sent him away from Atlanta, and Josh Smith and the trade that will probably be sending him away from Atlanta before the end of the season.
You would think that one of those guys is the best player that the Hawks have to offer, but when completely healthy that player is actually Al Horford.
Unlike Johnson or Smith, Horford is properly paid and comes with very little excess baggage that needs to be checked on every flight.
Aside from that, the dude plays out of position more often than not but still dominates and is capable of holding the team together on both ends of the floor.
Ray Allen is gone and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are both starting to get super old in basketball years. That leaves Rajon Rondo as the obvious superstar of the team and the rest of the guys just trying to hold the rest in place, right?
Well not exactly. Boston has turned to Avery Bradley, the phenomenal guard entering his third year out of Texas.
Bradley has yet to hit a stride where he's an offensive threat—although he can knock down an open three-pointer pretty well at this point in his career—but he has created a game that makes him one of the more secretly dangerous players in the league.
He's an absolute pest on defense and he turned out to be the best fast-break partner for Rajon Rondo last season. On a team full of old dudes who can't run, that is way more important than it sounds.
It seems like that's a lot to put on a second-year NBA player, but after the obvious star power on this Nets team the next guy they covet the most is MarShon Brooks.
Sure, Kris Humphries might be able to do more in terms of statistical output as this season rolls along, but Brooks has an explosive offensive game that's going to be valuable to the Nets moving forward.
What makes this all the more obvious was their unwillingness to trade him when they were going after Dwight Howard over the Summer. Even when they traded for Joe Johnson they were able to throw together a poo-poo platter that didn't contain Brooks and still convince the Hawks that it was a good enough deal.
There isn't much visible talent on the Charlotte Bobcats, but what they do have is a few guys who give them hope for a brighter tomorrow.
Obviously, the guy at the top of that list leading the way is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, even though he hasn't played a single game yet, followed at a distance by Kemba Walker.
However, a close third (close to Walker at least) in terms of importance to this team's future (alongside 2013 Draft Pick X and 2014 Draft Pick X) is the oft-clumsy, always entertaining Bismack Biyombo. He's not much to speak of as a basketball player today, but with his body he could be something someday.
Sitting patiently behind an overpaid, underperforming Carlos Boozer waits Taj Gibson. He doesn't put up gaudy numbers, but he does play basketball in a way that makes you wonder why the Bulls don't just go ahead and amnesty Boozer now.
Gibson is a terrific defender, he can finish in the post and he plays the game with a vim and vigor that Boozer hasn't played with since...well I guess he never really played with any sort of real passion.
Gibson is more than just a big body off the bench, he's a guy the fans love and he fits in well with the hard-working attitude of the game.
It seems like the Cleveland Cavaliers are moving faster and faster away from a scenario in which Anderson Varejao plays meaningful minutes in a Cavs uniform ever again in terms of a playoff race or postseason play, but that likelihood may be a bit closer than it was a year ago.
Andy has become the de facto veteran on a team with nobody older than the legendary Luke Walton, so they need a bit of a veteran leadership with so many young players. That, plus he continues to be an excellent rebounder, a great energy man and a fan favorite.
If he doesn't end up being a part of their future in a big way, then he's at least going to be the centerpiece of a trade that lands them either a nice looking lottery pick or a young player for their future.
Sure, he's not a "star" player by any stretch of the imagination, but the things he does on the floor make him a star in my eyes. Plus the way he plays the game is so intriguing and unusual that I'd almost rather watch him play live than an athletic specimen like Blake Griffin. Then again I'm a weird dude and my opinion on things like that aren't the norm.
Anyway, Delonte is a guy who continues to play great defense for a Mavericks team who is without an identity going deeper into preseason play. Besides that he continues to be a threat on offense that can score when needed.
He's one of the few reliable holdovers from last season that can really make a difference for this Mavs team.
This Denver Nuggets team is so deep that I could have very well picked five different guys to be their coveted overlooked guy, but it has to be Danilo Gallinari above anyone else.
Where as JaVale McGee and the other centers are huge for this team, Andre Miller is a great veteran addition and Wilson Chandler is a potential Sixth Man of the Year Award candidate, Gallinari is a guy who can go off at any given moment.
Besides the fact that he can knock down an open shot and finish in traffic at the rim, Danilo also plays sneaky good defense that can be overlooked in Denver's fast-paced system.
It's a bit hard to tell what this Pistons team really is in theory, and it's even harder to tell in which direction they are moving as a basketball team. In the end it seems like there are quite a few directions happening here and they're just sort of waiting for something to give in.
Should their team suddenly see improvement from the young dudes on the roster, then they're talking about going for a playoff spot in the next two seasons, a run in which Rodney Stuckey is very important.
He's not overly exceptional on offense or defense, but he's able to score and he's quick enough to defend, so he's a valuable basketball player on any team. If they should end up regressing, he'll be a nice trade asset to have for the future.
It's probably the worst-kept secret in the NBA, but the world seems to be gaga over Klay Thompson. It might be the fastest that a guy has gone from being viewed as a potential decent player to the next great thing for a franchise that historically produces good shooters who ultimately don't pan out.
I'm high on Thompson right now, but so is everybody else, so that's not really saying much. What does say much is the fact that he shot over 40 percent from three-point range in his rookie year, something that's not very easy to do.
It seems like keeping expectations quelled down a bit would be a good thing until we see the Warriors get to it again this year, but he's a guy with the ability to score 20 points on any given night, something that's not easy to do for any non-star player.
Kevin Martin doesn't mean much for the Houston Rockets this season, but it seems to be important for him and best for them if he gets back to his old self early in the season.
Martin likely doesn't fit into the future plans for the Rockets, but he does fit into a trade scenario or two should they need to ship him away in order to bring back a draft pick or another young power forward to plug into their all power forward lineup that they're going after.
It's not like he's going to be the veteran leader of their tomorrow, but it's important for him to succeed nonetheless.
With Danny Granger still seemingly the de facto leader of this team and Roy Hibbert as the likely choice to supplant him in the upcoming season, Paul George seems to be lost in the fray. He's hidden in plain sight.
George is a guy that seems to add facets to his game like Bill Russell added rings to his jewelry box, and he just keeps on going.
A good three-point shooter, an excellent athlete, cutter and driver, George has become a better defender, rebounder, passer and drawer of fouls from his rookie to his sophomore year.
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin lead the way for Showtime's baby brothers, but they aren't what the team's hopes and dreams sit on. No, instead it seems that the team sits on the development of the suddenly overpaid DeAndre Jordan.
He's a guy they know and love for his amazing defense, but his inability to make a free throw or a mid-range jumper is starting to kill them. His improvement is more important than that anyone else, which means he remains the most important overlooked player that they've got.
Hopefully he can put together a productive season and actually make a fair number of free throws moving forward.
It's crazy to think of a guy who could end up in the All-Star Game this season as someone who could possibly be overlooked, but that's just what Pau Gasol has become for the Lakers.
They've front-loaded their roster so much that people forget that Gasol is legitimately the best finesse low-post player in the NBA, or at least he was back in 2011.
Gasol's series of dodges, ducks, dips and dives that he throws together in the post never fail to impress, and with Steve Nash leading him to the perfect spot he's going to be able to regain that league best form that he seems to have lost a bit of in the past season.
Lost in the fray of last season's playoff collapse, the debate over how well Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay can play together and in the shadow of the enormous Marc Gasol was just how brilliant Mike Conley has been for Memphis.
He's not the best point guard in the league by any means, but he's a guy who could be considered the best second-tier point guard in the NBA.
Conley trots out great defense every game, he continually comes to the floor ready to play, he's a good enough passer and he always seems to step his game up when the stakes get higher. If they could all get on the same page then this could be the league's most dangerous mid-level team.
The big story of the playoffs last season was how much the Miami Heat missed Chris Bosh when he went down with a strained abdominal during the 2012 Playoffs.
For months Bosh was looked at as the weak link of this Miami team. He was called soft, a poor defender and a terrible excuse for a center as they used him quite a bit instead of having to look at Joel Anthony's big head or having to wake up Juwan Howard from his evening nap.
Bosh came back in the playoffs, however, and ended up being a huge part of the final three games of the Eastern Conference Finals and the NBA Finals.
It's probably not much of a secret that the Milwaukee Bucks covet Brandon Jennings, but how much they covet Jennings might come as a surprise.
One of the more shocking parts of the trade between Milwaukee and Golden State that basically swapped Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut is the fact that Ellis is only guaranteed through this season whereas Bogut is under contract through 2013-14.
Should rumblings about a sub-par season become a reality over the next eight months then it's not crazy to think that Ellis would opt out of his contract next season and go looking for a better situation to be in. That would leave them with only Jennings and a hodgepodge of washed-up over-performers (basically Drew Gooden) and a few young dudes.
Nikola Pekovic with some big improvement from his first to his second year in the league, has become quite the asset for an increasingly dangerous Minnesota Timberwolves team.
While Pek has only proved himself over the course of one lockout shortened season, he did so emphatically by pulling down rebounds, drastically improving his field goal percentage and playing good defense.
Basically, he's exactly what they need out of a center. He's not a guy to demand the ball, but he'll score if they need him to and he can grab a board when Kevin Love isn't there.
Anytime you can swap a slowly developing forward in Gustavo Ayon (who ended up getting sold to Barcelona) for a big man who can stretch the floor to the tune of just under 40 percent for three while not paying him Rashard Lewis money, you've got to do it.
That's just what New Orleans did when it was obvious they had a chance to quickly revamp their lineup before the season started.
Now they have a guy who they can pair with Anthony Davis in the frontcourt who can fill a completely different void. They should work together like peanut butter and chocolate.
While New York has guys like Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire who can score the ball, and Tyson Chandler who can play defense, they've also got a guy who's capable of scoring while still caring about defense, which is a crazy philosophy on basketball, I know.
He was a bit of a streaky shooter in his rookie season, but his flashes of competence on offense mixed with his hard-nosed man defense made him a fan favorite in New York. I suppose his name, which is one of the coolest in the NBA, didn't hurt, nor will his new flat-top hairdo.
If Shump continues to grow on the offensive end and gives a damn about defense, then New York could have a legitimate asset in that he's both effective and young, something they didn't have since—well Jeremy Lin was just that, but we don't want to revisit that fiasco now do we?
Is there a reason why James Harden remains without a contract past this season whereas Serge Ibaka signed an extension over the Summer? Not officially, but it seems like the writing is on the wall there for Oklahoma City.
James Harden is a scorer primarily. His job is to put points on the board, and while he does that well he's not good enough to make up for the fact that what he does is a more common skill than what Ibaka does. There are plenty of scorers in the league that OKC could put together to make up for the loss of Harden, but tall super-athletes aren't exactly a dime a dozen.
With the direction of the league, and that is a more position-less, athletic-based realm, what Ibaka brings to the table is just more important for a team than what Harden does.
What the Orlando Magic have in Arron Afflalo is the centerpiece of a future trade. He's not going to bring back anything nearly as useful as Dwight Howard, but he's going to be able to bring some kind of help for the future back to Orlando.
Realistically, what the Magic got for Howard was a crap deal, they got rid of some cap fodder, brought back a few mid-level rookies and protected draft picks, but at least they got a few players they can trade sometime in the near future.
Who knows, maybe a package of Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington and Big Baby for a top ten draft pick. And then maybe the Magic will win the lottery, draft the next big center and they can sit near the top of the league for six or seven years before that new center leaves Orlando.
Too soon? Too soon. Sorry guys.
There are few players in the league who can truly teach a guy to play a certain way in order to maximize the effectiveness of each move he makes while he's on the floor.
Andre Iguodala is definitely one of those guys. That's why the two years that Evan Turner spent working behind and alongside Iggy will be so important moving forward.
While Andrew Bynum and Jrue Holiday might have a more important and recognizable role on the team, it seems as if the team hinges on whether or not they can use Turner in the same way on defense as they used Igudoala. Without that dominant perimeter presence they're just not the same defense.
The least athletic player in the league without the last name Collins or Randolph, Jared Dudley has turned himself into a lean, mean, Steve Nash lovin', three-ball chuckin', defense playin', lady slayin' machine.
What he lacks in athleticism he truly makes up for in defensive effort and offensive ability. He's not a guy who can just pick up a ball and jump over everyone else, he's an incredibly smart player who has to use his brain to get an open shot or stay in front of his man.
Aside from that, Dudley remains a terrific teammate and one of the most popular players in the league, which is never a bad thing.
I guess it's not a secret anymore that the Portland Trail Blazers really like Nicolas Batum, but he still remains the guy they covet more so than anyone not named LaMarcus Aldridge.
After an interesting Summer (one in which he signed a deal for over $45 million and deliberately punched a dude in the groin on international television), Batum doesn't have the cover of obscurity to hide under anymore.
I've always been a fan of his game, but he's going to need to step it up to justify the love that the organization has for the man to give him that many greenbacks.
The newcomer into Sacramento really has a lot riding on him at an extremely early point in his career.
Sacramento is at a point where the guys they have on their team are either going to take them into the future or they're going to have to start looking at a new plan, all that really lies on how well the team plays with the integration of Thomas Robinson.
Robinson alongside DeMarcus Cousins is what is going to pivot the Kings. Whether they end up pivoting toward the basket, bailing out a bit or completely dragging that pivot foot a few feet is still very much in the air, but this is a big season for the Kings.
You know when San Antonio makes a move to trade one of the guys who was a real standout for them off the bench in order to pick up a rookie that it's going to be a good move. There's no real reason to question it anymore, just accept that it's the right thing and move on.
That's basically the way the public reacted when they flipped George Hill for Kawhi Leonard after the Pacers drafted him back in 2011.
With a season under his belt, three playoff series and a year in which he looked like he could turn into one of the Spurs next big players, Leonard is continuing to sneak under the radar while hidden in plain sight beside the greatness of that Spurs organization.
For a few years DeMar DeRozan has really embodied what the Toronto Raptors were as an organization. And like the Raptors, this is the year for him to step up and move into the future.
In his rookie season, the team struggled, fell below .500 and missed the playoffs, which of course led to the departure of Chris Bosh. After that, nobody really looked at them unless they really had to, like if their team was playing them or they had a dude in the Slam Dunk Contest, like DeMar.
Now, however, Toronto has a few good, young, talented players coming in and the team is ready to move along. DeRozan is going to be a big part of that if he can advance his game for the better and start to work well with this team to form a more cohesive unit.
He may have been the centerpiece of the Deron Williams trade, but it seems like ever since that happened he's been out in Utah just sighted every once in a while. He's not as rare as a yeti, but given the relatively low number of nationally televised games Utah has had over two seasons and their West Coast-ish time slot, seeing him was more of a treat than an everyday thing.
Because of that, few people realize that he's slowly becoming a guy who could threaten to average a double-double with minutes on the right team.
Should the Jazz end up shedding one of the two big men in front of him, Favors could quickly lose that shroud that seems to be around him and he could become one of the premier young big fellows in the league.
Nené is so much more than a basketball player to the Washington Wizards. He represents the transition that this team has made out of the horrifyingly dismal past few seasons.
Obviously, John Wall was the symbol that brought them out of the Gilbert Arenas era which is still being tested for gunshot residue, but the first year of the John Wall era was at least as embarrassing as the years following Arenas' departure, just with a bit more hope.
What they had was a talented young player surrounded by numbskulls. JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Andray Blatche weren't necessarily the face of the franchise, but they were the voice of the franchise. Unfortunately, all they were saying was, "Nyuck! Nyuck! Nyuck!"
Trading away McGee and Young for a professional basketball player in Nené didn't just give them a good offensive big man, it changed the direction of the franchise, which is why he holds a place of such importance for them.
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