LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant have overtaken the headlines this postseason—and deservedly so. The trio would likely finish in the top three if you took a straw poll for NBA playoffs MVP so far.
We all know they're very good players. And the heaping of praise put upon those superstars will last long after these playoffs. Durant and James are especially transcendent players, LeBron a bastion of efficiency and KD almost literally doing everything for his team. Curry's performance has tapered out a bit over these past two games, but he'll forever be remembered for giving the NBA playoffs an NCAA tournament feel—even if it only lasts two rounds.
That being said, there are some secondary players going completely under the radar that deserve some mentioning. While it's a bit of the inside-baseball minutiae, players who set great screens and foster ball-movement in an offense can be just as important. While it's those small things that are consistently underrated, they often separate a championship winner from a mere contender.
Granted, the word underrated is so ambiguous and overused that it's almost lost meaning. So let me spell out for you how I'll be defining underrated for these purposes.
This doesn't necessarily have to be a guy that no one talks about. We're in the playoffs; everyone's performance is scrutinized—especially you, Derrick Rose (cue the super mean scowly face). These are just players who have helped out more in a greater capacity than for what they're given credit.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of a few secondary players who have made the most out of their playoff experience.
Pablo Prigioni (PG, New York Knicks)
While he's a wildly beloved player in Spain (his professional home) and Argentina (his place of berth), it wasn't out of bounds to wonder what the hell Pablo Prigioni was doing in the NBA.
For most of the season, he was merely the 35-year-old rookie coming off the bench that Knicks fans adopted as one of their own. Because he seemed deathly afraid to shoot, Madison Square Garden fans would give him a half-sincere, half-sarcastic applause every time he chucked up a shot. Though it was clear his skill set—elite passing ability, great floor vision and off-the-charts basketball IQ—had a place on this Knicks team.
It just took Prigioni and Mike Woodson almost a whole season to figure out that role. The Knicks were a somewhat better team with Prigioni on the floor than off during the regular season, but nothing to write home about considering his lack of minutes. It wasn't until Woodson started playing on a more consistent basis—he averaged 22.1 minutes per game in April—that the effect truly took hold.
Always an iso-heavy team with Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, the Knicks offense became a black hole in the first round against Boston. Finished possessions that started out of isolations represented more than a quarter of their offense during Round 1, with Anthony (the most-frequent culprit) and Smith taking nearly 75 percent of those looks, per Synergy Sports.
The offense was abhorrent in those high-usage situations, averaging a playoff-worst 0.73 points per possession.
Gone was the New York team that swung the ball around like madmen. Well, with one exception—when Prigioni was on the floor. And as Woodson has continued pushing Prigoni's minutes upward, the trend has continued to spike in the right direction.
According to NBA.com, the Knicks are scoring 109.4 points per 100 possessions with Prigioni is on the floor and 94.2 when he's not. That's the difference between being the league's third-best offense during the regular season and its worst.
It's no surprise that the Knicks' isolation percentage plummets when Prigioni is on the floor, either. He's a pure point guard in every sense of the word, a ball-movement maverick who has really help shade the bad habits of this roster.
It's unclear how many minutes he could handle at this juncture. But Woodson needs to push that limit and find out—even if it means siphoning minutes away from the beloved Jason Kidd.
Chris Andersen (F, Miami Heat)
It was clear almost from the moment Andersen signed his first 10-day contract with Miami in January that he was the perfect fit for this roster. The Heat had been stuck playing Joel Anthony as a backup center behind Bosh all season long, and ain't nobody got time to be wasting precious minutes on Joel Anthony.
Andersen has helped shore up Miami's sometimes-leaky interior defense and helped Erik Spoelstra settle into a rotation—a factor that goes criminally underrated.
Bringing Birdman into the fold has only continued to pay massive dividends in the playoffs. He's playing in only 13.7 minutes per game but has seemingly made it a mission to play each as if it's his last. His per 36 minutes averages (17.9 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 3.4 BPG) are All-Star worthy, and Andersen's presence has had a palpable effect on his teammates.
The Heat are scoring 124.7 points while allowing just 87.5 points per 100 possessions while Andersen is on the floor, per NBA.com. Those numbers would make Miami the most efficient offense in basketball by over 14 points per 100 possessions while playing league-best defense.
It would be easy to chalk up Birdman's effect as simply being on the floor with Wade, James and the Heat's world-beating starting lineup. Of course, then again, it would have to be true for one to make that point.
The most-used lineups featuring Andersen are familiar for those who have watched Miami this season—the ones that feature either Wade or James and the team's second unit. Andersen has logged 66 minutes this postseason with a lineup featuring Norris Cole, Ray Allen, Shane Battier and one of the two superstars, both of which have been destroying opposing defenses, per NBA.com.
In fact, the only times Wade has looked truly right in these playoffs have been when he's on the floor with the second unit. That lineup is plus-35 in only 28 minutes on the floor and is averaging 130.2 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.
What Birdman brings to the table has been obvious his entire career. He's an infectious player who brings energy every time he's on the floor and is the type of enforcer you don't want to push off the edge. If you notice, the chippiness calms down a bit when a Bulls player is jawing with Wade or James and Andersen comes over.
Midseason signings don't often have long-term playoff effects. But Andersen has been a human outlier throughout his NBA journey, and that's certainly the case with Miami.
Andrew Bogut (C, Golden State Warriors)
One quick disclaimer that shouldn't need to be said but probably is: Just because Andrew Bogut is on a list with Chris Andersen and Pablo Prigioni does not mean we're putting them on an even playing field talent-wise. Bogut is an All-Star when fully healthy; Prigioni and Andersen are role players.
Got that? OK, let's move on.
With that out of the way, the Warriors have to be elated by what they've gotten out of Bogut during these playoffs. The perpetually injured seven-footer played in only 32 games during the regular season as he recovered from a microfracture surgery. He needed Regenokine procedures in his ankles to even begin the recovery process and recently told Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com he considered retirement at one point.
While Bogut never reached that point, it took him until March to become a regular fixture in the Warriors' lineup and he seemed like the odd man out. His effect on Golden State was negligible from a statistical prospective in the regular season, and when David Lee went down in Round 1 it seemed all was lost.
As we all know, there is still plenty of reason for hope in the Bay Area. The Warriors are down 2-1 to the San Antonio Spurs heading into Sunday's Game 4, and the series feels closer than anyone could have expected.
Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry especially get a ton of credit for that. But Bogut's place in this all-out shooting barrage cannot go understated.
The Bogut and Curry pick-and-roll has been Golden State's go-to set since Lee's injury and it's worked gangbusters. As Grantland's Zach Lowe noted in his breakdown of how Curry has improved this postseason, he noted that Lee, the primary pick-and-roll screener during the regular season, had a tendency to slip too early or miss his man altogether. That can possibly be traced back to Lee's time with Mike D'Antoni, whose spread system emphasizes quick slips.
Bogut, on the other hand, is an excellent screener. He's not necessarily worried about dashing hard to the hole, and he's that's allowed Curry to get open for an overarching number of his three-pointers this postseason.
When he's not running the pick-and-roll with Curry, Mark Jackson has used Bogut as a secondary distributor on the outside. Bogut is one of the league's best passing big men and knows how to set "accidental" screens for quick handoffs.
The Bogut Effect bears out in the numbers as well. Golden State outscores its opponents by nearly nine points per 100 possessions when Bogut is on the floor and is outscored by nearly six points when he's on the bench, per NBA.com.
While Bogut himself hasn't used many possessions with the intent to score, it's his ability to facilitate others by any means that's stood out this postseason.