Building the All-Under-Appreciated NBA Team Entering 2013-14 Season
In the NBA, superstars tend to receive an overwhelming proportion of attention from fans and the media alike.
But having a superstar (or three) isn't enough to push a team over the championship-winning hump. Teams need their share of under-appreciated "glue" guys to fortify the roster, too.
Here, I've built a 12-man "all-under-appreciated" roster of players who don't get as much love as they should. All but one of these players finished outside the top 50 of ESPN's 2013 #NBARank, but many could make a charge at the top 50 by next season.
Starting PG: Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
Ask a casual NBA fan to name the league's top-10 point guards, and chances are, Mike Conley won't be among them.
But as he proved throughout the Memphis Grizzlies' surprising 2013 playoff run, excluding Conley from that top-10 list would be a mistake.
Conley isn't likely to ever average 20 points and 10 assists per game, but he's one of the most complete point guards in the NBA. He's especially excellent defensively, as he led all guards in defensive win shares during the 2012-13 season, per Basketball-Reference.
In short, he's the consummate floor leader for the Grizzlies' grit-and-grind mentality.
"Conley makes sure Memphis does what it’s supposed to do every time down the court," said Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas to Jason Reid of The Washington Post. "Now, sure, they may miss a shot. But at no point in time are you looking at that Memphis offense and saying, 'Nobody knows where they're going.' They’re not erratic."
If the Grizzlies make another deep playoff run this season, Conley's days of being outside the spotlight could finally come to an end.
Starting SG: Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
If you're tabbing players primed for a breakout in 2013-14, you can't leave out Jimmy Butler.
Butler's stats from the 2012-13 regular season—8.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game—don't exactly scream "superstar in the making." Dig a little deeper, though, and you soon gain an appreciation for just how much of a difference maker Butler is on both ends of the court.
Defensively, he's already one of the top guards in the league. Last year, Butler ranked 29th in the league in terms of points per possession allowed (0.76), according to Synergy Sports.
His 6'7" frame gives him an inherent advantage over other shooting guards, and it even allows him to slide up to the 3 at times. Anyone capable of playing solid man-to-man defense on LeBron James deserves immense credit on that side of the court.
Butler also began making some noise offensively toward the end of the 2012-13 regular season, as evidenced by the 13.3 points and 1.3 made three-pointers per game he averaged throughout the Chicago Bulls' 12-game playoff run.
In short, Butler could soon replace Luol Deng as the third member of the Bulls' Big Three (if he hasn't already). He's vitally important to the Bulls' hopes of stopping the Miami Heat from making a fourth-straight NBA finals appearance in 2014.
Starting SF: Chandler Parsons, Houston Rockets
Chandler Parsons might not yet be a household name outside of Houston, but the 2013-14 season should change that.
Parsons' skill set allows him to be a jack-of-all-trades for the Houston Rockets. He's a lethal three-point shooter, a solid passer and a strong defender, too.
If he's ever left open in the corner, watch out; he knocked down nearly 50 percent of his corner three-point attempts during the 2012-13 season (61-of-123), according to NBA.com.
During the Rockets' first-round playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2013, Parsons looked like a budding superstar. He averaged 18.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.7 made three-pointers per game, shooting over 45 percent from the floor and exactly 40 percent from downtown.
Free throws remain Parsons' last main frontier to conquer, as he's only a 67 percent career shooter from the charity stripe. He did knock down nearly 73 percent of his free-throw tries during the 2012-13 regular season, though.
With James Harden and Dwight Howard attracting most of the attention from opposing defenses, Parsons will be relied upon as the team's main secondary option. Don't be surprised when he's soon considered one of the best small forwards in the league.
Starting PF: Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks' signing of Paul Millsap during the offseason was one of the most savvy, underrated moves of the summer.
He's not a freakish athlete like Josh Smith, but he touts far better judgment when it comes to shot selection. Over half of his field-goal attempts during the 2012-13 regular season came within inside of eight feet (484-of-874), according to NBA.com.
Unlike Smith, Millsap also recognizes his limitations as a three-point shooter. He only attempted 38 shots from downtown last year (making 13 of them), although he did finish 6-of-10 on corner threes, per NBA.com.
Millsap's minutes per game decreased during each of his last three seasons in Utah, but that's not an indictment on his play. The Jazz simply had a wealth of riches when it came to frontcourt options, having to carve out playing time for Millsap, Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.
In Atlanta, Millsap faces no such logjam. He and Al Horford will enter the 2013-14 season as the clear frontcourt starters, and each should expect to play at least 35 minutes per game.
That clearly defined role should allow Millsap to finally get credit from more than just advanced stat-heads.
Starting C: Omer Asik, Houston Rockets
When the Houston Rockets signed Omer Asik to a three-year, $25 million contract during the 2012 offseason, they raised plenty of eyebrows.
After averaging roughly three points and four rebounds per game during his first two career seasons in Chicago, handing that much money to Asik seemed insane.
However, the Turkish big man responded to those doubts by averaging 10.1 points, 11.7 rebounds and just over one block in only 30 minutes per game last season. Suddenly, his doubters had far less ammunition in their chambers.
Asik emerged as one of the league's elite defensive centers last season, as the Rockets allowed opponents to score 6.5 more points per 100 possessions once Asik left the court, according to 82games.com.
He also grabbed an eye-popping 31.0 percent of defensive rebounds while on the court in 2012-13, according to Basketball-Reference. Out of all players with at least 500 minutes of playing time last year, Asik ranked third in terms of defensive-rebounding percentage.
Asik remains limited offensively, which could prove problematic for Houston this year if he's expected to play significant minutes next to Dwight Howard. The Howard-Asik pairing could prove to be a force of nature defensively, though.
Bench Guard: Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks
Jeff Teague isn't yet in the top-10 point guard conversation, but he shouldn't be that far off, either.
In 2012-13—his second full season as the Atlanta Hawks' starter—Teague set career highs in terms of points (14.6), assists (7.2) and made three-pointers (1.1) per game, along with free-throw percentage (88.1).
Teague recorded assists on a career-high 36.1 percent of all baskets while he was on the floor last season, according to Basketball-Reference. His usage rate also jumped (23.0), as Teague had to assume more playmaking responsibilities once Lou Williams went down for the season with a torn ACL.
The 25-year-old Teague did experience some growing pains sans Lou-Will and Joe Johnson, who was traded to the Brooklyn Nets during the 2012 offseason. And as a result, he averaged a career-high 2.9 turnovers per game, which isn't entirely unexpected given his jump in usage rate.
As Teague grows more comfortable in his role as a starter, he should continue to blossom. Heading into the 2013-14 season, this might be the last time to buy low on Teague's stock.
Bench Guard: Greivis Vasquez, Sacramento Kings
Here's a sentence no one ever thought they'd write: Greivis Vasquez made Tyreke Evans expendable for the Sacramento Kings.
The Kings shipped out Evans to New Orleans during the offseason in a three-team trade that netted them Vasquez and two future second-round picks. Considering Sacramento could have lost their former No. 4 overall pick in restricted free agency for absolutely nothing, the deal was a major steal for the franchise.
Vasquez, the No. 28 pick in the 2010 draft, has done nothing but defy expectations since coming into the league. At best, he was initially considered to be backup point guard material, but he proved in 2012-13 that he can be far more than that.
During his first season as a full-time starter, the University of Maryland product averaged 13.9 points, 9.0 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game for the then-New Orleans Hornets. He actually led the league in total assists (704) last season as well, according to Basketball-Reference.
He's not a great defender and isn't a reliable three-point shooter, but he still has plenty of room for growth under new coach Mike Malone. He'll be battling incumbent point guard Isaiah Thomas for playing time, but Vasquez should become a major contributor for the Kings this coming season.
Bench Guard: Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz
In what appears to be a rebuilding season for the Utah Jazz, Gordon Hayward could be primed for a major breakout year.
Hayward lost his spot in the starting lineup early in the 2012-13 season, but was reinserted in mid-March following a series of strong performances. He'll be in no such danger of losing his starting spot during the 2013-14 season, however.
The former Butler Bulldog can reach restricted free agency next summer, making this a make-or-break season for him. The Jazz must feature him as a primary offensive option this season to gauge whether he's capable of handling the load for years to come.
One area that won't be a concern for Hayward is three-point shooting. He's a career 40.1 percent shooter from deep who knocked down 45.5 percent of his right corner threes and 41.7 percent of his above-the-break threes last year, per NBA.com.
He's not a lockdown defender by any means, but the Jazz were actually worse defensively last season without him on the court, according to 82games.com. Sticking him in a primary offensive role should garner him some deserved attention this year.
Bench Forward: Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia 76ers
There's one positive to Thaddeus Young being stuck in basketball purgatory this year: compared to the rest of his young teammates, he'll look like a superstar.
The Philadelphia 76ers have little intention of fielding a competitive team in 2013-14, as they've finally begun a full-on rebuild. After the draft night trade of All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday, Young is the only remaining Sixer with any sort of trade value.
Young has always been somewhat of a tweener forward—not quick enough to play the 3 and not bulky enough to play the 4. His quickness, however, gives him an inherent advantage when facing off against opposing power forwards.
After attempting over 300 three-pointers during his first three seasons, Young reined in his long-range game during the Doug Collins era. He jacked up only 36 three-point shots over the past three seasons combined, knocking down eight of them.
If he develops a consistent long-range jump shot, he'd be one of the best stretch-4's in the NBA. As it is, he's still one of the league's most underrated players at any position.
Bench Forward: Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls
When the Chicago Bulls inevitably amnesty Carlos Boozer during the 2014 offseason, it might be a case of addition by subtraction, thanks to Taj Gibson.
Boozer's offensive prowess keeps him in the starting lineup for now, but he's not anywhere close to Gibson defensively. The Bulls allowed opponents to score an additional 3.7 points per 100 possessions when Gibson was on the bench last season, per 82games.com.
He's proven fully capable of guarding both power forwards and centers, though, giving the Bulls immense flexibility in their frontcourt. The Gibson-Joakim Noah duo is somewhat limited offensively, but good luck to any opponent trying to score in the paint against them.
Gibson hasn't ever cracked the 10-points-per-game threshold over a full season, but that's largely due to his limited playing time (he averages 23.1 minutes per game). He also recognizes his offensive limitations, as more than half of his field-goal attempts in 2012-13 came from within eight feet of the basket (260-of-441), per NBA.com.
He'll likely loom in Boozer's shadow for one last time this year, but he could easily become one of the breakout stars of the 2014-15 season.
Bench Forward: Ryan Anderson, New Orleans Pelicans
Last season, Ryan Anderson assuaged any fears that his NBA value was strictly tied to Dwight Howard.
During his three years with the Orlando Magic, Anderson emerged as one of the best stretch-4's in the league. With Howard often requiring a double-team on the interior, Anderson rained more than two three-pointers per game upon opponents.
After coming to the then-New Orleans Hornets in the 2012 offseason, not much changed for Anderson statistically. He went from averaging 16.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.7 made threes in 32.2 minutes per game during his final season in Orlando to 16.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.6 threes in 30.9 minutes per game last year in New Orleans.
However, the pairing of Anderson with Anthony Davis often turned out to be a dumpster fire defensively. New Orleans was 7.5 points per 100 possessions better with the sharpshooter on the bench than on the floor, per 82games.com.
Pelicans coach Monty Williams has expressed interest in bringing Anderson off the bench this season, according to The Times-Picayune, which could help cover those defensive deficiencies.
Given the Pelicans' significant offseason additions, Anderson's profile as one of the league's best stretch-4's should rise this season.
Bench Center: Tiago Splitter, San Antonio Spurs
After the San Antonio Spurs' run to the 2013 NBA Finals, Tiago Splitter might be the team's least heralded starter.
Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard both made names for themselves during the Spurs' lengthy playoff run, but matchup problems often relegated Splitter to the bench during the final two series. That didn't prevent the Spurs from signing him to a four-year, $36 million contract during the 2013 offseason, though.
Splitter made his impact felt on both ends of the court last season, posting career highs in points (10.3), rebounds (6.4), assists (1.6), steals (0.8) and minutes per game (24.7). He's a strong pick-and-roll player and also touts a variety of back-to-the-basket moves.
Defensively, the Spurs were 6.3 points per 100 possessions worse with Splitter on the bench during the 2012-13 regular season, per 82games.com. He's not an elite shot-blocker by any means, but he's fully capable of defending the rim, with or without Tim Duncan by his side.
Splitter lacks any semblance of a mid-range game, as more than 95 percent of his shots during the 2012-13 season came within 10 feet of the basket, per NBA.com. He's not going to be mistaken for Duncan any time soon, but he's a solid-if-not-spectacular starting center.