Who Is the Most Underrated Golden State Warriors Player This Year?

Simon Cherin-Gordon@SimoncgoContributor IIIMarch 25, 2014

The Golden State Warriors roster is extremely balanced.

It consists of knockdown shooters, lockdown defenders, creative playmakers and tough rebounders. It features former All-Stars, current All-Stars and future All-Stars.

The Warriors are 44-27, and many believe that is a bad record for a club with such a powerful, deep, diverse lineup.

There are two logical explanations for their slightly disappointing mark. One is that the team has underachieved, and the other is that some of Golden State's players are overrated.

The latter is perhaps true in a couple of isolated cases, but the former is far more accurate. The Warriors Pythagorean record is 46-25, and they are 39-17 with Andre Iguodala in the lineup.

To say the Warriors have a roster loaded with overrated players is also wrong for another reason: They actually have a roster full of underrated players.

From David Lee to Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut to Jermaine O'Neal and Draymond Green to Iguodala, the majority of the Warriors rotation does not get its just due.

Not all six of these players are equally underrated, of course. So let's have some fun, combat the "overrated" cries surrounding this team and figure out who is the most underrated basketball player in Oakland.

The Criteria

It is important to define "underrated" before proceeding, as it is a nuanced term as well as one that is open to interpretation.

For the sake of this analysis, underrated does not mean underpaid by the front office, underplayed by Mark Jackson or under-appreciated by other NBA players, coaches and general managers.

In this case, underrated means underrated by the public, meaning Warriors fans, general NBA fans and the media.

The Candidates

The six players listed earlier—Bogut, Green, Iguodala, Lee, O'Neal and Thompson—will be the ones considered. Stephen Curry is far-too loved on a national scale to be called underrated, Harrison Barnes has had a dreadful season and Steve Blake has been thoroughly praised throughout the years for his ability to back up the point.

Andrew Bogut

The Warriors' center left a bad taste in many a mouth after missing the majority of his first season with the team due to injury. His excellent play in 2013-14 has brought most people back to his side, but there is still a contingency that believes he is too injury prone to build around; he signed a three-year, $36 million extension before this season, much to the dismay of this group that includes both fans and media members.

Also, while he is recognized as a great shot-blocker, few truly grasp how much Bogut does defensively.

The seven footer does not simply lurk in the paint, waiting for layups to send into the third row. He is incredibly active throughout each possession. He shows on pick-and-rolls and stifles quicker ball handlers before recovering to his man. He keeps opposing big men from gaining low-post position, defends them extremely well when they receive an angry pass and rotates to take charges and challenge shots as well as anyone his size.

When he does block shots (1.9 times a game, good for fifth in the league), he almost always keeps the ball in bounds, often controlling it to a teammate or grabbing it himself. The difference between a block out of bounds and a block that leads to a change in possession is far greater than the difference between a blocked shot and an unblocked shot, making Bogut's 1.9 rejections that much more valuable.

Despite the subtle genius of his defensive game, appreciating Bogut's value should be quite simple: He is tied with Joakim Noah and Paul George for the best defensive rating in the NBA (96), and he is the anchor of the NBA's third-best defense (102.1 points/100 possessions).

While Bogut has been cited by some media members as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, most do not place him in the NBA's top tier of centers along with Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah and Dwight Howard. He belongs there.

Draymond Green

Of every candidate on this list, Green is the hardest to call overrated because he is so frequently praised. However, the compliments he receives usually refer to his hustle, his activity or his attitude. Few outside of the Bay Area (and not even everyone within it) recognize Green for what he truly is: An absolutely elite defensive specialist; the closest thing to Bruce Bowen since Bruce Bowen. 

Green is not the perimeter defender Bowen was, but he is every bit as unpleasant to go against. He's physical, strong and deceptively quick on his feet. He frustrates and angers opponents, forcing bad decisions that result in turnovers and missed shots that do not show up on Green's stat sheet.

Even so, the combo forward still averages an absurd 2.1 steals per-36 minutes. The only qualified players who average more are Ricky Rubio, Chris Paul, Tony Allen, Thaddeus Young and Russell Westbrook. He racks up steals not through overplaying, but rather with exceptional help defense, quick hands and an understanding of where the ball moves within the opposing team's offensive sets.

That cerebral quality is the part of Green's game that tends to be most overlooked. He is not only an active defender, but one of the highest-I.Q. defenders in the association. This allows him to not only play excellent perimeter and help defense, but to hold his own in the post.

Green's 1.4 blocks per-36 minutes are remarkable not only because he is the only sub-6'8" player in the NBA to block that many shots per minute, but because almost all of these blocks come while defending bigger men in the post rather than being the result of overplaying.

He may be a fan favorite, but the fact that he is tied with Roy Hibbert and Tim Duncan for fifth in the NBA in defensive rating (97) says that viewing him as anything less than Bruce Bowen lite is underrating him.

Andre Iguodala

The aforementioned record that the Warriors boast with Iguodala in the lineup says everything. 39-17 projects to a 57-25 season record. The team's 7-8 mark without him projects out to 38-44.

Iguodala is not going to demonstrate the difference he makes by posting 19 win shares (something only eight players have ever done). He's only at 4.9 for the season. But this is because win shares is a measure of how a player alters the game individually. Iguodala's best attribute is how he enables his teammates to do this.

Statistics only can show so much. Iguodala's team-first style of play is partially shown in his 4.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals. He is a rare small forward who can tally those three numbers and end up with a sum greater than his scoring output (9.3). But even most Iguodala supporters point to these numbers and say he's having a down year, as all four of those numbers rest amongst his career lows.

And yet, the 30-year-old wing would probably tell you that he's having a career year. And he'd be right.

Iguodala is leading the entire NBA in plus/minus per game. In other words, when Iguodala is on the court, the Warriors are better than any other team is when any other specific player is on the court.

Iguodala makes his teammates better with his steals, his fancy passes and his rebounds, but he understands that his job is to make his teammates better every possession, on both ends of the floor. His unbelievably active defense, his filling the proper lane in transition, his ability to draw defenders with cuts and positioning, his screens and probably any other subtly you can think of, Iguodala is a master of.

While the line on Iguodala is that he's had a tough time integrating himself into his new team, the truth is that there isn't a player in the league who is more at home than Iguodala is in Oakland.

David Lee

When was the last time a fanbase and local-media base believed that a team would be better off without their second-best player, and no less, without an All-Star?

Wait, never mind.

The phenomenon is actually somewhat common: A team does well with one of its core players injured, and people jump to the conclusion that the player is expendable. These players then become underrated by default, even if they were previously overrated.

In Lee's case, he was already underrated. In contrast to Iguodala, Lee has long been viewed as an empty-stat guy; a player who puts up numbers without helping his team win.

Where and why this belief started is anyone's guess. Maybe it's because he spent all of his career until last season on bad teams. Maybe it's because he is known as a poor defender, or maybe it's because he is the physical antithesis to Anthony Davis (who is also becoming the inverse to Lee as the most overrated power forward in the league).

Regardless of how it came to be, this notion is absurd. Lee puts up legitimate numbers. His 18.5 points this season come on 52.4 percent shooting and 78.6 percent free-throw shooting. His ball skills and deep arsenal of scoring moves that he can complete with either hand make him one of the most dangerous complimentary scorers in the game.

His 9.4 rebounds a night are vital to the NBA's eighth-best rebounding team, so calling them empty is rather, well, empty.

The Warriors upset the Denver Nuggets in last year's postseason without Lee, and this is what led to the whole "Trade David Lee!" thing. These calls have subsided but not disappeared despite Lee again having a fantastic season.

Jermaine O'Neal

It seems as if the only real reason Jermaine O'Neal is underrated is that "Jermaine O'Neal is still good and relevant" is just too hard for some people to say out loud, even if deep down they know it's true.

The six-time All-Star has never been thought of as "durable," and has become known as the farthest thing from it over the past four seasons. He's appeared in only 139 out of a possible 317 games during that time, and his minute totals and per-game numbers are nothing like what they once were.

If it weren't for O'Neal's decorated past, however, it would be quite obvious that he has become one of the best backup big men in the game.

He's averaging 13.9 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per-36 minutes this year, which is more impressive when realizing that he's played 20 minutes a night, started eight games and is shooting 49.7 percent from the field and 74.5 percent from the line.

O'Neal has provided the Warriors with more than just nice per-minute numbers. He allows the team to rest Bogut, keeping him healthy and out of foul trouble. He has replaced Carl Landry as the team's first big off the bench, and has done a great job replicating Landry's game as an offensive rebounder, low-post scorer and  foul generator.

What O'Neal lacks compared to Landry as a rebounder and mid-range shooter, he makes up for with vastly superior defense and a wealth of playoff experience.

People can continue to pretend that O'Neal is too old (he's only 35) and has no game left, but it will be hard for them to lie to themselves when he makes a big difference in a playoff series.

Klay Thompson

Much like the first two players on this list, Thompson is not underrated because he is often scrutinized. He is just pigeonholed as a niche player—just as Bogut is considered a shot-blocker and Green an energizer—when he is so much more.

Everyone knows that he can shoot. Some would argue with the claim that he is the second-best shooter in the game after his starting-backcourt mate, but even these people know he belongs in the top four or five.

But while he is praised for his three-point stroke, the belief is that this simply makes him a better version of Kyle Korver or Mike Miller. He does not get credit for his lethal post game, his unlimited range and ultra-rapid release that make his shot indefensible or his knack for nailing cold-blooded jumpers that decide or put away games.

Rather than thinking of him as a rich man's Kyle Korver, Thompson should be thought of as a poor man's Kevin Durant.

However, even local fans and media members—people who get how deadly Thompson really is—tend to underrate his overall game. Because after James Harden, Dwyane Wade and a Grand Canyon-sized power gap, Klay Thompson has become the third-best shooting guard in the NBA.

This is partially because Thompson has developed his driving and playmaking skills this season, but mostly because his defense is now almost as stellar as his offense.

Once an overrated defender, Thompson has flipped it around in year three. At 6'7", he is the biggest pure shooting guard in the league, which makes him virtually impossible to post up and very difficult to shoot over. This causes problems for most guys who play a position that is named after the act of shooting.

He also uses his length—but more his defensive instincts and effort—to lock ball handlers down on the perimeter and recover when he beaten. His ability to block shots in recovery or while giving ground is reminiscent of a young Wade.

He's known and beloved as a "splash brother," but his overall game is far closer to Curry's than he is given credit for.

Who Wins?

Now that the candidates have each had their cases made, they need to be compared in various categories.

Iguodala, Lee and O'Neal are all the victims of far more scrutiny than the other candidates, so they are in the lead. Of the three, Lee's scrutiny has likely been the loudest, and his skill level is not far below Iguodala's and way above O'Neal's.

But while those three face scrutiny, they are also recognized with All-Star accolades. The scrutiny exists because people believe they could and should be better. Meanwhile, Bogut, Green and Thompson are seen as far more limited than they are.

Since Bogut has been an All-Star and does generally gets recognized as an elite defensive center, he is a notch below Green and Thompson.

So it's down to Lee, Green and Thompson.

While Green is not appreciated as the rare breed of defender that he is, he is too universally loved by fans and broadcasters to be the team's most underrated player, especially because he is still a far worse player than Lee or Thompson.

While Thompson is not recognized as the elite shooting guard he is, Lee is also not recognized as the upper-echelon power forward he is. He does not belong in the top three like Thompson—LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love belong there—he is just a hair below these guys and every bit as important to his team as Zach Randolph, David West or Chris Bosh.

And while Thompson is undersold as an all-around player, the fact that most fans see him as fixture is hard to overlook.

The fact that so many fans and media members believe that the Warriors would actually be better without Lee—the guy who last year became the team's first All-Star in 16 years, who led the league in double-doubles, who is so vital to what the team does offensively and who outplays elite power forwards consistently—makes him the most underrated player on the Warriors.

Hopefully he can stay healthy this postseason. Not only because it would be the first healthy postseason he's had in his nine-year career, but because he would greatly help the team move on.


Contrary to the belief of too many people.


Stats and contract figures courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, HoopsHype.com, 82games.com and ESPN.com



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