2014 NBA Playoffs: Each Team's Most Underrated Player
The 2014 NBA playoffs have seen a number of underrated performances so far. From former superstars to valuable role players, this postseason has been filled with surprises, and we haven't even finished the opening round yet.
Typically, the NBA's elite grab the brunt of the attention on the sport's biggest stage. Names like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson have all immortalized their careers by shining the brightest when the games matter the most.
However, beneath the glow of all that star power lies some postseason moments from those we least expect it from. In truth, it's hard for anything or anyone to be "underrated" in an era of round-the-clock news coverage and social media, where every highlight is punctuated by hashtags and the caps lock button.
The stars have the rest of these playoffs to be smothered in praise. Today, we pay homage to those who have been overlooked and celebrate each remaining team's most underrated player.
As always, reader participation is encouraged. If you have any thoughts, questions or concerns or feel the need to make the case for someone you feel is more deserving of this slot, feel free to express your opinion in the comments section.
Portland Trail Blazers: SG Wesley Matthews
Let's start with the latest team to punch their ticket to the second round. The choice for the most underrated player on the Portland Trail Blazers was a tossup between center Robin Lopez and shooting guard Wesley Matthews.
Lopez has had moments throughout the six-game series with the Houston Rockets where he's been a factor on both ends of the court. He's crashed the boards. He's blocked shots. He's even contributed a key bucket or two when you least expected it.
However, Matthews emerged as a viable third option (all due respect to Nic Batum, who has been great as well) behind LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. He's averaging 15.3 points per game in the playoffs and has had two outings where he's scored more than 20 points.
The 27-year-old shot 44 percent from the field and 39 percent from three during the regular season. During the playoffs, those numbers dropped a little to 41 and 30 percent, respectively.
With so much attention being paid to Aldridge and Lillard going forward, the Blazers need Matthews to get hot and take some pressure off Portland's dynamic duo. So far, he's proved capable of stepping up when his number is called.
Miami Heat: C Chris Andersen
It's hard for anyone to be underrated on a Miami Heat team that has been to the last three NBA Finals and is led by the league's most recognizable superstar in LeBron James. Still, Chris "Birdman" Andersen is the closest thing the defending champs have to a player who is flying under the radar.
His numbers aren't going to catch your eye when you gaze at the box score. He's not going to have a ton of highlights on SportsCenter, and his post-game interviews won't generate a ton of buzz. The Birdman's impact is less about stats and more about what he represents.
On a team that lacks ideal size up front, Andersen is the best rim protector. Chris Bosh may be the team's best big man, but he won't be the one counted on to get in the trenches and bang with the likes of Toronto's Jonas Valanciunas or Indiana's Roy Hibbert.
Instead, Andersen will do the dirty work inside. After leading the team in the regular season with 1.3 blocks per game, the 35-year-old once again leads the pack by posting the same average in the postseason.
Miami is filled with plenty of notable names who are worthy of the spotlight, but the key to the team's three-peat will be Andersen's ability to make life difficult for the opposition in the paint.
Washington Wizards: PF Nene
In terms of the Washington Wizards' potential storylines heading into the playoffs, the brilliance of Nene was going to be fourth (at best) behind the emergence of young guards John Wall and Bradley Beal as well as Trevor Ariza continuing to build up his price tag this summer.
That lack of attention hasn't seemed to bother the beast from Brazil. He's shooting nearly 55 percent from the field while averaging 17.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game in the playoffs. On a team with so many other scoring options, those are pretty impressive numbers.
He has been a solid contributor for many years, so this year's efforts shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Still, for a man who is getting ready to wrap up his 12th season in the league, he doesn't seem to get the respect he deserves as one of the league's most effective big men.
As the Wizards get ready to stare down a second-round showdown with either the Indiana Pacers or the Atlanta Hawks, the team will need Nene to help exploit its size advantage up front. If what he did to the Chicago Bulls in the first round is any indication, this could be a big postseason for the 31-year-old.
Golden State Warriors: F Draymond Green
For all of the high-profile names on the Golden State Warriors roster, the team might not be still in the playoffs if it weren't for forward Draymond Green. The second-year man out of Michigan State put up quite a performance in Game 6 against the Los Angeles Clippers to help the W's fend off elimination.
The 24-year-old made his presence felt on both ends of the court. He scored 14 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and came away with five steals in a 100-99 win to force Game 7. As the team continues to run out of centers, the Warriors will need Green's physicality inside to help keep their season alive.
He isn't much of a shooter from the outside (shooting 14 percent from three in the playoffs, 33 percent in the regular season), but he provides a strong presence in the paint. At 6'7" and 230 pounds, he fits into Golden State's small-ball mold, which will be more prevalent with Andrew Bogut and now Jermaine O'Neal out with injury.
Stephen Curry, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson will provide the scoring on the outside. David Lee will continue to do his thing in the paint. Andre Iguodala will hold things down defensively on the perimeter. However, the Warriors will need contributions from unsung heroes like Green to knock off a team as deep and talented as the Clippers in the biggest game of the season.
Los Angeles Clippers: SG J.J. Redick
There aren't many players on the Los Angeles Clippers who qualify as underrated. Chris Paul is a superstar and quite possibly the best point guard in the league. Power forward Blake Griffin is a household name, thanks to his breathtaking athleticism and occasionally funny commercials.
Even key reserve Jamal Crawford is in the limelight as the newly crowned Sixth Man of the Year (h/t to ESPN.com's Marc Stein). You can make the case for center DeAndre Jordan, but his emergence this season as a viable threat on both ends of the court hardly keeps him under the radar.
That leaves CP3's backcourt mate, J.J. Redick. His first season in Los Angeles has been hindered by injuries (including a nagging back issue), which limited the guard to just 35 games in the regular season. However, when the former Duke guard is feeling spry, he's one of the league's deadliest shooters.
He shot nearly 40 percent from behind the arc during the regular season and has nearly matched those efforts by shooting 39 percent from three in the playoffs. He's averaging 13.3 points per game and has been money from the free-throw line—he hasn't missed in the postseason.
The Clippers have a number of shooters, but none who can swing a game like Redick can when he gets hot. The main thing to watch will be how his back holds up because the team could use his excellent execution on the outside when defenses collapse on the bigs in the paint.
Indiana Pacers: PG George Hill
As center Roy Hibbert has disappeared into the abyss, other members of the Indiana Pacers have stepped up to keep the East's top seed's championship hopes alive. Paul George leads the team in scoring, rebounding and steals, while David West and Lance Stephenson have done their part as well.
Another key contributor has been point guard George Hill, who is averaging 12.7 points and four assists per game in the postseason. He's shooting 44 percent from the field, including 36 percent from downtown. The pride of IUPUI has scored in double figures in five of the team's six games against the Atlanta Hawks.
His best performance came in Game 5, when he went 6-of-12 from the field and finished with 16 points. As the Pacers wonder what happened to their franchise big man, the team will need more efforts like what Hill has given them to stave off a first-round upset.
Offense has been hard to come by for the Pacers in these playoffs. Out of the 16 teams that entered the postseason, Indiana is 14th with an average of 93.7 points per game. The two teams behind the Pacers (Chicago and Charlotte) have already been sent packing.
To avoid the same fate, Indiana will need guys like Hill to keep the offensive momentum going.
Atlanta Hawks: SF DeMarre Carroll
In truth, the Atlanta Hawks as a whole are vastly underrated. Power forward Paul Millsap might have been this past summer's biggest steal. Jeff Teague continues to climb up the point guard ranks, especially after how he's played in this series against the Indiana Pacers.
Then, there's small forward DeMarre Carroll.
His numbers don't jump out at you, but he's a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. He scores in spurts. He's a capable shooter from downtown, nailing 36 percent of his threes in the regular season and an astonishing 53 percent in the playoffs.
He also contributes on the boards and is a decent defender.
You could make the case for Teague or Millsap here, since both have outperformed their modest expectations so far this season. However, every team needs someone like Carroll who can fill in the blanks when the moment calls for it.
He's picked his spots thus far, but his best is yet to come.
Dallas Mavericks: G/F Vince Carter
According to Dictionary.com, the definition of underrate is "to rate or evaluate too low; underestimate."
In a recent column about playoff X-factors, I wrote that the Dallas Mavericks didn't have any viable scoring options behind Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki. I also said Vince Carter was on the wrong side of 30.
Mavericks fans didn't bother to spare me their outrage over these claims. Inevitably, Carter wasted little time in making me look like a fool.
While the 37-year-old is only averaging 13 points per game, he's had his moments in a tightly contested showdown with the San Antonio Spurs. Those highlights include nailing the game-winning three in Game 3 and dropping 28 points in Game 5.
While consistency hasn't been Vinsanity's best friend in these playoffs, he's proved capable of being the team's third option. Even years removed from his superstar status, he's not afraid of having the ball with the game on the line.
"I don't mind taking the game-winning shot," Carter said after Game 3, according to the Associated Press (h/t ESPN). "I don't mind missing them, and dealing with it. So I think that mentality helps me."
As he settles into the twilight of his career, he has shown he has more left in the tank than some have given him credit for. With a chance to knock off the defending Western Conference champs coming soon, he's going to need every last drop.
Meanwhile, I'll just sit here and enjoy this plate of crow.
San Antonio Spurs: C Tiago Splitter
The San Antonio Spurs have always had a knack for getting the most out of their role players. Last year, it was shooters such as Danny Green and Gary Neal. In years past, it has been names like Matt Bonner, Stephen Jackson and Bruce Bowen.
This time around, it's center Tiago Splitter. The 29-year-old Brazilian center is averaging a double-double in the playoffs so far. He's contributed 12.3 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. He's also shooting close to 62 percent from the field.
In what looks to be a wide-open Western Conference, the Spurs can make another surprise run to the NBA Finals if they continue to get solid contributions from guys like Splitter. The big man has scored in double digits in his last four games, including dropping 19 points in a close Game 6 loss.
As the Spurs' stars get long in the tooth, it is up to young guys like Splitter (and, to a greater extent, forward Kawhi Leonard) to step up and lighten the load on the aching shoulders of the team's elder statesmen.
Toronto Raptors: PG Greivis Vasquez
Toronto Raptors point guard Greivis Vasquez is no stranger to being underestimated. After leading the league in total assists last season with the then-New Orleans Hornets, the Maryland product was shipped to the Sacramento Kings as part of the Tyreke Evans three-team trade.
Vasquez would last all of 18 games with the Kings before he was traded midseason to Toronto in a deal for Rudy Gay.
It appears that one team's loss (or in this case, two teams) is another team's gain. Vasquez has thrived as Kyle Lowry's caddy. He averaged 9.5 points per game in the regular season while shooting nearly 42 percent from the field and just less than 39 percent from three.
He's stepped it up a little in the playoffs, averaging 11.5 points and 5.8 assists per game while shooting nearly 43 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from downtown.
At 6'6", he has great size, which makes him an option at either guard spot. He's a quality passer and can put in work on the boards. His slow feet hinder him from being a good on-ball defender, but the Raptors have done a nice job of hiding his warts.
Vasquez may not be a world-beater, but he's better than the trade throw-in he's been treated as by his former teams. His uncanny skill set gives the Raptors a versatile weapon off the bench, and it should give his doubters many nights of regret for tossing him aside too soon.
Brooklyn Nets: SF Paul Pierce
How can a 10-time All-Star and former NBA champion be classified as underrated? Probably when he continues to perform even while many have written him off.
At times during his first season in Brooklyn, New York, Paul Pierce looked every bit of his 36 years of age. He lacked the same burst, and his days as a superstar who can carry a franchise appeared to be a thing of the past.
Then, "The Truth" recreated himself as a small-ball power forward and found a new lease on his illustrious career. Pierce may not be the spring chicken he once was with the Boston Celtics, but he offers a priceless intangible that is more important to the Nets than any athletic attribute: veteran savvy.
For all of the talent on Brooklyn's roster, the team lacked someone with the experience to lead the way when it mattered most. Pierce has been that guiding light, both vocally and with his play on the court.
The Nets don't need Pierce to be the superstar he once was. They need him to be the spirited leader he already is. If they survive a Game 7 with the Toronto Raptors, having a cagey veteran like Pierce might help be the difference-maker.
After all, as he said, "That's why they got me here."
Memphis Grizzlies: PF James Johnson
This is purely a gut call here. With power forward Zach Randolph suspended for Game 7 after chin-checking Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams, someone will need to step up in his absence.
The candidates to fill Z-Bo's shoes are journeyman James Johnson and former Toronto Raptors lottery pick Ed Davis. Johnson is coming off a solid performance in Game 6 mop-up duty, scoring 15 points and grabbing five rebounds.
It's unfair to expect him to be Z-Bo in the biggest game of the season, but Johnson has fared well when he's logged significant playing time. Prior to his Game 6 outburst, he dropped 20 points in 32 minutes against the San Antonio Spurs on April 6.
The loss of Randolph is a tough blow, but it's up to Johnson to make the most of his opportunity. This is his chance to make a name for himself. If he can carry any of the momentum from his previous outing, he could turn a few heads with the season on the line.
Oklahoma City Thunder: PG Reggie Jackson
It's tough to make your mark in the playoffs when there's already a postseason legend with your same name lurking around the sports world. Still, Reggie Jackson has quietly and rapidly become one of basketball's most promising point guards.
He filled in admirably for an injured Russell Westbrook, both in last year's playoffs and in separate stretches this season. He's a dynamic scorer who can provide the kind of offensive spark the Oklahoma City Thunder need to take pressure off Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
Jackson averaged 13.1 points in the regular season and shot 44 percent from the field. In the postseason thus far, he's contributing 11.5 points per game while shooting 43 percent from the field. That includes a 32-point performance in Game 4 against the Memphis Grizzlies.
His outside shot needs a little work (career 29 percent from three, including regular season and playoffs), but he's the best under-the-radar candidate on the roster. Although, if he continues to protect the rim like he did in Game 6 (five blocks), rookie center Steven Adams could make a case for this spot down the road.
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