NBA: Unsung Heroes for Every Team
Unsung heroes are guys every team needs.
In football, it's the offensive linemen and the special teamers. In baseball, it's the middle relief and the utility guys.
In basketball, it's the grinders. The ones who fight for every rebound and fall on the floor for every loose ball. They're also the ones who are the sixth man off the bench, who can make a stop or hit an open shot. They're also the ones who rise up when given the opportunity and use every minute to help the team reach its goals.
Every team has one, and here are the 32 unsung heroes of the NBA.
Atlanta Hawks: Jamal Crawford
Crawford has been around the league a while, and even though he's considered a wiley veteran on a relatively young Atlanta team, he still serves a big purpose. He's the main scoring threat off the bench and is having a relatively nice season (14.5 points per game), though it is down from what he's done in the past.
He's still one of the better shooters on the team not named Joe Johnson, and he can still light it up like he did back in November when he scored 21 points in 27 minutes against the Knicks.
Boston Celtics: Shaquille O'Neal
When you think of the Big Shamrock, unsung is usually not what comes to mind. He's been one of the biggest stars in sports during his career.
But he's accepted his role in Boston as a role player and has fit in nicely. He's not what he once was, but his field goal percentage and rebounds are up from last year in Cleveland, when it looked like the end. His free-throw percentage is up as well, even higher than his career average.
He's not the superstar anymore, and he's not the dominant force. But he fits in well with a veteran Celtics squad that continues to win.
Charlotte Bobcats: D.J. Augustin
When the Bobcats decided to let Raymond Felton walk in free agency, there were questions about whether Augustin would be able to finally claim the role.
His stats have silenced those questions.
While the Bobcats may be struggling, Augustin has taken the point guard spot and not let go. He's averaging career highs in points, field goal percentage, steals and rebounds. But his biggest contribution has been the seven-plus assists he averages a night, which puts him among the league leaders.
Not bad for a kid who made all of 14 starts before this season.
Chicago Bulls: Kyle Korver
Kyle Korver has made a career out of living behind the arc.
Whether it's been in Philadelphia, Utah or now in Chicago, Korver is a sharpshooter who's brought on for one reason. And he does it very well. The Bulls are finding that out now, as Korver is once again shooting a very respectable 45 percent from trifecta-land and averaging close to 10 points a game. True the 45 percent is down from the near 54 percent he shot last year.
But for what he's brought in to do, he still does it well.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Daniel Gibson
Cavaliers fans remember the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, when Gibson rose out of nowhere to help the player that in Cleveland who will now remain nameless (I think it's LeBron, or something), to lift the Cavs to their first-ever NBA Finals appearance.
Then it seemed like he disappeared off the face of the earth.
He proved this year he never left, averaging a career high in points and becoming the team's second leading scorer off the bench in the absence of James, while shooting 40 percent or better from the floor and from three.
A nice welcome back for Gibson.
Dallas Mavericks: Tyson Chandler
It's hard to believe it was a decade or so ago when the Bulls drafted Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler as part of the solution to bring the franchise out of the post-Michael doom and gloom.
And while Curry is having problems getting on the floor, Chandler has made a nice career for himself as a rebounding machine for hire. His latest stop is in Big D, where he's fortified the middle in place of Erick Dampier while being 11th in the league in rebounding with almost 10 boards a game.
Denver Nuggets: Nenê
One can only wonder what could have been with Nenê if he had been able to stay healthy during most of his career.
Throughout his career, he's shown flashes of potential but has never been able to put it all together. He's having another nice year this year, and while his rebounds are down, he is providing the Nuggets with an offensive post presence. His points per game average (13.9) is the second highest of his career, and he's shooting better than 60 percent from the field and 77 percent on the line.
Maybe this is finally the year.
Detroit Pistons: Rodney Stuckey
It's been an awful start to the season in Detroit. The core players are getting older and past their prime, the role players (Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva) and the young players aren't ready yet. The only positive from this season so far has been the play of Stuckey.
The young guard leads the team in points, assists and steals while the rest of the team has struggled. He may not be a pure point guard, but he's probably the best player on the team.
Golden State Warriors: Dorell Wright
David Lee has played well, but it's hard to call someone with that large contract unsung. Wright is starting for the first time in his career and has set career highs in many categories. Wright hadn't averaged more than 25.8 minutes per game and 7.9 points per game.
In Oakland, Wright is playing more than 35 minutes a night and averaging double figures in points for the first time while shooting 41 percent on threes.
Plus the uniforms look pretty snazzy too.
Houston Rockets: Luis Scola
It never seems like Scola ever gets any credit. The power forward is solid at both ends of the floor, and every time the Rockets are on national television, the analysts are quick to point out Scola's skill. So why then, when Scola is having his best season as a pro, no one seems to notice?
Scola is averaging close to 20 and 10 (20.2 points and 9.1 rebounds to be exact), but because of the Rockets' slow start, he's gone unnoticed again. But while the Rockets have struggled with him, they'd be even worse off without him.
Indiana Pacers: Roy Hibbert
Danny Granger continues to do his thing for the surprising Pacers, but it's been the breakout of the former Georgetown center Hibbert that has really helped. Hibbert is averaging 16 and nine and gives the Pacers a post presence it hasn't had since maybe Rik Smits or Jermaine O'Neal.
But the basketball world maybe didn't notice until Hibbert torched the Lakers inside for 24 points and 12 boards in Indiana's upset win at Staples last week.
Los Angeles Clippers: Al-Farouq Aminu
A rookie wearing Clippers red has taken the league by storm so far this season. Well, at least someone who's technically a rookie.
But while Blake Griffin is jamming his way to the Rookie of the Year trophy, the rookie Aminu from Wake Forest is taking more and more of a role in the LA offense. Aminu is averaging 10.4 points in the nine games he's started this season, and his 52.6 three-point percentage is second in the NBA.
All of a sudden, the future doesn't seem so bleak in Clipperland.
Los Angeles Lakers: Shannon Brown
It was hard not to put Lamar Odom in this spot, since it seems like he annually goes unsung for what he contributes both offensively and defensively.
But Brown, who's been little more than a roster fill most of his career (last season was the first time he played more than 30 games in a season) is producing in the few minutes he gets. He's averaging 10.8 points per game in only a little less than 19 minutes, while shooting 48 percent from the floor, 45 percent from three and 92 percent from the free-throw line.
Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley
Conley's somewhat fallen off the radar since he was a top-10 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, at least to those who don't watch the Grizzlies regularly. But he's finally starting to develop as a NBA point guard this season. He's averaging 15.3 points per game and more than six assists a game.
But perhaps his two best games as a pro came in the last two games, when he scored 20-plus points against both the Lakers and the Hawks, while going 20-for-26 from the floor and had 12 assists.
Miami Heat: Udonis Haslem
On the League of Superstars Pat Riley has assembled on South Beach, Haslem became somewhat forgotten. But there was a reason why the Heat were so desperate to re-sign him.
He was one of the few players on the Heat roster that brought toughness and an interior presence, especially on defense. He was the last line of defense in the paint while Chris Bosh struggled defending down low. The Heat knew what they lost when he suffered a possible season-ending injury, the rest of the league might find out how important he was too.
Milwaukee Bucks: John Salmons
The Bucks have really struggled out of the gate this season, and a big reason why is the amount of injuries that have sacked the roster. Salmons and young star guard Brandon Jennings are two of the only four players to play all 18 games. Salmons is not having his best season as a pro or since he became desirable for more than just his contract, but he's been dependable and providing a little bit of offense to supplement the young Jennings.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Darko Milicic
Yes, I said Darko Milicic.
The man who might be forever remembered as the player Joe Dumars passed up Carmelo Anthony to draft No. 2 behind LeBron might finally be becoming an NBA player this year. While Michael Beasley is finally fulfilling his potential and Kevin Love is putting up 30-rebound nights, Milicic is putting up a career high in points. I'm guessing you didn't know he led the league in blocks too.
Just as a side note, that sound you hear might be Pistons fans flinging their computers out the nearest window.
New Jersey Nets: Travis Outlaw
To many Nets fans, Outlaw wearing the Nets jersey is nothing more than the consolation prize the Nets received when they were nothing but pawns in the LeBron sweepstakes. But finally given a chance to be a starter, Outlaw has put up nice numbers (11.1 points, 4.6 rebounds), but perhaps his best contribution is his career best three-point percentage.
Brook Lopez is having another outstanding season and will be the star of this team, but Outlaw is doing yeoman's work as one of the veterans on a young team.
New Orleans Hornets: Emeka Okafor
Back in the 2004 Draft, the Orlando Magic had a choice between Dwight Howard and Okafor. They chose Howard and the rest is history for him. Charlotte chose Okafor, and he's had a solid career playing in obscurity. He was traded to New Orleans last year and this season has been a solid role player for the surprising Hornets.
Okafor is 10th in the league in rebounding and has had some nice offensive performances when called upon, such as the 26 points he put up against the Heat early this season.
New York Knicks: Raymond Felton
Like his former teammate Okafor, Felton is a former Bobcat with a strong college pedigree and a solid, unspectacular career in Charlotte before coming to the Knicks as their booby prize in the LeBron bidding war.
Felton was expected to be a good fit, not a great one. But he's had by far the best season of his career in the Big Apple in Mike D'Antoni's offense. He's putting up career numbers across the board, including points and assists.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Serge Ibaka
If this was for breakout star, it would easily go to Russell Westbrook, who's become one of the best young point guards in the game. But Ibaka provides the defense down low in the paint that isn't talked about much in the Sooner State.
He provides a modest amount when it comes to points and rebounds (10.8, 6.9), but his worth is his two-plus blocks per game, eighth best in the NBA and in the same range as Dwight Howard and Josh Smith.
Orlando Magic: Michael Pietrus
He's not the flashiest player, nor is he having the best season on the Magic. But Pietrus is playing better as of late and is one of the more indispensable players on the Magic. He's one of, if not the best three-point shooter on the team, and he has the best three-point percentage on the team.
But as orlandomagic.com reporter John Denton wrote this week, it is his improved defense and rebounding that have helped make a big difference in his turn of play and to the kind of impact he can have on the team.
Philadelphia 76ers: Elton Brand
It's hard to call a player with the contract Brand has unsung, more so when his team is struggling through a season like the Sixers are this year.
But Brand may be, for the first time, living up to the potential of his contract. While most of the attention goes to Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner, Brand has been the team's leading score and one of the team's more dependable players.
And possibly the most shocking part? He hasn't really missed a considerable amount of time yet.
Phoenix Suns: Channing Frye
Channing Frye rose from out of nowhere to be a key sub for the Suns last year on the team's run to the Western Conference Finals. After his strong year, more was expected from Frye after the personnel losses Phoenix took in the offseason, and he struggled at the beginning of the year.
Since being plugged into the starting lineup, however, Frye has been much better. He's averaging 13 points per game in the nine games he's started, and he's scored double digits in each of the last 10 games.
Portland Trail Blazers: LaMarcus Aldridge
Aldridge might not be unsung in Rip City, where he's improved every year since he's been in the league. But his career highs in points, rebounds and blocks have been impressive, where he's becoming more and more what Greg Oden was supposed to be.
He's not a superstar yet, but he has the potential to be a dominant player and a second option to all-world guard Brandon Roy. The ceiling on Aldridge just keeps continuing to rise and so will his profile on the young Blazers.
Sacramento Kings: Carl Landry
It's not the best season for the young power forward from Purdue, but on a bad Kings team that doesn't have much other than Tyreke Evans, he's been the most consistent player. He's a strong defensive player in the blocks and a good rebounder, while he produces on the offensive side and is Sacramento's second-leading scorer.
He's had better statistical years, especially in Houston. But he's done yeoman work and played hard every night for the Kings.
San Antonio Spurs: Manu Ginobili
Now I know what you're thinking.
Manu's an established star in the league. He's won three championships and been an integral part of the Spurs' big three.
But to be fair, he hasn't had many seasons like this one. He's possibly having his best statistical season of his career. Amazingly enough, this is the first time he's averaging more than 20 points. This was a player that a couple of years ago looked like he was starting to wear down. He's now the Spurs' leading scorer and the leader of a very hot San Antonio club.
Toronto Raptors: Sonny Weems
In his first two seasons, Weems played in a total of 81 games. He's already played in 17 this year and is having the best year of his young career. He's averaging more than 12 points per game while recording career highs across the board. He's the second leading scorer on a Raptors team that has Andrea Bargnani and very little else, but he's accomplishing a lot with his playing time.
It doesn't hurt that he's doing things like that, either.
Utah Jazz: Paul Millsap
Most people will think of Paul Millsap and think of the 46-point coming out party he had in Miami in the Jazz' comeback win over the Heat. Fans in Utah however will think of this entire season as the official arrival of Millsap.
He played behind Carlos Boozer for the first couple of years of his career in Utah, but he's become one of the more dependable power forwards of the year. The 18 and eight he's averaging are career highs, and he's making a lot of people forget about the guy he replaced.
As for the guy he replaced, Boozer has played all of one game in Chicago.
Washington Wizards: JaVale McGee
McGee has been a nice performer on offense—his 10.4 points per game is a good contribution inside the paint, and he's one of seven Wizards who average in double figures. But for a team not known for defense, McGee has become a force down low. His 8.6 rebounds per game is among the top 25 in the league (tied with Amar'e Stoudemire), and he's third in the league in blocks behind Milicic and Andrew Bogut.
The Wizards have searched long and hard for a big man that could play defense and be a force down low. They might have found one in McGee.