Ranking 2021 NBA Playoffs' Most Underappreciated Stars

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2021

Ranking 2021 NBA Playoffs' Most Underappreciated Stars

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Household NBA names can use some extra love, too.

    Mining the Association for underappreciated players usually winds up churning out a bunch of non-stars. It makes sense. Bigwigs dominate headlines and tweets and watercooler Zoom debates. It is no different in the playoffs.

    At the same time, the postseason is inundated with so many megastar efforts and moments that other marquee players see their standout performances take a backseat. They get pats on the backs, fist bumps, maybe the occasional dose of viral stat lines. That adulation, though, invariably falls short of their feats.

    Playoff basketball might also just be more numb to greatness. Or maybe it's primarily an issue of alternative options and more resounding upswings, be it Damian Lillard's alien clutchness, Kevin Durant's MVPing all over the place after missing last year with a ruptured Achilles, Trae Young getting drunk on supervillain juice or Chris Paul killing Father Time and Father Lazy-Ass Postseason Narratives dead.

    Whatever the reason, these established and fringe stars deserve far more praise for jobs spectacularly, unimaginably well done.

5. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Utah Jazz offense is peak Nirvana when the rock is pinballing around the court, players are making quick decisions on the catch, and Rudy Gobert is getting ample touches running down the lane to either finish or spritz out to one of his many snipers. Donovan Mitchell, at times, feels like he exists in opposition of that identity, a conflicting force who incites deviation through declines in pace.

    What-the-frick-ever.

    Genuine contenders need a from-scratch shot-maker who can excel in the highest-leverage moments. For all his what might be unnecessary detours, Mitchell does a nice job balancing the overarching individuality of the Jazz's offense with his own self-indulgence—the latter of which is extremely necessary.

    Success-by-committee purists could more strongly lament his style if it wasn't working so darn well. Mitchell is averaging 32.9 points (tops among all active players) and 5.1 assists through his eight appearances while canning 48.5 percent of his twos and 43.0 percent of his triples, marks that comfortably outstrip his regular-season volume and efficiency. 

    These numbers are not compiled with ease, either. Nearly 60 percent of his two-pointers have come with a defender inside four feet of him (contested and very contested). Mitchell is downing these looks at a 48.6 percent clip. His 62.6 percent effective field-goal percentage on all pull-up jumpers ranks third among everyone attempting at least five per game in the playoffs, and Luka Doncic is the only player who has nailed as many off-the-dribble three-pointers.

    This is at once unsurprising and staggering. Mitchell proved last year he could go nuclear on the biggest stage, but his current detonation has come while recovering from a sprained right ankle that cost him precious first-round time and, most recently, facing Kawhi Leonard as his primary defender.

    More so than last season, this feels like his superstar turn—that real-time transition in which Mitchell ascends up near the tippy top of the league and never looks back.

4. Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Somewhat lost amid the dominance of Joel Embiid while playing through a small lateral meniscus tear in his right knee and the Ben Simmons offensive impact discourse is the brilliant postseason display from Tobias Harris.

    And no, "brilliant" is not an overstatement.

    Through nine games, Harris is averaging 23.7 points and 3.7 assists on 56.9 percent shooting inside the arc and a 40.0 percent clip from long distance. Small sample sizes are small sample sizes and all that jazz, but James Harden is the only other player clearing those benchmarks. You are free to be impressed.

    Anyone opposed to Harris' inclusion will likely cite a lack of conventional secondary stardom. Khris Middleton, he is not.

    The Philadelphia 76ers still give off clumpy offensive vibes down the stretch of close games. Running everything through Embiid feels like their lone option, mostly because Simmons isn't hard-wired to initiate in those situations, but in part because Harris remains more of a third wheel than go-to hub.

    That's not really an insult. Nor is it fair to look at Philly's bench-heavy units as evidence of Harris' shortcomings. The Sixers have been outscored by 13 points in the 58 minutes he's logged without the four other usual starters. (Note: Danny Green is included in that mix but currently out with a right calf strain). That's not surprising given the dearth of experienced offensive options during those stints.

    Philly should count itself lucky those numbers aren't worse, and the Harris-plus-backups combos have played the Atlanta Hawks to almost a stalemate in the second round. Harris has also taken on slightly more pick-and-roll duty and continues to cook defenders on the block. His 1.09 points per post-up possession rank third among every player to attempt at least 10 shots in those situations, trailing only Embiid (1.28) and Kawhi Leonard (1.21)(!!!).

    Whether the Sixers have enough offensive juice to make it out of the East and win a title this year is largely up to the state of Embiid's knee and, perhaps, the health of Brooklyn Nets. But the circumstances under which they finish the postseason shouldn't change the view of Harris. Someone who should be a No. 3 is doing his best No. 2 impression—and it's a pretty damn good one.

3. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Devin Booker's postseason mastery has not flown all the way under the radar, but it wants for appreciation that aligns with all he's doing on offense.

    Which is everything.

    To everyone's credit, there is a reasonable, two-syllable explanation for Booker's inaugural playoff display fading, ever so slightly, into the backdrop: Chris Paul. The 36-year-old is making history as a passer and scorer almost nightly, with fourth-quarter clinics galore, all while being less than two weeks removed from a right shoulder injury that jeopardized the Phoenix Suns survival.

    Know who helped the team navigate that iffy stretch, the bulk of which came in the first round against the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers and forced CP3 into a role that limited both his playing time and appetite for shooting? Devin Booker.

    Everybody else on the Suns pitched in, as well. This team is magnificently, hilariously deep. But Booker is shining, even when his efforts aren't flawless. He continues to decision-make his way out of double-teams with poise, and the control he has over defenses in the half-court is caps-lock elite

    Phoenix is plus-28 in the 142 minutes he has logged without Paul, no small feat when you consider the offense's next best shot creator is Cameron Payne. Booker is shooting 50.0 percent on twos (22-of-44), 42.3 percent from deep (11-of-26) and 90.2 percent at the charity stripe (37-of-41) during these stretches.

    Efficiency amid volume has become his calling card, and it is withstanding the postseason crucible. He is just the fourth player on record to average at least 27 points on 60 true shooting or better through his first 10 playoff games. 

    Booker's company: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Anthony Davis and George Mikan.

    There's nothing else to say—except that this isn't a transformation. It's a continuation.

2. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Between back-to-back 2-0 series holes and a general push, if not innate need, to turn the Los Angeles Clippers into a collective meme, the divine dominance that is Kawhi Leonard hasn't received nearly enough attention. And now, sadly, his ACL injury figures to bilk him of further brilliance.

    But it cannot rob Leonard or us of transcendence already delivered. He is averaging 30.4 points, 4.4 assists and 2.1 steals while converting a preposterously high 64.5 percent of his two-pointers. This efficiency inside the arc is inconceivable. He is getting to the rim at a higher clip, but more than 43.0 percent of his attempts are still coming from mid-range...where he is, somehow, shooting 57.0 percent

    Leonard's efficiency fails to compute further when looking at his volume. His 152 two-point attempts are 57 more than the next closest player also downing at least 60 percent of his looks inside the rainbow.

    Oh, and for good measure, Kawhi is also banging in 39.3 percent of his triples, including 42.9 percent of his off-the-bounce treys.

    Shot-making at this level qualifies as God Mode regardless of context. But Kawhi is sustaining offensive ecstasy while working his butt off at the other end.

    No one on the Clippers spent more time guarding Luka Doncic in the first round. And no one has seen more reps against Donovan Mitchell in the second round. Leonard is the rare player saddled with first-option responsibilities at both sides of the floor—and the only one in these playoffs.

    So the next time the Clippers are Clippersing, and Kawhi has gone a little quiet for a beat, and you're wondering why people ever inserted him into the best-player-alive discussion, look to his postseason performance in its totality.

    You'll have your answer.

1. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Deandre Ayton is putting together the best, most consistent stretch of his career when it matters most. And plenty of people are talking about it.

    Just not enough.

    Call it an occupational hazard. Ayton plays beside two entrenched superstars in Devin Booker and Chris Paul. Secondary consideration and credit is the expectation.

    And again: He hasn't lacked for shine. Paul said Ayton is Phoenix's postseason MVP. Nikola Jokic, the league's actual MVP, called him "amazing." The head tussles and "atta boys" are adding up.

    Still, Ayton's playoffs seem like they're being treated as some sort of novelty, a pleasant revelation on the Suns' thoroughly convincing playoff push. This isn't about one playoff push. His impact has larger implications on Phoenix's future and on his standing relative to the rest of the league. This is simultaneously his breakout and entry into top-10-center territory.

    Forget the raw numbers. They are good—really good: 15.2 points, 10.6 rebounds, 71.6 percent shooting, etc. They're not the reason Ayton is here. His ascent is fueled by self-discovery. He finally looks comfortable in his role as offensive complement and defensive anchor, a balancing act through which he frequently wavered during the regular season.

    It'd be nice if he was more at home initiating and finishing through contact. But he's getting to the rim harder and more often, and his diligence on the offensive glass remains important. That he has found a happy medium on offense despite fluctuating, unassured volume is incredible, and it gives the Suns real staying power (pending Paul's free agency).

    Ayton's defense has often felt significantly ahead of his performance at the other end. That hasn't changed. He has already guarded Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic through two rounds and lived to tell not just riveting tales, but a pair of success stories.

    Yes, Davis was banged up. And yes, Jokic still ate. But Ayton made life hell on them. Phoenix won the minutes he spent against Davis and Jokic. The Denver Nuggets, in particular, looked out of character with Ayton tracking the MVP. They averaged 1.08 points per possession whenever he spent part of a play on Jokic. For reference, they put up 1.18 points per possession outside of garbage time during their entire postseason stay.

    Everything from Ayton's movement outside the paint to his staunch verticality around the basket has a profound impact on Phoenix's defense. We'll have to see how he holds up against micro frontcourts (Clippers) or an All-NBA rim-runner (Rudy Gobert) in the next round, but you don't average just 2.6 fouls per 36 minutes while guarding superstars and glean compliments from league MVPs on accident.

    What we're witnessing from Ayton doesn't appear to be a flash in the pan or a glimpse into the theoretical. It looks and feels more like self-actualization.

               

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.

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