The NBA playoff seedings are set, and the tournament itself tipped off this weekend with eight opening round games. As professional basketball’s second season begins, hoops fans are looking forward to what looks to be one of the most exciting playoffs in recent memory.
Stars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry hope to lead their respective teams to the Larry O'Brien trophy, while the timeless and ageless San Antonio Spurs have once again snagged the tournament’s top seed with the league’s best record despite having just one reserve All Star in Tony Parker.
In the NBA, stars are largely defined by what they do in the playoffs, even if they had spectacular regular seasons. Championships are what matter most, and they are why many fans consider Bill Russell, with his 11 NBA championships, to be a greater player than the statistically superior Wilt Chamberlain.
The NBA playoffs have always been considered the arena of the superstars to prove themselves by winning titles, and there is some truth to that. The impact of underrated players, however, is often overlooked, and this applies to underrated almost-stars and role players alike.
Who knows how many games this spring will be decided by players over-performing their fame and pedigree. A supposedly “washed-up” Ray Allen hit the most crucial shot of last year’s playoffs with his dramatic game-tying three-pointer with five seconds left in game six of the Finals, a shot that if missed would have eliminated the Heat and given the NBA championship to the Spurs.
Who will be the unsung hero of this year’s NBA playoffs? Whether it’s an under-appreciated household name, or an out-of-nowhere budding star, the only sure thing is that some underrated players will emerge as stars.
Here are the ten most underrated players in the 2014 NBA playoffs.
10 Patrick Beverley, Guard, Houston Rockets
Patrick Beverley is not a name well-known among casual fans, the type who might just be starting to pay attention to the NBA as the playoffs ramp up. Beverly was drafted in the second round of the 2009 NBA draft, at 42nd overall, a spot more suited to struggling to make a roster than to starring in the NBA playoffs.
Beverly, however, has distinguished himself this season, ranking as the 13th-best player in the entire league in ESPN’s “real plus-minus,” a metric that adjusts a player’s impact on the score of the game during his time on the court, independent of his teammates. Beverly’s RPM is an excellent 4.88, which is just a fancy way of saying that Beverly has performed well regardless of which teammates he was playing with at the time. Beverly’s real plus-minus is ahead of superstars like Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard, and Beverly’s Rockets face Lillard’s Blazers in what should be a tough-fought round one matchup.
9 Paul Millsap, Forward, Atlanta Hawks
Like Beverly, Paul Millsap was not considered a star in the making when he entered the league. Millsap was drafted 47th overall in 2006, but quickly rose to prominence in his first season, leading all rookies with six double-doubles. Though he was chosen as an NBA All-Star for the first time this season, Millsap is not considered by many to be among the elite group of NBA forwards.
His doubters should reconsider. Millsap averaged a career-high 17.6 points per game this year, and his rebounding has not fallen off, either, at a steady 8.2 per game. Millsap and his Hawks will look to pull off the ultimate 8 vs. 1 upset against the Indiana Pacers, and even if they fall short, look for Millsap to make an even bigger name for himself.
8 Jimmy Butler, Guard, Chicago Bulls
Basketball sabermetricians are beginning to realize the awesome power of the steal, a statistic, which seems to correlate with success more than most had thought before the numbers were crunched. The crucial aspect of the steal that sets it apart is that it not only stops an opponent’s attempt to score, but it usually sets up a high-percentage shot on the offensive end.
Jimmy Butler, unheralded guard for the Chicago Bulls, is one of the best pickpockets in the NBA. Butler has the second-best steals-per-game rate in the 2014 NBA playoffs, trailing only Chris Paul, a player no one could consider underrated. Unlike Paul, Butler is under-appreciated, and his defense will make life tough for the star-studded backcourt of the Washington Wizards, Chicago’s first-round opponent.
7 Amir Johnson, Forward, Toronto Raptors
Amir Johnson was drafted way back in 2005, at the end of round two, number 56 overall. Needless to say, that’s not a glamorous draft slot. Johnson toiled in obscurity in Detroit for much of last decade, before arriving in Toronto, where his opportunity and production have ramped up significantly.
As a ninth-year veteran, Johnson is averaging a career high 10.4 points per game, and has sunk more three pointers this season (20) than in the rest of his career combined (9). Johnson is an emerging offensive talent on a balanced Raptors team that will not be an easy out.
6 Nick Collison, Forward, Oklahoma City Thunder
Nick Collison, unlike most of the players on this list, was considered a star coming out of college. Collison was drafted number 12 overall in 2003, a few months after his Kansas Jayhawks lost in the national championship to Carmelo Anthony’s Syracuse.
Since being selected in the lottery, though, Collison has not exactly been earning a star’s recognition. Although he has been in the NBA for nine seasons, Collison has never once been selected to the All Star Game or to any all-NBA teams.
Collison does not light up the scoreboard, and averages just four points per game. Perhaps his contribution is being underestimated. According to real plus-minus, Collison checks in, astoundingly, as the fifth-best player in all of basketball. While no one is seriously suggesting that’s accurate, there is some truth behind the statistics, and Collison should be a player to watch in the 2014 playoffs.
5 Marcin Gortat, Center, Washington Wizards
Marcin Gortat was selected the next pick after Amir Johnson in the 2005 NBA draft, at number 57 overall. The 6’11’’ center from Poland has good size, but has never been selected to an All Star Game, and has largely been ignored by casual fans in his 6-year career.
Gortat bounced around the NBA, playing for Orlando, Toronto, and Phoenix before landing in Washington this season for a revitalized Wizards team. Gortat himself seems rejuvenated, averaging 13 points per game, good for second best in his career. His real plus-minus pegs him as the 29th-best player in the league. If he is anywhere near that good in the playoffs, look for the Wizards to surprise a lot of people.
4 Mike Conley, Guard, Memphis Grizzlies
Mike Conley has never made an NBA All Star Game, which should be a crime. It goes to show that All Star Game voters might be seduced by gaudy offensive statistics, and neglect the defensive side of the ball, where Conley shines.
Conley is a superb defender, averaging a steal-and-a-half per game, and frequently shutting down any scoring point guard the opposition throws at him. His offensive game is nothing to sneeze at, either. Conley is averaging a career-high 17 points per game this year, and is shooting a career-high 45 percent from the field. Conley and his Grizzlies take on the Thunder in round one, and a 7 vs. 2 upset is a real possibility.
3 Andre Iguodala, Forward, Golden State Warriors
Andre Iguodala was usually the best player on a bad team during his years with the Philadelphia 76ers. Now that he’s in the starting lineup for the Golden State Warriors, Iguodala has been outshone by brighter stars like point guard Stephen Curry, who earned a starting spot for the West in this year’s All Star Game.
Iguodala, though, might be the best overall player on his team. Snubbed for All Star honors, Iguodala remains a formidable wing presence for the Warriors on both sides of the ball. His real plus-minus this season is a stellar 6.91, third best in the league, and better than fellow small forward and megastar Kevin Durant. Iguodala and his Warriors take on the Los Angeles Clippers in round one, and sixth-seeded Golden State will be a popular and logical upset pick.
2 Kyle Lowry, Guard, Toronto Raptors
Kyle Lowry is another player on this list who has never made the All Star Game, which is shocking, considering that he might be one of the best and most balanced point guards in the league. Chris Paul and Stephen Curry may hog the spotlight and all the accolades, but no point guard in the NBA plays with more passion than Lowry, an A-defender whose all-around game is fueling the playoff hopes of the Toronto Raptors.
Per game, Lowry averages 17.9 points, 7.4 assists, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.5 steals. He is also making a career-best 2.4 three-pointers per game, and shooting a career-high 38 percent from beyond the arc. The Raptors face an up-and-down Nets team in round one, and if they can win that series, look for Lowry to make serious noise against the Miami Heat in round two.
1 LeBron James, Forward, Miami Heat
No, that’s not a misprint. LeBron James is the most underrated player of the 2014 NBA playoffs. How can this be? LeBron is universally considered to be one of the best players to ever pick up a basketball. James has won the last two NBA regular seasons and Finals most valuable player awards, and has been first team all-NBA every season since 2007. His dominating performances in the last two years of the playoffs, on the way to two consecutive NBA championships, have cemented his status as an all-time great.
Here’s why James is underrated. We don't appreciate him enough. Kevin Durant will likely win this year’s NBA MVP award. Many experts are picking against the Heat to “three-peat.” Miami fans obsess over the health of Dwyane Wade, forgetting they have the best player on the planet healthy and motivated to earn a third title.
James is a transcendent basketball player. There has never been a better all-around player, period. LeBron’s side, strength, speed, and athleticism allow him to dominate every sector of the floor: on offense, on defense, in transition, and in the half-court. He can defend all five positions on the court, and can fill any role needed offensively, from running the point to manning the low post. As almost an afterthought, James is probably the best passer in the league.
James, somehow, is also getting better as he ages. His field-goal percentage has risen every single year he has been in the league, and James is currently shooting a ridiculous 56.8 percent from the floor this season. While Kevin Durant may lead the league in points per game, it’s only because James chooses not to. The fact that Durant or anyone else is even in the debate for MVP, much less winning it, means LeBron James is the most underrated player in the NBA.