By Michael Pina
Welcome to the NBA's All Underappreciated team: Five players (three frontcourt, two backcourt) widely regarded as glue guys/one-dimensional specialists who have emerged as unsung heroes for their respective team in the 2013-14 season.
These shadowy overachievers aren't their team's best, but they've been consistent all year long, and are only treasured by their teammates, coaches and those who closely watch nearly all their games. The qualifications for this list are almost entirely subjective, but to make it a player must start for a good squad (an organization either already locked into a playoff spot or nearly there), and not be one of his team's three or four best players.
These guys are either defying their reputation (hard to shake for everyone, but 10 times as difficult for an NBA player), forging a new one unexpectedly or quietly chugging along as the same guy they've always been, but in a new location that has allowed their skills to shine.
There were many worthy candidates, but here are five who stood out above the rest. Without further ado, here's your 2013-14 NBA All Underappreciated team!
Front Court: Robin Lopez
Last season, armed with no source of rim protection outside of the relatively teeny J.J. Hickson "guarding" the paint, the Portland Trail Blazers allowed the second most field goal attempts within five feet of the rim, then compounded their flaw by letting opponents shoot a smidge over 60 percent (eighth highest).
This season, Portland is allowing the same number of attempts, but the conversion rate for opponents has dropped nearly five percent, making them one of the three toughest teams to score on inside.
The main difference? Robin Lopez. On an impressive 10.3 field goal attempts per game, players are shooting only 42.7 percent at the rim while Lopez is defending it. The only player who compares to those two numbers is Roy Hibbert, who allows 41.6 percent on an even 10 attempts per game. SportVu essentially says Lopez is doing a better job guarding the rim than Dwight Howard, Serge Ibaka, Anthony Davis, DeAndre Jordan (included here for Doc Rivers' sake), Tim Duncan, Andrew Bogut and Joakim Noah.
Defense is important and clearly why Portland traded for Lopez last summer, but where he's surprisingly helpful is on the other end. Aside from setting cinder block screens to free up an abundance of three-point marksmen, Lopez is third in the entire league in offensive rebound rate. There isn't much analysis to be made here: he's a huge dude who crashes into people whenever a teammate shoots the ball.
Of all who average at least 15 rebound chances per game, Lopez has the highest contested rebound percentage. This means he grabs a ton of boards (51.4 percent, to be exact) while other players are at most an arm's length away.
Basketball-Reference has Lopez ranked number one -- as in, higher than every other player -- in offensive rating. Only eight guys have a superior True Shooting percentage, and, according to SynergySports, only three players are more efficient scoring after a screen out of the pick-and-roll.
You'd imagine most of his points there come on direct feeds at the rim, but Lopez can gather a pass outside the paint before making something cool happen.
Portland is 3.7 points per 100 possessions better on offense with Lopez on the court, and for a monstrous seven-footer who runs up and down the floor averaging a career-best 32 minutes per game, Lopez hasn't missed a single contest. He appeared in all 82 games last season, but has already logged over 300 more minutes with the Blazers. It might be the most impressive thing about him.
Front Court: P.J. Tucker
Despite starting for the fast and free Phoenix Suns, P.J. Tucker has the least impressive statistics of any player on this fictional assemblage. The 28-year-old three-year veteran is averaging 9.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. Tucker's PER is below league average, and apart from a solid 40.8 percent mark from the corners, his shot chart is all sorts of unpleasant.
That's okay. Where he shines is on the defensive end. Tucker is a stubby 6-foot-5, but can guard four positions. He's spent quality time irritating the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. He's battled Kevin Love in the post and forced John Wall into unwanted jump shots.
The Suns actually allow 3.0 fewer points per 100 possessions with Tucker on the court, but Phoenix wouldn't be close to league average (which is where they stand) without him.
Some guys enjoy scoring points or upping teammates with an amazing pass. Tucker is happiest battling above the screen on a pick-and-roll. He's comfortable in a defensive stance the way most people are laying in bed. It's impossible to imagine him on vacation or relaxing by a pool. Tucker is the spot of grime that's necessary for Phoenix to look so smooth.
Front Court: Trevor Ariza
Trevor Ariza's uninterrupted hot hand has been one of the least-talked about pleasant surprises of this season.
Just to recap: the swing man has never sniffed league average from the three-point line. But this season, he's shooting 41.5 percent (45.4 percent from the ever delectable corner) attempting an obscene 5.9 attempts per game. He's made more threes than James Harden, Carmelo Anthony and all but 11 other players in the entire league. He's more accurate than Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.
Ariza is more than a spot-up shooter, though. The Wizards function as the 12th fastest team in basketball when he's on the floor, and league's slowest when he sits. Ariza bombards opponents in transition, an undetected drone gliding across half-court. He sprints off missed shots and is fortunate enough to play with guards who know how to find him.
The Wizards score less than one point per possession when only two players are off the floor: John Wall (Washington's best in over a decade) and Ariza.
He has long arms -- a wingspan roughly two inches longer than Paul George's, according to measurements provided by DraftExpress -- and knows how to use them on defense, too. Opponents turn the ball over 24.8 percent of the time he's guarding a pick-and-roll, per mySynergySports.
Look at this effort to stay in front of Carmelo Anthony:
Here, he disrupts a routine pass by Kevin Durant:
The Wizards are built on Wall and Bradley Beal, but Ariza's phenomenal two-way play remains a humongous reason the team is headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. He's their third leading scorer, second leading rebounder and ties Wall for first in Win Shares.
Back Court: Shaun Livingston
Before suffering the horrific knee injury that will forever intertwine with his name and memory, Shaun Livingston was destined for a unique and prosperous NBA career. Six-foot-seven natural point guards don't grow on trees.
A decade later, after loads of well-documented struggle was defeated by unparalleled perseverance, Livingston is starting for the Brooklyn Nets -- his eighth team -- and finally unearthing his basketball destiny.
His PER, rebound and free-throw rates have never been higher, but what stands out most is how Jason Kidd is using him.
Livingston has turned one of an analytical observer's most frowned-upon methods of attack into Brooklyn's most unstoppable offensive weapon. Each night, he matches up against a guard who is smaller and probably has no idea how to defend the post. It's an unsolvable nightmare, and Livingston feasts.
He's the most efficient post-up scorer in the entire league, shooting 60 percent and averaging 1.21 points per possession.
It's a year of firsts for the nine-year veteran. He's never operated so close to the basket, and he's also never spent so much time beside another point guard who can also handle the ball and threaten the defense.
Brooklyn's offense handles like an Aston Martin whenever Livingston and Deron Williams share the court. In just over 700 minutes of action, those units scores 110.1 points per 100 possessions and allow 101.7. So, that'd be the No. 1-ranked offense and No. 6-ranked defense.
Since the All-Star break, the Nets have played like the second best offense in the entire league with Livingston on the floor, and league average when he sits. He knows what he's great at, and it's so satisfying all these years later to see him become so much more than a feel good story.
Back Court: Jose Calderon
Jose Calderon is probably too good of a shooter to warrant inclusion on anyone's "All Under-Appreciated" team, but his first season with the Dallas Mavericks has played out like an unacknowledged unleashing.
A case can be made for Calderon as one of the greatest shooters in league history. He led the NBA in three-point percentage last season, and is on a first name basis with the 50/40/90 club's doorman.
This year, Calderon has fallen in love with the three-point line all over again. An awe-inspiring 57.3 percent of all his field goal attempts are launched beyond the arc, and he's making 45.2 percent of them (fifth best in the league). He's perpetually on fire.
Calderon's ninth season also has been his first off the ball. (According to Basketball-Reference, 96 percent of Calderon's minutes have been at shooting guard. His previous high was 50 percent his rookie year, though he also played the two quite a bit with the Detroit Pistons last season.)
He never gets to the free-throw line and is two assists per game below his career average. But he still runs a ton of pick-and-rolls, and impacts the game in other areas. Never known for his defense, watch Calderon and you'll see an energetic and committed player who knows where he's supposed to be.
But it all comes down to his shot, which puffs up Dallas' entire offensive flow and allows spacing for others to attack off the dribble. The Mavericks play like an orchestra that only knows the most beautiful symphonies; Calderon is one of a few important instruments that help make everything they do sound so delightful.
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