“Underrated” means a lot of things to a lot of people, but this is a collection of men who simply don’t get mentioned nearly enough. While players like Marc Gasol, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis aren’t often properly credited on NBA fan radars — small market size will do that — this, here, is a team of ballers who simply can’t even get on that radar, but should be on yours.
7. Robin Lopez
The Portland Trail Blazers were hit hard this week when they learned of starting center Robin Lopez’s broken hand. Next to LaMarcus Aldridge, he provides just about the perfect complement of dirty work. His rim-protection, rebounding and general banging around in the lane free up Aldridge to be the futuristic, deep-shooting big that so often kills defenses.
As far as role players go, it’s hard to find a better one than the affable Lopez. His good humor and attitude are essential to the Blazers’ locker room, too, and Portland (a stealth Western Conference contender) will receive a terrific shot in the arm when he returns later this winter.
6. Andrew Bogut
Open your ears, and you’re sure to hear about Steph Curry and Klay Thompson — better known as the Splash Brothers. The Golden State Warriors hum along with one of the best offenses of the year in large part due to having the league’s best shooting combo. Thompson and Curry are also, for many fans, what makes GSW fun to watch.
But the wins and losses wouldn’t be the same without their linchpin back-line defender, Andrew Bogut, who's also insanely skilled on the perimeter for a 7-footer. The Warriors’ offense truly leaves the stratosphere when Bogut's passing outside the paint enters the playbook. If you like to watch big men behave like guards, Andrew’s your man.
5. Ty Lawson
Ty Lawson hasn’t let his undersized frame stop him from NBA ascension. The tiny dynamo goes unnoticed on a mismatched Denver Nuggets roster in the loaded Western Conference, but he’s secretly one of the very best pick-and-roll players in basketball. Lawson only needs an inch to kill you with his speed, and a screen can usually give him a few.
And when Denver is tight with their opponents down the stretch, there’s no doubt about who they’ll be calling the play for. Ty is high on the moxie rankings and can usually cross you over to get room for a clutch jumper that you’ll not soon forget.
4. Serge Ibaka
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that last year’s NBA title hung on the tendons of Serge Ibaka’s calf. When Ibaka got injured and missed Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, his Oklahoma City Thunder struggled to do anything right defensively.
Having Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is always nice, but you’ve got to perform exquisite team defense to get past the game-planning of the reigning NBA champs. With a healthy Ibaka keeping the restricted area on lockdown, the currently streaking Thunder won’t have to advance too far up the standings to make noise in this year’s playoffs. With home-court advantage or without it, they’ll be able to beat anybody.
3. Trevor Ariza
Going into free agency this past summer, Trevor Ariza was plagued by one season of his career. Because his production dipped in 2009-10 when he signed a new deal, Ariza was widely cited as a “contract-year player,” who wouldn’t play up to standards once money wasn’t on the table.
But after signing a four-year, $32 million sheet with the Houston Rockets in July, Ariza has thoroughly disproved that notion. He’s been an essential piece of the surging Rockets, who look much more fearsome than last year with a defense loaded with real teeth. Ariza’s a premier perimeter stopper who brings conviction and elite 3-point shooting to Houston, too.
2. Jeff Teague
Don’t look now, but the Eastern Conference is growing their own version of the Spurs. Under the direction of former Gregg Popovich assistant Mike Budenholzer, point guard Jeff Teague has become the motor to an offense with an uncanny amount of selfless passers and potent three-point shooters.
The Hawks’ motion-heavy offense is a thrill to watch, even if almost no one sees it. Teague’s penetration into the lane keys defensive breakdowns that often end in the enemy’s nightmare: Kyle Korver draining an open three. But the fifth-year Wake Forest alum can also finish the play himself, as a 47 percent shooter with a fierce finishing touch at the rim.
1. Kyle Lowry
The Toronto Raptors are the No. 1 team in the East, and no one deserves more credit for that than Kyle Lowry. One of the league’s best game managers in crunch time, Lowry is a pugnacious point guard who can kill you with force as much as he can touch.
An excellent, aggressive defender as well, Lowry is the soul at the middle of a Canadian basketball renaissance. Don’t be surprised if you see him smiling this springtime, while his dark horse Toronto squad emerges out of the Eastern Conference and fights in the Finals behind his stellar, steady play.
— John Wilmes