The Eastern Conference may have been down this year, but there was still a nice crop of players outside of the usual suspects that had impressive seasons. These All-Underrated players were chosen based off their team’s overall success, their total contribution to that success and their personal performance throughout the regular season. While some of the players listed may be known commodities around the league, they still may not be receiving all the credit they deserve when measured against the impact they had for their teams.
Guard – Jeff Teague
Over the past couple years Teague has quietly developed into one the better young guards in the East. Teague, who nearly ended up in Milwaukee this past off-season after signing an offer sheet with the Bucks, has really come into his own recently. The Hawks wisely chose to retain Teague. Keeping Teague in Atlanta paid immediate dividends, as he has played a crucial role in getting the team back to the playoffs and now, along with Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and a cast of very solid role players have the Hawks poised to pull off a huge first round upset.
Statistically Teague’s numbers resemble one of the more highly regarded guards in the league, Russell Westbrook. Westbrook does a better job rebounding the ball and tends to get up more shots, which leads to a slightly higher scoring average, but there certainly are some similarities. Teague averaged 16.5 points, shooting from 43.8% from the field; Westbrook averaged 21.8 points, shooting 43.7%. Teague’s shooting percentage from three was 32.9%; Westbrook’s was 31.8%. Teague dished out 6.7 assists a game compared to Westbrook’s 6.9 assists per game. Both guys do a good job getting to the stripe, Teague shooting an average of 4.8 free throws a night and Westbrook an impressive 6.4 attempts a game. There is no doubt Westbrook is the superior player but Teague does share some similar traits with the explosive Thunder guard. Teague may not be underrated for long, as a series win over the heavily favored Pacers would go a long way in terms of Teague gaining the recognition he deserves.
Guard – Kyle Lowry
Lowry may not be as underrated as he was coming into this season, but he still tends to fly under the radar in comparison to some of the other big time guards in the East (as evidenced by his All-Star snub). When the discussion of the top point guards is brought up, Kyrie Irving and John Wall are more than likely to be the first names mentioned. Both Wall and Irving are terrific players but Lowry has more than proven this season that he deserves to be in that conversation as well.
Lowry has had the best season of his career, averaging 17.9 points, 7.4 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals. Lowry flirted with his first career All-Star appearance this season, but in the end was passed over by the coaches and his teammate DeMar DeRozan was selected. He has asserted himself as a veteran leader for the Raptors and has continued to step up in big moments. He is the straw that stirs the drink for the Raptors and if the team has aspirations of a deep playoff run, Lowry’s play will be key.
Forward – Trevor Ariza
When you think of the Wizards the first player that comes to mind is John Wall and deservedly so, but he hasn’t been the only reason why the Wizards have become a threat in the East. Contributions from Nene, Marcin Gortat, Bradley Beal and Ariza have all been very important in the team’s success. Ariza, in particular, is having one of the best seasons of his long career. He is third on the Wizards in scoring at 14.4 points per game, second in rebounding (6.2 per game) and steals (1.6 per game) and is shooting 45.6% from the field.
The veteran forward has thrived in a starting role and proven that he can still be a valuable piece on a playoff team. Ariza provides a little a bit of everything for the Wizards. He has done a great job hitting the three ball this season, putting up career best numbers from downtown. Defensively his length and athleticism make him a tough matchup and gives the Wizards versatility on that end of the floor. Ariza started every game he played this year (77) and played the most minutes in a single season of his career. He has continued to play well in the playoffs and looks to carry his strong play into the second round.
Forward – Amir Johnson
One name that often goes overlooked when discussing the better big men in the East is Johnson. Johnson may not be as skilled as a guy like Chris Bosh or David West but his work ethic and toughness have made him one the more steady contributors at the four spot in the East. Playing just over 28 minutes per game, Johnson averaged 10.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks.
He developed into a reliable and consistent option that has been able to provide the Raptors with good production. Johnson paired with Jonas Valanciunas have developed into one of the more formidable frontcourts in the East and a have been major factor in the Raptors’ playoff run.
Center – Andre Drummond
Drummond has been a monster this year but playing for the lowly Pistons, he still does not get the attention he deserves. He is a star in the making and may be one the best rebounders in the league for years to come. His elite combination of size, strength and athleticism makes him a nightmare for opposing big men trying to keep him off the glass. Many NBA followers are familiar with him but need a closer look to realize just how dominant he has been on the offensive glass. At age 20, Drummond led the league in offensive rebounding with 440 total, second was DeAndre Jordan with 331, a whopping difference of 109 rebounds from the second place finisher. To give even more perspective, Drummond had more than twice as many total offensive rebounds as DeMarcus Cousins (218) and Roy Hibbert (202).
Drummond finished the year averaging a double-double, 13.5 points per game and 13.2 rebounds per game. He is undoubtedly the most important player on the Pistons’ roster going forward. Right now most of Drummond’s offense comes off put backs or easy dunks; his ability to haul in offensive boards gives him a number chances at right at the rim every game. However, Drummond must work to improve his low post scoring ability, as right now he is not a guy you can throw the ball down to and let him work. He has the ability to overpower smaller defenders but when faced with a physical equal (not that there are many) he can struggle to score. Pistons fans should be drooling just thinking about just how special of player Drummond can become.
Sixth Man – Kemba Walker
The electric point guard played a major role in the Bobcats securing a playoff berth. Unfortunately for them, they were faced with task of taking on the defending champion Miami HEAT. The team fought hard, but just didn’t have the firepower to keep up with the talent laden HEAT.
Despite the lack of success in the playoffs, Walker still deserves to be commended for his performance this season. He led the Bobcats in assists (6.1) and steals (1.2) while finishing second in scoring (17.7). He has shown a nice scoring touch in his three years in the league, having averaged over 16 points per 36 minutes every season as a pro. Walker was one of the few players on the Bobcats with the ability to create off the dribble, putting a lot of pressure on him in late shot clock situations that may have taken a toll on his field goal percentage as he shot 39.3%. Walker along with big Al Jefferson will give the team some nice punch going into next season and should give Bobcats Hornets fans hope for the future.
The Bucks acquired Knight this past offseason as part of the Brandon Jennings trade with the expectation that he would be a big time contributor from day one. While the Bucks’ season may have been a long one filled with loss after loss, Knight continued to plug away and make the most of his extended minutes. Knight was the most the consistent player on the Bucks throughout the season, averaging 17.9 points per game, 4.9 assists per game, had a PER of 16.5, while shooting 42.2% from the field.
Knight still very young, only 22 years old – the same age as Sixers rookie sensation Michael Carter-Williams – and continued to make strides forward this season. He improved his scoring, assists, rebounding and field goal percentage from last year with the Pistons. If he can continue to improve as a creator, he will be a nice piece for the Bucks as they rebuild.
The veteran Cavalier continued to produce even in a season filled with disappointment for the team. Varejao has been one of the most effective rebounders in the game during his career and that trend continued this season as he averaged 9.7 rebounds per game in just less than 28 minutes a night. His activity and motor make it a challenge to keep him off the glass. He is not known as a great scorer but certainly must be respected; he has the ability to put up 12-15 points on a given night. It would be great to see Varejao find his way onto a contender as he enters the later stages of his career; his ability to rebound the ball could significantly bolster a frontcourt lacking in that department.
Afflalo put in one of the better seasons of his career this year with the Magic, averaging 18 points per game while shooting a very respectable 45.9% from the field. He was able to knock down threes with regularity, hitting just under two per game. Afflalo was the most consistent option on the offensive end night in and night out for the up and coming Magic. He is under contract with the team through next season with a player option available for the following year; it will be interesting to see what the Magic decide to do with Afflalo as they try to develop the youth on their roster.
Emeka Okafor Impacting 2018 Western Conference Playoff Race
Sidelined for several years with a neck injury, Emeka Okafor is back in the NBA and helping the Pelicans fight for a playoff seed.
When DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon, most people in and around the league assumed the New Orleans Pelicans would eventually fall out of the Western Conference Playoff race. It was a fair assumption. In 48 games this season, Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks while shooting 47 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Anthony Davis and the Pelicans had other plans. Davis put the team on his shoulders, played at an elite level and, arguably, has forced his way into the MVP race. Behind Davis’ efforts, the Pelicans are currently 39-29, have won 7 of their last 10 games and hold the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
While Davis has been carrying the team since the loss of Cousins, he has received significant help from his teammates, including Emeka Okafor.
More recent NBA fans may be less familiar with Okafor since he has been out of the league since the end of the 2012-13 season. For context, in Okafor’s last season, David Lee led the league in double-doubles, Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game and Joakim Noah made the NBA All-Defensive First Team. However, Okafor entered the NBA with a lot of excited and expectations. He was drafted second overall, right behind Dwight Howard. Okafor played in 9 relatively successful NBA seasons until being sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.
Okafor was medically cleared to play in May of last year and played in five preseason games with the Philadelphia 76ers but was ultimately waived in October, prior to the start of the regular season. However, with the injury to Cousins, the Pelicans were in need of help at the center position and signed Okafor to a 10-day contract. Okafor earned a second 10-day contract and ultimately landed a contract for the rest of this season.
Okafor has played in 14 games so far for the Pelicans has is receiving limited playing time thus far. Despite the lack of playing time, Okafor is making his presence felt when he is on the court. Known as a defensive specialist, Okafor has provided some much needed rim protection and has rebounded effectively as well.
He has been [helpful] since the day he got here,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said about Okafor after New Orleans’ recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. “I think his rim protection has been great. But, he’s capable of making a little jump shot and you can see that today. But just having him in there, his presence there has been great.”
Okafor has never been known as an elite offensive player, but he did average 15.1 points per game in his rookie season and has shown glimpses of an improved jump shot in his limited run with the Pelicans.
“You know, I’m happy it’s falling,” Okafor said after he helped seal the victory over the Clippers. “Kept in my back pocket. I was invoked to use it, so figured I’d dust it off and show it.”
Okafor was then asked if he has any other moves in his back pocket that he hasn’t displayed so far this season.
“A little bit. I don’t want to give it all,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a couple shots still. But we’ll see what opportunities unveil themselves coming forward.”
Okafor will never have the elite offensive skill set that Cousins has but his overall contributions have had a positive impact for a New Orleans squad that was desperate for additional production after Cousin’s Achilles tear.
“It’s impossible to replace a guy that was playing at an MVP level,” Gentry said recently. “For us, Emeka’s giving us something that we desperately missed with Cousins. The same thing with Niko. Niko’s given us something as far as spacing the floor. Between those guys, they’ve done the best they could to fill in for that. But we didn’t expect anyone to fill in and replace what Cousins was doing for us.”
Okafor is currently averaging 6.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 54.5 percent from the field. While his averages don’t jump off the page, it should be noted that his per minute production is surprisingly impressive. Per 36 minutes, Okafor is averaging 13.4 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. Those numbers are nearly identical to his averages from the 2012-13 season, though he is averaging twice as many blocks (up from 1.4).
The Pelicans have exceeded expectations and currently are ahead of teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers in the extremely tight Western Conference Playoff race. Okafor is doing more than could have reasonably been expected when he first signed with the Pelicans, though he would be the first person to pass the credit toward Anthony Davis.
When asked about Davis’ recent play, Okafor enthusiastically heaped praise toward his superstar teammate.
“It’s to the point where it’s like, ‘Alright, he has 40 doesn’t he?’ It’s impressive,” Okafor said about Davis. But it’s becoming so commonplace now.
He’s just an impressive individual. He gives it all. He’s relentless. And then off the court too, he’s a very, very nice kid. He really takes the leadership role seriously. I’m even more impressed with that part.”
There is still plenty of regular season basketball to be played and even a two-game losing streak can drastic consequences. But the Pelicans have proved to be very resilient and Okafor is confident in the team’s potential and outlook.
“I think we’re all hitting a good grove here and we’re playing very good basketball, said Okafor.”
Whether the Pelicans make the playoffs or not, it’s great to see Okafor back in the NBA and playing meaningful minutes for a team in the playoff race.
NBA Daily: Nothing’s Promised, Not Even For The Warriors
The Warriors are wounded, and with Chris Paul, the Rockets may be equipped to take advantage.
The Warriors are wounded, and for those that thought their waltzing into a four consecutive NBA Finals was a given, the Houston Rockets may have other ideas. Especially when one considers that the beloved Dubs are trying to buck history.
Steph Curry has ankle problems, Klay has a fractured thumb and Kevin Durant—the most recent of the team’s lynchpins to find himself on the disabled list—has a rib injury.
Sure, the Dubs might shake off their injuries and find themselves at or near 100 percent once the playoffs begin, but seldom do teams in the NBA get healthier as the year progresses.
Winning in the NBA is difficult. In order to take all the marbles, teams need a bunch of different ingredients, chief among them are good fortune and health. And in many ways, the two are entwined.
Simply put: the human body isn’t built to play as often and as hard as NBA players do. Those that we recognize as being among the greatest ever—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James among them—had one thing in common. They were all exceptionally durable.
Over the years, we’ve seen attrition and fragility cost the likes of Anfernee Hardaway, Yao Ming and Derrick Rose what seemed to be careers full of accolades and accomplishments. And the simple truth is that you never know which player, players or teams will be next to be undercut by injuries and progressive fatigue.
Just to keep things in perspective, the Warriors are attempting to become just the fifth team since 1970 to win at least three NBA championships in a four-year span.
The Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Finals in 1985, 1987 and 1988 before Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls completed their three-peat from 1991-93. The Bulls would again do the same between 1996 and 1998, and Shaquille O’Neal and his Los Angeles Lakers accomplished the same from 2000 to 2002.
There are reasons why so few teams have been able to win as frequently as the Lakers and Bulls have, and health is certainly one of them. That’s especially interesting to note considering the fact that the Warriors may have been champions in 2016 had they had their team at full strength. Mind you, both Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala were severely limited in their abilities, while Andrew Bogut missed the fateful and decisive Game 6 and Game 7 of those Finals with injuries to his left leg.
At the end of the day, injuries are a part of the game. The best teams are often able to overcome them, while the luckiest teams often don’t have to deal with them. To this point, the Warriors have been both the best and incredibly lucky, but at a certain point, the sheer volume of basketball games is likely to have an adverse effect on at least a few members of the team.
We may be seeing that now.
En route to winning the 2015 NBA Finals, the Warriors turned in a playoff record of 16-5. In 2016, they were 15-9 and in 2017, they were 16-1. In total, the 62 playoff games would have worn a bit of tread off of their collective tires, just as their 73-9 regular season record may have. In becoming a historically great team, the Warriors have expending the energy necessary of a team wishing to remain a contender, and that’s not easy.
As an aside, those that understand the difficulty in competing at a high level every single night are the ones who rightfully give LeBron James the respect he’s due for even having the opportunity to play into June eight consecutive years. Win or lose, in terms of consistent effort and constant production, James has shown as things we’ve never seen before.
Today, it’s fair to wonder whether the Warriors have that same capability.
We’ll find out in short order.
* * * * * *
As the Houston Rockets appear headed toward ending the Warriors’ regular season reign atop the Western Conference, there’s something awfully coincidental about the fact that the team seems to have taken the next step after the addition of Chris Paul.
Paul knows a thing or two about attrition and how unlucky bouts with injuries at inopportune times can cost a team everything. As much as anything else, it probably has something to do with why Paul continues to believe in the ability of the Rockets to achieve immortality.
On the first night of the regular season, mind you, in one horrific moment, Gordon Hayward and the Boston Celtics reminded us that on any given play, the outlook of an entire season—and perhaps, even a career—can change.
A twisted knee here, a sprained ankle there, and who knows?
With just over three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Warriors—the team that everyone knew would win the Western Conference again this season—has some concerns. Their primary weapons are hurting, their chances of securing home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs are all but nil and their road to the Finals may end up being more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.
If the season ended today and the seeds held, the Warriors would draw the San Antonio Spurs in the first round and the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round before squaring off against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals.
Of all teams, the Spurs are probably the last team the Warriors would want to see in the playoffs, much less the first round. While the outcome of that series would be determined by the health of Kawhi Leonard, there’s no doubt that Gregg Popovich would at least be able to effectively game plan for Golden State.
While the Blazers might not provide incredible resistance to the Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder will enter play on March 18 just two games behind the Blazers for the third seed out West. With the two teams squaring off against one another on March 25, it’s possible for Russell Westbrook and his crew having the opportunity to square off against the Dubs in the playoffs.
For Golden State, their path to the Finals having to go through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston would absolutely be a worst case scenario. The only thing that could make it even more terrible for Steve Kerr would be having to do it with a platoon that was less than 100 percent.
Funny. In yet another season where everyone thought that it was the Warriors and everyone else, there are quite a few questions facing the defending champs heading into the final few weeks of the regular season.
Indeed, the Warriors are wounded. And whether they can be nursed back up to full strength is perhaps the most interesting thing to watch as the calendar turns to April and playoff basketball draws nearer.
NBA Daily: The Golden State Warriors Need to Enter Rest Mode
With a bevy of injuries to their stars, the Golden State Warriors should rest up the remainder of the regular season to avoid any playoff letdowns.
After a three-year-long run of dominating the NBA, the Golden State Warriors are showing some cracks in their armor.
Granted, those cracks aren’t a result of a botched system or poor play, but rather the injury bug biting the team in full force as they come down the regular season stretch.
First, it was Steph Curry and the ankle that’s bothered him all season — and for most of his career — when he tweaked it yet again on March 8 against the San Antonio Spurs. Golden State announced he would miss at least four games. Then it was Klay Thompson, who fractured his thumb three days later against the Minnesota Timberwolves — he’ll miss at least two weeks.
Now it’s Kevin Durant. Last year’s Finals MVP suffered an incomplete rib cartilage fracture and was ruled out of Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. Durant is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. The Warriors would go on to lose that contest 95-93.
In about two weeks time, the Warriors went from having one of the most formidable offenses and scoring trios in the entire league, to having Quinn Cook and Nick Young logging starter minutes.
Luckily for the Warriors, they’ve built up a big enough lead in the standings to achieve a 52-17 record, good for second place in the Western Conference. But the issue for the remainder of the season now becomes how healthy will the Warriors be come playoff time?
Curry and Durant have injury histories. Curry particularly has been bothered by this ankle since he entered the league. Without either of them, the Warriors — while still incredibly talented — will be on a completely even playing field with the Houston Rockets, and possibly other teams in the gauntlet that will be the Western Conference playoffs.
The bigger issue on top of the pending injury concerns becomes whether the Warriors should just pack it in for the rest of the regular season, and regroup for another expected title run.
Steve Kerr doesn’t seem to be thinking that way, however.
“All these injuries seem to be temporary,” Kerr told reporters. “A couple weeks, a week, two weeks – whatever. We’re in good shape. We’ve just got to survive this next slate of games and hopefully, start getting guys back and get rolling again for the playoffs.”
That’s true. None of the aforementioned injuries seem to be anything more serious than a few weeks of rest and relaxation. But that’s assuming the best case scenario for these players.
Should we assume that the Warriors are without their scoring trio for the next couple of weeks as their health updates have indicated, that would put their return roughly around April 1. At that time, Golden State would have six games remaining on their schedule. Four coming against playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Indiana, New Orleans, and Utah) with the other two games against Phoenix.
After missing the last few weeks on the court, with injuries that most likely won’t be at 100 percent, tossing their most valuable contributors back into the fray against a slate of playoff teams probably isn’t the smartest idea.
At this point, the Warriors postseason position is locked up. They likely won’t take the top seed away from Houston, and their lead is big enough to keep their second seed intact regardless of who’s on the court. The only thing left now is the determining who Golden State will play in the first round. With the revolving carousel that is the playoff standings out West, that’s anybody’s guess right now.
The only thing that’s certain is whichever team coming into Oracle Arena for that first round will be battle tested and talented based off of the dogfight they had to survive just to make the playoffs. The last thing the Warriors need to be is a banged up in a postseason with their first opponent smelling blood in the water.
In all likelihood, the Warriors — should everything go according to plan — will play the Houston Rockets for a chance to return to their fourth straight NBA Finals. Only this time, a potential Game 7 won’t be at Oracle Arena. It will be in downtown Houston, at the Toyota Center.
An advantage as big as the Warriors’ homecourt can never be understated. Operating in a do-or-die situation away from home will be newfound territory for this bunch. Regardless of talent or team success, at that point, it’s anybody’s game.
It won’t be easy for the Golden State Warriors as they try to extend their dynasty’s reign. This might be their most difficult year yet.
Durant, in his own words, can’t even laugh right now without feeling pain. The league’s only unanimous MVP is operating on one and a half ankles, and the team’s second Splash Brother has an injury on his shooting hand.
Resting up the team’s stars should be the team’s top priority right now, at risk of entering the postseason hobbled. Track record means nothing if the Warriors don’t have their full arsenal at disposal when the games matter most.
Hey, a 16-seed finally won a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything is possible on a basketball court, and the Warriors should do everything possible to ensure they’re not the next major upset candidate in line.