There are a lot of guys who are just quitely doing work this NBA Season who aren't getting much credit for it. Some are veterans, some are rookies, but all are playing like stars and getting treated like role players. These are the kinds of players that always seem to surprise the opponent's broadcasting team.
So far this year these are my All-unsung team nominees:
Point Guard: Jose Calderon
Honorable Mentions: Mike Conley
Jose could probably win the "most invisible" award every year. I am not sure what it is about Jose that earns him such disrespect. Year in and year out, Jose has been consistently great at a few things: shooting (powered by great 3-point shooting), not turning the ball over, and passing. Three things, by the way, that top the "most important things for your point guard to do" list. He's always in the top 5 in assists per48, and always in a tight race with Chris Paul in assist-to-turnover ratio, and shoots a career 38% from the arc.
Yet all people seem to care about is that he is poor on defense. It's odd that no one seems to care that Steve Nash is bad on defense (or, more accurately, people bring it up, but no one villifies him for it). And no one not named "Sam Mitchell" seems to care that Calderon's teammate, Andrea Bargnani, is essentially the worst defensive big man of all time. Like Rajon Rondo, Calderon doesn't score a lot of points, but unlike Rondo, he doesn't rack up a lot of flashy assists that make the SportsCenter top ten, so he's not as widely known (of course, he also doesn't commit as many turnovers, but you don't get famous for that).
Wings: Jimmy Butler and Thabo Sefalosha
Honorable Mentions: Moe Harkless, Matt Barnes, Lance Stephenson
This is probably the category with the most unsung heroes, because this is the category most ruled by the "Yay! Points!" method of player evaluation. If you aren't a top-20 scorer as a wing, no one cares, and if you are, then no one cares about all the other holes in your game. I could add guys like Ronnie Brewer, Shawn Marion, Kawhi Leonard, and even Jason Kidd (in his current incarnation as SG) to this list. Ultimately, I chose these two because unless you are a student of the game or a fan of their teams, you have probably never even heard of these guys.
Jimmy Butler doesn't score a lot of points. But man, does he rack up the rebounds. And when he shoots, it's a good shot. He has no 3 point range but doesn't shoot them unless he has to. And he's amazing at an aspect of the sport that never gets attention: not turning the ball over. It's so hard to describe to fans how important this is, and it it is so hard to give somebody credit for being good at "not doing something". It's like driving. Not getting in accidents is a good thing, but other than your insurance company, no one really gives you praise for doing this. 1.0 turnovers per 48 minutes, even for a guy who is not a primary ballhandler, is amazing.
Thabo is another great example of the unsung. Much has been made of Kevin Martin's role in the James Harden trade, but Thabo is the real reason there hasn't been a huge drop off for the Thunder. Quick, and don't cheat and look above, which one of these is Kevin Martin and which one is Thabo?
When looking at the other stats we get a clearer picture:
So, Thabo is a knock-down 3point shooter who's also a good rebounder, great at not turning the ball over, collects steals and blocks shots. Martin scores more points, but only because he takes more shots (and given that Thabo starts, it's hard to see how he could take more shots playing so much with Durant and Westbrook, although I will argue that Westbrook could look for Thabo on the wing more when penetrating in favor of many of the contested shots he takes). Thabo is truly playing amazing basketball right now. Yes, he benefits from being with Durant, but they aren't just gifting him open looks; if you think NBA defenses are not aware of his shooting range and accuracy, you're crazy.
By the way, Martin is the bottom one in the shooting comparison.
Bigs: Andre Drummond and Larry Sanders
Honorable Mentions: Kenneth Faried, JJ Hickson, Marcin Gortat
Update: Commenters are pointing out the Ed Davis probably deserves this more than Sanders. That might be worth a future column!
Hickson is an honorable mention because he's getting some "most improved" press. Faried is slowly becoming not-such-a-big-secret-anymore. Larry Sanders, on the other hand...he is probably getting a lot of attention if you live in Wisconsin, but nobody else seems to know who the guy is. Yet he is having a fantastic season. 6.3 blocks per48? No one else even comes close. This is a crazy number. He's also a great rebounder. He's just about average at everything else, which means he gives you a dominant defensive presense that isn't a liability on offense (we're looking at you, Greg Stiemsma).
I talked about Drummond in my last piece. I thought he was going to be a huge bust based on his college numbers, and holy cow was I wrong. He's been absolutely amazing. Unfortunately, the management in Detroit does not seem quite as capable at admitting that their pre-season assessment was wrong and are stubbornly sticking to their "he needs work, let's go slow" approach, which is going to cost Drummond his deserved rookie of the year award. He's essentially putting up Dwight Howard numbers and no one seems to care. 18 rebounds per 48. 4 blocks and 2 steals per 48 on only 4.9 fouls (people don't seem to realize how hard it is for a rookie big to do this without fouling a lot). Low turnovers. Oh yeah, and offensively? He's third on the team in true shooting despite being an awful free throw shooter (does this sound like anyone else?). Not only is he the best rookie, he is one of the top 5 big men right now, period, and is by far the best player the Pistons have. Yet he still rarely cracks the 25-minute barrier in any given game. And I'll repeat myself, if the free throws are such a big concern, then burn him heavily in the first three quarters and take him out in the fourth.
That's my list. Who'd I miss?