The NBA, as are most major sports, is a star-driven. LeBron James, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, etc. carry the day in regards to popularity, production and success, whether on the court or otherwise.
That said, and despite what some may say to the contrary, no one man can take home the Larry O’Brien trophy alone. That star may carry the day, but even the best need a team around them to win at the highest level — players that do the dirty work and raise their team without recognition for their effort and, more often than not, the pleasure of the spotlight.
So, we at Basketball Insiders have done our best to acknowledge some of those players, to give them the recognition they truly deserve. We’ve already looked at the Atlantic, Central, Northwest, Pacific and Southeast — we even tabbed some executives that deserve further credit. Today, we look at the Southwest.
Derrick Favors — New Orleans Pelicans
Favors, from the shadow of Rudy Gobert into the frenzy that was Zion Williamson-mania, has gone underappreciated for much of his NBA career.
Never a stalwart on offense, Favors has faded into the background of a league driven by it. A modest 9.2 points on just under seven shots per game in his first season with New Orleans — albeit on an impressive 62 percent clip — was never going to jump out of the boxscore. And, unfortunately, it has caused so many to overlook the massive impact Favors has had on the glass and on defense.
Favors, for a number of reasons, spent the first quarter of the season in and out of the lineup. Once he was restored to a regular role, however, his presence proved more than noticeable: one of the worst defensive groups in the early going, the Pelicans have since improved to eighth in both defensive points allowed per 100-possessions and effective field goal percentage allowed.
A major deterrent in the paint, Favors’ return has forced the opposition, who were already avoiding plus-defenders Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball on the perimeter, to rethink their strategy against the Pelicans. Combined with his work on the glass — 9.9 rebounds per game — and Favors has proven steadying presence at a position that, beyond rookie Jaxson Hayes, New Orleans just has no high-upside depth at, and he deserves to be recognized for it.
And that isn’t to say Favors is only an impact on defense, either. His 3.3 offensive rebounds per game, good for eighth in the NBA, is also a major reason as to why the Pelicans are third in second-chance points.
Dejounte Murray — San Antonio Spurs
Murray’s case is similar to that of Favors. The fourth-year guard made a name for himself on the defensive end, earning an All-Defense nod as a 21-year-old sophomore.
But Murray’s offense? Let’s just say it lagged behind.
There’s a reason Murray made a name for himself on defense — there just wasn’t much of anything for him to work with on offense. Murray not only struggled as a shooter in his first two seasons, but rarely created for his teammates, facts that were only pronounced by his limited touches.
That said, Murray took a massive step forward as an offensive threat this season. Unfortunately, amidst the league shutdown and the COVID-19 pandemic, his growth seems to have been overlooked.
In 58 games, after a year lost to a right ACL tear nonetheless, Murray has set multiple career-highs, including points (10.7), rebounds (5.8), assists (4.1) and field goal attempts (9.3) per game, field goal percentage (47.5%) and three-point field goal percentage (37.8), among others.
As the team has continued to evolve in the post-Tim Duncan era, the fact that head coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs have asked Murray to be a key cog, a primary contributor on offense and defense is no small honor, either.
And, clearly, Murray has responded, thriving under the weight of greater responsibility. And, only 23-years-old, that’s likely only the start.
Jonas Valanciunas — Memphis Grizzlies
Valanciunas is old school, a throwback to the center-dominated, pre-three point boom NBA. But, while that may leave him forgotten when talking about the league’s best at the five-spot — look up “underrated” in the dictionary and you just might find Valanciunas’ picture — it certainly hasn’t made him any less valuable to the Grizzlies.
Like Favors with Williamson, Valanciunas has flown under the radar playing alongside rookie phenom Ja Morant. But, despite the amount of time he’s spent on the court without the ball, Valanciunas has managed a career year: 14.9 points per game, second only to the 15.6 he averaged a season ago, to go along with 11.2 rebounds, a career-high and good for sixth in the NBA, 1.1 blocks and an effective field goal percentage of 60.8 percent, also a career-high. Valanciunas also posted 33 double-doubles, good for 12th best in the NBA.
And he’s managed it just over 26 minutes per game. Not just anyone could put up those numbers, fewer in so few minutes.
Valanciunas even began to expand his range: while he only attempted 1.3 shots per game from beyond the arc, he managed to knock them down from distance at a solid 36.7 percent clip. Only 27, Valanciunas going the way of Brook Lopez, old school big turned three-point marksman, certainly isn’t out of the question.
But, even if he doesn’t go that route, Valanciunas certainly deserves some vindication for his play. Before the season was put on pause, the Grizzlies were in position to make the postseason for the first time in three seasons.
He may not flash like some, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to mention Valanciunas in the same breath as the perceived best centers in basketball.
P.J. Tucker — Houston Rockets
With the Golden State Warriors no longer in their way, the Rockets saw their chance. In a major move toward an NBA Finals bid, Daryl Morey dropped Chirs Paul and brought the James Harden-Russell Westbrook act to Houston.
But, while they’ve proven the show’s main players, P.J. Tucker has played as important a role as any.
Tucker, a hard-nosed, do-the-dirty-work type, would be valuable, if not underappreciated, by any team. But, as Mike D’Antoni and Co. have shifted further toward positionless “small-ball,” Tucker has become central to their identity: defense, switching, forced turnovers, etc.
And, while they struggled in the season’s early going, the 6-foot-5 “center” had anchored one of the NBA’s better defenses in recent weeks.
While his 7.1 points per game aren’t exactly game-breaking, Tucker’s 37 percent three-point shot certainly can be with Harden and Westbrook, two of the NBA’s most gifted passers, patroling the backcourt as well.
By the nature of his game, Tucker will forever be hard-pressed to stand out amongst his teammates. But, should Houston prove successful in their bid for a Finals appearance, let alone in their quest for the Larry O’Brien trophy, know that Tucker will have played a not-so-insignificant part in that success.
Tim Hardaway Jr. — Dallas Mavericks
Could any player average more than 15 points per game, shoot more than 40 percent from three and somehow still be regarded as underrated?
Just ask Tim Hardaway Jr.
Of course, playing with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, it would be hard for anyone to steal the spotlight in Dallas. But, as the team’s third-leading scorer, Hardaway has proven a critical piece to the team’s success and is deserving of some recognition.
No longer burdened with the weight of a primary option, Hardaway has flourished offensively — while his scoring averaged has dipped a bit compared to his 18.1 points per game from last season, his shooting percentages are up across the board, including a career-high 40.7 percent from three. Meanwhile, there’s something to be said about the fact that Hardaway’s success in his own role has further enabled Doncic and Porzingis in their own play and success.
But there’s more. Defensively, Hardaway has been trusted to defend the opposition’s top option on more than one occasion; like Murray with Popovich, that type of trust coming from a coach as respected as Rick Carlisle means something special.
So yes, the NBA may be a star-driven league. But remember, behind every last one of them resides plenty of other players that deserve to be recognized as well. If you haven’t already, make sure to check out the rest of our Underrated series, and keep on the lookout for more from us here at Basketball Insiders.
And, more importantly, stay healthy and safe!