Under the Radar Players of the Year

We spotlighted a few of the NBA’s premier glue guys in our annual Trashmen feature, and as the regular season has come to a close, we’d like to honor a few more players that we think deserve more shine (or less criticism) for the shifts they put in this year. For each player here, I’ve included their rank among all regular players (min. 1000 minutes) at their designated position (guard, forward, or center) in win shares per 48 Minutes, wins produced per 48 Minutes, and regularized adjusted plus/minus.

1st Team (Guys everyone knew were good, but were actually great):

G Kyle Lowry, Rockets

WS/48: 9                    WP/48: 9                       RAPM: 11
 

G James Harden, Thunder

WS/48: 2                      WP/48: 2                      RAPM: 9
 

Lowry started the season on a tear, posting averages of 15.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 7.6 assists per game at the All-Star break and garnering well-deserved support for his inclusion in the West squad. Had he been able to stay healthy for more than 47 games, Lowry may have gotten more recognition for the fact that he didn’t just add his name to the list of great young point guards in the NBA – he outplayed damn near all of them. He finished in the upper half of all starters at the position in true shooting, assist rate, rebound rate, and defensive win shares, a feat that only he and Chris Paul can lay claim to.

The list of guards who have averaged .230 Win Shares per 48 minutes for a whole season by their 25th birthday: Oscar Robertson, Walt Frazier, Michael Jordan, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and now, James Harden. Harden’s stratospheric leap from tentative prospect to superstar, set off by the Jeff Green-Kendrick Perkins swap at last year’s trade deadline, is as responsible for propelling the Thunder into title contention as anything else.

F Ryan Anderson, Magic

WS/48: 4                    WP/48: 7                    RAPM: 12
 

F Paul Millsap, Jazz

WS/48: 10                    WP/48: 16                 RAPM: 5
 

Anderson’s 6.9 3-point attempts a game were the 10th-highest mark ever by a forward, and the results were remarkably effective: he hit 39.3% on the year and finished 5th out of all forwards in true shooting. The one caveat about Anderson’s shooting is that he’s not nearly as effective without Dwight Howard drawing in the defense, as he hit on just 16 of 59 3’s after Howard was shut down for the year. Anderson was no one-trick pony, however: among forwards, he had the 4th-highest offensive rebound rate and the lowest turnover rate.

Millsap could always be counted on for no-frills effectiveness in the paint, but has lately expanded his game as well, recording the 8th-highest assist rate of any power forward and finishing 3rd league-wide in steals. The Jazz needed a second-straight career year from their unsung star to challenge for the playoffs, and Millsap more than delivered, carrying a young roster into the postseason a year or two earlier than anyone expected.

C Joakim Noah, Bulls

WS/48: 1                    WP/48: 2                    RAPM: 12
 

The main reason the Bulls were 18-9 in games without their lone superstar? He isn’t their lone superstar. Only Noah and LeBron James finished in the top 10 in the league in both offensive and defensive rating. The top offensive rebounder in the league this year, Noah also excels at the little things, finishing top 5 among centers in assist rate and free throw perentage.

2nd Team (Guys everyone thought were mediocre, but were actually pretty good):

G Jason Kidd, Mavericks

WS/48: 35                     WP/48: 7                     RAPM: 28
 

G Devin Harris, Jazz

WS/48: 29                     WP/48: 39                   RAPM: 42
 

While Kidd used to post triple-doubles with unmatched regularity, he now does well for himself to top 5-5-5, putting up paltry averages of 6.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 5.5 assists. He’s not an offensive maestro anymore, but Kidd is still an impact player at 39 thanks to his elite defense. The Mavericks were 1.9 points better defensively with him on the court, the 4th-highest mark among all guards behind only renowned pests Kyle Lowry, Tony Allen, and Thabo Sefolosha. It’s another odd twist in the career arc of the most unorthodox star of his generation, but as long as Kidd remains a difference-maker on D, he’s a valuable player to have on the court.

As the Jazz’s floor leader and oldest starter for much of the season, Harris demonstrated the nuance and maturity that evaded him as a ball-dominator for much of his career. Posting his lowest usage rate since his early days in Dallas (19.5), he was able to do more with less, matching the highest effective field goal percentage of his career at .518 thanks largely to an improved 3-point stroke (36.2%). He might not be a 20-a-night scorer anymore (11.3 ppg), but don’t interpret his scoring dip as an overall decline – he’s learned to take what the defense gives him, and it’s no coincidence that he’s playing in the postseason for the first time in 5 years.

F Elton Brand, 76ers

WS/48: 16                     WP/48: 20                     RAPM: 21
 

F David West, Pacers

WS/48: 27                     WP/48: 41                     RAPM: 26
 

11 points and 7 rebounds a night seem like a poor return for a guy with Elton Brand’s track record (or $17 million salary), but Brand quietly remains one of the better power forwards in the league, compensating for his declining hops with veteran savvy. Like Kidd, Brand’s primary value lies in his defense, where he ranked 3rd among power forwards in defensive rating and defensive win shares, 6th in block rate, and 9th in regularized adjusted defensive plus/minus.

Making no excuses as he adapted to a new team while recovering from a torn ACL suffered last March, West soon became a vital cog for the emerging Pacers, and his ability to excel in the mid-range was a key reason for the Pacers’ jump from 23rd in offensive efficiency last year to 7th this season. One of the most intelligent 4’s in the league, he finished 5th among all power forwards in assist rate and 6th in assist-to-turnover ratio. He also stretched the floor as effectively as ever, ranking 6th among power forwards in field goal percentage from both 10-to-15 feet and 16-to-23 and serving as the ideal complement for Roy Hibbert’s breakout campaign on the low blocks.

C Joel Anthony, Heat

WS/48: 17                     WP/48: 19                     RAPM: 16
 

The way the Heat’s roster is composed, they’re expected to pretty much cede the matchup at center every night, so it may come as a surprise that the much-maligned Anthony was perfectly, decently average on the whole. He was also a key contributor to the Heat’s gameplan of forcing turnovers and getting out on the break, finishing in the top 10 of starting centers in block rate and steal rate. After looking totally clueless whenever his number was dialed up on offense last year, Anthony upped his usage rate from 5.3% last season to 7.8% this campaign and ranked 3rd among all centers in true shooting percentage.

Are we compounding someone else’s lack of shine by not including them in a list of guys who deserve more shine? Comment on the article or e-mail us at AGRbasketball (at) gmail (dot) com. Don’t forget to follow @AGRbasketball on Twitter and to like us on Facebook.

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