The 2019-2020 NBA season is finally set to return, with 22 teams invited to Orlando for a chance at the playoffs and the title. This postseason will likely be filled with excitement and controversy due to the nature of this wacky season’s ending.
With 8 proposed regular season games to be played to lock in playoff positions, most teams are already booked for the postseason. MVP talks have already started again for Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James, as well as the annual debate of which team ends up on top.
The spotlight always shines on the league’s brightest, but each star in playoff contention has a supporting cast that also deserves credit where credit is due. This article will highlight 5 of the most underrated players on playoff rosters this season, and what they’ll bring to the table in this season’s playoffs.
1. Khris Middleton
Giannis should repeat as MVP this season and may be the third player in NBA history to win the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year award in the same season, joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. In my opinion, he is the best player in the league at this point in time. He has led the Bucks to the best record in the league with extraordinary offense and defense.
While Giannis is the motor behind Milwaukee’s success, his teammates have every reason to be recognized as well. Khris Middleton in particular has received little publicity for his contributions to the Bucks for the past few seasons. There have even been complaints that he’s only a two-time All-Star because the Bucks have been the best regular season team the last two seasons and deserved more than one All-Star selection, a la Atlanta Hawks circa 2015.
Middleton has done much more than ride on the coattails of Giannis. In fact, his game has enabled Giannis to do what he does. The Bucks’ offense relies heavily on the Greek Freak’s drive and kick game, and Middleton provides elite shooting as well as some extra shot creating when needed.
The numbers alone are fantastic. 21.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game are solid starter numbers, especially as a second option to the best player in the league. What really sets Middleton apart is his efficiency. He’s 0.01% away from being the ninth player in NBA history to join the 50-40-90 club. His shooting splits of 49.9% from the field, 41.8% from three, and 90.8% from the line are impeccable.
2. Jonas Valanciunas
The Memphis Grizzlies are currently the 8th seed in the Western Conference, which would constitute them as a playoff team in any other season. The possibility of a play-in tournament might threaten their spot there, but as of now they are, in my book, a playoff team.
Ja Morant is the likely recipient of the Rookie of the Year award, mostly due to the fact that Zion Williamson hasn’t played enough games to justify his contention. Regardless, he has taken a team thought to be in the lottery and made them relevant in an incredibly competitive conference as a rookie. He hasn’t done it without help, as other young players such as Jaren Jackson Jr. and fellow rookie Brandon Clarke have been putting in work this season.
Valanciunas will be of particular value once the season resumes. The entire Grizzlies roster barely has more playoff experience combined than Damian Lillard has on his own. Of the total playoff minutes played, Valanciunas accounts for half of them. His experience will be vital if their playoff spot comes down to a play-in tournament.
Jonas is no slouch either. He played and started in all but 3 of the Grizzlies’ regular season games so far while putting up 14.9 points and 11.2 rebounds on 58.6% shooting. He’s a double-double machine that can bring this young squad to the next level.
3. Jordan Clarkson
The Utah Jazz currently sit in 4th place in the crowded West, and there’s uncertainty about how the team will manage after strained relationships following Rudy Gobert’s positive Coronavirus test that suspended the season. Set all that aside, and you might recall that starting forward Bojan Bogdonavic had a wrist surgery that will prevent him from returning until next season. His effortless scoring and cluch performing will be missed greatly once the Jazz hit the playoffs.
The Jazz are one of the 12 teams that have clinched a playoff spot since the season was officially shortened, so they need to figure out how to make things work without Bogdonavic’s reliable 20 points per game. Opposing defenses will likely collapse on Donovan Mitchell and make life difficult for him on the court. Joe Ingles will likely fill Bojan’s starting spot, but he’s played more of a facilitator role, leading the team in assists (5.2) while averaging less than double digits in scoring (9.8).
The answer might be Jordan Clarkson, a known shot-chucker that hasn’t started a game since 2017. While playoff teams typically give their starters heavy minutes in the postseason, Utah might look at Clarkson as a viable sixth-man option in order to give them some much needed scoring.
Clarkson was traded to Utah mid season, and in 34 games has averaged 15.6 points per game on a career best 48.2% from the field. In Bogdonavic’s absence, he is Utah’s second leading scorer behind Donovan Mitchell.
4. Goran Dragic
Jimmy Butler has had a fantastic first season for the Miami Heat, and Bam Adebayo is getting recognition with his first All-Star appearance and Most Improved Player votes. The Heat have a great young core with Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson as well. Less mentioned is veteran point guard Goran Dragic who has been extremely valuable to South Beach.
Dragic’s 16.1 points and 5.1 assists per game put him behind Butler and Adebayo in both categories. The catch is that Dragic has only started 1 game all season. He has developed chemistry with the young guys off the bench, particularly Herro, and has helped elevate their game.
The Heat are in a position to make a run in the Eastern Conference, but will need the help of Dragic and his experience to make it past tough teams like the Celtics, Bucks, and 76ers.
5. The entire Oklahoma City Thunder team
I don’t care if this is cheating. When OKC traded both Russell Westbrook and Paul George last summer, no one in their right mind thought they would be contending for anything except for lottery odds. The roster on paper didn’t look bad by any means, but with a trove of picks and a 35 year old Chris Paul as their only star, there weren’t very high expectations. So far, the Thunder have proved a lot of people wrong and have shown that they are in fact a very good basketball team.
OKC has a 40-24 record returning from quarantine, with winning rates on par with the Bucks and Lakers since Thanksgiving break. This team is the real deal and if they can keep their on-court chemistry headed into Orlando, they could make a lot of noise in the playoffs.
Featured Photo Credit: Associated Press
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