When it comes to the NBA, I think fans often give the lion’s share of credit to the main leader of the team. NBA role players in general are underappreciated given that it’s a team sport, yet a lot of fans rank all time superstars as if they beat or lost to other superstars by themselves.
This is a big problem with online debates I have, because casual fans will just look at who beat who, their record against each other etc when there’s so many other factors in play like injuries, coaching, strength of supporting cast, referees etc.
For example, many NBA fans use the fact that the Warriors beat the Celtics this season in the Finals as proof that Curry is better than KD. After all, he beat the same team KD got swept by right? Well.. it’s not quite that simple. We have to take into account that Curry was surrounded by very good teammates – Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, Draymond Green are all very solid players (whereas KD had Kyrie and that’s pretty much it). As well as a very good HoF coach in Steve Kerr (KD had rookie coach Steve Nash). And since I was there in person to watch the 2022 Warriors play the Nuggets this playoffs at Chase center, there’s a lot of things people who don’t watch the entire game won’t know or care about. Like how Otto Porter Jr and Gary Payton II were HUGE off the bench and hit some key 3s in Game 3, which they won by 5 points. Jokic still finished with 37 and 18 and Demarcus Cousins was huge in that game too, but they lost. When you watch the entire game, you can see all the superstars and role players do their thing yet online fans who haven’t watched the whole game will conclude with ‘Curry destroyed Jokic in the playoffs’ which leaves out a ton of context on what actually happened in that game.
People who didn’t watch the full games will always underappreciate the role players. When people say ‘Isiah beat Jordan/Magic/Bird’ how many talk about what Vinnie Johnson and Dennis Rodman did off the bench? How many people saw the clutch shots Robert Horry hit? Or think that Lebron had a ‘superteam’ with Wade/Bosh when in a lot of the crucial Heat games, it was role players like Birdman, Mike Miller and Shane Battier who stepped up for the team? Or think that Kobe ‘carried’ his team to 2 rings when the Lakers had Fisher, Gasol, Odom, Bynum, Ariza and Artest all make crucial plays for those teams? or how the 2011 Mavs didn’t just have Dirk but also had a very deep squad with Kidd, Terry, Marion, Chandler, Barea, Stevenson, Peja etc? How many people know the second leading scorer on the 2006 Heat team was not Shaq, but Antoine Walker? How many people know the 2003 Spurs second leading scorer was Stephen Jackson? How many people know that Jalen Rose outscored Kobe in the 2000 Finals? It’s the role players that always get forgotten.
So that said, although every role player is underappreciated. Here’s my picks for the top 5 most underappreciated role players who were huge for their teams yet hardly mentioned in most discussions.
My definition of a role player BTW: Can’t be a Hall of Famer (or a future hall of famer lock) and 2 all star appearances or less.
The players I will list below have a combined 4 All-Star appearances, yet have a total of 18 championships. Clearly they were undervalued as winners.
a 4x All-Def member, he was the best rebounder, 3rd best player and 3rd best defender on the first 3-peat Bulls. Horace Grant is criminally underappreciated. He has more total win shares than Allen Iverson and Isiah Thomas! He was an All-Star and set career highs in every category as soon as Jordan retired in 1994, then joined the Magic, beat Jordan in the playoffs, then made the Finals again against Hakeem’s Rockets, then finished his career as a valuable role player with the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. Grant just wins wherever he goes. He’s been to 6 Finals and won 4 championships and is hardly ever talked about.
Cooper was the defensive glue guy of the Showtime Lakers the same way Rodman was for the Pistons and Draymond was for the Warriors. His DPOY, 8x All-Def, 5 rings and 9 NBA Finals proves that. Cooper was a winner. Without him, it’s highly doubtful that Magic and Kareem would have as many rings as they do. He was their defensive stopper and would guard everybody from Bird to Andrew Toney to Jordan.
Yes, Iggy makes this list. He’s only a 1x All-Star and it’s doubtful he will be in the HoF. Yet his impact is obvious. Curry’s Warriors clearly don’t have a dynasty without him, as he is one of their top defenders and part of their ‘death’ lineup. Iggy won a Finals MVP guarding Lebron, has been to 7 NBA Finals and won 4 championships. Yes he’s been to more NBA Finals than Curry has! Iggy although everyone knows his value I feel is still underappreciated for just how important he was to the Warriors dynasty. Curry’s Warriors have never won without Iggy on the roster.
Yes, I’m betting most modern fans have no idea who this player is. He was basically the Rodman/Draymond/Bobby Jones of the 1970s. An incredible hustle player, defender and rebounder for every team he was a part of.
Proof of this is his impact: Silas started out on the St Louis Hawks (teaming up with top 75 teammate Lenny Wilkens) where they reached the WCF then lost to the West/Wilt/Baylor Lakers superteam in 1969, then in 1970 he goes to the Suns (teaming up with new NBA superstar Connie Hawkins), then once again losing to the West/Wilt/Baylor Lakers in 7 games. He then goes to the Celtics in 1974 (teaming up with Hondo/Cowens/Jo Jo White) and made an immediate impact there, winning 2 championships in his 4 seasons there. Then he goes to Seattle, teams up with Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma and Gus Williams and makes another 2 Finals appearances with them, winning one. He finishes his career with 3 championships and 4 Finals appearances with 2 different teams. Clearly he was the missing piece a lot of teams needed to win.
I’ve mentioned before how Odom is one of the greatest players to never be an all star. When he started out on the Clippers, it’s obvious to see how talented he was; he was a 6′10 player who was PF-sized and had PF-like rebounding skills, yet played the SF wing position, and was an unusually gifted passer for his size. He passed like Vlade Divac and Chris Webber for a big man which was incredible. Add to that his size and his polish under the post, and you have a player who was very gifted offensively.
However, Odom’s issue was his inconsistency. That’s why although he had decent stats as a starter for both the Clippers and Lakers, he did the most damage when he came off the bench. For Kobe’s 2009–2010 Lakers, Odom was a great sixth man who would come off the bench and still get his 10 rebounds and help the team out. His inconsistency was essentially fixed by limiting his minutes more, but the times when Odom came through was when his team needed him the most. Odom is often marginalized by Kobe fans, but he was a huge matchup problem for most teams since the Odom/Gasol/Bynum combo had huge size and created mismatches for most teams at that time.