You have to understand, Unsung Player Day is the kind of idea that sparked HP. An appreciation not for the disgustingly obvious, but the subtle. So I argued on the topic a lot. And there are too many. In the end I narrowed it to two, and I'll be discussing them in separate posts.
The Memphis Grizzlies. All of them.
I know what you're thinking.
"Matt, this is "Unsung Player Day," not "Sucky Player Day." And I understand how you can think that.
But here's the thing.
The Memphis Grizzlies are young, athletic, talented, and work their ass off. They're just not very skilled, poised, or resourceful. They're young. And they're pretty bad right now. But they also don't get the credit they deserve, because of a rebuilding move made by their GM.
The Pau Gasol trade is unquestionably the biggest trade of this season, and arguably the biggest since the Shaq trade to Miami. It immediately pushed the Lakers from up and coming contender to "OMG THEY WILL NEVER LOSE AGAIN EVERZ." But on the other side of it, it also drew a lot of ire from people because of the one-sided nature of the trade.
To be sure, it brought back Kwame Brown, who is the lone exception to my claim that the Grizzlies need to be applauded. He's a waste of space on the floor, whether because of the rough treatment by MJ that warped him, or simply a lack of discipline and focus. People have used the one-sidedness though, to say that the Grizzlies got completely and totally screwed by the trade and now were absolutely wretched. And that's not true.
Now, I'm not saying they're above the bottom five teams in the league. They lack a reliable superstar, a dominating big man, and a true pure scorer. But the reason I chose them for this was because in each game I've seen, ever blowout, every annihilation, every disappointing loss ticking them closer and closer to Michael Beasley, they've still gone out and competed like professionals. And there are a lot of guys that, once this team develops or obtains a superstar, are going to be those vital guys we've read so much about on Unsung Player Day.
Rudy Gay: First and foremost, the Grizzlies now start and end with Rudy Gay. The versatile wing player is now in the top players in the league on 3 point field goals made and dunks. That's a hell of a combo. He's got all the physical tools to be terrific on defense as well. Being in a position like Gay found himself, the star player on a lottery team, Gay could have given up and stopped investing himself at all. Instead, he's committed himself to improving his game, which is the best thing he can do at this point. These are hard times, but by working to become a leader for this squad, Gay can set a tone that will help him be the core player he'll need to be for the Grizzlies when they get back to contention.
Mike Conley/Javaris Crittenton/Juan Carlos Navarro/Kyle Lowry: You do realize the Hawks went out in search of a solid, talented point guard and all they got was Mike Bibby, right? You realize Nate Robinson is starting for the Knicks, right? You are aware that Chris Quinn is a starter for the Heat right now, correct? My point is that point guard is the most valuable position in the league. There's a premium on point guards higher than any other in the NBA right now. While quality centers are impossible to find, there are so few, it's not vital to obtain one. Conversely, there's a plethora of terrific point guards. The Grizzlies are blessed, blessed I tell you, to have what they have at guard. Young, fast, and athletic? They're loaded. If Wallace doesn't go giving away the farm again this summer, they're going to pull in something really valuable, because any of these guys can contribute. They have youth, speed, athleticism, and can score in bursts. And unlike Damon Stoudamire, none of them have become malcontents in a broken season. I understand Stoudamire wanting to contribute now at this stage in his career, but at the same time, I think the Memphis' points have done a good job of not complaining about splitting time or having Conley in the starting role, even though he is likely the greenest of the bunch. They've just plugged away and done a good job.
Mike Miller: Somebody's got to score for them, right? I honestly haven't been too impressed with Miller, who seems to be looking out for his own stats, considering he's pretty likely to be traded. He's got two years at about $19Million left, and he'll be an upgrade for several teams at shooting guard. I will say that although Miller is limited defensively, he does put as much effort as he can towards it. If he hangs around and recommits himself, he could work out for the Grizz.
Hakim Warrick: Talk about a turn around. This guy has proved that if you give him the opportunity, he can succeed. He's actually filled in considerably for Gasol. With size, range, and the ability to run the floor, Warrick has stepped in and instead of pouting his way through the rest of the season has shown that he should have been on the floor from the start, perhaps. I always like it when a guy turns a career around in a lost season.
Darko Milicic: There may not ever be a player that does more without touching a stat sheet than Darko. Now, I'm not saying Darko's worth his contract, nor am I contending that he's a viable starter and a rock to anchor down low. But Darko does a lot of work on the defensive end, and is a tireless worker. Yes, he gets lost in the system, and yes, it would be nice if developed some more offensive moves. And by "some," I mean "a." But Darko's got a lot of the tangibles you need to succeed in this league as a role player, and he improves each season. Being overmatched doesn't make you bad.
Overall: Take a guess at how many teams have a worse scoring differential. If you'd asked me that before I started writing this, I would have said Miami and Seattle. Answer? Six.
The Clippers, Bucks, Wolves, Sonics, Knicks and Heat all have a worse scoring differential. But wait, it gets better!
The Grizzlies play in a division with four playoff teams. And not weak ones. Their division currently holds the #1, #2, #6, and #7 seeds. They're -.66 per each of those games. They're also -14 versus the East, versus -21 versus the West. Who knows how that team would be if they were in the East?
Summation: The Grizzlies are not a good team. This much is certain. But they have a lot of talent, some young players, and cap room for the future. This team is unsung, and they've been professionals through all of it.
For more on the Grizzlies, check out the excellent 3 Shades of Blue.