Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.
Give us the most key underrated player on a title-contending team.
Steve Aschburner: Not sure how below-the-radar to go with this: Does Serge Ibaka qualify, since he’s yet to be an All-Star but gives Oklahoma City its “edge?” Or are you looking for someone at the Nick Collison level, because he’s a very helpful rotation guy at both ends? On further review, I’ll just punt and say San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard.
Fran Blinebury: Kinda sounds like two questions wrapped in one, or at least one question that can be interpreted several ways. I’m going to assume you’re looking for the non-star who must step up for his team to win a championship and, in that case, nobody will face more scrutiny and more heat (upper and lower case versions) than Kevin Martin. He’s replacing last season’s Sixth Man of the year, the guy who’s become a breakout star in Houston, the back-up point guard, the clutch performer, the late game free-throw maker and the one who shot down the Spurs in the Western Conference finals a year ago. If he can fill all those roles through June, nobody will ever call K-Mart underrated again.
Jeff Caplan: My pick is the man who had the seemingly seamless transition in Oklahoma City, the man who made Thunder fans quickly forget about James Harden. The pressure is on Kevin Martin to perform like a star in the postseason to get OKC back to The Finals, and compared to his younger teammates, Martin is a virtual playoff newbie with just six career playoff games under his belt, and that was six years ago. Martin has struggled lately, scoring in single digits in four of the last eight games. In those four games, OKC is 1-3. In a playoff series, teams are going to attack Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as best they can — we know the Heat can do an excellent job of this — and Martin is going to have to step up to make defenses pay.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Kawhi Leonard. Despite understated numbers, his rebounding and the complementary offensive role will have a say in how far the Spurs go in the playoffs. The early returns are encouraging. Leonard stepped up to the pressure with a nice showing in the 2012 postseason as a rookie, exceeding regular-season numbers in many cases.
John Schuhmann: This may be an obvious answer and it also may be a silly answer, because being a productive complementary player is easier when you’re on LeBron James’ team. But Shane Battier is a critical piece for the Heat on both ends of the floor. Offensively, he’s been a better 3-point shooter than Ray Allen, and it’s no coincidence that the Miami offense has reached ridiculously efficient levels with how well Battier has been shooting over the last month. It’s no secret that he’s a smart and effective defender who sometimes has to take on a dirty-work assignment against opposing power forwards.
Sekou Smith: While I’m not a fan of his box out tactics, Serge Ibaka’s play in the postseason is going to be crucial to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s chances of returning to The Finals and trying to finish what they couldn’t against the Heat last year. Ibaka should be a double-double machine, but he’s had just 10 in 57 games. The Thunder essentially chose him over James Harden last summer, ramping up the pressure on their young shot-blocking expert and increasing his salary and expectations simultaneously. Ibaka’s talent is undeniable. Whether or not he’s ready to realize that potential this season and into the postseason is the one lingering question surrounding the Thunder.