Basketball is unique among team sports in that one singular player can impact a game’s outcome more than in almost any other sport. It’s a “team game”, but the influence one player of the level of Michael Jordan or LeBron James can have on the final score is unlike that of a quarterback, ace pitcher or goalie in other professional sports league. Some of this is the dynamic of the game of basketball, scoring is literally half the battle, it’s a high scoring, back and forth affair and raw athleticism will get you farther in five on five than a football field or soccer pitch. Yet, the emergence of “big threes” in the NBA of being the new chic look of title contenders made me ponder just how important having one dominant player in the NBA actually is…and I came to a couple of conclusions. Relaying back to the “take out Jordan” caveat of NBA arguments of my childhood, disregard LeBron James from these hypothetical situations that follow. Those conclusions were (again, taking LeBron out of the equation): 1.) Teams without a true superstar will struggle to break the first round of the NBA playoffs, and 2.) the top echelon (say, ten) of NBA players are so good, they almost equal each other out. On any given night, Kevin Durant (who’s the de facto #2 in today’s NBA) could be outscored by James Harden or Carmelo Anthony. You need one of the three to succeed, but once you get that superstar, it is becoming more and more clear that surrounding him with the right pieces is what is most important, yet most difficult, in today’s game.
The Spurs have spent the last decade or so being the counterpunch to the popular arguments that the NBA is selfish, pro players don’t play defense or do any of the “little things” many appreciate of the amateur game. While much of that is true, they’re built to succeed like anyone else in the NBA. The core of the Spurs for the past couple of decades, really, has been anchored by two hall of famers. David Robinson and Tim Duncan are two of the most complete big men of all time and among the best to ever play the post. The addition of all-star talent in Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli hasn’t hurt, but throughout their championship runs of the 2000s, names like Robert Horry and Bruce Bowen were the cogs in the machine that pushed Duncan & Co. over the edge against hall of famers like Jason Kidd and LeBron James (Cavaliers). Last year, the Spurs fell short to the Heat, but pushed the series to seven games, riding the hot hand of this year’s “x factor”, Danny Green. The same Danny Green, by the way, who spent time dipping his waters in and out of the D-League after getting axed from Cleveland, finding his identity. Last year, he found it, as the compliment on a team full of compliments. He fit right in with names like Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard and was maybe a game seven victory from being the Finals MVP.
The concept isn’t new. Kendrick Perkins and Trevor Ariza owe every paycheck they make to the name they built being “other guys” on different teams. Before that, the dynasty Bulls had a revolving door of “other guys” while they racked up rings, names like Steve Kerr, Tony Kukoc, Luc Longley, Ron Harper are all people who helped build the machine that was the Jordan Bulls. For years, people used the argument that Kobe Bryant couldn’t win a championship without Shaquielle O’Neil. Shaq is one of the best (if not most frustrating) players to ever pick up a basketball, so anybody, even Jordan or Magic would welcome his talents down low. But, there were other pieces on those great Lakers teams, too. Ron Harper won three straight championships with the Bulls, then won two more back to back with the Shaq & Kobe Lakers. Derek Fisher has won five rings during two stints with the Lakers, before and after Shaq. Robert Horry has won at least two championships with three different teams. These guys have made their entire careers being role players. So why do so many teams with superstars at the helm fail to take notice?
The problem seems to be at the NBA level, being a role player is not only undesirable, but very few breakout role players stay within their role, or as sixth men or bench guys after their names become known. Part of it is likely the natural competitiveness of elite professional athletes wanting and believing they can step up and do more. After all, most NBA draft picks don’t come out of college dreaming of shooting a couple of threes, taking a charge and sitting back down. The other part is it is enticing for GMs and execs to throw a lot of money at these guys, money fans and organizations aren’t going to want behind people who aren’t getting starting minutes and touches. Playoff series are contained, singular environments. They’re not always indicative of someone’s talent over 82 games, but they’re given more exposure than a Tuesday night game in Milwaukee. It’s not that guys like Trevor Ariza or JJ Barea are bad players, but the minute they transformed from one of the guys to THE guy, they’ve just dropped off of most fans’ radars. Joe Johnson jumped ship from being the Sixth Man of the Year to being the number one option in Atlanta, reviving the franchise, but hitting a ceiling far too soon. As a role player, Johnson would be one of the most talented escape valves in the NBA. The Nets might have moved into the right direction this year, taking some of the pressure off of Johnson by adding other scoring threats and big time weapons, allowing him to play his isolation game more naturally without taking as many double teams as he did with the Hawks. They also added his role-player doppelganger of sorts in Jason Terry. The two have eerily similar career arcs, Terry making the wise move to narrow his role and adding a title to his resume.
And sometimes, the “other guy” is just too good. Jamal Crawford is one of the best pure scorers in the NBA. When he’s hot, he can light up the scoreboard as much as anybody in the league. But, he’s failed to show dedication to working through the team, not in front of it. That’s something that the best role players all have in common. Someone like Ron Harper could have had himself a nice little career putting up around 20 ppg in Cleveland and missing the playoffs or bouncing out of the first round each year. If you want to be bold, someone like Scottie Pippen would have likely still made the hall of fame being the number one option and face of a franchise early in his career. Finding that middle ground speaks a lot to the dedication the NBA’s best role players have to the team aspect of the game. Every team has to fill out a roster of five guys, but getting the best out of your #3-6 guys each night while staying in sync with the team’s goals is difficult. If it wasn’t, the list of defensive stoppers and three point snipers with fingers full of rings would be much, much bigger.
Who will be this year’s “other guy” of the year? It’s almost unfair that Ray Allen is a role player for a team like Miami, but those are the breaks. Tony Allen turned heads last year as the defensive mastermind behind Memphis’s deep and surprising playoff run. Joakim Noah is one of the most fun players to watch in the NBA. He’s high energy, he’s exciting and he does all the jobs nobody else wants to, especially his higher paid counterpart Carlos Boozer. Speaking of the Bulls, Luol Deng was a breakout player of sorts last year, but will likely be more important to the Bulls now that he can take a diminished role with the return of Derrick Rose. Serge Ibaka is already one of the best defenders in the league, and on a team alongside Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, he’s never going to have to carry the brunt of the team’s weight. The scariest part is we’ve likely only seen very little of who Ibaka can become as a player. What do players like Noah, Deng and Ibaka have in common? They’re on teams led by NBA superstars and they’re rarely asked to fill out a stat sheet. Just don’t be surprised if one of their names is dominating ESPN next summer.