Friday, September 12th, 2008 at 8:00 am  |  47 responses

Know Your Role

The six types of role players every team wants.

by John Krolik

Every team has superstars, and every team has three or four guys that it pins its hopes on every year. Then, there are the other eight guys on the roster.

Some role players are simply worse versions of good players – when they come in, you cringe as they toss up bad shots, dribble into double-teams, and get treated like a yield sign on defense as you anxiously pray that they’ll get pulled and your team can put the lineup you trust out again.

But other players know their role, play it well, and often have as much impact as the guys lighting up the scoreboard. Teams like the Spurs stockpile these players, and the Knicks have a hard time finding one.

Six types of role players every team wants

1. The Mistake-Free Backup Point

There are many different types of backup point guards – the Houseian shoot-first, second, and third microwave man, the Arroyan “push” guard who changes the pace for a few minutes. Clearly, these types can be effective – the teams that just met in the Finals featured a push guard in Jordan Farmar and a shoot-first guard (the aforementioned Eddie House) manning the backup role.

But the most agreeable model for the backup point is the one who won’t cost his team possessions, handles the ball well, gets his teammates involved early in the shot clock, and hits open shots to keep the defense honest.

Why they’re tough to find: It’s exceedingly difficult to find someone who was the best player on the floor for the first 18 years of his life, give him the ball every possession, and not have him try to do something he shouldn’t be doing with the rock. And it’s hard enough to find a starting point guard who can really read defenses and make solid decisions with the ball anymore. And they’re supposed to be good enough scorers to force defensive attention to boot.

Guys who fit the bill: Brevin Knight, Derek Fisher, Antonio Daniels, Keyon Dooling, Jose Calderon – he was so freakishly efficient, he produced like an upper-tier starter although he was technically a backup.

Example of this player on the Spurs: Jacque Vaughn

2. The Bona Fide Sniper

If you forget about these guys from behind the line, they’re going to hurt you, and badly. However, most of the time these guys are role players good for 2-3 open threes a night off the bench.

Why they’re tough to find: Like great golfers on the green, great shooters can get unexplained cases of the “yips” and go ice cold with no way to get themselves going. And since they don’t create their own offense, they can disappear for games at a time. And a lot of great shooters are tough to keep on the floor defensively.

Guys who fit the bill: Daniel Gibson, Jason Kapono, Sasha Vujacic, Kyle Korver, Peja Stojakovic – he’s so good at hitting catch-and-shoot three’s he’s actually better than a role player.

3. A “Three-and-D” Shooting Guard

These guys aren’t quite the shooters that the Bona Fide Snipers are, but they’re great athletes and defensive stoppers who don’t require the ball in their hands.

Why they’re tough to find: If you want to be a defensive stopper, you’ve got to be a hell of an athlete. And most great athletes aren’t good enough shooters do be effective camping out behind the line. And from an ego standpoint, it’s hard to find a great athlete who can drain threes who’s going to be enthusiastic about doing all the hard work on defense but never getting to create plays on offense – an entirely thankless job. Maybe that’s why Bruce Bowen, Raja Bell, and DeShawn Stevenson seem to have all this anger inside of them.

Guys who fit the bill: Raja Bell, DeShawn Stevenson, James Posey, Sasha Pavlovic (06-07 vintage), Mickael Pietrus.

Examples of this player on the Spurs: Bruce Bowen, Ime Udoka. Note: The Spurs were also the first team to sign Raja Bell to a contract, and tried to transform the great James White into Bowen’s protégé. The Spurs love these guys.

4. The Energy Big

These players don’t control the paint defensively or wield efficient post-games, but run around the court like they’re on fire, make every loose ball a fight to the death, get off the floor like it’s a trampoline, and are always looking to stun the defense with a quick dunk. They’re generally undersized, but make up for it with sheer disregard for their body.

There are two sub-divisions: the Turiafian jumping jack, who constantly goes at 140 percent and love to get around the rim and energize the crowd, and the Milsapian banger, who isn’t quite as exciting but always fearless in the scrum around the basket, accumulating And 1’s and boards at a frightening rate.

Why they’re tough to find: First, put on a pair of stilts, a 50-pound backpack, and sprint back and forth for 20 minutes straight. Then do it while intermittently jumping into walls and getting back up again. You’ve got to be both a phenomenal athlete and insane to fill this role. The energy required often causes a lot of these guys to lose their mojo when they’re put into the starting lineup and asked to sustain for 30+ minutes.

Guys Who Fit the Bill: Paul Milsap, Leon Powe, Ronny Turiaf, pre-holdout Anderson Varejao, Jason Maxiell, Carl Landry, David Lee.

Example of this player on the Spurs: San Antonio don’t have one, but the whole team loves dirty work, and they do have some Duncan guy in their starting lineup and bigs who make up for their lack of Maxiell-like springs through toughness and savvy.

5. The D-And-Dunk Center

Like the “Three-and-D” Shooting Guard, these players fit into a starting lineup and do the dirty work. These guys don’t have post moves or a perimeter game to speak of, but they patrol the paint on defense and provide an interior lynchpin. While on offense, they acquit their lack of skill by setting screens, never trying to do too much, moving without the ball, and finishing with authority.

Why they’re tough to find: Great interior defenders are tough enough to find, and most of them force you to play 4-on-5 offensively because of their lack of skill.

Guys who fit the bill: Tyson Chandler, Andris Biedrins, Erick Dampier, Andrew Bynum, Kendrick Perkins.

Example of this player on the Spurs: Fabricio Oberto definitely fits the bill on offense while helping Duncan control the paint.

6. Robert Horry

The ultimate role player, he stretches the defense and hits outside shots, mixes it up defensively, always makes good decisions, fights for loose balls, and most importantly, his team always seems to win freaking championships.

Why they’re tough to find: Mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book The Black Swan, stated something to the effect of if you give millions of men a quarter and have them flip it 100 times, someone will have gotten heads every time, and he’ll be called a genius. While there’s certainly a similar an element in Horry’s coronation as the role player who excretes winning, (seriously, how did that ball go from Vlade Divac to him?) he’s capitalized on every opportunity to prove his worth.

Example of this player on the Spurs: Robert Horry.

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  • Peat

    Derek Fisher is NOT a mistake-free point guard, always forcing shots and missing every layups he tries.

  • Peat

    and first !

  • andrew

    I would’ve liked this better if there were no Spurs in it.

  • Froggiestyle

    Tee hee, big shot bob USED to be the snit but he pulled a major no show in the playoffs (age or nerves John?) _ now Jason Maxiell – - – - – Ooohhhh every team needs to clone this cat and have at least one on the bench. I wish him a long and injury-free career.

  • http://www.myspace.com/2536545 Bryan

    Was this a kiss the spurs ass piece or what?

  • http://twentythreenine.blogspot.com Russ Bengtson

    I’ll bet if you gave 10 million men quarters and had them flip 100 times each that not a single one of them would get heads every time. Plus, you’d be out $2.5 million in quarters. That’s alotta laundry.

  • Pve84

    My dislike for the Spurs knows few boundaries, but this was good. You’ve got to give propers where propers are due.

  • http://www.another48minutes.blogspot.com Gerard Himself

    Example of this player on the Spurs: Robert Horry


  • Ken

    I’m sorry, but jacque vaughn does not “hit open shots to keep the defense honest.” Not even close.

  • Fresh

    Very Intriguing article…can you also put the Pistons in the category with the spurs…or it looks like New Orleans or Utah might fit that pretty well

  • http://twentythreenine.blogspot.com Russ Bengtson

    I know it’s semantics, but I can’t help but think a lot of the players you listed aren’t role players. Tyson Chandler? Peja Stojakovic? Andrew Bynum? I think of a ‘role player’ as a guy making somewhere between the minimum and the mid-level brought in to perform a specific task, either because that’s what a need is, or because the player in question is unable to do much of anything else. I’m thinking guys like David Lee or Jared Jeffries or Chris Duhon (contrary to your statement, the Knicks are chock-full of role players). And the D-and-dunk center—heck, that’s what most centers are, including Dwight Howard. I think the traditional role-player center is either one or the other, a guy who can get you a couple quick buckets or a guy who can get some stops.

  • http://twentythreenine.blogspot.com Russ Bengtson

    I guess I’m just saying there’s a subtle difference between role players and players who play a role. The former CAN only do one thing, the latter are only EXPECTED to do one thing. Or two things, or whatever. For example, Kyle Korver is a role player, Mehmet Okur plays a role. Least that’s the way I see it.

  • http://hibachi20.blogspot.com Hursty

    Jeez ‘Wild ass Chuck Hayes’ is a better defender and energiser bunny than Landry ( although Landry is crazy athletic). If you include Bowen as a 3 and D then surely Battier has to be included as well.

  • http://hibachi20.blogspot.com Hursty

    I agree with you there Russ. In your opinion, does that make Hayes a role player, while Battier is no longer a role player, but someone who ‘plays a role’ since he earns more than that?

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  • http://www.nrl.com.au Money Bill Williams

    ummm Peja is a former all star and coming off his best year in a coupla years, and hes the 3rd or 4th option on his team depending on your stance on chandler

  • http://www.nrl.com.au Money Bill Williams

    and yes i agree with russ also

  • The Last Kings Fan

    Helluva article there John

  • riggs

    bruce bowen plays a role, and that role is a$$hat.

  • B. Long

    Peat is an fu(king moron. D-Fish is possibly one of the best role players in the last 15 years. He fits his teams offense perfectly and routinely hits big shots and makes the right decision 99 times out of 100. He also plays great D. Watch more than one game in the finals before you speak.

  • http://www.slamonline.com Matt Caputo

    Great Post!!! Antonio Daniels should be who every kid hopes to be. He plays a realistic role and hardly ever makes mistakes.

  • http://shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com/ TADOne

    I heart Jason Maxiell. Now, if he could just get that free throw shooting fixed, Detroit would be in business.

  • http://shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com/ TADOne

    Also, I agree with evrything Russ has said. I’m sure Golden State didn’t gibe Biedrins $60 mil because he was an awesome role-player.

  • http://shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com/ TADOne


  • Z

    I really like that distinction b/n role players and players who play a role… Kinda like Artest with Houston now, he’ll play a role…

  • Z

    Adelman loves himself some undersized pfs.

  • Flint

    Andrew Bynum should not be on the D and Dunk list…he has a post game

  • KA

    i LOLd good at number 6. now this is a story…

  • LA Huey

    Good to see props given to the oft-hated Spurs.

  • thesubwayconnection


  • Quail

    if Horry is so good, y does he never play anymore? think about that one…

  • http://hoops4life.com overtime

    Great article, though you forgot Brent Barry in the sniper section.

  • NBK

    Bynum does not have a post game….yet he is just so long it looks like he does but all he is doing is dropping the ball in the hoop uncontested. Greg Oden will show how he has no post game first day of the season

  • NBK

    Horry doesnt play anymore because he is 37 and can’t run he is on the spurs for the last 45 seconds of the half and the game

  • B. Long

    Mountain Drew’s bionic knee is gonna crush Greg Oden’s bionic knee.

  • bumarty

    Am I the only one who was surprised to see Sasha Pavolvic and Defense in the same sentance. This is the same Sasha who was quoted saying, “My offense is my defense”, and I’m a Cavs fan. I also think Rodney Stuckey should have made the back-up PG list.

  • http://freedarko.blogspot.com/2008/04/of-golden-eagles-and-maltese-falcons_11.html John Krolik

    Re: Stojakovic, Chandler, Bynum, et al.-I’m pretty sure I refer to Peja as being better than a role player in the article, and in the early drafts there was a disclaimer regarding calling good D-and-dunk guys role players. They’re as value as nearly any other member of the starting lineup, they just aren’t creators. I agree with Russ’ comment-I’d call Shaun Marion a role player, and one of the best players in basketball. Hell, Bill Russell.

    Barry was just a total brain-fart-I absolutely meant to include him as the Spurs’ sniper, obviously. And Battier was another glaring omission-he’s better at being Bruce Bowen than Bruce Bowen is at this point.

  • Ross

    This is the difference between Atlanta vs. Boston .. Atlanta without question had the talent, but lacked the role players to do the little things that win/lose critical games .. make no mistake though, the additions of Maurice evens and a full season of Bibby with the addition of a big that can hold down the middle, will be what brings this team together ..hopefull the coach can lead them

  • Boing Dynasty

    what was the point of giving an example from the spurs for every role?

  • Bruno

    some “mistakes” but a very good reading
    very, very good indeed.

  • Nick

    DFish never forces shots, he isn’t great at layups but he doesn’t go for a lot of them. His turnover rate is also very small. which means he takes care of the ball. You Peat are a retard.

  • MeloMan13

    calderon aint no role player

  • http://www.ravingblacklunatic.blogspot.com Allenp

    Very enjoyable article. Two quibbles. Brevin Knight really can’t shoot, and numbers 4 and 5 seem pretty similar.

  • chintao

    Great article, one bone to pick. Winning is great, but I don’t want to be anywhere near Horry when he is EXCRETING winning. It just sounds nasty….

  • solly what

    4. Energy Big— Malik Rose was the DEFINITION of this back when he was on the Spurs. Thomas just didn’t know what to do with him on the Knicks… hopefully D’Antoni will figure that out.

    Derek Fisher and Antonio Daniels were also both Spurs for a significant (and usually life changing) point in their careers. The Spurs are really woven into the whole “key player” idea/philosophy. Fascinating article.

  • Consiglieri

    Great article!! I always thought that most of the american fans are blind to role players and they enormous impact in the real game (not highlight reels). In the NBA, the SPURS are the better using them, clearly.

  • http://hearthur.blogspot.com philos

    Well, they have their energizer bunny in DeJuan Blair now.