Know Your Role

by September 12, 2008

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.