Sunday, May 23, 2010

What happened to the role player?

Seriously though. These days, every team with a decent draft pick is looking for a superstar, whether they already have one or not. It just doesn't work in the league today. An unfortunate legacy of Jordan is that every player dreams of not just winning, but winning it by themselves. But you can't have a whole team with that attitude (just ask Doc Rivers), and the NBA operates under a superstar & company system these days. The go-to guy is carrying more and more of the burden, but then complains about having no superstar help. But here's the thing, that isn't what LeBron needs, that isn't what Wade needs and it wasn't what Kobe needed. You need good role players.

Let's use Jordan as an example. Jordan played with Pippen, who is a Hall of Famer and one of the best small forward of all-time, but his lack of an ambition was his greatest asset. The reason the Pippen/Jordan tag-team worked was because Pippen was happy to take what Jordan gave him (especially after Mike up and left on him to play baseball for a little while). Pippen was happy to let Mike be "the guy" and just do his part. The same goes with the rest of the championship Bulls teams. The Chicago front office did a great job of filling the roster with players who were happy to let Jordan be the star if it meant winning. Bill Cartwright, Horace Grant, Paxson were the perfect fit in the original 3-peat. Second time around they found more role players in Kukoc, Kerr and Rodman. It was said that Jordan made the players around him better, and they did. But it was only because they weren't so ambitious as to step outside their roles. Each and every player on those championship teams knew their roles and knew how to get the best out of what Jordan gave them. It was also because Jordan knew how to keep himself in check and let the others do it for themselves.

I said earlier that LeBron didn't need superstar help. LeBron is talented enough and versatile enough to carry a team on his shoulders given the right sole players. James doesn't need the one-two punch, he needs a supporting cast. Honestly, he already has the right role players around him, it's just that Mike Brown is incompetent and didn't get his rotations right. JJ Hickson is the perfect supporting cast member for LeBron, when he was getting more minutes he did a great job being another threat on the pick and roll and moving off the ball. So too with Anderson Varejao and Anthony Parker. Bringing in Jamison seemed like a good idea at the time, but it disrupted the chemistry and forced LeBron out of his rhythm. I think Jamison would be best served coming off the bench to get some scoring happening while Lebron takes a breather at this stage in his career when Lebron is capable of playing 40+ mpg for a season. James is at his best when it's all on him and the other players are dependent on his creativity to get involved in the game. Mo Williams is an All-Star because he played in LeBron's wake. Unfortunately, the Cavaliers packed too much talent into one team and it wasn't possible to fit into one team.

I'll say this right out, a role player isn't so labelled because of talent. It comes down to what the team needs. Right now, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett are both role players for Pierce and Rondo, taking what the defense gives them. Now I say this because what I'm about to say might upset some people. Pau Gasol is a role player, and a damn good one at that. There is no way another superstar could shine on a team with Kobe Bryant, but like Pippen, Gasol is happy to take what Bryant gives him and embrace the role of second option. To my mind the difference between a role player and the superstar is ball dominance. If you need a ball in your hands, you don't have a place in the supporting cast. Gasol does his best work on the low post and getting boards. He tried to carry a franchise, and it didn't work. Superstar is probably the wrong word to describe a non-role player, because you can be a superstar role player like Gasol. Phil Jackson is the common denominator in creating a great system of superstar and role players winning a championship.

Despite this need to create superstars, role players are still getting the occasional high draft pick. Recent examples that come to mind are James Harden and Hasheem Thabeet. Harden was drafted before reigning ROY Tyreke Evans, but I still think it was the right move. The Thunder have a promising point guard who plays a vital role in drawing attention away from Durant in Westbrook, and KD is a legit superstar. Harden brings a guy who can create his own shot, but also works hard without the ball in his hand. Given a chance to grab Tyreke for the Thunder now, I still wouldn't take him. The same can be said for Thabeet. Despite having a huge upside (read as: raw as French meat), he will never be a superstar. In a team with OJ Mayo and Rudy Gay, two young players who are capable of huge games, they didn't need someone else fighting for the ball and minutes. While it is too soon to say for sure, drafting lottery role players could be the reason why the Thunder made it to the playoffs, and the Grizzlies weren't too far behind.

I guess what I'm saying is that this drafting philosophy of "take the best player" regardless of position is a bit daft. Teams need to look long-term and draft to put the pieces together, regardless of how high the pick is. This is a legacy of Jordan, where the drafting of Sam Bowie over Jordan because Portland had Clyde Drexler has become a cautionary tale. But I back that decision, it was the right move for the team, and hey, they got to the Finals with Drexler didn't they? Talent shouldn't be the be all and end all of value for the team, recent role players who were drafted and contributed straight away like Taj Gibson, Wesley Matthews and Serge Ibaka will lead to a greater level of success than creating a logjam of players wanting to be the top dog.

I'll touch back on this idea of superstar role players when I get into free agency talk, but that'll do me for now.

Until next time, cheers.

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