Arron Afflalo

Examining the NBA role player standard

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No kid logging hours in their school gym longs to be an NBA role player, but the talent structure of the league dictates that some serve more complementary functions than others. There are those who adorn billboards and there are those who do not, and though superstars make the NBA world (and turnstiles) go ’round, the quality of the entire league’s operation wouldn’t be possible without a wide range of capable and kind-of-capable supporting types.

Among them are certain archetypes — the grizzled floor general, the project big man, the step-slow NCAA scoring standout — and fluid incarnations of the role player standard. Typically, such incarnations are merely flavors of the week; the Spurs’ championships made every team want a Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry’s title travels made him a standout, and Trevor Ariza’s supporting spot on a winning Lakers team earned him a big paycheck and an oversized role. Playoff success does wonders for the career of any role player, as evidenced by the fact that J.J. Barea’s stock has never been higher.

Rewarding the success of good role players on good teams is important, but truly valuable ones deserve better than a mere five minutes of fame whenever their club happens to be doing well. Most eyes remain fixed to the shiniest of superstars (and if not them, the talented core of All-Stars and quasi-stars the league has to offer), but as basketball fans grow more and more savvy to the complex dynamics of teams and the NBA game, so too should they gain in their understanding of the value of the NBA role player as a singular concept. Such complementary talents can toil away on bad squads — or mediocre ones — just as stars can, and though they may not be as topical as the supporting cast of a top-level team, quality play deserves mention and, more importantly, accurate appraisal.

So underneath the light cast on the role players of the moment should be an appreciation of who the best complementary players in the league are, and why exactly they excel at what they do. The range of the term “role player,” may differ from observer to observer, but the precise boundaries of that term matter little compared to an understanding that NBA players can be worthy of praise regardless of their limits. Basketball players need not be given epithets outlining what they cannot do; it’s just fine to appreciate any player for performing well in the role they’re given, even without providing an asterisk and explanation that they may not be suited for something more.

With all of that in mind, here are a few nominees for the role player standard, the contemporary players with the most universal supporting application with an acknowledgment of their sub-star limits:

Arron Afflalo, Denver Nuggets

Afflalo came into the league as a defender, but has improved his offensive skill set dramatically since his rookie season. That defensive efficacy has remained a crucial part of Afflalo’s game, but once compounded with an incredibly accurate three-point stroke, a more comprehensive defensive game, and some subtle new tricks in his offensive repertoire, Afflalo was able to take his previously unremarkable performance to new heights. He’ll never have the offensive punch to become all that much more than he is, but Afflalo is a three-and-D swingman with modern sensibilities — an ever-useful combination of specific utility and understated versatility. What basketball team on the planet couldn’t use an Arron Afflalo?

Nick Collison, Oklahoma City Thunder

Collison has carved out a name for himself in the stat-minded basketball community with his sterling +/- and adjusted +/- numbers, but Collison’s unselfish offensive game is an unheralded part of his total contributions. He’s established an interesting on-court rapport with James Harden, a player who, as a fellow member of OKC’s second unit, is able to take full advantage of Collison’s passing from the high post. He screens hard, he rolls into open space, he rebounds effectively, and he brings a level excellence to both individual and help defense. Collison is who he is, and while that won’t garner him All-Star consideration, it certainly does well for the Thunder — as it would any NBA club.

Goran Dragic, Houston Rockets

The jury’s still out on what will become of Dragic’s NBA future, but at the very least he figures to be a competent pro for a long time. He may find a starting job somewhere down the line, but for now he’s a capable, productive reserve who contributes on both ends of the court. Dragic can thrive with or without the ball — a valuable skill for a player of his type, whose role is largely determined by who he plays alongside. His ability to create for himself and others gives him an ideal flexibility for a complementary guard.

Report: Celtics agree to guaranteed contract with Demetrius Jackson, partially guaranteed deal with Ben Bentil

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 25:  Demetrius Jackson #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after defeating the Wisconsin Badgers with a score of 56 to 61 during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament East Regional at Wells Fargo Center on March 25, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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The Celtics are slowly but surely taking care of their eight (!) 2016 draft picks.

They’ll sign No. 3 pick Jaylen Brown. No. 16 pick Guerschon Yabusele and No. 23 pick Ante Zizic will remain overseas. The Nos. 31 and 35 picks were traded for a future first-rounder on draft night.

And Boston has reached terms with No. 45 pick Demetrius Jackson and No. 51 pick Ben Bentil.

Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

As second-rounders, neither Jackson nor Bentil count against the cap until signed. So, the Celtics — with a little cap space plus the room exception and minimum-salary exceptions available — might wait a while to officially sign either player.

Jackson would give Boston 16 players — one more than the regular-season roster limit — with guaranteed salaries. Obviously, the Celtics will have to make a move — a big one, they surely hope.

Any deal could avoid a point guard, because Jackson makes four with Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier. Most teams carry just three.

With this roster crunch, Bentil will probably head to the D-League after training camp. The partial guarantee is likely just designed to entice him to stick in Boston’s system rather than sign overseas.

This leaves just No. 58 pick Abdel Nader unaccounted for among the Celtics eight (!) 2016 draft picks.

Spurs sign 2013 first-rounder Livio Jean-Charles

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With the 76ers signing Dario Saric, that left just five players drafted in the first round before this year who are still active but haven’t played in the NBA:

  • Nikola Milutinov (No. 26 by Spurs in 2015)
  • Bogdan Bogdanovic (No. 27 by Suns in 2014)
  • Livio Jean-Charles (No. 28 in 2013 by Spurs)
  • Petteri Koponen (No. 30 in 2007 by 76ers)
  • Fran Vazquez (No. 11 in 2005 by Magic)

San Antonio trimmed the list by one.

Spurs release:

The San Antonio Spurs today announced that they have signed forward Livio Jean-Charles.

Because Jean-Charles was drafted more than three years ago, he’s not bound by the rookie scale. San Antonio could have signed him to a scale or standard contract.

The Spurs could use more length and athleticism on the frontline behind LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, and Jean-Charles fit the bill when drafted. But he tore his ACL and missed the following season. It’s less clear the 22-year-old is still on track to help.

 

Count on Dewayne Dedmon as a far safer bet to provide San Antonio with that dimension. If Jean-Charles helps, that’d just be a bonus.

DeMarcus Cousins: All-NBA voting ‘absurd,’ ‘joke,’ ‘popularity contest’

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 21:  DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings and DeAndre Jordan #6 of the Los Angeles Clippers battle for rebounding position at Staples Center on February 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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DeMarcus Cousins was the only All-NBA player on a lottery team this year.

The Kings center made the second team behind DeAndre Jordan.

Credit voters for seeing past Sacramento’s dismal record and recognizing Cousins’ individual excellence. He has only so much power, and it would’ve been unfair to disqualify him due to his subpar teammates and coaching.

Cousins’ voting breakdown:

  • First team: 32
  • Second team: 28
  • Third team: 33
  • Not on ballot: 33

I wouldn’t have picked Cousins for an All-NBA team, but this struck me as voters being open-minded about an unconventional candidate — one from a losing team.

Cousins sees it differently.

Cousins, via Michael Lee of Yahoo Sports:

“I don’t even know what an expert is any more,” Cousins told The Vertical about the all-NBA votes. “I mean, I had some guys, didn’t even vote for me, and that’s absurd. It’s a joke. It really is. It’s a popularity contest. It’s the guys who like them, it’s the guys they like, the guys they get to see on a nightly basis. I still don’t feel I get the respect I deserve. But I’m going to keep grinding. I’m going to stick with it.”

I wouldn’t have voted for Cousins. I put Draymond Green, Jordan and Al Horford at center for the PBT Awards. So, I obviously didn’t find omitting Cousins absurd.

Likewise, I wouldn’t have found including Cousins absurd. He wasn’t far behind in a deep crop of center candidates that also included Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, Hassan Whiteside and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Though Cousins posted monster numbers — 26.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks per game — he contributed to the toxic environment that derailed Sacramento’s season. That counts, too. So does Cousins missing 17 games.

But before we get too far down the rabbit hole of sober analysis, remember this: Cousins, for better or worse, always has a huge chip on his shoulder. Of course he thinks he was slighted.

In fact, many voters find that stubbornness endearing. That’s why a popularity contest didn’t keep Cousins off some All-NBA ballots.

His season, while very impressive, just wasn’t overwhelmingly dominant enough to demand inclusion on every single ballot.

DeMar DeRozan didn’t meet with Lakers because he wanted “legacy of my own in Toronto”

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 18:  DeMar DeRozan #9 of the 2016 USA Basketball Men's National Team stands on the court during a practice session at the Mendenhall Center on July 18, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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DeMar DeRozan was going to be one of the Lakers’ free agent targets last summer — an All-Star wing who could come home to Los Angeles and slide right into Kobe Bryant‘s now vacant spot in the rotation. But like the Lakers’ other top targets — Kevin Durant, Hassam Whiteside, etc. — the Lakers didn’t even get a meeting.

Durant’s reasoning was expected: “I really respect their team. I just thought they were a couple years away from where I wanted to be.”

DeRozan went another path — he loves Toronto and wants to carve out a legacy there, as he told Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily recently:

“When you have an opportunity to go home, that’s something that certainly would cross your mind. But it wasn’t anything,” DeRozan told Southern California News Group. “After I finish playing, I’m pretty sure I’ll live in L.A. But I just wanted to do something special and leave a legacy of my own in Toronto.”

DeRozan is big on loyalty — he has the word tattooed on his hands. If he says he’s in for something, he’s all the way in. And he is in for Toronto — he and Kyle Lowry have built what that team has become. The Lowry/DeRozan backcourt fueled the Raptors to the best season in franchise history last campaign — 56 wins and reaching the Eastern Conference finals. Nobody who knew DeRozan thought he would walk away from that, not even for the chance to play for the team he grew up idolizing.

The Daily News story does a fantastic job of showing DeRozan is still loyal to Los Angeles, too — he is a regular at the Drew League to this day. He loves L.A.

But that’s different from leaving an impressive Raptors team for the Lakers.