Who are the key role players on contending teams?

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In the NBA, you win with star players (except if you’re the 2004 Pistons, the exception to every championship rule). They’re the guys you lean on in the closing minutes of tight games. The guys that can affect a game with their sheer talent and turn what looks to be a sure loss into a win.

But, even the most star studded teams need contributions from role players to reach the mountain top. The Derek Fisher’s. The Robert Horry’s. These players may not get the headlines day in and day out, but when looking at the rosters of title winning teams their names stand out. Without them, some of the brightest stars the game has seen might have a few less pieces of jewelry on their fingers.

This year’s title contenders are no different. They all have at least one key role player that will be depended on to be a difference maker this season. Who are they? Let’s explore…

Ray Allen, Miami Heat
Allen is used to playoff pressure cooker. He’s been around the block multiple times throughout his career and has stuck the dagger into opponents in the biggest games imaginable. When the moment is the biggest, you know what you’re going to get from Ray. He’s going to stroke that sweet jumper of his and opposing fans are going to hold their breath when the shot is in the air.

But Ray comes to Heat no longer one of his team’s best players. Once part of Boston’s big three, he joins a new triumvirate that’s not only already formed but has already tasted championship glory. With this group he’ll be asked to play a supporting role in limited minutes and excel while doing it.

And, for the first time in his career, there are questions as to whether he’s up to the task. How will he perform coming off the bench for the first prolonged stretch of his distinguished career? Is his defense up to a high enough standard to close games on a team that is already so good on the wing? After a somewhat disappointing playoffs last season, how many more jumpers do his legs have in them?

Knowing Allen’s history, he’ll prove any doubters wrong and hit a few more big shots for the Heat this season. But if Allen falters or if he can not approach his normal standard it will have a big affect on the Heat. Dwyane Wade, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers, and Shane Battier will need to play heavier minutes than planned. And for a team that’s coming of two straight Final’s runs it would be nice if Allen could soak up some minutes to keep those guys fresher throughout the marathon that is an NBA season.

Antawn Jamison, The Los Angeles Lakers
Jamison is the epitome of the accomplished veteran at the end of his career chasing a ring. He’s been a top scorer in the league and his team’s go-to guy. He’s gone to all-star games and won awards. What he hasn’t done is taste that champagne after his team wins its last game of the season. This is why he came to the Lakers.

The question is, however, does Jamison have enough left in the tank to be a key contributor on a title winning team? After 14 seasons of going being a featured player, it’s more than a fair question. And, so far this preseason, he’s not yet looked like the difference maker off the bench that the Lakers need him to be. His jumper has been erratic and the in-between game that’s been a staple of his success throughout his career has been more miss than hit. And there are, of course, still the long standing issues of his defense and rebounding. Those aren’t exactly the qualities the Lakers signed him for.

No, Jamison will need to hit shots and do so at a consistent enough rate to give space to the front court partner he’s flanking. Be it Pau Gasol or Dwight Howard, Jamison must be seen as a threat to the defense to help give them the room they need to operate in the post. To say nothing of the room created to Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash on the perimeter. His scoring punch and the ripple effect it will have are tantamount to this Laker team.

Jamison has never had a role this important for a team this good. If he can play well, the Lakers are one major step closer to solidifying their bench and shoring up a major weakness from last season. If he’s not, they’ll have an even greater chance of being exposed even with the start power at the top of the roster.

Eric Maynor, The Oklahoma City Thunder
There may not be a more unheralded player that’s returning from injury in the entire league than Eric Maynor. Guys like Derrick Rose and Ricky Rubio are franchise altering talents, but it’s Maynor that plays on one of the clearly elite teams and can literally mean the difference between the Thunder advancing to the Finals or not; between winning a title or not.

No, he’s not one of the Thunder’s big three superstars. But Maynor is one of the league’s best (if not the best) back up point guards. And for a team that had to rely on Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher to back up Russell Westbrook last season, that’s a huge difference. Especially for a team that was so close to winning the title.

Maynor not only offers the Thunder a scoring threat off the bench but also a floor general that can run the team should Westbrook falter. Before he tore his ACL, Scott Brooks could turn to Maynor at any time to settle his team down, get them into their sets, and get the team going in the right direction. That type of luxury is so valuable to a team that, even with all its talent, can still be prone to lapses of judgment and too many unproductive possessions.

Maynor also offers them lineup flexibility, giving them a key contributor to any small-ball lineup Brooks wants to deploy. For example, a grouping of Maynor, Westbrook, Harden, Durant, and Ibaka gives the Thunder a unit that can match up with the position-less Heat lineup that gave them so many issues in the Finals. There’s no hiding defenders against a lineup like that.

Word is that Maynor is fully recovered from his knee injury and should be ready to return to the form he showed before he got hurt. If that’s the case, one of the best teams in the league just added another fantastic young talent to flank their already stacked core. If he’s not, the Thunder will once again be stuck playing below replacement level players behind Westbrook.

Jeff Green, The Boston Celtics
Green is one of the most uniquely positioned role players in the league.

First, he’s coming back from missing an entire season due to having heart surgery. Second, he signed one of the more “wait, he got how much?” contracts this past free agency period. And third, he’s coming back to a Celtics team that has made itself over with smart signings and a solid draft to the point that they’re thinking their window isn’t quite yet closed yet.

How Green performs in the middle of all this remains to be seen. As a tweener forward, he’ll be asked to play in both big and small lineups and use his versatility on both sides of the ball. There will be times that he’ll have to chase small forwards around the perimeter on defense and then attack them in the paint on offense. The next night he may be spacing the floor on offense while playing on the back line of the C’s vaunted defense directing traffic while he hedges and recovers on a pick and roll.

Green has never proven that he’s been up to such responsibilities and that’s one of the reasons the Thunder were okay trading him away for Kendrick Perkins. Yes, his versatility was nice but at some point he needed to show that he could to deliver at a high enough level in those areas rather than just being good at them. With the Thunder, he never did get that done.

Will that change with these Celtics? Will coming off the bench help his game? Will playing with a point guard savant like Rajon Rondo (rather than the more shot happy Westbrook) help him find his stride on offense? Will learning at the altar of Kevin Garnett help him with his defense?

The Celtics can only hope that the answers to those questions are in the affirmative. They’ve invested a fair amount of time and money into Green and for them to be as good as they hope to be, they’ll need him to live up to his lottery talent.

The Good, the bad, the ugly: A breakdown of the Carmelo Anthony trade

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It was always a question of when, not if, Carmelo Anthony would get traded. However, Anthony’s no-trade clause and desire to go to Houston with Chris Paul and James Harden led the drama to drag out all summer. When Anthony realized his choice was to add teams to his list or go to Knicks camp because a Houston deal was not happening, he added the Thunder, and well, that escalated quickly. Thunder GM Sam Presti and new Knicks GM Scott Perry had a long history, they had already laid some groundwork on possible scenarios, and when Anthony opened the door, Perry and the Thunder rushed through.

Anthony is headed to the Thunder for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and Chicago’s 2018 second round pick. The trade will be finalized Monday with the league.

Let’s break down the good, the bad, and the ugly of this trade.

THE GOOD

The Oklahoma City Thunder. One year ago, when Kevin Durant announced he was joining the gold rush in California, other teams were speculating how things could — more likely would — fall apart for OKC. Would they have to trade Westbrook when the frustrated star wasn’t happy? Except Westbrook signed an extension (essentially for one year), then went on to win the MVP. Now the Thunder went out and got Paul George and Anthony to go around Westbrook, three stars on a team that already had a solid foundation of role players (Steven Adams, Patrick Paterson, and Andre Roberson, for example).

The Thunder went all in — and it’s a brilliant move. It’s a risky one because Anthony, George, and Westbrook (when he opts out) all will be free agents next summer and they could all walk, but if the Thunder had done nothing but run back last year’s team Westbrook almost certainly walks. Now, they have as good a shot as anyone at dethroning the Warriors. Yes, a healthy Golden State team may be too much, but when you have a superstar in his prime like Westbrook, you go for it. The Thunder went for it.

The big question is will the big three learn to sacrifice, and will they do it fast enough? Talk to players that won a ring and they talk about needing to sacrifice part of what they do for the good of the team (taking fewer shots, or Andre Iguodala coming off the bench, or whatever). These three have not had to make those kinds of sacrifices before. Will they? And if they will, can they figure it all out fast enough (because all three are almost certainly not back with the Thunder, the cost would be too great)?

Still, this is a bold stroke move. You have to love it.

Sam Presti. The Thunder GM has long been seen as smart and shrewd — he drafted both Westbrook and Harden in spots most teams thought were too high. But this must be his greatest summer yet. Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post put it best.

Next time I buy a car, I want Presti to negotiate. I may only be able to afford a Toyota Corolla, but he’s going to get me a Tesla model X.

Russell Westbrook. Last season it was Russell Westbrook against the world, and he won. He averaged a triple-double — the first player to do it since Oscar Robertson — and dragged the Thunder to the playoffs. But now he’s got some serious help. Westbrook showed he can carry a team, now he’s got the chance to show he can lead a team, that he can make players — superstar players — better.

That is a double-edged sword. It’s an opportunity, but it’s also a challenge — the Thunder just added two players with much higher usage rates than any teammates he had last season. As noted above, is Westbrook ready to make the sacrificed needed to win at the highest levels? If Westbrook is up to the challenge he is in the mix for another MVP award, but if not things could move from the good to the ugly category in OKC.

Carmelo Anthony… but be careful what you wish for.
He is out of what had become a toxic environment with him in New York. He is with two other superstars who have a chance to compete at the highest levels of the sport. Anthony may not have gotten his wish to go to Houston, but he got his wish to go to a team that is relevant. A team that could be on a big stage in May.

If Billy Donovan can convince Olympic ‘Melo to be on this team, the Thunder look dangerous. That’s a guy that didn’t worry about minutes or starting, didn’t stop the ball on offense but flowed with the game, and that’s a guy that didn’t demand touches. Anthony could be splitting a lot of time with Patrick Patterson (once Patterson gets healthy) and when OKC needs defense it may turn to Patterson at the four (or Andre Roberson for stretches). Will Anthony make the sacrifices and accept that? Could he lead the second unit for stretches while Westbrook and George rest? Anthony got what he wanted, now he has to prove he deserves it.

The New York Knicks. This trade isn’t really good or bad for the Knicks, but the movie was not “The Good, the bad, and the meh” so we had to put them somewhere. Here is what is good about this trade for the Knicks: They get to make this Kristaps Porzingis‘ team. He is out of the shadow of Anthony, and while the Knicks will lose a lot of games this year, they have a clear path now going forward (Porzingis will need to step up into that leadership role). Also, Kanter is a solid big man (so long as they don’t expect much defense from him). Maybe McDermott will play enough defense in a contract year to provide value beyond his shooting. That 2018 second-round round pick is essentially a late first rounder, the Bulls are terrible so that pick will be no worse than 33 or 34. They can get a good player there.

THE BAD

The New York Knicks. Remember how much the Knicks gave up to get Carmelo Anthony? Four quality players went West, plus picks and other pieces. It is still looked back on around the league as a textbook example of how not to trade for a superstar — don’t strip your team to the bone to get one guy (the Knicks made a host of other mistakes that, combined with Anthony, led to an up-and-down tenure for him in NYC). This trade was the opposite of that, the Knicks didn’t get much in return. The Knicks had been seeking a starter-level wing player, they didn’t get that. They got a pick, but it’s a second rounder. At least they didn’t take any bad contracts on in the trade. The Knicks take a step back with this deal, and while that may be the best thing for them, it still lands them in the bad category for now.

The Los Angeles Lakers. Paul George probably is still going to leave OKC and become a Laker next summer, his camp made his thinking very clear.  However, if George and this improved Thunder team make a run — let’s say 57+ wins then they get to the Western Conference Finals, things that are certainly possible — George and Westbrook are more likely to look at each other and decide to stay together with the Thunder. This is bad for the Lakers because the chances of George leaving Oklahoma City just went down, even if it’s just slightly.

THE UGLY

The Houston Rockets. This is ugly for them on two fronts. First, they thought they were going to get Anthony. There was nobody else in the bidding (because ‘Melo wouldn’t waive his no-trade clause for anyone else) so they had all the leverage. The Knicks didn’t want to deal with the circus of bringing Anthony to camp, they might cave, and the Rockets would get their man. Except the Knicks didn’t cave, Anthony expanded his list, and ‘Melo is now headed to the Thunder.

Second, this puts another elite team in the West. There are four now in a conference that is more Game of Thrones than NBA: House Warriors, House Spurs (everyone sleeps on them, don’t do it), House Rockets, and now House Thunder. Those may well be the four best teams in the NBA (only the Cavaliers and maybe Boston could come close to saying they are on that level). Golden State will probably end up sitting on the Iron Thone next June, but there is going to be a lot of hard battles and between now and then — and two of these teams aren’t even going to get out of the second round, which will be seen as a failure.

Warriors respond to Trump, say trip to D.C. will “celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion”

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Last spring during the NBA playoffs, Warriors coach Steve Kerr did not hesitate to criticize President Donald Trump. Stephen Curry also has taken issue with the president and some of his policies.

Saturday, the Warriors were going to discuss an invitation to Trump’s White House — a tradition in many sports where the champion is invited to meet the president and do a photo-op — but on Friday Curry said he would vote no. With that, Trump pulled his invitation.

Saturday the Warriors released a statement.

“While we intended to meet as a team at the first opportunity we had this morning to collaboratively discuss a potential visit to the White House, we accept that President Trump has made it clear that we are not invited. We believe there is nothing more American than our citizens having the right to express themselves freely on matters important to them. We’re disappointed that we did not have an opportunity during this process to share our views or have open dialogue on issues impacting our communities that we felt would be important to raise.

“In lieu of a visit to the White House, we have decided that we’ll constructively use our trip to the nation’s capital in February to celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion — the values that we embrace as an organization.”

That’s classier than some of the responses from others around the NBA to Trump.

The Warriors’ David West explained why the team was leaning toward backing out of going to the White House, and the players’ opposition to Trump.

There would be a number of charitable things the Warriors could do in the area, and the team’s high-profile would draw attention to whatever they choose to focus on. It’s a good move. Try to rise above this silly fracas over a photo-op and do some good.

Report: Suns’ Alan Williams suffers torn meniscus, will miss time

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Alan Williams is a guy who worked hard for his spot in the NBA. The UCSB alum started with a 10-day contract, then parlayed that into a Summer League deal where he shined. That evolved into a full season contract with the Suns last year, and they liked what they saw enough to give him a three-year deal this summer (for $17.4 million total).

But now the fan favorite is going to miss at least the start of the season due to a knee injury, reports Chris Haynes and Marc Spears of ESPN.

How much time Williams will miss will depend on the degree of the tear and the course of treatment, but he’s going to be out for training camp and the start of the season.

Williams was already going to be in a fight for minutes on a team fairly deep in the frontcourt with Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, Alex Len, Tyson Chandler, Anthony Bennett, and Jared Dudley. This setback does not help his cause.

Enes Kanter thanks Thunder fans in video, urges team to beat Warriors

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Enes Kanter loved playing in Oklahoma City.

Which made the fact he was traded to the Knicks for Carmelo Anthony difficult. Kanter had been through a lot, his political stance against the ruling party in his native Turkey led to his family being forced to publicly disown him (and his father being arrested and questioned multiple times), plus his passport being revoked while he was in Europe as Turkey tried to force him to return (where he would have been instantly arrested). He has said on multiple occasions that the people of Oklahoma City, and the Thunder organization, provided him a home when his native one was yanked away from him.

He said that again in a thank you and goodbye video to the people of Oklahoma City.

Kanter said he had “no hard feelings. I understand it’s a business.”

He also urged the now-stacked Thunder to go out and beat the Warriors.