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.

Sacramento King’s Ty Lawson denies violating DUI probation

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DENVER (AP) — Sacramento Kings point guard Ty Lawson has denied that he violated his probation in a Colorado drunken driving case by drinking and failing to complete community service.

Lawson and his attorney Harvey Steinberg made the assertion Thursday during a brief appearance in a Denver courtroom. In addition, Steinberg said Lawson wanted his vehicle equipped with an interlock device that would test him for alcohol consumption so he could prove he’s not drinking.

The judge agreed and plans to hold a hearing in May before deciding whether the former Denver Nugget should get a more severe punishment.

Probation officials allege Lawson tested positive for alcohol three times in the past six months.

He was arrested twice on drunken driving charges in 2015, first in Denver and then in Los Angeles.

Shocking news: Carmelo Anthony still doesn’t like triangle offense, wishes they played previous way

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Can we just start another Triangle vs. pace-and-space argument with the obvious: It doesn’t matter what offense the Knicks run when their defense is this bad.

New York has the fifth worst defensive rating in the NBA this season, and it’s been slightly worse since the All-Star break. The Knicks as a team don’t show much effort on that end of the court, they are the worst defensive rebounding team in the NBA, and they are fourth worst at creating turnovers. If you don’t get stops and just try to outscore teams, even if your offense is good you don’t win consistently.

Whew. Okay. All that said, the Knicks offense isn’t that good, it’s been pedestrian most of the season. There is talent there — Carmelo Anthony can still get buckets, Kristaps Porzingis is a rising star and scoring machine, Derrick Rose has his moments, and there are role players who can knock down shots. Part of the problem has been the push-and-pull between Phil Jackson (with friend Kurt Rambis as an assistant coach) pushing for the triangle, vs. coach Jeff Hornacek wanting to run a more modern offense. Right now the pendulum has swung back toward the triangle, with that set to be the offense next season.

In a surprise to nobody, Anthony prefers the pace-and-space style offense, and wish the team would just stick with just one offense, as he told the New York Post.

“Early in the season, we were winning games, went on a little winning streak we had. We were playing a certain way. We went away from that, started playing another way. Everybody was trying to figure out: Should we go back to the way we were playing, or try to do something different?…

“I thought earlier we were playing faster and more free-flow throughout the course of the game,’’ Anthony said. “We kind of slowed down, started settling it down. Not as fast. The pace slowed down for us — something we had to make an adjustment on the fly with limited practice time, in the course of a game. Once you get into the season, it’s hard to readjust a whole system.”

Anthony may not need to worry about the Knicks offense next fall as he may well not be with the team.

The question for the Knicks is, how many free agents can they draw willing to play in the triangle? Of course money talks, but guys with options will consider the system and how they fit in it.

Spain’s national coach said both Gasol brothers, Ibaka, Mirotic all want to play in EuroBasket

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Spain is the defending EuroBasket champions, the best team in Europe (they won the Bronze medal in Rio after two consecutive silver medal Olympics). Which shouldn’t be a surprise when you consider the talent pool: Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Nicola Mirotic, Ricky Rubio, and a host of top international players who were in the NBA (Rudy Fernandez, Juan Carlos-Navarro, Sergio Rodriguez, and on down the line).

Spain could bring a loaded team to the tournament, their coach Sergio Scariolo said in a radio interview, transcribed at FIBA.com.

“Pau has also told me he’s coming,” Scariolo said. “All of them want to see how they finish the season. For them to say that they’re looking forward to coming and asking what we’re going to do is a first good step, but then we have to wait and see how they end the season – the physical status of those that have to take part in the play-offs. We have to wait until then to have a definite idea but the pre-disposition of all of the players is very good.”

“We’ll begin training on 28 July and we’ll have to change our way of playing with respect to the last two years when Marc hasn’t been here,” Scariolo said. “We’ll have to incorporate him. It’s an important readjustment and there are many things that we’re working on.”

“(Nikola) Mirotic and (Serge) Ibaka have confirmed their availability,” Scariolo said to Onda Cero radio. “Obviously there is a different status and situation, but all of the players have confirmed to me their availability, although with certain provisos. Each has his own circumstances and own situation, but the availability of all is very good.”

Scariolo will have to choose between Mirotic and Ibaka if both want to play, they are both naturalized Spanish citizens, and only one of those can be on the roster.

That said, Spain heads into EuroBasket this summer as the team to beat. So long as all those players decide they are healthy enough to play.

Stan Van Gundy on slumping Pistons: “We’re just bad all the way around”

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If the playoffs started today, the Detroit Pistons would be out golfing. Or fishing. Or partying in Cabo. The point is, they would not be playing.

Which is stunning — this was a 44-win team a year ago that seemed on the rise and is anchored by Andre Drummond in the paint. This year they’re four games below .500 and lost five of their last six, including back-to-back losses to the Nets and Bulls the last two days. In the month of March, the Pistons have been outscored by  4.4 points per 100 possessions. They are now tied with the Bulls 1.5 games back of the Heat for the last playoff slot in the East.

Stan Van Gundy, you’re coach and GM in Detroit, what do you think of all this? (Via ESPN’s Nick Friedell)

“The message I gave them is, ‘Look, we got 10 games left,” he said. “And if we don’t change the way we’re playing, this is going to get really, really ugly.

“We didn’t defend at any point in the second half. We didn’t defend much in the first half, either. Just really disappointing. We were 33-33, got tied, back to .500 after that New York game [on March 11], ran into a buzz saw in Cleveland [three nights later], and that’s it. We haven’t bounced back. It’s like we took that one hit and have not recovered at all. Have not played a decent game since then. This is six bad games in a row.”

“Right now, we don’t have a lot of life in us, and we got to find some by Friday,” Van Gundy added. “It’s just not one position, either. We’re just not playing. We’re not. We’re just bad all the way around.”

The Pistons have what should be winnable games against Orlando and New York coming up on the road, followed by an important matchup next Tuesday against Miami. Detroit needs wins now, because their schedule the rest of the way is about as tough as Miami’s, but Chicago has a soft finish to the season that could see them string together wins (maybe, Chicago has its own issues).

Whatever happens the final 10 games, Van Gundy and his team have some serious assessing to do this summer, some trades to make, they need to figure out what works and go with it. Because this season did not work.