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.

Reports: Rockets not done, looking at Paul George, other possible third big star

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If you’re going to go toe-to-toe with the Golden State Warriors, you can’t have enough elite talent on the roster. Which is turning the Western Conference into a Game of Thrones.

Houston has James Harden and just added Chris Paul — and GM Daryl Morey is not done, he’s targeting Paul George and other stars. That according to multiple reports from ESPN, starting with Jeff Goodman.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey not done yet, source told ESPN. Harden and CP3. Will try to add a third star to compete with Warriors.

The logistics of this would be difficult, but not impossible. The Pacers want a first-round pick, which the Rockets can include if the Pacers will wait until 2020 (the Rockets 2018 pick goes to the Clippers, 1-3 protected, which means they can’t trade 2019). With Sam Decker traded to LA, the Rockets may not have a young player of interest outside of Clint Capella (the Pacers have Myles Turner at center), but the Rockets could make other trades to get what is needed, or a third team could become involved.

The Rockets just traded for DeAndre Liggins, for example (getting them means they are going over the cap, which means they will have the full mid-level exception of $8.4 million to use come July to land another player).

Also possible, the Rockets look for a way to land Paul Millsap (or maybe a lesser version, like Serge Ibaka) in free agency.

The point is the Rockets are going all in — they see the window as now and, unlike much of the rest of the West and the NBA, they are not going to wait and hope for the Warriors to wilt in a few years.

Knicks fans celebrating Phil Jackson’s departure on social media

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When the Knicks hired Phil Jackson, he was a beacon of hope for an organization that had seen dark days. Jackson was going to keep owner James Dolan out of basketball decisions (he did that) and provide a direction for the franchise (he failed to do that).

Now, three year’s later, Jackson is out as president of the Knicks.

That had Knicks fans celebrating on social media.

HALLELUJAH.

A post shared by Spike Lee (@officialspikelee) on

That’s just a small sampling. So all is good with the Knicks now, right?

Report: Clippers trading Chris Paul to Houston Rockets

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All last season and up through another disappointing end to the Clippers season, Doc Rivers kept saying he wanted to bring this Clippers’ core back — re-sign Chris Paul and Blake Griffin because how often do you get a team this good together?

Jerry West was reportedly not a fan of the “run it back” plan. West won. CP3 helped his cause.

The Clippers are trading Paul to the Houston Rockets after the All-Star guard opted into the final year of his contract, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Los Angeles Clippers have reached agreement on a trade to send All-Star point guard Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets, league sources told The Vertical.

Paul, 32, agreed to opt in to the final year of his $24.2 million contract, clearing the way for the Clippers to execute a trade with the Rockets and bring back assets for Paul, league sources said.

The Rockets will send the Clippers a package that includes guards Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams, forward Sam Dekker and a 2018 first-round pick (protected Nos. 1-3), league sources told The Vertical.

The deal does not pencil out as listed, and it may be on hold until July 1 so the Rockets can move other players off the roster to clear space, or they could include a number of other minimum-salary players on their roster to make it work. There are more details to come, but we get the big picture.

Paul told the Clippers he planned to sign with the Rockets as a free agent but it would better if they tried to work out a trade, according to Woj. Opting into the final year of his deal made this possible, without it the Rockets would have had to jettison Ryan Anderson (and get no salary back) plus Beverley to sign CP3 outright. Paul will become a free agent in 2018, but the Rockets will have his bird rights and can re-sign him to a $205 million max deal then. However, by doing this Paul gave up more than $7 million in salary this next season for a better chance to win.

What this means for the Rockets is if Mike D’Antoni can get Chris Paul and James Harden to play well together — not a sure thing, these are both guys who like to operate best with the ball in their hands, controlling the action — they become the biggest threat to the Warriors in the West. It also should be of note that Chris Paul has never played at a pace as fast as D’Antoni’s Rockets play at — CP3 is the best floor general in the game, but he is more deliberate. This is not a perfect fit, but these are two brilliant players and they saw their best chance as together.

This move also is a blow to the Spurs, Nuggets, and other teams that had Paul on their radar.

It’s a boost to Miami, Boston, and other teams that had free agent Blake Griffin on their radar, he is not returning.

For the Clippers, it means they will likely let Griffin and J.J. Redick go and start a rebuilding process, which may include shopping DeAndre Jordan. Do all that and the Clippers could have $70 million in cap space in 2018. Also, that LeBron James to the Clippers rumor, which was already on life support, is now DOA. Everything seems to be on the table. Whether Doc Rivers sticks around for this process remains to be seen.

Report: Kevin Durant will wait until late July, let Warriors sign other players, before inking his deal

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Kevin Durant isn’t going anywhere as a free agent this summer. He will remain a Golden State Warrior. He wants to stay and he wants to win, which is why he already said he would take a little less money so the Warriors could re-sign players such as Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.

Now he’s taking it to the next level, saying he will delay signing his deal — something he could start negotiating on July 1 — until the team’s other players are taking care of. That according to Marc Stein of ESPN.

Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant plans to wait until after the team completes the bulk of its summer business before re-signing with the NBA champions, according to league sources….

“Look for (Durant) to sign later in the month,” one source said this week.

The Warriors first order of business this summer will be to sign Stephen Curry to a “designated veteran” super-max contract, a five-year deal starting at $34.7 million (assuming a $99 million salary cap).

Then they will go about trying to shore up their role players. Iguodala, Livingston, Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, David West, and Matt Barnes all become free agents this summer. Iguodala is the one other teams are targeting — including the Spurs, Clippers, and Timberwolves — and it likely will take $10 million to $12 million a year for the Warriors to keep the guy who just finished second in the Sixth Man of the Year voting.

Durant’s moves help with all of this. Durant is expected to sign a 1+1 deal with the Warriors (a two-year contract where he can opt out next summer and get a larger deal), then opt out next summer and get his deal starting close to $35 million a year.

The Warriors are trying to lock up their core for as long as they can, and they should be a force for the next four or five years. However, the price tag will get expensive, and it will be interesting to see how the Warriors handle that when it gets to 2019 and Klay Thompson‘s contract is up, or 2020 when Draymond Green is a free agent.