Author: Rob Mahoney

Arron Afflalo

Examining the NBA role player standard


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.

Hakim Warrick eyes a bounce-back year for himself and the Suns

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Every NBA team has lofty aspirations by the time training camp rolls around, and it seems that even the league’s holding pattern couldn’t quell the preseason optimism of a particular spokesman for a landlocked team.

The Phoenix Suns aren’t in the best of shape. They haven’t had a chance to make any significant additions to their roster, and are left with the same crew that ranked 25th in defensive efficiency last season. There’s a reason, after all, why trading Steve Nash and blowing up the roster is a topic worthy of discussion; without considerable young talent, free agent additions, or even some token change within the roster, there’s no need to even ponder the Suns as a potential contender. They’re firmly entrenched in the middle glut of the Western Conference if they hold on to Nash, and potentially a cellar-dweller if they deal him.

Things aren’t exactly looking up in Phoenix. Yet Hakim Warrick still has his eye on a playoff spot for the Suns, which would be a reasonable, incremental gain for a team that’s lacking in more considerable upward mobility. From Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic:

“We definitely think we can be better. The game of basketball comes down to two or three possessions here or there and we could be a playoff team. As the season went on, we got more comfortable.”

In the first season of a four-year, $17 million contract (the fourth year is a team option), Warrick had his lowest scoring average since his 2005-06 rookie season with Memphis. Warrick, 29, averaged 8.4 points and 4.2 rebounds despite averaging 12.1 points over the season’s first 25 games. His playing time of 17.7 minutes per game was also his lowest since he was a rookie.

“I really want to get out there,” Warrick said. “I’m excited to play better because I know I can play better. I didn’t have the season I expected and that I know I can have. I want to go out and prove that I can do better.”

Can Warrick be better this coming season? Perhaps, but not because his production had somehow regressed. Warrick’s per game stats did, as Coro notes, drop a bit, but only because his minutes played per game were the lowest since his rookie year. Warrick was who he always has been: an athlete good for about 17 points and 7.5 rebounds per 36 minutes, a flighty defender, and a decent finisher. We saw precisely what we’ve seen from him throughout his career, which is exactly why it would be within reason to expect more. They typical athletic forward may not be expected to make a jump at 28, but for a dunker playing a prominent role alongside Nash? The uptick in field goal percentage was nice (Warrick posted a career-high .511), but Warrick was poised for a more comprehensive improvement by playing with the game’s premier playmaker.

Maybe he’s still due for that bump, or maybe Warrick will return to the NBA court as-is. Regardless, any projected improvement can only take the Suns so far. The team’s problems are more complex than Warrick playing poorly or playing well; until the Suns seriously rethink their roster construction, they’ll have little chance of doing more than sneaking into the playoffs, if the hyper-competitive Western Conference even allows that possibility.

Shane Battier may be looking for more money than the Grizzlies are willing to spend

Memphis Grizzlies v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game One
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Shane Battier isn’t quite the defensive force he once was; even the plus-minus data that illustrated his worth to teams like the Houston Rockets — not to mention made him the subject of Michael Lewis’ renowned piece for The New York Times — has turned on him of late, leaving Battier as merely a competent defender with an above average three-point stroke. He simply isn’t suited to defend elite players on a nightly basis anymore, even though his skills certainly warrant a regular place in a high-level rotation. Some playoff club out there will do well for themselves by giving Battier minutes, but that club may not be his most recent team, the Memphis Grizzlies.

From Ronald Tillery’s Memphis Edge blog for the Memphis Commercial Appeal (via Yahoo’s Scoop du Jour blog):

I’ve heard (and this is not fact) that Battier is seeking a contract starting at the mid-level exception (or around $5 million). I’ve also heard the Griz aren’t willing to pay that. So Battier is absolutely right when he says we’ll have to wait and see what the new CBA looks like. No one knows what the exceptions will be if there are any at all.

Battier was a nice fit in Memphis, but he’s not essential there. Tony Allen can do a lot of the defensive heavy lifting, and O.J. Mayo and Sam Young are competent defenders 0n the wing. Plus, Rudy Gay…well, there’s always room for improvement, right?

So the fact that Battier and the Grizzlies aren’t quite seeing eye-to-eye on this rumored annual salary isn’t the greatest tragedy, nor is it in any way the downfall of last year’s fun and surprising Memphis team. All of the core pieces are still in place, and with Gay returning to the rotation in the coming season, minutes for the remaining wing players would be slashed anyway. Allen is due regular burn as one of the league’s top perimeter defenders, while Young and Mayo sop up what’s left of the minutes in reserve. Gay led the Grizzlies at 39.9 minutes per game when healthy last season, and accounting for that amount of playing time requires concessions elsewhere. Battier — as a non-essential component and an unrestricted free agent — is the logical choice.

Meanwhile, every club with a need for a 3-and-D wing player (and really, who couldn’t use an extra one coming off the bench?) will likely be calling up Battier once free agency officially begins. It remains to be seen whether $5 million is an appropriate figure for Battier on this year’s market, but it’s not a ridiculous mark for a solid complementary player.

Heat uniquely positioned to take advantage of possible amnesty clause

Miami Heat v Dallas Mavericks - Game Three

In addition to the free agent bonanza that will take place following the conclusion of the lockout, there is now a distinct possibility that an amnesty clause — akin to the 2005 Allan Houston Rule — will release even more players back onto the open market. For those unfamiliar, such an exception would allow teams to cut one player on their roster without facing any luxury tax penalty for that player’s contract. And, unlike the 2005 amnesty rule, the proposed clause would also remove the cut player’s salary from the team’s salary cap figure. It would functionally wipe clean the entirety of a player’s contract, save for the tiny penalty of the team actually having to pay it. The players would still be guaranteed whatever money is left on their deals, but for the purposes of the team’s moves with regard to the cap and the tax line, those contracts would no longer exist.

A slew of formerly overpaid players would then be added to the free agent market. There are plenty of interesting talents in the league overlooked because of their considerable financial dues, and contending clubs would likely be able to make a run at one or two contributing players with their salary cap exceptions alone (should such things still exist under a new CBA). That kind of free agent influx would help one team in particular; Brian Windhorst of’s Heat Index explains:

This week the Portland (Ore.) Oregonian reported that there’s a consensus among owners to include another amnesty clause in the new CBA that would help clear space in what are expected to be more restrictive salary caps. Of course no one can predict the future but the signs continue to indicate the new deal will have some sort of amnesty option in it.

That’s where the Heat would come in. They would be an attractive destination for players who might be released under such a clause. Because of the free agents they signed last summer, the Heat probably are out of any bidding wars for free agents for the near future. But players who are “amnestied” are likely to sign cheaply, probably at whatever the veteran minimum would be, as they would not have lost any money from their previous contracts.

The Heat need a big man, a point guard and always could use shooters. They can make calls and recruit all they want but signing big-ticket free agents like Nene, Tyson Chandler or J.J. Barea is a pipe dream. But what about getting Rashard Lewis, Baron Davis or maybe even Brandon Roy for cheap? These are all instant candidates to be released under a new amnesty provision and all, in their own ways, could help the Heat.

No team would be more attractive to prospective free agents than Miami, and an amnesty clause would flood the market with more talent in the Heat’s price range. They still may not find their dream point guard or center to bolster their rotation, but there would be far more players capable of immediately contributing as a member of the Heat lineup. In addition to the aforementioned Lewis, Davis, or Roy, the Heat could potentially make another run at Brendan Haywood, look to sign Chris Andersen, spring for either Mo Williams or Chris Kaman if the Clippers choose to cut salary, or even fall into Jose Calderon. Any of those players could significantly impact Miami’s performance on one end of the court or the other, and that’s not even considering the impact this influx would have on the wider free agent pool — nor the potential for the Heat to wipe the $24 million owed to Mike Miller over the next four seasons off their cap figure.

Dennis Rodman never had a conversation with Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen in Chicago

Dennis Rodman

Sport lends itself to the romantic. That much is true, and it was true long before legendary talents turned sportswriters into scribes of myths, before Robert Redford ever swung a bat, and before the imagination of a daydreaming kid allowed him to fill the gaps in the life of his favorite athlete. We sports fans find allegory or create it. We delve into meaning or fabricate it. We believe that there is something within this field of play, within these lines and these stadiums, that makes the game a deserving vessel of greater purpose.

Sometimes, those romantic inclinations are right on the money. There really are grand tales of triumph and redemption in this sport and all others. There are heroes, in a sense, and there is real emotion that floods from the movement of a bouncing ball. But other times, we’re let down by what is trumpeted as real. The white knights of the NBA are often only so because of the lighting in the room; bright bulbs, after all, can make a legend out of what is only a man. Everything isn’t always perfect, and more importantly, everything isn’t always a nesting doll for some greater, hidden meaning. Sometimes it’s just about basketball. It’s a man with a job that may or may not also be his passion. It’s a victory of self-contained value, rather than the climax of a much larger plot line. Or, in the case of one of the greatest teams of all time, it’s a business venture between colleagues, rather than a story of shared experience, collective ascendence, and fellowship.

Dennis Rodman sat down for an interview on “In Depth with Graham Bensinger,” and discussed his relationships with the stars, the core, and the entire roster of the fabled Chicago Bulls teams he was a part of in the mid-90s:

HESINGER: Your then teammate when you were with the Bulls, Scottie Pippen, was quoted as saying “I’ve never had a conversation with Dennis. I’ve never had a conversation with Dennis in my life, so I don’t think it’s anything new.” Why not speak to your teammates then?

RODMAN: Well, I think it was important for me to go in there and win. I don’t have a job to speak to people. My job is to collate and understand how people work and make people believe in the fact that [I] belong there. Talking to people will come. Relating to people will come. If they see you performing and doing your job and being with the group, that’s all I want. Me and Scottie — we’re cool today. We’re a little older, a little wiser. We’re cool today. And me and Scottie never had a conversation. Me and Scottie and Michael never had a conversation in three years in Chicago. Only time we had a conversation was on the court, and that was it.

Rodman, he of the ever-shifting hair color and endless theatrics, has never been the image of simplicity. Yet here, a meaningful bond is reduced to a workplace arrangement. His job wasn’t to talk to Scottie or Michael, so he didn’t. Their relationship didn’t go beyond the limits of the game, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. There’s no rule that mandates core players to swap Christmas cards, much less share a few words.

But it’s the restraint of Rodman’s relationship with his most notable teammates that sticks out. It’s not that they weren’t friends. They didn’t have a conversation. Rodman was so committed to the limits of his interactions with MJ and Pippen that he didn’t bother to stop by their locker for a chat in three years.

There are teams in which the players form an infrastructure by way of their relationships (the Thunder are perhaps the best contemporary example of a squad defined by something akin to brotherhood, though similar dynamics can be traced through plenty of squads), but  the Bulls were not one of them. Jordan’s aloofness has since been pointed out in several books and many a piece online. Pippen’s complex as a second fiddle has become a part of his lore. And Rodman, always a bit of an oddball, is now the man who wouldn’t speak to those whom he shared the court and three titles with, regardless of their stature on the Bulls or in the NBA.

Collectively, they accomplished things other players and teams could only dream of. Yet the lines that connected one Bulls player to another were not quite as vibrant as immortal photos, television broadcasts, and rosy reflections would lead us to believe. The 90s were not, it seems, an age for the romantics; it was a time of greatness in sport that understood its boundaries, and tremendous talents that reinvigorated the game with piles of wins, big personalities, and in some cases, few words between them.