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.