Examining the NBA role player standard

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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.

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”

 

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.