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.

Luka Doncic, Donte DiVincenzo, Jerome Robinson among NBA draft invitees

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Of course DeAndre Ayton will attend Thursday’s NBA draft. The Suns will likely draft him No. 1 overall.

But what about more marginal first-round prospects?

The NBA’s draft invite list is an important tool in judging their stock. The league wants to avoid players sitting in agony until their names are called. So, the NBA works to invite only the prospects most likely to get picked high in the draft.

The full list of invited players (which the league notes is subject to change):

Luka Doncic will go high in the draft, and though how high is still uncertain, his inclusion on this list says nothing about his stock. It just speaks to whether we’ll see him Thursday night. His attendance will depend at least on when Real Madrid’s season ends, though the NBA is apparently confident enough to list him.

Jerome Robinson has climbed draft boards since the season ended. He must be impressing in workouts and interviews.

Donte DiVincenzo is a bit of a surprise selection, as he’s not widely viewed as a first-round lock. Perhaps, the league is looking to capitalize on his popularity stemming from a breakout NCAA tournament championship game.

This will only reinforce the idea Chandler Hutchinson received a promise. Otherwise, he’s a surprise invitee.

Among the top players not attending: Kevin Huerter (Maryland), Jacob Evans (Cincinnati), Troy Brown (Oregon) and Josh Okogie (Georgia Tech). Though they could go higher than players listed here, that says something about Huerter’s Evans’, Browns’ and Okogie’s stock, too.

Report: Rudy Gay opting out of Spurs contract

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Kawhi Leonard reportedly wants to leave the Spurs, but he’s at their whims.

This doesn’t mean Rudy Gay will depart San Antonio, but he’s taking control of his future.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

Gay’s option-year salary was $8,826,300.

I doubt Gay, who turns 32 this summer, will draw such a high starting salary on his next contract – though I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. He could likely get a multi-year deal with a higher total value.

Or he could chase a ring elsewhere.

Remember, Gay gave up money to leave the Kings last summer. No matter how much the Leonard situation should make us rethink the Spurs’ culture, San Antonio probably isn’t “basketball hell.” Still, the Spurs clearly don’t look as appealing as they once did, and Gay has shown how much he values team quality.

Gay is coming off a nice season, and San Antonio might try to re-sign him. Danny Green has a $10 million player option for next season, which will swing whether the Spurs have the flexibility for a bigger move this summer.

Report: LeBron James’ camp likes Collin Sexton

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In 2014, LeBron James tweeted his fondness for Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier. The Heat traded up to get Napier in the draft, but LeBron left for the Cavaliers that summer, anyway.

Could history repeat itself, this time in Cleveland?

LeBron has already talked up Oklahoma point guard Trae Young, but maybe LeBron and his camp want the Cavs to take a different point guard – Alabama’s Collin Sexton – with the No. 8 pick.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com, via Jordan Zirm of ESPN Cleveland:

The Cavaliers should take the best prospect available. Worrying about what LeBron might want makes a mistake only more likely.

LeBron might stay in Cleveland, but as 2014 showed, it won’t be because of a draft pick. If he stays, it very well could be by opting into the final year of his contract. His player-option salary ($35,607,968) is slightly higher than his projected max salary as a free agent (about $35.35 million). If LeBron opts in, the best chance of keeping him long-term is building a better team around him.

That means taking the best prospect at No. 8 or trading the pick for someone who can help LeBron win now. If the top prospect is Sexton, that’s fine. But the Cavs are fare more likely to appease LeBron by getting the pick right in the long run rather than choosing the prospect he wants now.

2018 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Is Trae Young a super star in the making?

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Trae Young is a perfect example of why, as an elite freshman entering the college ranks, it is so important to pick a school that is the right fit for you.

Young was a borderline five-star prospect entering the college ranks, the kind of point guard that was recruited by everyone from Kansas to Kentucky, but instead of picking one of the bluebloods, Young opted to stay home. He enrolled at Oklahoma, where his supporting case was questionable and he had the opportunity to have the entire offense run through him every single night.

And the results, at first, were sensational.

Young put up massive numbers, at one point averaging 30 points and 10 assists while leading Oklahoma into the top ten of the national rankings, getting himself compared to Steph Curry, talked about by LeBron and the focus of every college basketball broadcast for the first three months of the season.

Then, once Big 12 play started, opponents began to crack the code. Young didn’t have a ton of help on that roster, which, when combined with some of the issues that he has with shot selection and decision-making, turned him from a player with unimaginable efficiency on a never-before-seen level of usage into just another high-volume, low-efficiency gunner. Oklahoma’s season went in the toilet, the Sooners finished 18-14 on the year, losing 12 of their last 16 games and falling out of the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments in the first round.

That has turned Young into one of the more polarizing prospects in recent memory.

He became the first player in Division I history to lead the nation in scoring and assists, but he did it as a player that doesn’t like to play defense on a team that couldn’t figure out how to win late in the year.

Is he the second-coming of Steph Curry?

Or is he Jimmer Fredette?

And what GM is going to have the stones to find out?

HEIGHT: 6-foot-1.75
WEIGHT: 178 lbs
WINGSPAN: 6-foot-3
2017-18 STATS: 27.4 PPG, 8.7 APG, 3.6 RPG, 42.2/36.0/86.1, 5.2 TPG
DRAFT RANGE: 5-10

STRENGTHS

I would make the argument that Trae Young is the single-most skilled player in this year’s NBA draft. He might very well be the best shooter available, and I think that it is inarguable he is the best passer in this draft class. The biggest reason his counting stats are so high is because of the absurd level of volume and freedom that Lon Kruger afforded him, but there’s also a reason he was given that freedom.

Let’s start with his shooting. Young’s range extends will beyond the NBA’s three-point line, but what makes him so dangerous isn’t his ability as a catch-and-shoot threat, it’s how well he is able to get to his shot off of the dribble. Young’s handle is elite, as is his footwork. He’s always on balance and he has a lightening quick release, one that he doesn’t need much space to get off. He also has a variety of different step-backs and pull-backs to create space, and he’s a very good shooter off of hang-dribbles (if there’s a switch) or if a defender goes under a ball-screen.

Young is not the quickest or most explosive guard you’ll find, but he understands how to use his change of pace and some deceptive ball-handling to get a defense off balance and create room for himself to get into the paint. He has an array of shots that he can make in the paint, although he does need to continue to get more consistent with his floaters and mid-range shots.

Part of the reason that Kyrie Irving and Steph are able to thrive as two of the best scorers in the NBA is because they are elite finishers at and around the rim despite the fact that they are smaller and less athletic than the players that will be guarding them. Young will need to get to that level, and it’s certainly doable.

The other side of Young’s game is his ability to pass the ball. His vision is sensational, both in transition and in the halfcourt, and it will only get more effective in the NBA, where the players he is passing to are better and the wider deeper three-point are creates more space. The thing that really stood out to me in watching Young was his ability to read a defense in ball-screen actions. His basketball IQ and his understanding of where the defense is moving and who is going to be open is already at an elite level.

WEAKNESSES

The biggest concern with Young as a prospect is on the defensive side of the ball. Physically, he was not quite ready to defend at the collegiate level last season, let alone at the NBA level. He’s actually a little taller than you may realize — he’s just a shade under 6-foot-2 — but he weighs just 178 pounds with a willowy frame and a wingspan that is just 6-foot-3. He’s not all that strong, he’s not all that physical and he’s not all that tough, and that’s before you question if he has the quickness to guard elite NBA point guards.

And then there is the issue of whether or not he actually wants to play defense. He was a mess guarding ball-screens as a freshman, often showing little-to-no effort to fight through and getting lost when he did. He got beaten off the dribble without providing much in the way of resistance far too many times. He almost looked disinterested on that end of the floor. Context might be important here, however. With the load that Young was carrying on the offensive end, it’s certainly reasonable that he was either A) saving his legs to be able to carrying the Sooners offensively or B) didn’t actually have enough energy to defend.

That doesn’t diminish the concerns with his physical tools, but defending is about want-to, and it will be on the teams that are drafting to figure out whether or not he actually wants to defend. As flawed as Steph is defensively, he tries hard enough that he’s not that much of a liability.

The other issue is how careless and inefficient Young was late in the year. Not only did he lead the nation in scoring and assists, but he led in turnovers as well. He also has a bad habit of taking terrible shots early in the shot clock, settling for 25-footers with a defender in his face, but again, context is important to the discussion here.

The degree of difficulty on the plays that Young tried to make this season was often insanely high, but the truth is that Oklahoma really didn’t have any other options to create offense. Young had to carry the load for this group to be a tournament team, and it worked well enough for long enough that the Sooners were still a tournament team despite a disastrous finish to the season.

Again, NBA GMs are going to have to figure out the answer to this question: Was Young inefficient late in the year because that’s who he is as a player, or was he driving into three defenders or forcing 26-foot shots or trying to make tough passes because that’s what his team needed him to do?

NBA COMPARISON

The obvious comparison that gets made by everyone is Stephen Curry, and in a best-case scenario, I don’t think that’s terrible. That said, I think that, given Young’s ability to pass the ball, Steve Nash makes a little more sense — and that is who Young has idolized — but either way, you know about what his ceiling. I’m not sure he has two-time MVP upside, and comparing him to two players of that caliber is probably unfair, but he has the potential to be very, very good in a league built around ball-screens, the three-ball and pace-and-space.

That said, the floor for Young is very low. If he can’t figure out how to defend and he never ends up being good enough to have an offense built around him, I think there’s a real chance that his second contract is with a team outside of the NBA.

OUTLOOK

As the NBA moves more and more towards small-ball, the skill-set that Young has is going to continue to get more valuable. Elite shooting is something that every team in the league needs, and Young has that ability to shoot. He’s excellent in ball-screens as well, and his ability as a passer when the kind of spacing he’ll see on an NBA court is something that absolutely should translate.

We’ve been over the issues that he has with inefficiency, decision-making and defending. All of those are concerns, but I do think that the situation that Young was in at Oklahoma exacerbated them to a degree.

In my mind, Young’s career is going to be determined by whether or not he ends up being good enough that to have an offense built around him. The way he wants to play is as a James Harden or a Russell Westbrook. Even Steve Nash had the ball in his hands the majority of the time. Being a ball-dominant lead guard that gets run through 20-30 ball-screens a night is not something everyone can do.

And if Young can’t do that, I have a tough time envisioning what his role will be in the NBA.