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.

Kawhi Leonard wears ‘Board Man Gets Paid’ shirt to Raptors’ championship parade (video)

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NBA championship celebrations have become defined by the shirts (or lack thereof).

The clear winner at the Raptors’ parade today: Kawhi Leonard and his ‘Board Man Gets Paid‘ shirt:

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MVP!

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Second place goes to Kyle Lowry, the Raptors’ all-time franchise player honoring Toronto’s original franchise player, Damon Stoudamire:

As expected, Julius Randle will opt out of contract with Pelicans, become free agent

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The math on this is very simple.

After a couple of impressive seasons in a row, Julius Randle‘s stock is going up. The 24-year-old forward averaged 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for the Pelicans last season, using his strength and athleticism to bully his way to buckets. That said, he also shot 34.4 percent from three, you have to respect him at the arc. He’s impressed a lot of teams.

Randle had a player option for $9.1 million with the Pelicans next season. On the open market, he likely will get a multi-year deal starting in the low teens ($13 million at least). So what do you think he was going to do?

The Pelicans are okay with this move. While they like Randle, they have Zion Williamson coming in playing a similar role (and they hope better).

A few teams to keep an eye on rumored to have interest in Randle are the Phoenix Suns, Brooklyn, Nets, and Dallas Mavericks. Others will throw their hat in the ring as well.

It’s going to be a good summer to be Julius Randle.

2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Zion Williamson, the perfect prospect at the perfect time

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Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.

Today, we are looking at Zion Williamson.

Previous draft profiles:

The thing that stands out when it comes to Zion Williamson, the biggest reason that he has become an internet sensation with a chance of becoming an international superstar, is his athleticism.

It’s the dunks.

Human beings aren’t supposed to be the size of Zion, and the people that are that big certainly are not supposed to be able to move – or fly – the way that he does. That athleticism plays a major role in the reason why he is, for my money, the best prospect to enter the NBA since Anthony Davis, but it is far from the only reason that he has a chance to be a generational talent at the next level.

In an era of positionless basketball, Zion Williamson has the potential to develop into the NBA’s preeminent small-ball five, or point-center, or whatever term it is you want to use to describe the basketball’s biggest matchup nightmares.

It starts on the defensive side of the ball. Williamson stands just 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, but between his athleticism, his strength and his anticipation, he plays like a 7-footer. He’s not going to get buried under the rim by even the biggest centers in the league, and he is terrific at coming from the weakside and blocking shots at the rim:

His anticipation is on another level defensively, which is what makes him such a dangerous playmaker on that side of the ball. He jumps passing lanes, he can pick a point guard’s pocket when blitzing a ball-screen, he has an understanding of what an opponent is going to try to do before they do it.

He’s not just a rim protector, however. He can move his feet on the perimeter, staying in front of point guards when he is caught in a switch:

He can do all of the things that bigs are asked to do defensively in the pace-and-space era, and he may be the best that we’ve ever seen when it comes to grab-and-go ability. In transition is where he may end up being the most valuable and the most dangerous. Williamson can lead a break. There is room for him to improve his handle, but he would be able to step onto an NBA floor today and be capable of bringing the ball up the floor. His speed and strength makes him nearly impossible to stop when he gets up a head of steam, but he also has terrific vision and is capable of making pinpoint passes through traffic when defenses throw multiple bodies at him.

That vision was most evident in transition this past season, but he did show flashes of being able to create off the bounce in a halfcourt setting as well.

Part of the reason those chances were limited was due to the way that defenses played Duke this season. The Blue Devils were one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country last year, and the result was that by the the ACC and NCAA tournaments rolled around, the secret was out — other than Cam Reddish, you didn’t really have to worry about guarding anyone else beyond 10-12 feet. Opposing defenses simply packed as many bodies as possible in the paint, and while Williamson was still able to get to the rim just about at will — and shoot 68 percent from the floor in the process — it limited the chances that he had to actually rack up assists. He wasn’t dumping the ball off to the bigs when there were four defenders standing with a foot in the charge circle, and kick-out passes to the likes of Tre Jones, Jordan Goldwire and Jack White were precisely what defenses wanted.

Put another way, I think that Williamson’s assist numbers are going to be what spikes at the next level. Not only will he be playing in a league where there is significantly more spacing, but the reason for that spacing will be the fact that he is surrounded by guys that can actually make threes.

That spacing, by the way, will make Williamson significantly more difficult to guard. There simply are not any traditional fives in the NBA that are going to be able to keep Williamson in front with any kind of consistency, and the players that are quick enough are not going to be strong enough to keep Williamson from getting to his spots. And for all the concerns that have been voiced about Williamson’s shooting ability, he did finish the season hitting 33.8 percent of his three-pointers. If Draymond Green shot 33.8 percent from three, then the Raptors might actually respect him enough to feign guarding him beyond the arc in the Finals.

I bring up Green for a reason, because I think he is the perfect place to start talking about what Williamson can be at the next level. Williamson will be able to do, and has the potential to be better at, all of the things that Green does so well — guarding 1-through-5, protecting the rim, bringing the ball up the floor, leading the break. But what really sets Green apart from the field is the way that he is able to exploit 3-on-2s and 2-on-1s offensively and stop 2-on-1s defensively.

I’m not sure there is a player in the NBA that is as basketball smart as Green. He almost never makes the wrong decision on the offensive end of the floor, and part of what makes Golden State’s offense so lethal is that you’re forced to choose between using an extra defender to keep Steph Curry or Klay Thompson from getting a clean look at a three or letting Green make a play with a numbers advantage. On the defensive end, there is no one that is better at stopping those exact same 2-on-1 situations than Green.

There just isn’t.

And I think that Williamson has the basketball smarts and ability to be able to, potentially, do all of those things just as well one day.

He’s also bigger, more athletic, a better natural defender, a better scorer and a more difficult player to stop 1-on-1.

Imagine if you took Julius Randle‘s scoring ability, gave it to Green and then super-charged that Frankenstein with the kind of strength, speed and athleticism that would make the NFL’s best defensive ends jealous.

Would that be a player you might be interested in?

With questions looming, Raptors start thinking about future

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TORONTO (AP) The Toronto Raptors were still partying it up in Las Vegas, part of an extended celebration following their first championship, when the NBA starting reshaping itself for a new season with the blockbuster trade agreement Saturday that will send Anthony Davis to the Lakers.

Talk about snapping back to reality.

Turns out Raptors coach Nick Nurse already had.

Back home in Toronto Sunday, on the eve of a parade to honor his team, Nurse said he and general manager Bobby Webster have already started talking about a future that’s full of tough questions.

“Bobby and I have already had two meetings about it since the championship,” Nurse said. “The reality is that it’s right upon us, and we get to work. I’ve got several meetings today with some players. We don’t have any choice but to get to work on it. My thought, always, is stay hungry. We’ve got to get our guys that we want back.”

No player is more important to Toronto’s fortunes than Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent.

“We definitely want him back,” Raptors forward Pascal Siakam said.

Center Marc Gasol said Leonard’s elite two-way game makes him “one of a kind.”

“I don’t think there’s any other player of his caliber right now in the NBA,” Gasol said. “He’s on a pedestal by himself.”

With status like that, longtime teammate Danny Green said Leonard’s decision is sure to have a ripple effect across the NBA.

“Let’s not be foolish,” Green said. “His decision affects a lot of guys’ decisions. He can change a whole organization.”

Raptors President Masai Ujiri also is the subject of speculation, linked to an offer from the Washington Wizards. Ujiri, who was not available Sunday, is expected to speak at Monday’s parade, which will finish in the square outside Toronto’s city hall.

Even after a year together, Nurse said he has no idea which way Leonard is leaning.

“I don’t really know,” Nurse said. “I know’s he’s got to make a decision here really soon, couple of weeks. I think he had a good season and people like him here, and we can give him a good deal.”

Guard Fred VanVleet said he’s joked with Leonard about the star forward’s uncertain future, but doesn’t plan to deliver a full-scale sales pitch.

“I would assume that he knows what is here and what makes this place special,” VanVleet said. “If it’s enough, it’ll be enough and if it’s not, it’s not. We would all love him to be back and if he’s not then we’ll move on from there. He came here and did what he was supposed to do. He brought this city the championship and I think he’s earned his freedom in his career to do what he wants to do, and we’ll all respect it and admire him.”

Even so, respect and admiration only go so far.

“If he’s on another team,” VanVleet said, “we’ll just have to kick his (butt) next year.”

Gasol can also opt out of the final year of his contract, while Green, a free agent, said he hopes to return.

Nurse said Gasol, acquired from Memphis at the trade deadline, changed Toronto’s view of itself as a title contender.

“After we had him for a few games we were like, `Woah, this guy’s good. He’s smart, he can pass,”‘ Nurse said. “Everybody was like `Man, we’re better and we can become really good.’ That’s a big thing to contribute to a team.”

Gasol said he’s been too busy celebrating to consider his future, and understands he might not be Toronto’s first order of business.

“I’m sure that the franchise has other priorities to go first,” he said.

Before re-signing Leonard, Gasol, or anyone else, the Raptors must make time for Thursday’s NBA draft. Toronto currently only has one pick, the second-last selection of the second rotund, 59th overall. The Raptors didn’t have a pick last year.

Nurse also said he’s close to finalizing a part-time role as head coach of the Canadian national team, a position he’s expected to hold through this year’s World Cup in China and next year’s Olympics in Tokyo.

“It’s just about done,” Nurse said. “It’s something I’m looking forward to doing.”

Nurse, who spent a decade coaching in the British Basketball League, was an assistant coach for Britain from 2009 to 2012, culminating with the 2012 London Olympics.