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.

Watch highlights of Pelican’s franchise-record 149 point blowout of Kings

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We’re just two games into the season, but the New Orleans Pelicans have the best offense in the NBA, averaging 127.9 points per 100 possessions. In what has felt like a high scoring start to the season in general (it’s too early to draw conclusions), nobody has been blowing up like Anthony Davis (28.5 points per game) and the Pelicans.

Friday night they dropped a franchise record 149 points on the Sacramento Kings.

Nikola Mirotic had 36 leading eight Pelicans in double figures. Check out the highlights above. And light a candle for the Clippers and Nets, the next two teams up to try to stop the Pelicans freight train.

Report: Negotiations to drop one-and-done at standstill over pre-draft issues

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Eventually, the NBA will again open the door for high school players to jump directly to the league — this time around teams are far better prepared to deal with and develop young players than when this was thrust upon them in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Everyone is awaiting the change, because one-and-done has not been good for anyone.

However, talks between the NBA and the players’ union to open that door again in 2022 have hit gridlock and reached a standstill over pre-draft issues. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news.

The NBA and National Basketball Players Association are struggling to reach an agreement on lowering the age limit to 18, differing on the league’s desire to attach two conditions to ending the one-and-done NBA draft era, league sources told ESPN.

Commissioner Adam Silver is pressing NBPA executive director Michele Roberts to require that player agents furnish all teams with medical information on prospective draft prospects, league sources said. The league also wants to mandate players attendance and some level of participation in the pre-draft combine, sources said…

“We’re investing millions of dollars into players who we’ll now have even less information about coming out of high school, and we should have the right to have all the information available on who we are selecting,” one general manager told ESPN.

From a team’s perspective, it’s easy to see why they want these conditions. As the anonymous GM above notes for teams this is an investment and if a player has a medical issue — such as the heart issues that have led to surgeries for Jeff Green, Ronny Turiaf, and others now including UCLA’s Shareef O’Neal (Shaq’s son) — teams believe they have a right to know in advance.

However, medical information is not freely shared now — agents often withhold it from (and keep their player from working out for) teams they do not want to draft their player all the time. This doesn’t always work, teams draft guys without workouts and medicals every year, but it’s a bit of leverage agents have now to try and get their player to what they see as a better fit (that can be about opportunity or market size).

According to Wojnarowski, 11 of the 65 players invited to the NBA Draft Combine last year did not take part in the medical exam portion (every team has access to that report). That’s about some agents trying to gain a little leverage in the process, for teams the risk is higher if they don’t have that information.

As for the combine, while more and more players are skipping the drills and games part of the event, going through the measurements and interview processes are basically universal.

The NBA drafting straight out of high school is going to happen again — and it should. If a young player is good enough, or on track to be good enough, and he’s a legal adult teams should have the right to bring him in. The NCAA should adapt to a system that keeps the players that do enter college there a little longer — at least two years — allowing for more consistency and a better product for them. (Of course, the NCAA is the protector of a feudal system of “amateurism” that needs to go, so lord knows what they will ultimately do, but bet on it being whatever they must to protect all that money flowing into their pockets.)

The earliest the draft of 18-year-olds would happen is 2022, both giving teams more time to scout what is the current high school freshman class that would graduate that year, and giving teams knowledge of what was coming down the line when trading draft picks.

Jimmy Butler on hearing boos to start, M-V-P chants later, “I love it. I love it.”

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Jimmy Butler knew it was coming. Request a trade out of town and of course the fans are going to boo. Butler also said he thought he could win the Timberwolves faithful over again if he just played hard like always.

That’s how the script played out.

Butler was booed loudly when he was announced — although not as loudly as coach/GM Tom Thibodeau — but by the end of the game they were cheering him and chanting MVP as he dropped 33 points on 12 shots in a Timberwolves win over the Cavaliers, 131-123. After the game, Butler said he was good with the boos.

“I love it. I love it. I think people kind of love to hate me sometimes. Say whatever you want to say, but it really makes me smile, what people think about me. But no matter what, you gotta respect my effort…

“You may not like me, That’s okay. But as long as you know that my mind and my heart are in the right place, that I do everything to win and I would do anything for my guys.”

Butler said he was being made out to be the bad guy in this saga but people don’t know all the facts, then he wouldn’t discuss what it was people didn’t know. Butler also was frustrated with teammates that the Timberwolves had a 21-point lead in the third but it got close again in the fourth (Butler himself was -3 for the game, he was part of that problem). But in the end, as it often does (and as Thibodeau seems to be betting on), winning cures all ills.

Minnesota is now 1-1 on the young season, meanwhile, trade talks surrounding Butler are dormant.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kris Middleton help Bucks beat Pacers 118-101

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 26 points and 15 rebounds and Khris Middleton added 25 points to help the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Indiana Pacers 118-101 on Friday night.

Victor Oladipo led Indiana with 25 points, and Doug McDermott added 14.

The Bucks led 62-53 at the half and extended it to 93-76 entering the third quarter.

Milwaukee, which ranked 25th in the NBA last season with 24.7 3-point attempts per game, continued to fire away under new coach Mike Budenholzer. The Bucks were 17 of 47, with Antetokounmpo going 0 for 7.

WhatAntetokounmpo was doing was dunking.

Middleton had five 3-pointers, including a four-point play that put the Bucks up 111-88 with 5:03 remaining.

The Bucks were 14 of 34 beyond the arc in their 113-112 season-opening victory at Charlotte on Wednesday night.

The Bucks shook off a slow start en route to a 30-25 lead after one quarter, extending it to 62-53 at the half. Milwaukee took 26 of its 51 first-half shots from 3-point range, making eight.

Antetokounmpo had 22 points and 11 rebounds in the first half.