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.

Kemba Walker on his future: ‘I just can’t see myself in a Knicks jersey’

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When Mitch Kupchak came in as GM in Charlotte it led to a lot of speculation — and a lot of other GMs calling in to check — were the Hornets going to blow it up, trade Kemba Walker, and start to rebuild?

No. Walker is still there, Tony Parker is now backing him up, and new coach James Borrego is talking about upping the pace, getting the Hornets on the run. Walker, heading into the last year of his contract, has consistently said he does not want to leave Charlotte.

That has never stopped fans from his native New York from begging him to come home and lead the Knicks. Walker, talking to Don Amore of the Hartford Courant, reiterated he does not want to leave Charlotte.

“I’ve been hearing it for years,” Walker said Thursday, after working with youngsters at the National Basketball Players Association summer camp. “Every time I come home, ‘When are you going to come home and play for the Knicks?’ I know it’s a special place, I was a Knicks fan growing up, always rooted for the home team. But I just can’t see myself in a Knicks jersey, only because I’ve only been in one jersey.”

“I just want to do something special in Charlotte,” Walker said. “I’ve been there eight years now, and we haven’t really been consistent as far as winning. I just want to try to establish that culture at some point. That’s what I want to do, I just want to make it a winning organization.”

This season, the Hornets are going to try to win, be a playoff team and a threat once there. In a smaller market (one that took owner Michael Jordan a long time to rebuild after what the previous owner had done there), rebuilding can be hard on the bottom line, and the competitive MJ does not want to go there. He wants to keep Walker and build a steady playoff team, and Kupchak has said the same thing.

However, if that doesn’t happen this year, the calculations for the organization and Walker could be different next summer. Could.

For now, Walker just does not see himself if blue and orange.

Stephen Curry entertained by Draymond Green, Steve Kerr arguments

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Steve Kerr and Draymond Green have had their come-to-Jesus meeting (or, meetings) and have found their way to a place of mutual respect.

That doesn’t mean they don’t still argue. Plenty.

All this amuses Stephen Curry, who talked about it on The Bill Simmons Podcast when asked about his favorite Draymond story. (Hat tip Bleacher Report.)

“Probably the times him and Coach Kerr get into it,” Curry said. “And you’re inside of practice and you don’t know whose side to take. Just like, “I guess they’re both right, but they’re both wrong….

“They argue about a play call or maybe something Coach Kerr has been thinking about for a couple games. … And [Draymond’s] like, ‘Don’t over-coach. We know what we doing.’ And coach is like, ‘Well, I know you know what you’re doing, but let me just help you as I’m supposed to do. That’s what my job is, to point out things that could be important for us to win a championship.’

“But they have a real—the respect level between those two is at an all-time high, but they have their moments and it’s just amazing entertainment to watch in practice.”

It’s a long grind of a season, you’ve got to take your entertainment where you can find it.

Green’s passion is a challenge for Kerr, but he can’t snuff out that flame because Green would not be the same player without it. It’s about managing it, showing Green the coach has his back, and Green maturing (something he said happened more quickly after his 2016 Finals suspension). It’s worked the past two years and led to two more rings.

Kevin Love on LeBron James: ‘He’s playing chess and everyone else is playing checkers’

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Kevin Love is the man in Cleveland now, with LeBron James having gone to Hollywood.

But it’s not going to be the same, and Love knows it. The best player of his generation is gone, and Love had nothing but praise for LeBron and his willingness to take on a challenge in a sit-down interview with ESPN.

Love is right, LeBron loves a challenge, but the one with the Lakers is unlike anything else in his career. Expectations are through the roof for a team that has undergone a roster upheaval, and while those kinds of teams can take a little bit to come together, if that happens and the Lakers get off to a slow start in the West it will be a lot harder to dig out of it than it was after the Cavs’ annual mid-season slump in the East. LeBron is on a team with young players and a lot of stop-gap one-year contracts set up to help them get another star (at the trade deadline or next summer). That makes they dynamics of this season different for LeBron (although he would never admit to it, saying winning was the goal from the start).

Love has got his own challenges. He may not be able to lead the Cavaliers to the playoffs this season. However, he could be a sneaky good fantasy pickup now that he’s going to get a lot more touches.

 

Rumor: Timberwolves bypassed Stephen Curry in draft because Minnesota is too cold for year-round golf

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Timberwolves general manager David Kahn infamously drafted two point guards – Ricky Rubio No. 5 and Jonny Flynn No. 6 – before the Warriors took Stephen Curry No. 7 in the 2009 draft.

Curry, as transcribed by Drew Shiller of NBC Sports Bay Area:

“My guy David Kahn. I don’t know where he’s at right now,” Curry said on The Bill Simmons Podcast. “I don’t know if that ever came out — there’s a story. Everybody knows how much I love golf — play it in my spare time and what not.

“I think the word on the street was that he didn’t draft me because in Minnesota it’s cold and I wouldn’t be able to play as much golf so I would have been miserable.”

A shocked Simmons asked Curry: “Is that true?”

“I hope it’s true because that’s hilarious (laughter),” Curry said. “That’s hilarious.”

If this is why Minnesota passed on Curry, it was a huge mistake. Better to take the best prospect available and hope for the best. Curry probably would have learned to appreciate Minnesota. There’s plenty of room to golf elsewhere in the offseason. Remember, Golden State was seen as a low-rung destination just a few years ago. Curry helped transform the franchise’s perception.

Mostly, though, I’m with Curry. This would be a hilarious story if true.

But that doesn’t mean we should just assume it’s accurate. Plenty of teams underestimated Curry, who looked like an undersized score-first guard when he entered the NBA. He just beat the odds and made everyone who passed on him look silly.