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.

After full season in Europe, Luka Doncic not expected to play in Summer League

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Deandre Ayton played 35 games for Arizona last season. Marvin Bagley III played 33 games last season for Duke. Jarnen Jackson Jr. played 35 for Michigan State. None of them played past March.

Luka Doncic played 61 games for Real Madrid — at a higher level than NCAA basketball — and the season ended two days before the NBA Draft. Plus in Europe, the practices are often far more strenuous than the games (many teams keep doing two-a-days through the season).

Not surprisingly after that long a season Dallas is not going to ask Doncic to play in the Las Vegas Summer League, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

This was expected in most quarters no matter who drafted Doncic. Rest and recovery matter more than getting him into the glorified pickup games of Summer League.

Doncic will be ready to go when the season starts, and he will be one of the favorites to win Rookie of the Year.

Former Spur Bruce Bowen rips Kawhi Leonard for asking out after injury

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For years, players have bought into “the Spurs way” not just on the court but off — it was always about what’s best for the team first. That meant Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and others taking discounts from the max salary they could have earned at points to help the team keep the roster to do that. Sacrifice was part of the game.

So it shouldn’t be a shock that former Spurs are closing ranks around Gregg Popovich and the franchise in the wake of Kawhi Leonard pushing his way out the door following missing most of last season with a leg injury.  It was the treatment of that leg injury — Leonard did not trust the Spurs’ doctors and got a second opinion that saw things differently — which started the rift, although the advice from Leonard’s uncle/advisor and agent also play a role in widening the gap.

On SiriusXM NBA Radio this week (h/t ESPN) former Spur Bruce Bowen ripped into Leonard for complaining about his treatment.

“First, it was, ‘Well I was misdiagnosed.’ Look here: You got $18 million this year, and you think that they’re trying to rush you? You didn’t play for the most part a full season this year. And you’re the go-to guy, you’re the franchise and you want to say that they didn’t have your best interest at heart? Are you kidding me?…

“I think he’s getting bad advice,” Bowen said. “I think what you’re starting to see now is an individual given a certain amount of advice, and it’s not the right advice. Here it is: You were protected in San Antonio. You were able to come up during a time where you still could lean on Tim [Duncan] Tony [Parker] and Manu [Ginobili]…

“As a player, if I’m a leader of a team, my team goes on the road in the playoffs, I’m with my guys,” he said. “Because that’s what it’s all about. It’s about camaraderie. It’s about fellowship. It’s a brotherhood. When that didn’t happen, it’s all kinds of sirens and alarm signals that says to me, ‘Is this person fully vested?’ … I don’t want to take on a player who’s not willing to support his guys during the course of their time needing him.”

Bowen added, “there’s nothing but excuses going on.”

The backlash to Leonard is to be expected, particularly from those in San Antonio (not so much from people in Los Angeles, where Leonard is trying to force himself to). The injury treatment started the rift, but Leonard is putting his desires in front of those of the team and franchise — and that’s his right, he’s far from the first player to do that. It’s just not something we have seen from San Antonio. The Spurs have long sought out not only guys who could play on the court but guys who fit a mold personality wise and would put the team first. On the court Leonard had done that, going back to when he won Finals MVP. Now, off it, he has had a change of heart, for whatever reason (or reasons).

Bowen is more outspoken than most, but this will be the sentiment out of San Antonio if Leonard leaves.

That is not going to change the reality on the ground, however.

Michael Porter Jr.’s status for Summer League, next season unclear

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Blake Griffin. Joel Embiid. Ben Simmons. Most recently, Harry Giles.

NBA teams are not afraid to sit an injured player throughout his rookie year, not if they think there’s a payoff on the other side.

Thursday night during the NBA Draft concerns about Michael Porter Jr.’s surgically repaired back (among other things) had the guy considered a potential top pick a year ago sliding down the board to Denver at No. 14. That’s potentially a steal for the Nuggets, but even at the press conference immediately after the pick Nuggets’ president of basketball operations Tim Connelly sounded very cautious.

A day later, speaking to Marc Spears of The Undefeated at ESPN, both Porter Jr. and the Nuggets’ owner/president were suggesting he is out for Summer League and could have a redshirt year next season.

Porter Jr. said the day before the draft that it was possible he could miss summer league action through injury…

Nuggets president Josh Kroenke told The Undefeated he was uncertain about whether Porter Jr. would play in summer league or during the 2018-19 season.

According to reports, Porter Jr. was showing a slight limp at his introductory press conference with the Nuggets Friday.

The Nuggets are right to be cautious here and think long-term. It would be a shock to see Porter Jr. at Summer League in July. Could he lace up his shoes and play at some point next season? Maybe. Depends on his rehab and how he progresses, but the Nuggets have zero fear of letting him sit out a season. This is a team that just missed the playoffs last season and is expected to take a step forward this time around without Porter — they don’t need him to be good, they have Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and the rest.

Porter needs to get healthy, and that very well may mean sitting out a season. Then when he does play accept a role and go from there.

Take 2: Collin Sexton to wear Kyrie Irving’s jersey number with Cavaliers

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Collin Sexton endeared himself to the Cavaliers with his competitive streak, speed and attitude long before they picked him in the NBA draft.

His jersey number showed them something else: He’s fearless.

Sexton made quite a first impression by deciding to take No. 2, his college number but also the one previously worn in Cleveland by All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving. After showing off his jersey at a news conference Friday, Sexton said he doesn’t feel pressure to live up to Irving’s high standards.

“Not at all,” he said. “Coming in, I’m going to set goals for myself and then as well there’s going to be team goals set. But I feel like I’m not going to have to live up to anybody’s shoes, but I’m going to come in and learn and be the best player I can be on the court as well as off the court.”

Some Cleveland fans feel No. 2 should be retired. After all, Irving made the biggest shot in franchise history in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals before asking to be traded last summer to escape the daunting shadow cast by LeBron James.

Maybe one day No. 2 will hang in the rafters. For now, it belongs to Sexton.

With an eye toward rebuilding – and maybe persuading James to re-sign this summer – the Cavs selected Sexton, the lightning-quick Alabama point guard, on Thursday night with the No. 8 overall pick. As a freshman, the 19-year-old Sexton carried the Crimson Tide to the NCAA Tournament, for a brief time giving the school’s rabid football fans a late-winter diversion before coach Nick Saban blew his whistle in spring practice.

The Cavs believe Sexton, who earned his “Young Bull” nickname in high school for his charge-ahead playing style, can help them finally offset the loss of Irving. Without him, Cleveland lacked a dependable second-scoring option for James; the club spent the entire season with a virtual revolving door at the position as coach Tyronn Lue started eight point guards.

Irving’s absence was never felt more than in the Finals as the Golden State Warriors only had to concentrate on James. The Cavs didn’t have another player capable of breaking down their defense.

Sexton gives Cleveland a new weapon.

He’s in good hands. At Alabama, Sexton played for former NBA guard Avery Johnson, and he’s being passed to Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, a 14-year pro looking forward to developing the youngster.

“I’ve watched him play,” Lue said. “I understand who he is as a player and as a person, talked to his parents a lot throughout the course of his college selection, so I know them very well. I’m just excited, man. To be able to have a young talent that I can help mold and build and make better and teach him what suit to wear, what shoes to wear with a suit, how to tie a tie, when you go to dinner, things like that that Bryan Shaw and Robert Horry and Ron Harper and those guys taught me, so I’m very excited about that.”

Sexton wowed the Cavs during his personal workout, which came one day after Cleveland was swept by the Warriors. He attended Game 4, and as he witnessed James, Kevin Durant and others competing at the highest level the game offers, Sexton could imagine one day being part of the action.

“Like the seats were shaking,” he said. “Fans were screaming. Just I feel like I’ll be ready to play in something like that when it’s my time.”

Sexton smiled throughout his introductory news conference, which came following a nearly sleepless night in New York. And while he came across as easygoing and affable, there’s a darker side to Sexton.

On the floor, he’s ferocious.

“When you get between those lines, there’s no friends,” he said. “When you get between those lines it’s us against them, and we’re trying to win. It’s like a switch that cuts on. It’s go time when you get on the court.”