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.

Stephen Curry talked with astronaut Scott Kelly on Instagram Live about moon landing comments

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Was Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry just using his moon landing comments to sell his shoes? That’s what it seemed like to me, but I suppose we’ll never know for sure.

Meanwhile, Curry has gone on his little PR tour in the wake of his boneheaded “joke” about the moon landing being fake. It’s included talking to astronaut Scott Kelly on Instagram Live this week, and two had a discussion about Curry being more judicious with his words.

The video started with Curry essentially making a kind of public apology directly to Kelly. His words were, in part:

“It was important for me to understand, one the magnitude of things that I say and my comments how much weight they carry, joking or not.

For me to reflect on the last week, it’s been one of those situations where I had President Obama contact me, you [Kelly] and one other astronaut. [You all] really wanted to educate me on how significant the moon landing was — obviously it was real — but in terms of the sense national pride, and how that exploration fo mankind has pushed boundaries and limits on what is possible.”

Kelly went on to remark that he felt like the less-harmful conspiracy theories — like the moon landing or the Flat Earth theory — helped lead folks into the realm that big conspiracies might be true.

Meanwhile teams like the Sacramento Kings are running videos trolling Curry for not believing in very recent history. At least that’s one good thing to come out of this.

You can head over to Stephen Curry’s Instagram and watch the full video of the talk with Kelly.

Winners, losers of (eventual) trade of Trevor Ariza to Washington

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It was on. Then it was off over confusion of Brookses.

Eventually, it was back on again in a different form: Trevor Ariza was traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Washington Wizards for Kelly Oubre and Austin Rivers. No picks, nothing fancy, just a straight player swap.

Who came out on top in this deal? Let’s look at the winners and losers.

WINNER: Trevor Ariza. You can’t blame Trevor Ariza for bolting Houston last summer. The Rockets were trying to manage costs then along comes Phoenix offering the largest payday of Ariza’s career and a little more than double what he made the year before. Of course he took the cash, we’d all have. But Ariza was an awkward fit in Phoenix on a team of young players still trying to find their game, and a team without a point guard to speak of. Ariza is a role-playing wing who can knock down threes and play good defense, fitting into a system with smart veteran players… except that’s not the Suns. Ariza looked like a round peg on a team with square holes, and he was taking more two-point shots and struggling with them (40.2 percent overall on twos and just 49 percent in the restricted area). Now, Ariza gets his big paychecks and gets sent out of town. But…

LOSER: Trevor Ariza. He ended up with the Wizards, the most dysfunctional locker room in the NBA. A team where there have been apathetic efforts on the court and finger-pointing off it — not something adding a role player solves, especially when the effort issues can start with the team’s “best” player. Worse for Ariza, he had been rumored to a number of teams looking to go deep in the playoffs, including his former team the Rockets, the improved Thunder, and his hometown Lakers (he played his college ball at UCLA) but he ended up with the Wizards. Ariza’s skill set fits better with what the Wizards’ need than it did in Phoenix (he’s an upgrade over Oubre), and he unquestionably will be solid for them. However, no matter how good Ariza is as the adult in the locker room (and he is a respected veteran leader) he is not going to solve the long-running personality problems in our nation’s capital.

WINNER: Memphis Grizzlies. They stayed out of this mess. While GM Chris Wallace should get a little blame for how the Brooks screw up went down, it appears it was more the Wizards’ GM Ernie Grunfeld and the Suns leaking things that were the bigger issues. The Grizzlies were smart never to want to give up Dillon Brooks — a 22-year-old 3-&-D wing who started for them much of last season, has been good off the bench this season, and is making just $1.6 million next season — and only offer MarShon Brooks, who is 29-year-old and needs the ball in his hands to provide much value and plays a limited role. Not sure why the Suns thought it was Dillon who was in on this trade, that’s not the guy you throw in a deal, but the Grizzlies dodged this whole mess and are better off for it.

LOSER: Washington Wizards. I will stipulate one thing up front: Ariza is an upgrade over Oubre. Usually, the team that gets the best player in a trade wins it. Not this time. Ariza is a rental, a player on a one-year contract who will go where the money takes him next summer, and teams that bring in rentals should be ones trying to push themselves into elite status. Ariza does not put Washington anywhere near the Toronto/Boston/Milwaukee/Philadelphia level, and I still have them behind Indiana and probably Detroit as well. At best, this trade means maybe the Wizards have a slightly better chance of making the playoffs (and the Wizards save a little money on salary and tax, but not a significant amount). In doing so, the Wizards gave up a young trade asset who was a restricted free agent that they could control. Yes, Oubre was probably going to command more money next summer than the Wizards were willing to match, but he is young and has value, and for him the Wizards got a modest upgrade at best. It’s not a good omen for Wizards fans, considering there are more and bigger trades coming in the next year that will have a much more significant impact on the franchise.

LOSER: Kelly Oubre. On Friday night he was headed to the Memphis Grizzlies, a 16-13 team currently in the playoff mix in the West, and a team in need of good wing play. He would have gotten a lot of run, quality touches, and been on a team playing meaningful games and maybe playoff bound. On Saturday, he was headed to Phoenix, the only team in the West out of the playoff chase, and a team loaded with young talent on the wing already. That’s a punch to the gut.

LOSER: Phoenix Suns. This isn’t as severe a loss as the people above, but I can’t call this a win for Phoenix. At best, the trade is “meh” for them, a “C” if you’re grading it. Austin Rivers is a below average NBA point guard, but he’s better than the black hole Phoenix has at that position, so technically it’s an upgrade. However, Trevor Ariza was the best trade asset the Suns had by a mile and a highly coveted player, a lot of teams were talking and making offers. However, owner Robert Sarver didn’t want to deal with the Lakers and the rebuilding Suns were not willing to roll the dice on bringing in Markelle Fultz. So, with this valuable trade piece in Ariza, the Suns get a below average point guard and a nice young wing player for a team already loaded with young wing players scrapping for minutes. The Suns could have done better, but that feels like the story of this franchise the past decade. At least this distracted people from Sarver and company spinning how they didn’t threaten to move the team out if the city didn’t use taxpayer dollars to enrich the team owner.

LeBron James, Lonzo Ball both drop triple-doubles on Hornets (VIDEO)

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The game itself wasn’t that interesting, it was an old-fashioned drubbing. The Charlotte Hornets go as Kemba Walker goes, and he was 2-of-13 shooting on the night. The Lakers have LeBron James… and Lonzo Ball.

LeBron has a triple-double Saturday with 24 points 12 rebounds and 11 assists. Lonzo Ball joined him in the triple-double realm with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists. Check out the highlights.

It’s been a while since teammates had a triple-double together: The last ones were Vince Carter and Jason Kidd as New Jersey Nets back on April 7, 2007.

The last Laker teammates to do it? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson back in 1982.

Pistons end Boston’s 8-game run, beat Celtics 113-104

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DETROIT (AP) — Jayson Tatum leaped toward the basket and Andre Drummond met him there, blocking the Boston forward’s attempt at a one-handed dunk.

It was a fitting conclusion to an impressive second half of defense by the Detroit Pistons.

“I was thinking to myself as I was running. I’m like, if he gets this dunk, it’s going to ignite their entire team,” Drummond said. “I have to do something.”

There would be no late surge by the Celtics in the final minutes. Blake Griffin scored 27 points and Drummond added 19 points and 20 rebounds to help the Pistons win 113-104 on Saturday night, snapping the Celtics’ eight-game winning streak. Detroit also ended its own six-game skid with a solid 48-minute effort.

The Pistons took control with a 13-0 run in the third quarter and played well at the start of the fourth as well.

“They looked great. They were screening us, they were active, they were alert, they played great,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We couldn’t match them shot for shot because the way we were guarding, that’s what we had to do, and we just couldn’t do it. So hats off to them. It’s not our best game. That’s it.”

Kyrie Irving led Boston with 26 points.

Both teams shot over 60 percent from the field in the first quarter, and the game was still tight at halftime, with Detroit up 57-56. Drummond punctuated his team’s 13-point run in the third with a dunk that put the Pistons ahead 76-66.

Boston closed the quarter strong and trailed by just seven after three, but a 10-1 run to start the fourth put Detroit up 95-79.

The Celtics missed their first seven shots from the floor in the final quarter and went over seven minutes before making a field goal.

The Pistons had 20 turnovers, including eight in the fourth quarter.

“The simple plays, just making the simple pass is the key,” Detroit coach Dwane Casey said. “The game gives you simple plays and for whatever reason we kind of get discombobulated.”