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Who are the key role players on contending teams?

Oct 23, 2012, 12:30 PM EDT

Ray Allen AP

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.

  1. dembois - Oct 23, 2012 at 12:43 PM

    Rasheed Wallace – Knicks
    Must be able provide comic relief off the bench.

    • scalfor3 - Oct 23, 2012 at 12:59 PM

      I don’t think anyone questions Sheed’s ability to do that

    • kavika6 - Oct 26, 2012 at 4:30 AM

      Knicks as contenders?

  2. b7p19 - Oct 23, 2012 at 12:55 PM

    Only 4 contenders this year?

  3. rj2323 - Oct 23, 2012 at 2:08 PM

    I agree with all these guys but I think Rashard Lewis should be on here I think he will step in as the starting pf over battier deeper into the season he’s going to have a bounce back year an will be HUGE for them

    • michaeljordanseviltwin - Oct 23, 2012 at 3:26 PM

      It would be a nice bonus if Rashard Lewis is productive for the Heat but they aren’t counting on him. It’s easy to imagine the Heat returning to the Finals without Rashard playing a role. But it does seem like they’ll need Ray Allen. Not to take away from the championship run but the Heat got some awfully timely 3-point shooting from Bosh, Cole, Battier & Miller. This year might not work out that way; probably Ray Allen will be the outside shooter who gets 8 wide open shots in a big game… so will he hit them?

  4. willardj - Oct 23, 2012 at 3:07 PM

    Kwame Brown, The Philadelphia 76ers

  5. michaeljordanseviltwin - Oct 23, 2012 at 3:20 PM

    Eric Maynor! He hasn’t achieved much statistically but he really is a glue guy for the Thunder. They were talented enough to make the Finals last year but playing their big lineup with Kendrick Perkins left them at an obvious speed disadvantage. I kept thinking that if Maynor was healthy maybe the Thunder would bench Perkins and run with the Heat. Good blog post.

  6. j0esixpack - Oct 23, 2012 at 7:49 PM

    Although I’d agree one could widen the outlook on “contenders” I think the point here is that there are four prime contenders, all with players who are being looked to play pivotal roles…

    And all those role players have significant upside, but also significant question marks.

  7. tcclark - Oct 24, 2012 at 1:07 AM

    I still can’t believe Celtics fans hated that Perkins trade so much. Jeff Green was easily the best player in that deal and frankly the Celtics haven’t really been any worse without Perkins. However, they’re about to get a lot better with Jeff Green. I got to watch him in the preseason a couple of times and the guy was playing so well. Playing with Rondo is going to make him look really good.

    I still don’t understand how you can be traded for Ray Allen when you’re an unknown commodity(and frankly, drafted a little too high), and then traded for Kendrick Perkins after people realize that you actually are a very talented young player. How did his value go down so much?

  8. xjokerz - Oct 24, 2012 at 6:00 AM


    Thunder, Lakers, Heat, Celtics?…

    as a Pistons fan ill be sure not to tune into any games this year, considering we have no hope…

    Thanks NBA parity, you rock!..

  9. kavika6 - Oct 26, 2012 at 4:32 AM

    As always, San Antonio is ignored.

    • passerby23 - Oct 27, 2012 at 9:38 PM

      Difficult to imagine them playing better than what they showed last year. A year older, Thunder, Lakers, and Clippers are better. Leonard’s maturation will be a big plus but age and lack of size will doom them to a second round playoff exit.

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