Instigate the Role
I’ve watched a number of classic games in the last few weeks in preparation for our “Bloggin’ to the Oldies” series, and the experience of closely watching teams I thought I had pegged has caused me to reevaluate my conception of what a role player does and how that player affects the greater makeup of a team’s system. Namely, a system with pre-defined roles can hold back certain players from reaching potential, and I’m not convinced it’s a superior method of building a team under all but the most rare circumstances. A more amorphous system, on the other hand, allows a player’s talents to define his role, thus letting players complement each other naturally. As such, calling anyone on teams like the Warriors or Raptors a role player seems silly. These are merely basketball players defining a team’s system on their own merits.
This idea first came to me while watching the 94 Rockets, a team I’d always remembered as built around Hakeem with a number of capable shooters taking advantage of the opportunities created by the big man in the middle. In that way, they seemed like the ProtoSpurs. Actually watching their games proved to me that I'd been very wrong. A closer look at the Rockets showed that Vernon Maxwell and Robert Horry, while not quite stars, were versatile talents capable of defending and scoring from deep or around the basket. Most importantly, Hakeem’s skills did not limit what they were allowed to do: instead of trying to restrict some of Maxwell’s more volatile tendencies, Rudy T let him play his own way, knowing that such fetters would keep him from being Vernon. Horry, even as a young player, was given leeway, too. In fact, even players like Kenny Smith and Otis Thorpe appear to have played the way they did simply because that’s what they were best at; Kenny looked past his prime on his occasional drives to the basket, and seeing Thorpe’s jumper explains why he rarely took them. In all cases, the players defined their own roles, even on a team this committed to rigid system principles like defense and ball control.
A quick perusal of most successful teams in NBA history uncovers similar relationships between non-primary players and their systems. The 95 Magic relied primarily on Penny and Shaq, but Dennis Scott, Nick Anderson, and Horace Grant played the only way they knew how and worked as secondary options. The Celtics and Lakers of the 80s had numerous players beyond Magic and Bird, but none of them could be called “role” players because they so clearly defined their own positions on the team. Even the Knicks of the same time period, one of the more frustrating teams to watch of the era, relied on defense and structured jump shots because they had no pure scorers outside of the entirely erratic John Starks. Looking at the truly successful teams of my basketball-watching lifetime (from about 1985 on), only a few can be said to be rigid system teams.
Yet even those cases are somewhat arguable. The first incarnation of the champion Bulls, while nominally a system team in that they ran the triangle, didn’t restrict Cartwright or BJ Armstrong, who mostly shot threes but still had freedom to attack the basket. The second version of the Bulls somewhat qualifies in that Luc Longley was given no room to do anything and Rodman really just defended and rebounded, but how much of that was because of their limits? More recently, the Shaq/Kobe Lakers likely qualify, as does the Shaq/Wade team in Miami.
The Spurs are quite clearly the best recent example of a successful rigid system team, letting Duncan roam the middle as every other position fulfills a well-defined role around him. The small forward exists almost exclusively as a three-point shooter and defender, while the post opposite Duncan only needs to make the occasional basket between rebounding and defending. To a certain extent, Parker and Ginobili’s undeniable talents have defined their own positions, but Popovich has reined them in from their more exciting early years. I don’t deny that the Spurs use a system that works for them, but the exactness of the system creates an environment in which a potential-filled player like James White is never allowed a chance to play his type of game. Additionally, the Spurified Parker and Ginobili give off the impression that they are not realizing their full potential—perhaps this incompleteness is why it’s difficult for many to think of the Spurs as a dynasty.
On a more general level, a system with stark divisions between its star and role players sets itself up for failure once that star stops performing at his top level. The team can only place those players into defined roles because the star is good enough to make that predictability unimportant; the star draws enough attention that the role players can still be successful doing basic things. Any disruption to that system, then, can send the whole operation into flux.
Additionally, the other players have to be perfect fits for the star talent. Look at the Lakers, who’ve unsuccessfully tried—okay, only half-tried—to surround Kobe Bryant, the best player in the NBA, with quality role players. After a few years, Kupchak and Co. have come up with nothing better than a team unlikely to gain home-court advantage in the first round.
Compare that fate to that of last year’s Warriors, who took a bunch of underperforming players and pulled off an amazing first-round upset. Likewise, the Pistons won a championship by letting a bunch of non-stars play to their strengths. A rigid system might work for a team like the Spurs that has one of the best three players in the league, but, for a developing team, it makes much more sense to let the players at hand define the team’s style. It’s much easier to pick up a few talents than it is to find players willing to forfeit some of their own skills for the sake of a few more wins. (It can be said that Don Nelson runs a rigid system of his own, but the difference there comes in realizing that Nellie has issues with players unwilling to fulfill their potential, as opposed to the other way around.)
Moving away from the team-building aspect of the role player/basketball player difference, it’s also important to consider how this change affects our understanding of these teams. Bethlehem Shoals of Free Darko ran an excellent post (with a solid comments section, as well) on this topic this Sunday, coming to the conclusion that certain second options actually play a more important role in facilitating a team’s system than the identifiable alpha dogs. I think Shoals goes a bit too far in inverting the conventional hierarchy, but his general point about giving these players more credit for defining their teams’ systems is one with which I can fully agree. The star-to-complementary trickle-down theory of definition is exactly what made me assume that Horry and Maxwell played easily defined roles, when in reality they played with Hakeem in a much more symbiotic relationship. Players of this kind, of which there are many in the league, must be recognized for their contributions to successful teams in a way that goes beyond describing them as complementary pieces.
That can be difficult for a GM, who must decide how much each player means to a particular team in concrete terms—if he doesn’t, he’s Isiah Thomas—but analysts (particularly those who don’t have ties to mainstream media outlets interested in television ratings, like bloggers) need to be more attentive to the dynamics behind particular systems.