We hear it all the time. The NBA is a star-driven league. Yes, it’s certainly true as the best players in the game drive the majority of the league’s revenue. After all, I’m not paying for a ticket to see Will Barton play basketball (all due respect). I’m paying to see Nikola Jokic play basketball and dominate on the court.
In today’s culture, sports superstars become superstars off the court as well. Social media has been an influencing factor that led to the rise of many sports fans rooting for an individual player just as much if not more than an entire team. While all the hype and hoopla centers around the superstars in the NBA, the value of role players when it comes to building a championship team continues to go under the radar.
There are lots of examples from the NBA’s long history that we can point to as evidence. Before we dive into the latest example for this year’s NBA season, what even defines a role player?
In its simplest terms, a role player on an NBA team is there to fulfill a specific role(s) and support the team’s best player(s) by complementing their skillset. When a role player doesn’t do their job it affects the star player and this can have varying effects on a team’s success depending on how the overall roster is built.
In fact, many of us underestimate how much one or a few key role players failing to show up influences a team’s wins and losses. Since it’s a star-driven league, we tend to paint very broad strokes and we don’t crave nuanced analysis on how a team lost.
Let’s take the Milwaukee Bucks for example who exemplify the tendency of NBA fans and media to go with glittering generalities instead of the truth. Before they won the NBA championship they suffered two back-breaking series losses in the 2019 and 2020 NBA Playoffs. The main narrative centered around the man who’d won the regular-season MVP in both those years, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
He underperformed but not to the degree that a lot of people thought. Instead of pointing to other players like Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, and Khris Middleton, who also underperformed, they wanted to throw out a label.
While Giannis wasn’t up to par, neither were his teammates and it resulted in the team falling short. The reality is that when a group of role players fail to do their job while the superstar is trying their best to do theirs, it can have just as big of an impact as when a star player underperforms. I
If we look at the contrast between the 2020 Golden State Warriors and their current 2021 version, the value of role players becomes even more crystal clear. The 2020 version featured a hodgepodge of poor-fitting role players around a superstar in Steph Curry. The starting lineup was Curry, Oubre Jr, Wiggins, Green, and Wiseman. Off the bench, they had players like Juan Toscano-Anderson, Damion Lee, Kent Bazemore, Brad Wannamaker, and Jordan Poole who came in and needed to make significant contributions.
If we look at the numbers it’s clear that in order to win games the Warriors needed Steph Curry to carry them. And carry them he did as he averaged a league-leading 32 ppg on over 65% true shooting. Night after night if we saw the Warriors get a W in the win column you could most likely scroll over to YouTube and find a video from the NBA titled “Steph Curry explodes for 40 and knocks in 8 threes”. This was the norm and it simply wasn’t a sustainable formula.
Now some of these role players worked and fit the system and others didn’t. The Golden State Warriors need role players who can space the floor, make extra passes, and be smart cutters and movers without the basketball. The system is predicated on motion and player movement.
Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson, and Jordan Poole emerged as the year went on as players who could fit this style of play. Hence why they’re still on the team and in the rotation. Kelly Oubre Jr, Kent Bazemore, and James Wiseman struggled to play this way, and it hurt a team that didn’t have a lot of depth.
If we take a look at the 2021 version of the Golden State Warriors, you can’t see a major gap in talent. The current team isn’t that much better from a talent standpoint than last year, so why are they so much better on the court? This is the value of finding the right role players.
The 2020 Warriors were 7-6 at this point in the year while this year’s team holds the best record in basketball at 11-2. Let’s first go back to the offseason where the Warriors made a few critical moves.
Drafting Kuminga and Moody were big moves in the draft but so far haven’t had much of an impact so we won’t focus on those. Signing both Otto Porter Jr, a three-point specialist and quality team defender was key. So was signing Nemanja Bjelica who is a good cutter, shooter, and passer for a role player. Andre Igoudala gives them defense and a leader who knows the system just as well as anyone. All of these moves gave the Warriors players who expanded the capacity of the system they run.
In addition, not bringing back Bazemore, Wannamaker, or Oubre Jr helped them shred what was essentially dead weight as they didn’t fit the system. Even not having the 2020 version of James Wiseman so far has helped out as he was a major hindrance on the Warriors’ offense last year.
The final piece to the puzzle came in the form of the role players who did fit on the 2020 roster getting even better and now playing an even bigger role. Damion Lee is a better shooter and cutter. Jordan Poole is a go-to option as a secondary creator. Andrew Wiggins is a better defender and has adjusted better to playing off the ball. Even Gary Payton II is not in the G-League anymore and is now making contributions on a nightly basis.
All these smaller moves didn’t appear to be difference makers to us before the season started. The thing is the 2020 Warriors eventually found their stride as the year went on. It’s just that it took months to figure it all out. Now they have a cast of role players that can thrive in their roles and support Curry from game one through game eighty-two.
Again, the proof is in the stats. Through 13 games, Curry is averaging 28 ppg on 62% true shooting. Those are still MVP caliber scoring numbers but they are a step down from last year. So if the NBA is a star-driven league but Curry’s scoring stats have dipped, then how are the Warriors a better team?
The answer is they found and developed the right set of role players that can expand the limits of their system. The Warriors product that they’ve displayed over the last two seasons is proof that role players matter a lot and hold immense value when building a championship quality team.