Even the smartest basketball fans don’t think about role players all that often. You don’t sit down on your couch, turn on a Bulls game and think, “I wonder how Taj Gibson’s defensive rotations are going to be tonight.” It’s a hugely important part of the game, no doy, and you might consider it in the morning (“Wow, Taj is flying around”) but it’s never the first thing to pop in to your head. It’s the stars we worry about, the big-timers that take up the most space in our mindbaskets.
But what about those other guys? What separates them from the 500 other super talented basketball players that want to take their spots? And what keeps them from rising to the level of the elite? Daryl Morey had some interesting thoughts while considering why the Rockets cut Jeremy Lin. From Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski:
“I talk to other GMs about this all the time, and [Rockets coach] Kevin McHale says this: ‘There are only 40 or 50 obvious NBA guys who can create a real edge, and the rest rely on opportunity, role, coaching, opponent and hope that comes together with their attitude and work ethic,’ ” Morey said. “This is not a science, and never will be.”
The difference between a Ray Allen and a Reggie Williams is so much smaller than we think. Maybe Ray’s a little more focused, a little smarter about how he gets shots and is in a situation where he has a coach who can get him open. This is just an example, but the talent level from elite to normal is tiny. Obviously your LeBrons and your Dwights are physical freaks which gives them advantages, but the basketball skill level between those kind of guys and a standard role player is not enormous. That’s why you can see guy slike Brian Scalabrine and Adam Morrison go overseas and dominate, because that’s how amazing every NBA player is at basketball.
Naturally, that lends itself to the question of how those less talented guys stay in the league and become successful role players. Nick Collison has the answer over at GQ:
Before most of us entered the League, we were one of the main scoring options on our college teams. Offenses were designed to get us the ball. We got features in the media and received all the accolades. When you make an NBA roster, that all changes. All of a sudden, you find yourself on a different level of the totem pole, and you have to adjust. Each team may have three to five guys who consistently find themselves creating their own shots. The other ten guys on a roster have to learn to play off of those guys and find ways to create value for themselves. You create value for yourself by doing enough positive things to make your coach keep you on the floor. The guys who have success in the league and stick around are the ones who understand how to make themselves valuable to an organization.
You do this by embracing your role and focusing on things other than scoring. Sure, you’ve spent your whole basketball life developing and displaying your offensive game, but suddenly you aren’t getting those scoring opportunities in games. You take thousands of shots in the offseason, you work on your shot before and after practice, yet you may go weeks without taking a jumper in a game. But you can’t dwell on it, because there is so much else you can do out there to help the team win. If you can become really good at things like screening, passing, defending pick and rolls, communicating, boxing out and rotating defensively, you can have a huge affect on your team winning a game. If those parts of your game become a habit and you develop consistency, you are going to be valuable to your team and have a long career.
It’s right there in Collison’s first paragraph — “Before most of us entered the League, we were one of the main scoring options on our college teams.” — and it’s totally right. Guys like Nick Collison and Kris Humphries led their college teams in scoring, setting records along the way, and now they’re rebounders who are lucky to get six shots a game.
There are tons of guys who flame out of the league even though they’re far more talented than a guy like Nick Collison. It’s a huge adjustment to make from first option to second guy off the bench, but if you can do it, you’re going to be a millionaire. Probably worth it to give up a dozen shots here or there.