The Origin of the "Role Player" in the NBA

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The Origin of the
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

A role player—defined as an athlete who plays mainly in specific situations—has always been a valued member of successful NBA teams.

The great Red Auerbach essentially created the position.

During a thirteen year stretch—spanning from '56-'69—that saw the Boston Celtics win eleven NBA Championships, most under Auerbach, the Celtics had at least one bench player score 10 points in 12 of the 13 seasons.

In the early days of the Association though, many of these players came far and few between—but each great team had them.

The Celtics had Sam and K.C. Jones, as well as Frank Ramsey. The Cincinnati Royals had Bob Boozer and Adrian Smtih. The San Francisco Warriors had a young Nate Thurmond and Al Attles.

But over the past two decades role players have started to become necessity for every organization.

The Spurs in the mid-'90's made the role player cool again with the likes of Sean Elliot, Will Perdue, Malik Rose, and even Manu Ginobili. Role players are one of the reasons they have won four titles in a nine year span.

Every team knows you must have a bench to get it done in this league but only a few understand how to put role players in a situation to succeed.

The 2008 Celtics surrounded big-named acquisitions like Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen with low-key additions like Eddie House, Tony Allen, and PJ Brown.

But what makes a good role player?

Is it experience? Definitely.

Is it a team-first mentality? It's a must.

Is it a desperate hunger for winning? No doubt.

A great role player must have all three of these attributes to be a full asset to his team—but it's hard to create a role player.

For example, the 2004 Los Angeles Lakers featured future Hall of Fame legends Gary Payton and Karl Malone. Each of them had experience and desperately wanted their first NBA title, but did not have the team-first mindset after a decade each of being the leading face of their respective franchises.

These players were starters for L.A., even though they arrived in Hollywood primarily as role-type players.

Role players cannot be bought for millions of dollars.

Steve Kerr made less than $700,000 for the '98 Bulls title team. Robert Horry made $1.8 mil for the '05 Spurs title team. And Leon Powe made $650,000 for Boston's title team last season.

There will probably be a day in the future when even role players will cost $5-10 million a year, but until then, we'll stay with the guys who do the dirty work and make the big plays for less money.

 

Available Role Players

A few role players will be available through free agency this summer.

Chris "Birdman" Anderson of the Denver Nuggets has proven via the playoffs that someone could very well use his services—6.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks in the 2009 playoffs.

He is definitely a high-energy guy who brings the crowd to its feet numerous times a game. He blocks shots and makes the highlight reel with his dunks.

Jazz specialist Kyle Korver could definitely bring a team much needed three point shooting. Korver has a very high basketball IQ and routinely hits tough shots.

Lastly, Eddie House of the defending NBA Champion Boston Celtics. House shoots the ball very well from far away and can bring a desperate team a very serviceable backup point guard.

House is cost-effective as well—costing less than $2 million.

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