Ranking the NBA's Top 15 Glue Guys
Gauging the potential of any sports team requires looking beyond the superstar face of a franchise and zeroing in on the player who serves as the linchpin.
Sure, the franchise player is going to lead the team in pertinent statistical categories and be frequently trusted to deliver in critical game situations; meanwhile, the person who facilitates game aspects that make the main guy’s big moments possible gets lost in all of that glory.
But lacking public adoration does not diminish the value of the players who help hold a team together.
The picture that the puzzle is trying to project does not become clear until all of the small pieces are in place, and someone has to make sure these pieces are being attended to.
Every team has a Robin to their franchise’s Batman, but beyond that oft-used analogy is each squad’s Alfred. Who are the league’s best players at keeping the house in order?
Using statistical contributions and analyzing how they complement their respective team’s strengths and weaknesses, this list will attempt to rank the NBA’s best glue guys.
15. Pablo Prigioni, New York Knicks
Prigioni’s stat line is not a very impressive one: 3.5 points, three assists and 1.8 rebounds per game.
Focusing on those numbers without context makes it pretty easy to question his inclusion, but there is value beyond what he does on the court.
That knowledge helped Prigioni fill in well when former reserve point guard Jason Kidd had to sit out a spell with back spasms.
In fact, each time he got the call to play at least 20 minutes he has averaged 5.1 points and 5.5 assists.
That is very balanced production that has not gone unnoticed.
In a December 2012 Newsday.com article by Barbara Barker, Knicks head coach Mike Woodson is quoted saying:
He's a pass-first, shoot-second guy, and teammates love that," coach Mike Woodson said. "He knows how to run pick-and-rolls, and defensively he's a pest. He gets after guys defensively. He's a smart, intelligent player that knows how to play, and we're benefiting from his play, which is kind of nice.
That team benefit Coach Woodson mentioned is what makes Prigioni the glue guy in New York.
His influence will be even more important this season as he steps into a bigger reserve role now that Kidd has assumed head coaching duties for the Brooklyn Nets.
14. Gerald Henderson, Charlotte Bobcats
When a team has lost as much as the Charlotte Bobcats have, it would seem like identifying the guy who holds the team together means finding someone on whom to pin the blame.
While it was not fun going 21-61 last year, basketball fans in Charlotte might have something to look forward to if the offseason transactions play out well.
The former Duke Blue Devil was a restricted free agent this past summer but chose to remain in the Queen City as he felt the team is getting ready to turn a corner
Last season he was the team’s second-leading scorer helping to take some of the pressure off of Walker.
Henderson really improved his three-point shooting connecting on 33 percent of his long-range shots, a big step from the 23.4 percent he shot back in 2011-2012.
Keep in mind that his game up to now has been reliant on attacking the rim and it’s easy to see how he is the hub of this franchise now that he is also becoming a better shooter.
If Henderson maintains his current development pace he is going be central to the Bobcat’s inevitable turnaround.
13. Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers
On the surface it looks like Thompson’s future as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers is unclear since the team decided to pick Anthony Bennett in the most recent NBA draft.
The choice was a head scratcher because Thompson really came into his own last season and with Bennett playing the same position it just seemed redundant.
Is Bennett going to replace Thompson? Is Thompson going to be converted to a center?
Granted, he did play his best basketball when filling in for the injured Anderson Varejao last season, but he is too undersized to man that position full-time.
Looking at Bennett and other players like Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, Thompson is the critical contrast player.
While those aforementioned guys are sure to be the athletic, run-and-gun group, Thompson is going to be the classic low-post presence that keeps the defense from stacking the perimeter.
His offensive post skill set is perfect for either getting a high-percentage shot or resetting a play when the half-court set breaks down.
Thompson’s rebounding ability will also serve the team well when extra possessions are needed after missed shot attempts on both ends of the floor.
Make no mistake, there is no uncertainty about his future in Cleveland. In fact, the days ahead are looking a lot brighter.
12. Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota Timberwolves
When a team has a 6’10” power forward with a legitimate three-point stroke and a point guard whose game is a homage to the likes of Pete Maravich, it may be difficult for other players to find a niche.
Luckily, that is not the case for Pekovic.
While Kevin Love roams the perimeter and Ricky Rubio puts the moves on defenders out on the wings, Pekovic makes his home on the block.
And what a lovely home it is.
It is where he scored 16.3 points per game on 52 percent field goal shooting last season.
Pekovic has increased his scoring and rebounding in each of the last three seasons. Couple that growth with a core that is healthy this year, and you have a Timberwolves team that is primed for a post-season run.
11. Jeff Green, Boston Celtics
How appropriate is it to not only have the last name Green as a member of the Boston Celtics but also be the guy expected to keep order?
As a more than capable back-up for Celtic great and current Brooklyn Nets small forward Paul Pierce, he was an excellent source of bench scoring and rebounding.
The chatter about Green’s potential really started to take off when the forward averaged 20.3 points per game in the team’s six game playoff series against the Knicks.
Now he’ll be expected to hold the team together in every way since floor general Rajon Rondo is recovering from an ACL tear and has no definite return date.
There is no way to tell how Green and the new personnel will complement each other.
In Rondo’s absence, he has very little time to figure it out but must get it done if this team is going to take a step in the right direction during this rebuilding phase.
10. Ryan Anderson, New Orleans Pelicans
Anderson’s versatility makes him a consummate glue guy.
On offense he can face up to drive, step out to shoot from mid-range and even stretch the defense further with his three-point accuracy.
While he’s not overwhelming anyone with his defense, he does a solid job rebounding.
Considering that the New Orleans Pelicans already have one of the most stacked backcourts this year and a budding defensive powerhouse in Anthony Davis, Anderson adds a unique dynamic to the roster.
While teams will be able to plan for the likes of Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans, they will be hard pressed to find a solution for Anderson.
Defenders will not be able to ease up on him because he will hit the open shot.
When running the pick-and-roll he will either shoot over the smaller defender in the case of a switch, or have an easy path to the basket if the opposing players try to fight through the screen.
Anything and everything exciting that will come from the Pelicans’ offense this year will have Anderson’s signature on it.
9. Larry Sanders, Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks are definitely a new-look team this season
They have a new head coach in Larry Drew and of their current 15-man roster, 11 guys were playing elswhere last year.
Fortunately, Sanders is one of the returning players.
He had a breakout performance in his 2012-13 run that impressed so much that he was offered and signed a 4-year, $44 million contract.
Sanders contributes modestly in the scoring department, but rebounds and defends extremely well.
This Bucks team has a lot of offensive options with OJ Mayo, Ersan Ilyasova and Carlos Delfino, so the newly extended big man will definitely be putting that rebounding ability to some good use.
On the other side of the court Sanders will be a defensive anchor looking to continue his dominance in the paint. Last season he was second in the league in blocks per game with 2.8 per contest.
Sanders will definitely be keeping it all together as he contributes in multiple phases of the game.
8. Shawn Marion, Dallas Mavericks
Marion has always been the guy for whom teams have had a hard time planning. His game does not fit into any basketball mold and that has helped him remain very productive over 13 NBA seasons.
Marion’s role while being a member of the Dallas Mavericks has been to take some perimeter pressure off Dirk Nowitzki with his athleticism. His skill set has definitely allowed for that. He can spot up and hit the open shot and he can drive creating for himself or one of his teammates.
On the defensive side, Marion uses his length to pressure ball handlers and force turnovers. It also does not hurt that he pulls down nearly eight rebounds a game, too.
Numbers aside, Marion also possesses those intangibles that can’t be coached.
With more than a decade in the NBA, nine postseason appearances and 4 All-Star selections, he gives just as much in team interaction than he does during actual games.
The Mavericks are another team with a lot of new faces, but Marion is savvy enough to help quickly establish cohesion and get everyone else on board with helping Dirk Nowitzki push for another title.
7. Matt Barnes, Los Angeles Clippers
Over the last couple of seasons the Los Angeles Clippers have had more talent than any NBA team could ask for.
Now that they have a head coach with championship pedigree in Doc Rivers, this team looks ready to take the next step towards title contention.
So where does Barnes fit in with all of this talent hype?
While those two got cheers for their offensive acrobatics, Barnes was putting in a blue collar effort on the defensive side of the ball. His tenacity with challenging every shot and getting steals is often what leads to those spectacular Paul-Griffin highlights.
Barnes’ game is not just limited to defensive production either—his 10.3 points per game was a career high scoring average.
Now that Rivers is in charge, he brings with him a strong defensive commitment.
Barnes' team value could increase considerably in the Clippers’ new era.
6. Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks
Teague almost became “the one who got away” for the Atlanta Hawks.
Despite the fact that contract talks were turbulent at best, the Hawks were wise to take up the Bucks’ offer.
As a team, Atlanta averaged 98 points per game last season. Of that point total, Teague contributed 14.6 points himself and gave out at least 14 more points via 7.2 assists per game. That’s more than a fourth of the team’s offensive production coming from one player.
During the offseason the Hawks went through a number of changes. They have a new head coach and lost a key player in Josh Smith.
If the team wanted to stay in playoff contention, it was a must to keep their budding floor general.
Teague’s ability to both create for himself and his teammates makes him indispensable.
5. Mike Conley
Conley is a little man in a land of giants playing with the Memphis Grizzlies. Three out of the five starters from last season measure no shorter than 6’9”.
This size attribute makes for an offense that relies heavily on posting up and getting quality shots either from the block or from the perimeter if the defense decides to collapse on the ball.
Conley has to facilitate that offensive scheme and make sure that either his bigs get the ball in the right spot or he is in a position to catch a pass and hit the open shot.
His 36.2 three-point percentage and 6.1 assists per game from last season show that he is adept at making sure the offensive scheme goes smoothly.
Adding to his value is the fact that he is one of the few players on the roster who can create offense for himself.
Without the former Buckeye on the floor, the Grizz lose a facilitator and shot creator who is often the only offensive bright spot on a team that is near the bottom of the league in scoring.
4. Nicolas Batum, Portland Trailblazers
Batum is quickly becoming one of the league’s most versatile players.
When checking out his 2012-13 state line, it is not too much to think there is almost nothing he cannot do.
For his first three seasons, Batum experienced postseason play, but that has not been the case the last couple of years.
However, the playoff absence has not negatively impacted him because he has improved his scoring, rebounding and assist output every year since starting in 2008-09.
Batum is a critical piece for achieving that goal as he doesn't have to dominate games from a scoring standpoint in order to make his presence felt.
Giving the team so much in so many different ways makes him pivotal to everyone else’s individual and collective success.
3. Chandler Parsons, Houston Rockets
In a league that includes small forwards like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, it is easy to overlook someone like Parsons.
Do not fret because he reminds everyone of who he is when steps onto the court.
While it is still too early in his career to tell how it will rate in the full scope of things, so far Parsons’ play has made him one of the best second-round steals in recent memory.
There was obvious potential when he averaged 9.5 points and 4.8 rebounds as a rookie.
Last season he played a few more minutes and responded with way more production increasing his points per game to 15.5, rebounds to 5.3 and assists to 3.5 per game.
Parsons fills in the offensive gaps for Houston, spotting up when James Harden or Jeremy Lin drives and returning the favor if he decides to attack the basket.
Being on the court this year with Harden, Lin and Dwight Howard presents a front so formidable it is already giving opposing coaches headaches trying to plan for it.
Some of the scoring demands may wane now that Howard is in the lineup, but Parsons will still be needed to help shoulder some of the rebounding and facilitating duties as well as getting open for Howard if the big man is double teamed in the post.
He is more than capable of doing whatever is needed to help insure the Rockets return to their mid-90s championship glory.
2. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Playing on a team with three potential Hall of Fame players and head coach could be a little intimidating for some.
Luckily for Leonard, those players and that coach do not have time for intimidation unless it is from the opposing team.
Leonard has been Gregg Popovich’s NBA equivalent of the Swiss Army knife, and he has responded wonderfully to the pressure of playing with legends.
What is even more impressive is that he does it on both ends of the floor.
On offense, it is hard to predict how he is going to contribute.
Leonard can post up, spot up and run the screen-and-roll. It is up to the defense to guess, and he’s made sure that they guess wrong most of the time.
Defensively, he will be on the wing guarding whoever is the most athletic half-court player on the opposing team.
The 2013 NBA Finals frequently found Leonard trying to contain LeBron James. He helped do that well enough to extend the series to seven games when many might have thought the Spurs’ old core did not have enough in them to put up much of a fight.
Leonard represents more than just utility, though. As the team’s stars grow nearer to retirement, he will be a centerpiece around which the future will be built.
Given the legacy established by this club over the last 10-plus years, that is quite a role to fill.
1. Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder
Ibaka accepted this early in his career and has brought balance with his defense to the high-octane Oklahoma City Thunder. The Congo-born athlete has lead the league in blocks per game the last two seasons, averaging more than three in each campaign.
Not to be pigeon-holed as a one trick pony, he began expanding his offensive repertoire last year. After the departure of James Harden, the Thunder were sorely missing a third scoring source.
Ibaka could not match Harden’s proficiency, but he did add a mid-range jumper that helped boost his scoring output to 13.2 points per game last year, a four-point increase from the season before.
It’s that kind of work ethic that has made him the glue guy in Oklahoma City.
In years past, teams only had to worry about Ibaka swatting away the shot of whoever dared to come into the paint. Now they can’t cheat defensively by leaving him open to help on Durant or Westbrook.
Keeping opponents honest on both ends of the floor makes Ibaka’s role invaluable. His continued growth is essential if the Thunder are ever going to return to their Western Conference dominant form.