NBA History: 20 Greatest Role Players
As the playoffs start this week, instead of examining the top playoff performances by superstars, I'm going to examine the greatest role-playing performances. The guy who comes off the bench and drills a three when you need one. The guy who doesn't do much on the offensive side, but is a lockdown defender. There are two criteria on this list of role players:
1) The player must have won at least one championship ring
2) The player must not have been one of the three best players on the championship teams he played on (for example, in the Bulls' dynasties, the top three options were Jordan, Pippen, then Horace Grant for the first three-peat and Dennis Rodman for the second). Coming off the the bench is always a plus.
20. Jason Terry, G, Mavericks
Played alongside: Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion
A fitting beginning to this list seems to me to be a role player from last year's championship Mavericks team, a team consisting of Dirk Nowitzki and a plethora of role players.
One of the primary options in Atlanta, Terry is now in a role-playing role in Dallas, averaging double-digit points off the bench. Terry was also the Sixth Man of the year in 2009.
19. Pat Riley, SF/SG, Lakers
Played alongside: Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich, Jim McMillan
Yes, that Pat Riley. Half a zillion years ago, before he was the coach of the Showtime Lakers and GM of the Heat, he played the role of a Sixth Man on a 1971-72 Lakers squad that had a 33-game winning streak en route to a 69-13 season and an NBA title.
18. Kendrick Perkins, C, Celtics
Played alongside: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo
Kendrick Perkins was a vital part of the 2008 champion (and almost 2010 champion) Celtics, despite only averaging six playoff points a game. As the fifth starter, Perkins added beef and blocks to a talented Celtics squad, in addition to 2.4 defensive win shares in the 2008 and 2010 finals.
17. Bill Cartwright, C, Bulls
Championships: 1991, 1992, 1993
Played alongside: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant
Cartwright was the starting center on the Bulls' first three-peat. In their three finals runs, he wasn't particularly spectacular in points (7.0 per game), rebounds (4.5 per game) or even win shares (2.8 total). However, he was successful in neutralizing centers such as Patrick Ewing, Brad Daugherty and Bill Laimbeer.
16. Bruce Bowen, SF, Spurs
Championships: 2003, 2005, 2007
Played alongside: Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Tony Park, Manu Ginobili
Bruce Bowen wasn't much of a scoring option except for a three here and there. Other players didn't have eight straight all-defensive selections due to their tenacious, lockdown defense against Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Vince Carter and the other great 2s and 3s of the age.
15. K.C. Jones, PG, Celtics
Championships: 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966
Played alongside: Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones, John Havlicek
The Celtics' dynasty is the only dynasty that produced Hall of Fame bench players. Such an example is K.C. Jones, who was backup to Bob Cousy for a number of years, then was the team's main distributor from 1963-66. Jones won rings in his first eight seasons, and he also led all guards in defensive win shares from 1963-66.
Jones would later coach two championship Celtics teams.
14. Bill Bradley, SG/SF, Knicks
Championships: 1970, 1973
Played alongside: Walt Frazier, Wills Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Jerry Lucas, Earl Monroe
Aside from Frazier, Reed, Monroe and DeBusschere, swingman and former All-American Bill Bradley was the next best option for the Knicks, averaging double-digit points for much of his career despite not being one of the team's main options.
Soon after retiring from the Knicks, Bradley would begin an 18-year career in the U.S. Senate.
13. Steve Kerr, G, Bulls/Spurs
Championships: 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2003
Played alongside: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman
For the past couple of decades, the quintessential role player is a combo guard who comes of the bench and drills a couple threes when you need them most.
Nobody played that role better than five-time NBA champ Steve Kerr, who is the career leader in three-point percentage despite only starting 30 games over the course of his career.
Kerr contributed 84 playoff threes over the course of his career, 52 of them in the second Bulls three-peat, including more than one buzzer-beater.
12. Ron Harper, G, Bulls/Lakers
Played alongside: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Glen Rice, Horace Grant
Championships: 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001
Harper was the other scorer and perimeter defender in the Bulls’ backcourt for their second three-peat. A primary scoring option with Cleveland and the Clippers, he transitioned to a facilitating role to win his five championships.
Harper is one of 17 players to have 1,700 or more steals, and one of only a few point guards to have played on five championship teams. Of his five championship runs, he contributed 25 regular-season win shares (14 defensive) and 6.6 playoff win shares (3.3 defensive).
11. Toni Kukoc, F, Bulls
Championships: 1996, 1997, 1998
Played Alongside: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman
The Yugoslavian-born Kukoc was the Sixth Man of the Year on the 72-10 ’96 Bulls, coming off the bench to deliver double-digit points. Though 6’11", he could play almost any position on the floor.
In the Bulls ’96 campaign, Kukoc finished in the top five in both offensive rating and win shares per 48 minutes. He also laid in five playoff win shares during the Bulls’ three championship runs.
10. A.C. Green, PF, Lakers
Championships: 1987, 1988, 2000
Played alongside: Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Byron Scott, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Glen Rice
Green is most known for his “Iron Man” consecutive game streak, and for his stance on abstinence. However, he should also be known for his role as a role player on three Lakers championship teams 13 years apart.
Green is 14th all time in career offensive boards, and he averaged double-digit points on the two Showtime squads. He also notched 9.8 playoff win shares over the course of his career.
9. Lamar Odom, SF/PF, Lakers
Championships: 2009, 2010
Played alongside: Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Ron Artest
Odom won the Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2011, and for the Lakers’ two most recent championship teams, he played the role of sixth man in the frontcourt with Ron Artest, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
Odom averaged double-digit points and eight or more boards in each of his seven seasons with the Lakers, the final three of which he came primarily off the bench. Odom also laid in 4.3 win shares on the Lakers’ two championship teams.
8. Danny Ainge, G, Celtics
Championships: 1984, 1986
Played alongside: Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson
Danny Ainge was a key reserve on the Celtics’ 1984 championship team and a starter on their 67-15 1986 championship team. He finished in the top five in three-pointers made in five different seasons, and he added 172 threes in the playoffs. He also has 9.6 playoff win shares, including 2.7 in 1986 alone.
Besides being a Celtics player and later a GM, Ainge was a football All-American and bounced around the Toronto Blue Jays’ farm system.
7. Frank Ramsey, Celtics
Championships: 1957, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964
Played alongside: Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones
Frank Ramsey was the Celtics' sixth man before Hondo. He was elected to the Hall of Fame despite never having made an All-Star or All-NBA team. Why? Because he was one in a series of great fifth starters and bench players on Celtics championship teams.
Ramsey averaged double-digit points in all but his final campaign. Despite not being one of the Celtics’ main options, Ramsey led the league in playoff win shares in 1959; he had led the league in win shares per 48 the year before. In his career, he amassed 9.5 playoff win shares in only 98 playoff games.
6, Bobby Jones, SF, 76ers
Played alongside: Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney
Bobby Jones was named Sixth Man of the Year the year the 76ers won their last title. He was also a four-time All-Star and was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive team in nine straight seasons, and he was also 14th all-time (and first in the ABA) in field-goal percentage.
Jones averaged double digits for both his ABA seasons and his first six NBA seasons, and he averaged nine points off the bench for the 65-17 ’83 Sixers. He contributed 13.4 playoff win shares, five of them coming in the 76ers’ three trips to the finals in the 1980s. Every single campaign featuring him ended in a playoff appearance. Aside of the stat sheet, Jones was also one of the scrappiest players of the era.
5. Michael Cooper, PG/SG/SF, Lakers
Championships: 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1989
Played alongside: Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, James Worthy, Byron Scott
Only three people played on all five Showtime championships: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper. Of these, Cooper was a capable defensive player and three-point shooter who nearly always came off the bench.
Cooper was the Defensive Player of the Year in 1987, and he made the All-Defensive team for eight straight years (including the All-D first team five times). He finished in the top five in threes made in three different seasons and logged 52.5 regular-season win shares and 11.4 playoff win shares.
4. Don Nelson, F, Celtics
Championships: 1966, 1968, 1969, 1974, 1976
Played alongside: John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Bill Russell, Bailey Howell, Dave Cowens, JoJo White
Before becoming the winningest coach in NBA history, five-time NBA champ Don Nelson was another in a the long line of Celtic champion role players in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Nelson averaged double digits in scoring (24.1 per 48 minutes) despite coming off the bench for a preponderance of his career.
Nelson hit crucial shots in the 1969 playoffs and led the league in field-goal percentage. He also amassed 11.3 playoff win shares in 13 playoff appearances.
3. John Havlicek, SG/SF, Celtics
Championships: 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1974, 1976
Played alongside: Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Tom Heinsohn, Bailey Howell, Dave Cowens
Eight-time NBA champ John Havlicek was a primary option for his final four championships, but he was a role player for his first four championships. Originally a sixth man, Havlicek, a swingman, morphed into the Celtics’ all-time leading scorer by the 1970s.
Hondo laid in 19.3 playoff win shares, 9.7 in his first seven seasons. He averaged 18 points and 5.7 rebounds in the sixth man role he played in his early years. He was also known for his strong defensive play, making the first eight All-Defensive teams.
2. Derek Fisher, PG, Lakers
Championships: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, 2010
Played alongside: Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Rice, Horace Grant, Rick Fox, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Ron Artest
Quick, name all the point guards with five NBA rings. Bob Cousy. Magic Johnson. K.C. Jones. Derek Fisher?
As a role player in Phil Jackson’s triangle offense, Fisher was the point on five Laker championships. In those five championship runs, he racked up 6.9 of his 13 playoff win shares. Fisher also has 231 playoff threes on .402 shooting percentage from behind the arc, including several game-winning buzzer-beaters.
1. Robert Horry, F, Rockets/Lakers/Spurs
Championships: 1994, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2007
Played alongside: Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Otis Thorpe, Vernon Maxwell, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Glen Rice, Horace Grant, Rick Fox, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili
Only one man has won multiple titles with three different teams. That man is Robert Horry.
Horry is also one of five men to notch 250 or more playoff threes (including some buzzer-beaters), and he's the leader in threes in the finals.
Those threes contribute to an 18.2 playoff win share number despite only averaging 27 minutes a game and coming off the bench more often than not. In the playoffs, he also picked up 5.6 rebounds a game as well as a steal and a block.