The NBA is a league run by its stars. Recognizable names like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and James Harden usually steal the headlines. Even the most casual of basketball fans know their names. It cannot be denied that these players are the ones who win championships. They are the keys to success that every franchise prizes. But what about the so-called “role players”? They are vital to a team’s success and are often the ones who separate playoff teams from non-playoff teams. They do not always stand out in box scores, but they make winning plays all over the court. We’ll take a look at the “star” role players on every Eastern Conference team, starting with five of them here in part one.
Star NBA Role Players: Part One
Atlanta Hawks: Kent Bazemore
Just two years ago, the Atlanta Hawks were the darlings of the NBA. With a relatively unknown roster, they managed to beat out the mighty James and his Cleveland Cavaliers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Fast forward two seasons and their roster is completely different. Four of their five “stars” have left – Al Horford is in Boston, DeMarre Carroll is in Toronto, Kyle Korver is in Cleveland, and Jeff Teague is in Indiana. They have been replaced with up-and-coming point guard Dennis Schroder and perennial All-Star Dwight Howard. One of the mainstays from that Hawks team was Kent Bazemore.
Bazemore is a tough-nosed player who has provided Atlanta with defensive intensity for three seasons. He’s a quintessential “glue guy” who produces on both sides of the floor. An undrafted player from a mid-major school in Old Dominion, Bazemore made his name in the league as a defensive stopper. A 6’5″ guard who plays bigger than his size, Bazemore can guard three different positions, giving Atlanta versatility on defense. Bazemore was even a two-time Defensive Player of the Year during his college career. He took a big leap forward offensively in 2013-14 with the Los Angeles Lakers, when he averaged a career-high 13.1 points per game on a very respectable 38 percent from three-point range. Despite not quite having that much offensive success in Atlanta, he is by far their most effective perimeter defender. He also creates space on offense for Schroder, a smaller, slashing point guard.
Boston Celtics: Kelly Olynyk
At the beginning of the 2016-17 season, a lot of NBA pundits thought that the Celtics would be the second best team in the East, the team that could possibly dethrone James. That was especially so, with the acquisition of Horford from the Hawks. They finally brought in a secondary scorer who could play alongside their franchise point guard, the diminutive Isaiah Thomas. The key to this Celtics offense, however, does not lie in Horford and Thomas. Yes, they are two of the three leading scorers, along with the sharp-shooting Avery Bradley. But the key to this team offensively is Canadian center Kelly Olynyk, who has become invaluable to head coach Brad Stevens.
While one might look at Olynyk and see his measly 8.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, he is quietly the catalyst for Boston’s most productive lineups. As per Basketball-Reference, Boston’s highest rated lineup per 100 possessions features the seven-footer from Gonzaga. That lineup also happens to have the best field goal percentage of any five-man Celtics group. This is because Olynyk adds much-needed spacing for Thomas to get to the rim. The mere threat of Olynyk on the outside forces the defense to respect his ability, as he has shot 39 percent from deep over the past two seasons.
Additionally, while Olynyk is not an elite one-on-one defender, he is one of the better help defenders on Boston’s roster. This role as a help defender becomes even more important than being a good on-ball defender on a team like Boston, as their point guard, Thomas, struggles mightily to contain dribble penetration.
Brooklyn Nets: Trevor Booker
The Brooklyn Nets are not a team with a lot of star players. Yes, Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez are very talented, but you would not put them in the same category as DeMar DeRozan, Paul George, or Jimmy Butler (let alone James, Durant, or Harden). But for the purposes of this list, they are considered “stars” on the Nets. The key player who makes a huge difference on this team is the Clemson product, Trevor Booker.
Booker is a versatile big man who makes up for his small 6’8″, 228-pound frame with immense quickness and hustle. Booker is having his best season as a professional for the Nets. He’s averaging career-highs in all three primary counting stats, with 9.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game. He’s also shooting 55.6 percent from two-point range, another career-high. The Nets are equipped with a number of excellent three-point shooters; this type of spacing is what allows Lopez, their starting center, to operate one-on-one in the low post. It also allows Booker to attack off of the dribble, using the open space in the middle of the floor. Booker is one of the best big men in the league at grabbing a defensive rebound and pushing the ball up the floor himself. This creates confusion for the opposing defenses, who must scramble to react, and it usually results in an open shot for Booker or one of his teammates.
Charlotte Hornets: The whole team
The Charlotte Hornets sit sixth in the East, only 1.5 games ahead of the ninth-place Milwaukee Bucks. The Hornets are one of the teams currently in the playoffs because GM Rich Cho has put together a team of “glue guys”. These players might not be stars on any team, but when put together, they become a solid, but not amazing, basketball team. Yes, Kemba Walker is their “star” and he is the one who takes the big shots. And yes, Nicolas Batum leads the team in most statistical categories. But neither of those guys are upper-echelon superstars. They are better than Brooklyn’s “stars” of Lin and Lopez, which is why Charlotte’s in position to make the playoffs, but neither of them are on the level of the league’s top stars.
Jeremy Lamb, Marvin Williams, Marco Belinelli, Frank Kaminsky, Cody Zeller, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist should all be considered “elite” role players. Each one of them brings one or two qualities to the Hornets that many teams would love to have. They are the type of glue guys who make up championship rosters. The difference is that the Hornets don’t have the top-tier talent that will take them far in the playoffs. That is not a shot at Walker and Batum, but they would be the second- or even third-best players on a championship contender. This is a collection of players that a general manager could package for a true superstar.
Chicago Bulls: Doug McDermott
The Chicago Bulls have had a rapid fall from grace in the last couple of seasons. Only a few years ago, the Bulls were seemingly a top five team in the league with the youngest MVP in NBA history. Now, they seem to be a shell of their former selves, trading away Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks and letting Joakim Noah walk in free agency over the summer. Former Creighton star Doug McDermott is having a bit of an off year, averaging only 9.9 points per game on 43 percent from the field. He’s a key player for this team because he is the only player on the roster who’s truly capable of stretching the floor.
General manager Gar Forman has put together a roster with a lot of talent. Unfortunately for Bulls fans, he has tried to fit square pegs into round holes. Out of all the players who play at least 15 minutes per game, McDermott is the only capable three-point shooter. There are some other players who have been good shooters in the past but have struggled mightily this season – specifically, Isaiah Canaan and Nikola Mirotic. While many would point to Taj Gibson as this team’s best role player, the Bulls have players who can rebound and defend like him. However, they do not have another player like McDermott. Dwyane Wade and Butler are their two best offensive players, but both are slashers. Thus, they need floor spacing to be most effective; McDermott is the only player who offers them that.