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Stars and Role Players

   by Scott Spreitzer - 04/15/2011

Star players get all the headlines, but the balance between star players and role players is essential for winning teams. Role players are easily overlooked. Those are the guys who do the dirty work. I don't mean they play dirty, but they do grunt work like boxing out on the boards, fighting for a loose rebound, diving on the floor to keep a ball alive, taking a charging foul. And sometimes they have to sit and watch and keep their mouths shut when other guys are playing well. That's not always easy for pro athletes with large bank accounts and bigger egos.

I saw Larry Bird play when he was in college at Indiana State and I recall something he said about one of the unsung role players being one of the most important players on his team. This may be shocking to some, as Bird was the star (and only NBA talent on that Sycamores team), but he understood how valuable role players are. And it's true: One guy can't defeat five.

Take a look at the San Antonio Spurs. Star Tim Duncan has actually taken a back seat a bit this season, third in scoring, content to be more of a role player and rebounder while playing fewer minutes. He's as team-oriented a player as you can find and has no problem watching Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili lead the team in scoring. In addition, the Spurs have exceptional depth with hard working role players like George Hill, Richard Jefferson, DeJuan Blair and veteran Antonio McDyess. McDyess has been a valuable veteran who doesn't complain, works the glass and doesn't mind shifting from the bench, to a starting role, then back to the bench whenever needed.

The Celtics are going to be an interesting team to watch in the postseason. There's no denying the talent and star power on this club, but they have been disjointed and out of sync ever since center Kendrick Perkins was traded. Perkins was the ultimate selfless role player, content on boxing out, rebounding and defending the other team's star big men. Of course, on offense he had hands of stone, but it was a good fit as Boston didn't need him to score with Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen on the floor.

But Big Perk filled a valuable role and many have different reasons as to why the Celtics have slipped from the No. 1 seed in the East to the No. 3, with inexplicable losses to Washington (twice), Memphis, Charlotte, Houston, New Jersey and the Clippers - all but one since Perkins was traded. Granted, the problem in many of those games was offensive, but the chemistry was clearly affected with Perk gone. We shall see in the postseason if this team has just been playing possum, if they can play more consistently, or if they truly miss the role playing big man.

And the Oklahoma City Thunder don't want to give Perkins back! He's been an excellent fit for the Thunder, playing defense along with 6-10 Serge Ibaka, which frees up Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to strut their stuff on offense. Oklahoma City has been on a 16-3 SU, 12-6-1 run, winning four times as a dog (4-1 SU/ATS as a dog), in addition to bringing a 12-6 run under the total into the playoffs. Oddsmakers haven't quite caught up to the fact that Oklahoma City is a much improved defensive team, holding 12 of 17 teams under 100 points to end the regular season.

Another interesting story this season is the play of the Dallas Mavericks. They have stars like Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry, but it's the defense that has so impressed this season, ranking 10th in the NBA in points allowed. The difference has been newcomer 7-foot-1 Tyson Chandler (10.2 points, 9.4 rebounds per game), a guy who has always been content to block shots, rebound and play defense. He's not a star, but like Perkins, is a valuable piece of the low post puzzle.

He won't stand out in highlight reels, but quietly is an effective role playing piece that has improved the Mavericks defense. That kind of depth and effective role playing is one reason Dallas has almost the same home record as they do on the road. Impressive, as that's the best road record in the league. Note that the Mavericks are 8-2-1 under the total their last 11 games as a favorite.

Role players have been a huge key to the surprising Denver Nuggets, as well. After trading Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, the team was devoid of star power. Yet, they've been impressive both straight up and against the number. Why? Check out the depth on this team, bringing Chris Anderson, Ray Felton, J.R. Smith and Al Harrington off the bench! Harrington and Felton can start (and have in their careers), but are valuable weapons coming in off the pine. In a sense, George Karl has two or three sixth men that he can throw at the other team, where most teams are lucky to have one.

Note that the Nuggets are 20-8 ATS in their last 28 after allowing 100 points or more in their previous game. It's not always easy to teach players with big egos to understand the value of role players, but they can be just as important as the stars. Just ask the 2004 Pistons, the 2007 Spurs and the 2008 Celtics, teams loaded with unselfish role players who all celebrated NBA titles.

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