The NBA’s 20 Best Role Players

The NBA is a league dominated by stars. However, some of the most important guys are the secondary players, the ones who do the little things that help their team win. Most of the guys on this list are limited in some areas – and that is why they are role players. There are no scoring title winners or All-NBA players on this list – just guys who have a well-defined role who put the success of the team far above their own.

Nick Collison has embraced his role with the Thunder and has become well-known for doing anything his team needs to get a W.

“The guys who have success in the league and stick around are the ones who understand how to make themselves valuable to an organization,” he wrote in a guest blog for GQ. “You do this by embracing your role and focusing on things other than scoring… You create value for yourself by doing enough positive things to make your coach keep you on the floor… If you can become really good at things like screening, passing, defending pick and rolls, communicating, boxing out and rotating defensively, you can have a huge effect on your team winning a game.”

Every coach would love to have five Nick Collisons on the floor all game if they could. The guy dives for every loose ball, steps in for big charges, and works his ass off on the boards. He has a solid jumper and can finish around the basket as well, but he is not always asked to do those things with all of the offensive weapons the Thunder has. The Kansas standout is more often than not just asked to set screens and move the ball to find Westbrook or Durant. When you’re talking about a role player, he’s the definition.

Sure there will be some guys on this list who can put the ball in the cup – that is their role for their team – but most of these guys have found where they can add the most value to their team doing things other than scoring. This isn’t a list for the guys with the most talent or the best numbers, but rather the guys who are the best at filling a particular role for their team.

Without further ado, here are Nick Collison and the other 20 best role players in the NBA.

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The Snipers

Novak is perhaps best known for his celebrations (the Aaron Rodgers discount double-check) and being Jeremy Lin‘s best friend during the Linsanity run, but he has been a very solid player off the bench the last few years for the Knickerbockers. Novakaine couldn’t cover a chair but he can stretch the floor with the best of them – leading the league in 2011-12 shooting over 47 percent from deep. Novak’s job is simply to rise and fire and will look to continue to do the same with the Raptors this year.

More or less the entire Spurs roster could be on this list. Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford have been wizards building the roster using spare parts from other teams and the bottom of the draft. The Spurs picked up Bonner after the 2005-06 season and he has been stretching the floor brilliantly for them ever since. The Red Mamba led the league in three-point shooting in 2010-11 making almost 46 percent of his treys and has consistently been over 42 percent for each of the past three years. Bonner’s form isn’t the prettiest but he can sure stroke it.

The Garbagemen (& Nick Collison)

Hayes may be one of the least offensively skilled guys in the entire league. How can a guy who has averaged only four points over the course of his career and shoots his free throws like this have an 8-year career? It’s because he plays his role to perfection. He is a fantastic defender, cleans up the boards, and can pass a little too – enough to post a triple-double in 2011. He is great in the locker room and does everything that is asked of him. He is not the most graceful of players, but Hayes is the type of player every coach loves.

Reggie Evans is certainly a very dirty player and the classic you love him if he’s on your team but hate him if he’s not. Regardless of how he does it, Evans’ rebounding numbers are off the charts. Last season with the Nets, Evans posted the second-highest total rebound percentage ever at 26.67 percent, bested only by the great Dennis Rodman in 1994-95. Evans and Garnett together will be a terror for opposing teams this season – opponents better wear their cups. You’d never want Evans to teach anyone shooting form, but there is a spot on every NBA team for a guy like him.

The Stoppers

Sefolosha is a perfect fit for the Thunder. With the aforementioned Durant and Westbrook dominating the ball, the Thunder need the rest of their lineup to focus on things other than scoring – and that is what Sefolosha does. The Switzerland product will hit the open three, hitting on 42 percent of his attempts over the past two years, but he makes his money with his defense. He is feisty and really bothers guys with his length and athleticism – guarding everyone from point guards to small forwards. Sefolosha might not play at all on some other teams in the league, but he is perfect for his role on the Thunder and has been an important part of the success in OKC.

Matt Barnes is a journeyman who hasn’t played for the same team for more than two years in a row. He has been consistently undervalued but has brought Ws wherever he has gone. Barnes’ best attributes are the intangibles – he has a never-say-die attitude and always looks like he is one wrong look away from messing someone up. The Clippers finally realized his worth after a career-year this past year in L.A. and signed him for three more years. Barnes is the epitome of a role player – he can hit shots, defend and has a nastiness that can’t be taught.

Hey, Vinny actually did something right!

Jimmy Butler has fast become a major weapon for the Bulls. Butler became far more efficient on the offensive end in his sophomore campaign, shooting 46.7 percent from the floor and 38.1 percent from three this past year compared to 40.5 percent and 18.2 percent respectively in his rookie year. Butler’s offensive game is improving but where he really impresses is on the defensive end. He has shut down everyone from LeBron to Kobe, the latter even giving postgame praise to Butler after a mid-January game this past season where Kobe went 7-for-22 for only 16 points in a 12-point Chicago win.

Tony Allen is in the NBA to do one thing: defend. You never know what you will get from Tony on the offensive end, but he will be in your grill for 48 minutes a night on the other end. Allen posted the fourth-best defensive rating in the league last year and helped the Grizzlies maintain the best team defense over the course of the season in terms of points allowed. Allen embodies the grit and grind mentality in Memphis and has rode that to three straight appearances on the All-Defensive team, with the last two on the first team.

Kirilenko had 10 solid years in Utah (including an All-Star appearance in ’03-04) before taking a one-year hiatus in Russia until returning to the Timberwolves last season. AK-47 picked up where he left off and was slated to make a good deal of money this upcoming season, but for only reasons he and Mikhail Prokhorov know, he opted out and signed for more years and less money in Brooklyn. He is a solid offensive player who shoots a good percentage, but his best attribute is his defense. Kirilenko led the league in shotblocking in 2004-05 and has also averaged over a steal a game each year of his career. Jason Kidd will have a tough time deciding who to play in crunch time out of the Garnett/Lopez/Kirilenko trio, and just being in that discussion is compliment enough for the 6-9 swingman from Russia.

Lance Stephenson is one of the best New York City high school ballers in history, but after a disappointing one-year stay at Cincinnati and two underwhelming years in the pros, it looked like he would be a bust. However, the Pacers never gave up on Born Ready and he didn’t give up on himself either. He plays solid offense and is a load on the defensive end. The Pacers typically play a more plodding post-up style, but a couple times a game Stephenson will get a rebound and barrel down the court for a lay in. He is still prone to a wild three-point attempt here and there but the Pacers can certainly live with that compared to all the positives Stephenson can provide… namely his aggressive, in-your-face defense. Just ask LeBron about that. The two of them seem to go at it every time they suit up, and Stephenson often holds his own. Given a different role and situation, Stephenson could really struggle – but he is perfect for his role in Hoosier-land.

The Scorers

Scola was a fantastic role player in his first five years with the Rockets. He can score in bunches – averaging over 20 a game in 2010-11 – all while shooting a high percentage. The last couple of years his numbers have dropped a little bit while playing with some subpar teams in Houston and Phoenix, but he won’t have to deal with that this year. The Pacers had an abysmal bench last year and acquired Scola and some other pieces as part of a revamped bench unit. Indiana has plenty of offensive weapons so Scola will have a lot of room to work down on the low block. In addition, Roy Hibbert will help hide some of Scola’s defensive deficiencies (it would be impossible to hide them all).

Landry has bounced around from team to team over the course of his six years in the league but has done the same thing at each stop: score. The Kings first acquired Landry at the end of the 2009-10 season and he dominated, starting all 28 of the remaining games of that season while averaging 18 points on 52 percent shooting. The past few years, the scoring numbers have dropped but the efficiency has stayed the same, with Landry shooting 54 percent last year with the Warriors. It is not determined whether Landry or Jason Thompson will have the starting job this season, but Landry would be a great luxury to have coming off the bench in Sac-town this year.

Jamal Crawford can simply score the rock. The 13-year vet is a perfect fit for this Clipper team and provides instant offense whenever he enters the game. Crawford has an incredible handle and the whole repertoire on offense and would have won Sixth Man of the Year last year if not for J.R. Smith. When he was starting with the Knicks he was scoring 20 a night, but has found a niche in a reserve role with all the firepower in L.A.

J.R. has incredible talent. He also has a big mouth (which Jason Terry recently told him to shut in an interview on Dime). Before last season, Mike Woodson tried to convince Smith it was time to mature on and off the court – meaning less time at the club and better shot selection. On his way to Sixth Man of the Year, Smith got to the line more and averaged the most points of his career (18.1) by more than three points a game all while shooting a better percentage than the previous year. He was primed to get a huge contract but fell apart in the playoffs and was suspended for his elbowing the aforementioned Terry and signed a more modest deal to stay in New York. Smith has developed a great relationship with Woodson and seems to have taken his advice to heart, which should only mean more success in the future for the Knicks.

The 3 and D-ers

Jared Dudley has flown under the radar after a year and a half in Charlotte and then the last 4-plus seasons in Phoenix. The Suns have not been successful as a team, but Dudley has quietly been establishing himself as a solid player in the Association. With his new situation with the Clippers, he will truly be able to show how great a role player he is. The Boston College product has shot over 40 percent from deep over the length of his career and is a solid defender as well. The Clippers place three guys on this list and along with their star power (including the new coach) could really make some noise in the Western Conference this year.

Battier has been a role player ever since he came into the league and has been phenomenal at it from the get-go. Although he does have some dirty tendencies and looks to take charges far too often, his positive influence on his teams is undeniable. He was on the Rockets during their 22-game win-streak in 2008 (along with Hayes, Landry, Novak and Scola) and then was a part of Miami’s 27-gamer this season. Coincidence? I think not. Battier has always been a great defender and works as hard as anyone. Not only that, he can hit the open three, as we saw in the Finals this year in Game 7. He gets a bunch of open looks in Miami, but he has proven the percentage is not only LeBron-driven as he has a career percentage of 38.7 over 12 years. Battier has been an integral part of what Miami has done the past two years and has done so with his shooting and defense.

Green burst onto the scene this season and almost shot the Spurs to a title, setting a record for the most three-pointers made in an NBA Finals series midway through Game 5. The first year of his career he was better known for his dance routines with LeBron than he was for his play on the court. Green honed his craft, however, and turned himself into a very valuable player. He has shot around 43 percent from behind the arc the past two seasons all while playing pesky defense. Green is a big reason the Spurs made their title run this past year, playing his role to perfection.

Chandler Parsons is the perfect role player for this version of the Houston Rockets. The second-round pick can play defense and drill threes, but can also get to the basket. Parsons shot 48.6 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from range this past season and should only get better. Another intriguing aspect about Parsons is his four-year, $3.6 million contract, which with two years remaining is lauded by many as the best value in the entire NBA. The open cap space helped Parsons play a different role this offseason – as a recruiter. Parsons shares agents with Dwight Howard and helped encourage him to join him in Houston. Dwight will only open things up more for Parsons, who should have a fantastic third year in the NBA.

Arron Afflalo has been lost in the shuffle down in Orlando, but he is a fantastic role player. He plays great defense and has a great three-point stroke. His percentage slipped this past year, but the situation in Orlando is anything but ideal (except if you’re Big Baby and get to put up 20 shots a night). On a great offensive team in Denver, Afflalo was consistently over 40 percent from behind the arc. Rob Hennigan is slowly but surely building a team in Orlando and Afflalo is a great foundation piece. If Orlando doesn’t develop into a contender soon, however, hopefully Afflalo can find his way to another situation where he can perform his intended role in the pursuit of a championship.

Leonard has become the best role player in the game after just two years in the league (and could soon become a star). The 22-year-old San Diego State product is known for his absolutely enormous hands and long arms that make him the toughest of defenders – ask King James, who witnessed (no pun intended) Leonard’s defensive prowess firsthand in this year’s Finals. Leonard can also stroke it, hitting at a 37 percent clip from deep in his first two years, which he should only improve on. Leonard is the best in the business when it comes to hitting threes and playing D – what more do you want from a role player? If he keeps improving at the same rate he might lose the “role player” moniker, but at this stage in his career that’s what he is – and he’s the best at it.

What do you think?

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