We all know about the glitz and glamour that comes from being a star in the NBA. The shoe and clothing-line deals, the $200-plus million contracts and the large social-media following. Those stars earn all of those rewards and benefits. After all, they’re supposed to be leading their teams to success and greatness.
Squads are filled with one or two stars (if you’re lucky) and then the “other guys.” You know, the guys who wouldn’t be recognized walking down the streets and who don’t get on SportsCenter. But what if I told you that over the course of a regular season, those role players are just as important to their team’s success?
Those relatively unknown players are diving for loose balls, consistently giving their all on the defensive end while not worrying about their stats. Every team needs a quality supporting cast in order to be successful. It just so happens that three organizations added great secondary and tertiary players this summer in hopes of improving their ability to contend in their respective conferences. Let’s take a look at how these signees can make a difference moving forward.
1. P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets
Last season, the Houston Rockets were incredible on the offensive end of the floor, posting the second highest offensive rating in the league. With James Harden moving to point guard and running Mike D’Antoni’s offense like a great orchestra conductor, they went on to win 55 games and make the second round of the playoffs.
However, the Rockets needed more defense in order to truly be elite. Their defensive rating of 106.4 was only good for 18th in the league (though they were extremely close to the league average of 106.3). Houston didn’t have enough perimeter defenders to guard the likes of the Golden State Warriors, which cost them several games throughout the season.
Trevor Ariza is still an above-average defender, but as he continues to get older, his preventing prowess continues to slip. Besides Ariza, could you name another quality wing defender on their roster last season? I’ll help you out: No, you can’t. That’s because the Rockets didn’t have anyone else to guard the opposing elite wings on a night in, night out basis. According to NBA Math, Eric Gordon posted minus-116.15 defensive points saved (DPS) while Sam Dekker came in at minus-17.74. Other than that, Houston didn’t truly have anyone to throw at opposing offenses.
Enter P.J. Tucker.
The Rockets signed the former Toronto Raptor to a four-year, $32 million contract this summer as their first real signing of free agency. The second-round pick back in 2006 is now 32 years old, but if recent seasons are any indication, he should be worth the value of his contract for the foreseeable future.
So what exactly does the forward provide Houston? Elite perimeter defense. Last season, Tucker posted a career-high 1.6 defensive box plus/minus (DBPM) and was 12th among small forwards in defensive real plus/minus (DRPM). The undersized combo forward is a ferocious, physical defender, and he doesn’t shy away from contact when guarding the opponent’s best players. In his first game as a Raptor last season, Tucker showed why his defense is so valuable:
In that game, Tucker simply locked down the opposing wing several times, resulting in a turnover or poor shot. By adding the point-preventing wing (and, subsequently, Luc Mbah a Moute), Houston now has three good perimeter defenders to throw at teams, as well as Chris Paul on the perimeter and Clint Capela in the paint.
On the offensive side of the ball, to say that the 6’6″ forward is limited would be an understatement. He is actually best suited to play more minutes at power forward in small lineups due to his poor shooting, since that would allow him to leak toward his favorite spots.
The former University of Texas forward primarily spots up in the corner for three-pointers. For his career, 72.3 percent of his three-point attempts have come from below the break. Last season, he hit 45.5 percent of such shots from beyond the arc. However, should he play at small forward alongside Mbah a Moute and a traditional center, things could get tricky for Houston’s offense.
In the end, the Rockets needed to rebuild their bench after trading for Paul, ideally by adding more defensive-minded players this summer. The Tucker signing was the first step in doing so, as he brings versatile defense and capable three-point shooting (from the corners, at least) to a Rockets team looking to cement its place in the upper echelon of the Western Conference.
2. Kelly Olynyk, Miami Heat
When the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards met for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals back in May, no one could have predicted what would happen in the fourth quarter: a Kelly Olynyk takeover.
Yep, that’s right. The former first-round pick scored 26 points in the game, including 14 in the fourth quarter alone!
However, due to Boston having to clear cap space to sign their ultimate target (Gordon Hayward), Olynyk entered unrestricted free agency, and he eventually signed with the Miami Heat for 4 years and $50 million.
Because the Heat struggled to attract any marquee free agents, they decided to run back their roster from last year by re-signing Dion Waiters and James Johnson. The seven-foot big man was the team’s biggest outside signing and will provide more offensive versatility down south. As Frank Urbina pointed out for HoopsHabit, “The fit between Olynyk and Miami is perfect. He can space the floor from the 4-spot next to Hassan Whiteside and play small-ball center with reserve units as Bam Adebayo comes along.”
For his career, the former All-American at Gonzaga has shot 36.8 percent from beyond the arc, which will provide more spacing in Miami’s frontcourt. Olynyk does a good job of limiting inefficient mid-range shots, as nearly 75 percent of his shot attempts came from within three feet or behind the three-point line during the 2016-17 campaign.
In addition to that praiseworthy shot selection, Olynyk boasts diversity in his scoring game, which can clearly be seen in his NBA Math Play-Type Profile:
The former Celtic was above the 70th percentile in several offensive categories, including post-ups, cuts, and rolls within pick-and-roll action. In that Game 7 against the Wizards, Olynyk scored in myriad ways, from three-pointers to crafty drives to the rim. You can never have too many options on the offensive end, and the 26-year-old will be able to both spread the floor around Miami’s traditional big men and create his own shot when necessary.
On the defensive end, the four-year veteran isn’t a liability. While he will never be praised for his defense on a consistent basis, he has more than held his own so far in the NBA. For his career, he has posted a positive DBPM (0.6), and last season he earned a 0.81 DRPM. Of course, Miami didn’t sign him for his defense, but rather for his floor-spacing and scoring capabilities. It still never hurts.
Olynyk’s offensive versatility and positive defensive presence makes him an interesting and exciting fit on this re-tooled Miami roster looking to return to the playoffs after last season’s seesaw affair.
3. Patrick Patterson, Oklahoma City Thunder
Because of their trade for Paul George getting all of the attention (and rightly so), the signing of Patrick Patterson for the Oklahoma City Thunder has flown under the radar. The team was able to acquire his services for just $16.4 million over three years, which is a complete bargain. Patterson has emerged in recent years as a true three-and-D power forward and small-ball center, which is incredibly valuable in today’s NBA.
Now, the Thunder didn’t necessarily need to improve their defense this summer, as they were No. 10 in the league on that end of the floor last season. But the former Raptor helps them on both ends of the floor, making his signing even more valuable.
Sticking to the defensive end, Patterson is a good defender who is mobile enough to switch in the pick-and-roll, yet physical enough to guard opposing big men. Last season he was above the 75th percentile in guarding isolations, spot-ups, and pick-and-roll ball handlers. The former University of Kentucky forward is a versatile defender, which was on display in a tough game against the Bulls this past March:
Just in the first two plays of that video, Patterson switches onto Jimmy Butler and forces him to take a tough shot, then rotates over to defend the rim against a Rajon Rondo layup. Later in the video, he rotates over to make a wide-open floater as difficult as possible for Rondo. Patterson has great defensive awareness, and combining that with his increased effort on that end of the floor results in valuable defense.
The 28-year-old big man posted a 1.26 DRPM last season and has consistently graded out with an above-average DBPM for his career. Oklahoma City started Domantas Sabonis for 66 games before acquiring Taj Gibson to start at power forward, and Patterson is a much better fit than either of them.
The floor spacing Patterson provides makes him a much better fit for the Thunder. Since joining the Raptors four years ago, Patterson has shot 37.3 percent from behind the arc. More importantly, the seven-year veteran has steadily increased his number of attempts per game, reaching a career high of 3.9 last season. Let me remind you that Oklahoma City finished dead last in three-point percentage last season (32.7 percent) and below league average in number of attempts per game (25.8).
Also, Patterson is a deadly shooter from the corners, hitting 40.2 percent of such shots during his time in Toronto. The new acquisition is surely going to see more (and better) looks from those spots playing alongside two elite stars in Russell Westbrook and George.
Slotting Patterson in at the starting power forward spot will help space the floor for that dynamic duo while avoiding any sacrifice the defensive end. He’s a positive on both ends of the floor, which is not only rare, but extremely valuable. How Oklahoma City was able to sign him for so little is beyond me, but it got a great bargain on a fantastic role player.
And there you have it. Three role players all signed to different squads on vastly different contracts, but each will make their own mark. Next time you see that a team won a close game with a defensive stop or watch players dive for a loose ball, be sure to look for who is in that pile or who made the game-saving defensive play.
It was likely a role player.
Follow Eric on Twitter @ericspyros.