Know Your Role: Where Most Players Fit in the Superstar-Driven NBA

By Devin Maki

Kyle Terada USA Today Sports

Every good basketball team has "their guy". You know, the guy who can get a bucket anytime, who takes the last shot, and who puts up 30 points in a game seven. The guy who has a crowd there for his warm-ups and makes more money selling shoes than the rest of the team makes in their combined careers. He turns the stadium into a runway before each game looking more like a GQ model than a professional athlete. You know.. "the guy". But that's the superhero role he's supposed to play. The fans eat it up because superstars are constant entertainment both on and off the court. The NBA loves it because buzzer beaters, fresh outfits, and poster dunks all sell tickets. Players, of course, love it because, well who doesn't want to be LeBron James? Not everyone can be the king though. In this type of league that glorifies superstars, quality role players are extremely valuable, and often difficult to find.

This superstar culture is fostered by a sport uniquely tailored to an isolation game plan. Only in basketball can you hand the ball to your best player at the end of the game and expect a good result. Football, Soccer, and Hockey are all too team oriented. The Rams can't hand the ball to Todd Gurley, clear out and expect him to win the game, and while Messi is a once in a generation talent, dribbling through 11 defenders on his own is probably not the best strategy. In the NBA, superstars are necessary to close out games and teams know to hand the ball to "their guy". Individual talent can affect the game in disproportionate ways, but the vast majority of players are not suited for that role.

For every Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and Steph Curry there are four other guys on the floor trying to make their name known and get a piece of the superstar pie. However, that goal doesn't always prove beneficial to the team. There is only one ball, and not everybody can take the last shot. This competition to be top dog often has B-list or over-the-hump players trying to do too much, when they would be better off trying to be the best 6thman.

Now I am not asking players to be passive, or stop striving for greatness. Rather, I am suggesting that most guys would be better off trying to be the next Marcus Smart than the next LeBron James. Be the next Kyle Korver instead of trying to be the next Steph Curry. Those willing to accept these diminished, yet tremendously important roles are extremely valuable to great teams.

This willingness to take a back seat, be an unselfish teammate, and accept a smaller role is uniquely valuable in a league that glorifies individual talent. Magic Johnson once said, "Ask not what your teammates can do for you, but what you can do for your teammates." For the select few all-stars that help their teammates by taking 25 shots, by all means, fire away, but Shaun Livingston isn't doing his team any favors if he thinks it's his night to drop 50. Livingston proves his value as a role player in smaller yet significant ways. He knows his job is to score points off the bench, hit mid-range jumpers, and play defense, and he now has 3 rings because the Warriors value the job he does.

This type of role looks different for every role player on every team. Kyle Korver's role is to knock down threes, spread the floor, and knock down more threes. That unique shooting ability of his has made him into a highly desired talent in the NBA. Marcus Smart similarly has carved out a unique role for himself outside of the superstar spotlight. He does the dirty work by diving for loose balls, playing tenacious defense, and being an offensive spark off the bench. It's guys like these that know their own abilities and thrive at their unique, albeit secondary roles.


Although not everyone is so willing to be the sixth or seventh best option for a team. Ego often gets in the way. Carmelo Anthony has found himself out of a job because of an inability to find a niche role on a team. He is undeniably talented and was clearly "the guy" on teams he played for in the past, but the Rockets parted ways with him after only ten games. This is the same player who laughed at the idea of coming off the bench for OKC only a year ago. He would be better off learning from Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki, or Dwayne Wade. These are guys who are in the back-ends of their careers and continue to play effectively by coming off the bench and taking on role player status.

Those who are willing to be the seventh man, the defensive specialist or the spot-up shooter often find themselves coveted NBA commodities. These roles are a far cry from the league's elite, but the unique ability to know one's own role and do it well is to be admired. There may not be a huge shoe deal coming Marcus Smart's way anytime soon, but I'm sure his 50-million-dollar contract and a shot at a ring will keep him striving to be the best bench player he can be. The league needs more Marcus Smarts.

By Devin Maki