Rotation players in the NBA can be separated into stars and role players.
It’s easy to describe the stars. They’re the team’s first or second option on offense, scoring around 25-30 points a game with defensive responsibilities being optional in many cases.
The role players are what you’d call the supporting cast. The majority of rotation players fall under this category and they’re more diverse both in their role and place in the pecking order compared to stars. They range from high-end starters to niche specialists that play maybe 10 minutes a game off the bench.
While stars are usually a triple threat on offense and can score from almost anywhere, role players are non-star players that fill a specific role, either on offense or defense. Stars can also be strictly offensively-minded, while role players have to be at least serviceable on both ends of the court.
The Nature of Star Players
If every basketball player only fulfilled specific roles, then there’d be no point in having the term ‘role player’ in the first place. They’d just be players.
So the term ‘role player’ only means something alongside the term ‘stars’.
Successful teams will always have their stars. As their name would suggest, these players are those who the coach, teammates and fans depend on.
It’s important to keep in mind that the star category is large in the NBA. At the very top, you’ve got all-time greats like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Kevin Durant and Stephan Curry. We class these players as superstars. You also see stars like Chris Paul, James Harden and Jayson Tatum who are borderline superstars, and then the regular stars who lack household recognition.
Stars are responsible for putting points up points in the game through their offensive prowess. Employed as scoring machines, the coaching staff might be willing to overlook shortcomings in their defensive ability.
Look no further than point guard Trae Young for an example of a star that is a dynamic scorer but can’t guard a statue on defense. On the other hand, Giannis Antetokounmpo would be a great example of a two-way star.
Role Players As Unsung Heroes
While role players rarely make headlines, they are instrumental in winning. The difference between a good team and a great team often comes down to how well the role players do their job. There are no doubt games where a superstar carries their team to a victory, but for consistent team success, a team requires role players to do their part.
Examples of Role Players
Role players come in a variety of specializations and sizes, and we’ll go over some of the main ones here.
Three and D players
Three and D players are probably the most coveted type of role player in the modern NBA. They are also the most versatile.
As the name implies, these players specialize in two things, long-distance three-point shooting and defense. They’re usually shooting guards or small forwards with the size that lets them guard multiple positions and an above-average three-point stroke.
Their main role on offense is spacing the floor, and you’ll most often see them in the corners or running off of screens. That second part is especially important for a dynamic offense, so you want 3-and-D players to have excellent conditioning and a great motor.
These guys are some of the most important players for their teams, and you’ll usually find them having prominent roles on title contenders. Given the very high demand for three and D players and a relatively low supply, they’re probably the best-paid role players in the league on average.
Examples: Mikal Bridges, Keldon Johnson, Bobby Portis
Rim protector/defensive anchor
As the name implies, these players are interior defensive specialists and they act as the last line of defense for their teams. This role requires a lot of height, and that’s why most rim protectors are centers.
Every basketball team wants as many easy shots at the rim as possible, and the rim protector’s job is to use their presence to turn those easy shots into misses. Contrary to popular belief, being an elite shot-blocker does not necessarily make one a rim protector. It’s more about contesting shots at the rim and turning them into misses.
Look at Hassan Whiteside’s early years for a great example. He had elite block numbers but Miami had a worse defensive rating when he was on the floor compared to when he was off.
Since securing the rebound is needed to close out a successful defensive possession, rebounding is a very important complementary skill for rim protectors.
They’re not required to do much on offense, and their offensive roles are usually quite limited as a result. Most rim protection specialists are just screen setters and lob targets on offense.
Examples: Rudy Gobert, Jakob Poeltl
Out of all the role players, glue guys are probably the most difficult to explain since they don’t have an exact checklist that defines them. The best way to go about it would be to say that they fill in the team’s gaps with their hustle and energy.
They always have a very good motor and they have incredible hustle. Whether it’s diving for every loose ball there is, hounding their defensive assignment from baseline to baseline, or grabbing offensive rebounds, glue guys do whatever is necessary for their team to win. That usually makes them both fan and locker room favorites.
They will usually come off the bench and play for a few minutes, but they’ll leave their heart on the court during their limited playing time. Since they usually make up in effort what they miss in other areas, coaches can rely on them to provide quality minutes in nearly any scenario, even when the main guys are on the bench for a breather.
Examples: Jose Alvarado, Steven Adams
Teams that have just one playmaker see their offense grind to a halt when playoff defenses focus all their attention on that playmaker. That’s why any team that has title aspirations must have at least one more playmaker.
This type of role player usually comes at the point guard position, but they can also be wings. Their job is to keep the offense flowing and create scoring opportunities for the rest of the team or create their own offense when the situation requires it. They are players who can make something out of nothing but don’t quite fit the star category.
Their playing time and role within the offense will heavily depend on the composition of their team, and they can range from high-end starters to bench players. Regardless of their minutes or exact job descriptions, there will always be a playoff team in need of them.
Examples: Tyus Jones, Delon Wright
Three-point specialists can be considered a subset of three and D players. Unlike their two-way counterparts, these specialists focus strictly on long-range shooting. Their percentages from beyond the arc are borderline unreal and their motor is off the charts, but they are not capable of guarding multiple positions.
Some are even seen as defensive liabilities, but the spacing they provide is so good that teams can’t afford not to play them. Given their defensive limitations, their roles usually diminish in the playoffs when opponents are always hunting the weakest link on defense.
Bringing them out in the postseason can be risky, so coaches must figure out how and when to bring them out for the best effect. If done well, they can swing the flow of the game.
Examples: Duncan Robinson, Kyle Korver
Stretch bigs are power forwards and centers with the ability to score away from the basket. By being a scoring threat both when posting up and positioned beyond the arc, they ‘stretch’ the opposing team. Dirk Nowitzki was the league’s first elite stretch big who really changed the expectations placed on bigs.
This role is a bit outdated given how today’s basketball meta now requires pretty much everyone, including the seven-footers, to be able to shoot. But less than a decade ago, stretch bigs were the most in-demand type of role player.
Back in their heyday, teams that featured a stretch big enjoyed a huge spacing advantage on offense because their range drew opposing bigs away from the paint and opened driving lanes for other players.
This role is almost extinct in modern basketball since not only does everyone need to be able to shoot, but big men are getting more and more adept at perimeter defense. Once a very prominent type of role player, stretch bigs today are just considered regular three-point specialists.
Examples: Ryan Anderson, Ersan Ilyasova