In the NBA, star players drive winning. Look back at nearly every championship team and you will find that each one had at least two star players driving their success. In a sport with only 10 players on the court at one time, having one or two truly elite players makes all the difference.
However, during the course of a 82 game regular season or one key possession in the playoffs, role players can also be difference-makers. If that weren’t the case, we never would have gotten “Big Shot Bob” (Robert Horry), Steve Kerr’s game winning shot in game six of the 1997 NBA Finals, or Mario Elie’s “Kiss of Death” 3-pointer in game seven of the 1995 Western Conference Finals.
While stars drive the big winning, it’s clear that they need support along the way from some unsung heroes. With the 2018-19 NBA season getting underway this week, let’s shine a light at some of the role players that will play key roles for their team this season. Some of these role players changed teams in the offseason, further adding more intrigue to their potential roles this season.
A storyline that you probably got sick of hearing this summer was about how the Houston Rockets let Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute leave in free agency, depleting the team’s wing depth and defense. Predictably, Rockets GM Daryl Morey was able to recover some of that in the form of James Ennis, a journeyman wing known for his solid defensive play.
Ennis has bounced around the league over the past couple of seasons, as his inconsistent and limited offensive game has made it difficult for him to stick on a team. For his career, Ennis has shot 35.9 percent on 3-pointers, a solid yet unspectacular number, especially considering his limited number of attempts (a little over three per game last season).
For Ennis, the volume and percentage should increase playing in Houston, where he will regularly get open looks from beyond the arc as a result of playing alongside James Harden and Chris Paul. It shouldn’t surprise anyone when Ennis is attempting over five to six 3-pointers per game and knocking them down at a healthy clip.
Ennis also arrives in Houston as an athletic finisher at the rim and in transition, something the Rockets could use on the wing after seeing Ariza struggle to finish. Ennis shot 71.6 percent from within three feet of the rim last season and is a career 63.5 percent finisher around the rim. Ennis provides another potential outlet in transition, with the confidence that he will finish tough layups around the rim as he did numerous times last season:
However, what Ennis was mainly brought in to do is play defense. Ennis has the length and defensive instincts to be a very solid defender, even though the numbers haven’t exactly supported that in recent seasons. It remains to be seen if Ennis can replicate the same level of defense that Ariza and Mbah a Moute brought last season, especially Ariza’s impressive defense in the Conference Finals against the likes of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.
Regardless, Ennis showed throughout the preseason that he will be a pest defensively, with the ability to cause turnovers and turn them into points in transition:
One of the most underrated free agency signings this past summer was the Minnesota Timberwolves bringing in Anthony Tolliver. In what is essentially a move that swaps Nemanja Bjelica for Tolliver as the backup power forward, Minnesota is getting a tested veteran that was one of the best 3-point shooters in the league last season, knocking down 43.6 percent of his 4.6 attempts/per game.
For the Timberwolves, his shooting will be a much-needed boost to provide more floor-spacing for Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler (if he’s still on the team) and Andrew Wiggins. The Timberwolves were dead last in 3-pointers attempted per game as a team, hoisting just 22.5 shots from beyond the arc last season, an archaic number in today’s NBA. It should be noted that Minnesota was still able to post the league’s fourth best offense, but a good portion of that credit should go to Jimmy Butler, an extraordinary offensive player that can hit tough shots on a regular basis.
Tolliver’s role on offense will likely come down to standing around on the wings and in the corners, waiting for his defender to help on a Butler drive or Towns post-up, leading to an open 3-pointer for Tolliver, a shot he won’t miss very often.
A key aspect of Tolliver’s game is that (for the most part) he is also a positive defender. When Tolliver improved the Detroit Pistons’ defense when he was on the floor last season, which you’ll take when you also get the elite floor-spacing he provides.
Howe Minnesota uses Tolliver will be something to watch throughout the regular season. A case could be made that he is a better fit in the starting lineup alongside Towns in the frontcourt, despite the strong season that Taj Gibson had in 2017-18. Do the Wolves ever go to small-ball lineups with Tolliver at center? That would be a more modern lineup than anything Tom Thibodeau usually rolls out, but it would present an interesting offensive dynamic (with some well-warranted defensive concerns, but the Timberwolves were 23rd defensively last season, so they aren’t really stopping anyone to begin with).
Regardless, Tolliver should be in-line for a significant supporting role this season and if he can continue hitting 3-pointers at an elite rate, will be a steal for the Timberwolves this season.
While Zeller didn’t change teams in the offseason, the Hornets traded away Dwight Howard, opening the path for Zeller to receive a much larger role this season.
While Zeller has had trouble staying healthy in recent seasons (he has missed 94 games in the past four years) and doesn’t put up any eye-popping statistics, he makes a tremendous impact on the Hornets when on the floor. Consider the fact that Charlotte has gone 35-59 in those games Zeller has missed, or Zeller’s positive net rating in each of the past four seasons to understand his underlying impact on the team’s success.
More importantly, the duo of Kemba Walker and Zeller has been very successful when on the court together in recent seasons, with last year being no exception. With Kemba and Dwight on the floor, the Hornets’ net rating actually dropped to +2.5 (on 4686 possessions). Meanwhile, when Kemba and Zeller were on the floor together, the Hornets’ net rating rose to +6.8 (on 462 possessions). Talk about making a difference.
In the 2016-17 season, Zeller started in 58 games and made a tremendous impact. When the 26-year-old big man was on the floor, the Hornets’ defense improved by 7.5 points per 100 possessions, while the team’s offense also improved by 4.6 points per 100 possessions. While Zeller won’t wow anyone with big dunks or impressive shot-blocking, he simply focuses on setting good screens and attacking the boards (aka, the dirty work required to win games on a nightly basis).
With the Hornets healthy and having added Miles Bridges and Tony Parker to help shore up the second unit, Charlotte looks poised to compete for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. If Zeller stays healthy, the team will get a big boost from their starting center, as he simply focuses on making winning plays each and every night.