“A star? No way, he’s just a role player.”
What if I told you that calling someone in the NBA a role player used to be a compliment? In the past few years, the connotation of the term has shifted from generally good to generally bad. If you’re arguing against a player’s value, you might label him as a role player and drop the proverbial mic.
@SherwoodStrauss Korver is a glamorized role player, feeling the Team USA + 1st place team bump. Hella good, but a role player nonetheless.
— Evan TRUTH Phillips (@TRUTHLiVE) February 16, 2015
Let’s look at some official definitions of the term “role player”, how its connotations have changed, what makes a role player a role player in today’s NBA and ultimately why we’d be better off just not using the term.
The Vague Definitions of the Term
The Free Dictionary defines “role player” as “a team athlete who plays mainly in specific situations.”
Sporting Charts offers a more basketball-specific meaning:
“A term that refers to a player who plays a supporting role on his team, and does it well and willingly. A role player can either be a bench player who is a solid performer in the minutes he gets, or sometimes, a starter who plays a very specific role on the team.”
The latter definition, while detailed, is extremely confusing and misleading.
What does “a supporting role” really mean? Yes, of course it’s in contrast to a lead role, but what defines a lead role in the NBA? If a lead role only means the best player on each team, does that mean Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and Kyrie Irving are all role players?
It’s just a really vague distinction.
And the second half of Sporting Charts’ definition is equally tough to decipher. So a bench player has to be a “solid performer” to earn role player status? But if he’s a starter, he has to have a very specific role to be considered one?
If I were new to the NBA sphere and had not been exposed to the culture of the league, this definition would lead me to some interesting conclusions. For example, James Harden would be more of a role player than Kendrick Perkins.
Harden, a starter, technically has a straightforward role — creating for the Houston Rockets’ offense out of pick-and-roll and isolation situations. Some very advanced skills are needed to fulfill the role, but he has a pretty specific role nonetheless.
Perkins will be a bench player (at least, he better be!) for the New Orleans Pelicans this coming season, but he has proven over the past couple of seasons that his days as a “solid performer” are done.
Perkins wouldn’t be a role player by this definition while Harden would be.
The Changing Connotations of The Term
What the above definitions hopefully showed is that it’s extremely hard to define the concept of a role player, and doing so creates more questions than answers.
So let’s dive into how NBA fans and media have changed the connotations of the word.
From my perspective, people previously used the term as a compliment to describe players who had an elite skill but were not one of their teams’ best two or three players. Steve Kerr (three-point shooting) and Bruce Bowen (one-on-one defense, corner three-point shooting) are some notable role players in NBA history, because they had one or two skill(s) that were the reason they got any court time. They didn’t have well-rounded games, but that was fine, because they still helped their teams.
As of late, however, fans and media have used the term “role player” merely to denigrate players they don’t see as stars. I’ve noticed Kyle Korver (as shown above), Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard as three main targets.
I really dislike Draymond Green. He's a glorified role player.
— Washed Walt (@TheHennyGawd) July 16, 2015
Kawhi will be known as a great defensive role player and a finals MVP. His offense won't be good enough to make him great all-around.
— #CavsNation 52-22 (@NBAVisions) August 24, 2015
Guess what? I’ve been guilty too. I called Green’s 2014-15 campaign “one of the best role-player seasons in NBA history” in an article a couple of weeks ago. I was making the point that he was ranked too high (No. 16) in SI’s Top 100 NBA Players for 2015-16.
However, Green doesn’t even fit the traditional definition of the word “role player” very well.
He can’t create offense for himself (82.3 percent of his made field goals were assisted last season), but you could argue that his role encompasses every single other aspect of the game: passing, screening, spot-up shooting, one-on-one defense, help defense, rebounding, finishing inside, to name several of them.
That’s not a specific or straightforward list of responsibilities at all, as the Sporting Charts definition of a role player calls for.
Leonard also has room to improve in terms of creating his own shot, like Green. But, also similar to Green, his role is a complicated one that includes a huge load to carry on defense and important offensive responsibilities, too.
This pinpoints where I believe people make an arbitrary distinction between role player and star: a player’s ability to create his own shot.
The Role-Player Distinction
Carmelo Anthony, while he has his flaws, is universally considered a star player in the NBA. He makes his impact mainly with a deadly one-on-one offensive bag of tricks. He has a sweet shooting stroke, but also has the ball-handling abilities of a point guard in a small or power forward’s body. That said, he is known for poor defense and has struggled to make his teammates better.
Meanwhile, Green, as we’ve discussed, is still fighting to shake role-player status, despite contributing to his team in many more ways.
Whether you think Anthony or Green is more impactful is up for debate (Today’s Fastbreak colleague Andrew Bailey offers his opinion here), but it’s not up for debate who fits the term “role-player” more, as NBA culture defines the term.
It’s definitely Draymond.
Likewise, Kyrie Irving fits the bill of a star more than Leonard does; he’s a wizard handling the ball who can make mincemeat of any defender off the dribble.
But most (including me) would probably argue Kawhi makes more of an all-around impact than Irving, despite the Spurs forward being more of a “role-player” type.
Let’s go with one more example, just to make this point completely clear: If I were to ask who is more of a role player between Derrick Rose, a quick, slithery point guard with the ability to get to the rim off the dribble consistently, and Rudy Gobert, a rim-protecting monster, most would answer Gobert without hesitation. But if I asked which player is more impactful, you might have to think about it a bit longer, possibly switching your answer.
So there we have it: if you can consistently create your own shot in the NBA, you might be a star according to public perception. If not, you’re stuck as a role player.
The NBA is changing.
The league’s audience, both fans and media alike, is realizing players can contribute in plenty of ways besides creating offense. Just because someone fits the current perception of a role player, that doesn’t mean he’s not a star or contributing a lot of value to his team.
I’ll try to be better at this, too, but the next time you want to argue against someone’s value because he’s not an offensive creator, just be clear about his strengths and weaknesses instead of merely calling him a role player.
In fact, since the term “role player” is so hard to define and causes so much contention overall, why don’t we just scrap the term from NBA jargon?
If a player has an elite skill (or skills), simply credit him for them.
“Steve Kerr was a great role player on three title-winning Chicago Bulls teams.” “Bruce Bowen was a great role player for the Spurs during their 2003, 2005 and 2007 championship runs.”
“Steve Kerr was a great three-point shooter on three title-winning Chicago Bulls teams.”
“Bruce Bowen played elite one-on-one defense and was deadly shooting corner three-pointers during the three Spurs NBA title runs in 2003, 2005 and 2007.”
Doesn’t that make everything so much clearer?
Note: All statistics are from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise indicated.