There is no shortage of superstar names in NBA Playoff history. Russell. West. Reed. Chamberlain. Magic. Bird. Moses. Kareem. Isiah. Jordan. Hakeem. Duncan. Shaq. Kobe. These stars, and of course numerous more, made a name for themselves with dominating play leading up to their eventual championships.
But no matter how hard they try, the big name All-Stars can’t win championships all by themselves. The NBA Playoffs are about resilience, mental strength, and the little things as much as the big things. That is why NBA history will remember a number of crucial role players, players who may have never even been considered for an All-Star team, but who have shown the mettle to regularly and consistently be at the right place at the right time. Players who make the open 3-pointer, players who hustle for the important offensive rebound, players who take the charge and get the opposing star players in foul trouble, and players who offer tough defense, ignoring the statistics to rack up the victories.
These role players go under the radar but help the team get over the top. The greatest such role player is of course Robert Horry. Winner of seven championship rings (No player outside the Bill Russell Celtics era has won more!). Horry has played in more playoff games than any other player in NBA history. He never played in an All-Star game or was named to any All-NBA or All-Defensive team. He never won any individual accolade, just seven measly championships!
The best recent example of a championship caliber role player is Derek Fisher. Now with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Fisher helped Kobe and previously Shaq to secure multiple championships, bringing a total of five rings to the Los Angeles Lakers. Other legends like Bruce Bowen, Steve Kerr, Danny Ainge, Michael Cooper, and most recently, JJ Barea, have shown that one doesn’t need to be a legend to become legendary in the playoffs.
Looking at the NBA Conference Finals this year, there are an ample number of well-known stars still standing: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. But with the NBA Finals just around the corner, which role player in the remaining team is going to be the next Robert Horry or Derek Fisher?
For the Spurs, who are on the brink of elimination, that player may be Stephen Jackson. One of the toughest NBA players around, Jackson won a championship with San Antonio as a youngster and has been brought back to the squad for one more go. With the rest of the Spurs’ supporting squad showing inconsistency, Jackson has been the only one who has stepped up to hit big shots throughout the Conference Finals and aid the efforts of Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan. Plus, he answered the call from Coach Popovich for the Spurs to show some ‘nastiness’ by declaring that ‘nasty’ was his middle name!
Although Mario Chalmers has shown some improvement and maturity, I’ll hand the ‘best role player’ mantle in the Miami Heat to their long-serving forward Udonis Haslem. Haslem is the heart and soul of the squad, and year after year, he has done his duty for the team – whether it’s hitting the open mid-range shot, playing hard-nosed defense, or grabbing crucial rebounds. Haslem’s was a crucial young cog in Miami’s first championship in 2006, and he will have to step up if the Heat are to bounce back versus the Celtics.
The Celtics have a history of featuring memorable cameos by their role players. This season, if they are to challenge for a championship again, that cameo may come via Brandon Bass. Starting at power forward for the majority of the season (Kevin Garnett was moved to Center), Bass has fit in perfectly with Boston’s Big 4 of Rondo, Allen, Pierce, and Garnett in the playoffs. His feathery soft touch, inside presence, and assured free-throw shooting provides the Celtics with yet another scoring option in the big moments.
And for the OKC Thunder, that player may be Defensive Player of the Year candidate Serge Ibaka. Ibaka has the skills to lead the team in blocks, rebounds, and in moments like Game 4 in Oklahoma City, finish the night 11-11 from the floor for 26 points. His improved jump shot and his length on the defensive end are ideal for the young team dreaming of their first championship.
But wait… How can we forget one more name down in Oklahoma City, a name that has already been mentioned a few times in this article before? Derek Fisher, now playing with the Thunder, he may yet have the gas left in him for another big moment or two. With five championships already, it would be foolhardy to bet against the veteran to be at the right place at the right time again. Perhaps there may be no better ‘next’ Fisher than Fisher himself!