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7 former All-Stars finding new life off the bench

From superstar to super-sub, these 7 key reserves are set to play a vital role come playoff time.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Carmelo Anthony has found new NBA life in Portland after committing to a role wherever the Blazers had needs.

There was a time when Carmelo Anthony’s team taking on Blake Griffin’s team would have been a big deal precisely because of the marquee names involved.

That time would have been, oh, seven years ago or so.

Back in the 2013-14 season, Anthony was the toast of New York, leading the Knicks while scoring 27.4 points per game (which was second in the NBA). Griffin was helping the LA Clippers to a 57-25 mark while averaging 24.1 ppg (which was sixth in the NBA).

Much has changed since then. Anthony comes off the bench for the Portland Trail Blazers. Griffin does the same for the Brooklyn Nets. They are two of no fewer than seven pedigreed veterans — we’re talking three or more All-Star appearances each — filling reserve roles for playoff contenders.

There were eight, until LaMarcus Aldridge abruptly retired from the Nets two weeks ago after having an irregular heartbeat scare. But the seven still grinding have gaudy resumes, loads of experience and leadership credentials to help their current teams whether they’re on the court or sitting on the side. Which is where they generally can be found these days, at least at tipoff.

Prior to this season, Anthony, Griffin, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose had started a combined 4,034 NBA games. In 2020-21, those five have started a total of 34 times.

Add Paul Millsap and Marc Gasol, two decorated vets whose roles have changed further still in recent weeks, and that group of seven boasts: 38 All-Star selections, 23 all-NBA berths, a scoring title (Anthony), two Kia Rookie of the Year Awards (Rose and Griffin), four Kia Defensive Player of the Year Awards (one for Gasol; three for Howard) and one Kia Most Valuable Player Award (Rose).

And they’re all serving as back-ups now.

From painting masterpieces to painting barns? That’s probably an overstatement. But they are leading men now part of supporting casts, complementing younger stars. Here is a look at each, in descending order of All-Star appearances:

Carmelo Anthony, Portland Trail Blazers

A proud 10-time All-Star, Anthony never came off the bench in his first 15 NBA seasons. He shot down even the suggestion of it at the end of 2017-18 when he was with Oklahoma City. “I’m not sacrificing no bench role,” he said as the Thunder’s season ended.

The next season in Houston, Anthony came off the bench eight times in 10 games before being taken out of the rotation. He started all 58 games he played after signing with the Trail Blazers last season, but at 36, faced the bench issue again this season. “I had to swallow that pill,” Anthony said.

The move has suited him. Anthony is averaging 13.6 ppg in 24.8 minutes and shooting 40% on 3-pointers, just a tick shy of his career high. Pro-rated to 36 minutes, Melo is basically Melo averaging 19.8 points on 16.8 shots.

Anthony said his comfort level in Portland and rapport with teammates such as Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum eased the decision. “It was just coming to a mutual agreement about what the situation would be,” he said. “And … just going out there and wanting to play basketball. Wanting to be a part of what’s happening. To be a major part of our team’s success.”

Dwight Howard, Philadelphia 76ers

Dwight Howard has found a clean fit in Philadelphia after reviving his career with the Lakers during their championship run.

This is Howard’s second season of serious bench work. After subbing in only once in his first 1,044 NBA games, he did so 67 times last season for the Lakers and 55 times in the Sixers’ first 60 this season.

At 35, he has settled in as Joel Embiid’s backup and understudy, more likely to maintain Embiid’s defensive and rebounding presence than anything approaching the younger man’s status as Philadelphia’s No. 1 offensive option.

The three-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year has been relentless on the boards — his per-36 rebounding rate of 17.3 is the highest of his 17 seasons. What offense he gets — 6.7 ppg in 17.3 minutes — comes mostly on lobs and put-backs, but there is this: His eight double-doubles off the bench are the most by a Sixers player since Darryl Dawkins had 16 in 1978-79.

Blake Griffin, Brooklyn Nets

Though he’s only 32, Griffin has an injury history that makes a niche role a better fit these days. Not that his new team fretted about getting a lesser version of the one-time Kia-leaping Clippers star.

“His IQ is through the roof,” said Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant, the player Griffin most often backs up. “He knows how to play basketball on both sides of the floor.”

Best of Blake Griffin with the Nets

The opportunity to negotiate a buyout from Detroit, a rebuilding team, and sign on with the championship-focused Nets has Griffin’s adrenaline pumping again. He’s been nothing if not appreciative.

“They’ve been fantastic,” Griffin said recently. “From the time I got here, they accepted me. It’s been very positive. Helped me out with this transition, try to feel comfortable, normal and encourage me to play my game.”

Griffin has been playing well, averaging 9.5 ppg and 4.7 rpg and 20.6 minutes. His shooting numbers in reserve — 51.7% overall, 40% on 3s and 81.8% from the line — have been better than what he has shot as a starter over his career.

Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets

Millsap’s move to the Nuggets’ bench has come more organically than most of the veteran stars on this list. The improvement of Michael Porter Jr. and the arrival of Aaron Gordon have shifted the four-time All-Star into a role where he often gets his minutes as center Nikola Jokic’s backup.

There has been some gridlock in Denver’s frontcourt, with Millsap, JaMychal Green and JaVale McGee all vying to play. Divvying up the time remains coach Michael Malone’s responsibility.

“I’m not sitting here expecting [them] to be happy if they’re not playing on a given night,” Malone said. “But they do have an obligation and a responsibility to their team and their teammates.”

The Nuggets were 21-14 in Millsap’s starts this season, compared to 12-2 in his reserve stints. Coming off the bench now is a sort of bookend to the 6-foot-7 forward’s career — he started only three games in his first two seasons with Utah from 2006-08.

Rajon Rondo, LA Clippers

Kyle Korver talks about the playoff experience the Clippers are adding in Rajon Rondo

Rondo has won an NBA championship as a starter (Celtics, ’08) and as a backup (Lakers, ’20). The Clippers are hoping he has another one in him, counting on his reputation as “Playoff Rondo” to provide some grit and impose some order on their attack.

“Just trying to get our two main guys the ball in a lot easier spots,” Rondo said upon arrival, of stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, “as far as them having to work so hard to get the ball against a set defense. If we are able to create stops and get out on the break, my job is to advance, pass the ball and let those guys attack 1-on-1.”

Said George: “We’re going to listen to him. I look at him as a leader, a leader of this group. He’ll hold a lot of weight.”

Rondo has had an interesting career, in terms of starter vs. sub. In his first 11 seasons, he started 96% of the time (672 of 701 games) for five different teams. In 2018-19, he started 29 games for the Lakers. But starting the next year, it was five starts in 86 appearances for the 2020 champs, Atlanta and the Clippers.

Before the Hawks traded him last month, Rondo had a minus-9.2 net rating for them. Since joining the Clippers, he’s been plus-13.1. His individual stats over his career have been essentially the same, starter or bench, adjusted for minutes.

Marc Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers

Gasol joined the Lakers as a free agent in November, seeking a shot at another ring and a chance to prove he has plenty of gas left in his tank. The former still is to be determined, while the latter hasn’t gone exactly as planned.

The three-time All-Star and former Kia Defensive Player of the Year was a modest contributor as a starter, with 5.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg and 2.1 apg in 19.5 minutes. He was shooting 38.7% on 3s. But when the Lakers got the opportunity to add Cavs’ buyout Andre Drummond, Gasol’s starter status was a casualty.

Drummond immediately started at center on March 28 and has held that spot in 10 of the past 11. Gasol has played only three times in those 11 games. Also vying for minutes as Lakers bigs: Montrezl Harrell and Markieff Morris, with recently returned Anthony Davis as an option there too.

By most accounts, Gasol has stayed professional and on task. But in one recent Zoom media session, he responded to questions about the logjam of Lakers bigs by saying, “You guys are asking the wrong guy. It’s [coach Frank Vogel’s] decision.”

Said Vogel: “Marc is a vital piece to us winning the championship this year.”

Still, this probably isn’t what Gasol had in mind when he signed a two-year contract worth $5 million — a 90% pay cut from his 2019-20 salary with Toronto.

Derrick Rose, New York Knicks

Derrick Rose’s work as a reserve guard has helped New York close in on a long-sought playoff berth.

It’s no coincidence that Derrick Rose is thriving in his second stint with the Knicks, beyond what he did in 2016-17 when he averaged 18 points while starting 64 games.

The difference this time is his coach, Tom Thibodeau. The two share a mutual admiration dating back to Thibodeau’s five seasons as the Chicago Bulls’ coach from 2010-15. They were together in Minnesota from 2017-19, and now have jolted the NBA by helping to revive the Knicks as a playoff hopeful.

Rose’s career, of course, has been star-crossed. He’s the only former MVP on this list and his three All-Star appearances were done by 2012. He has started 507 games, come off the bench for 131 and missed another 391 entirely (including all of 2012-13) with a series of mostly knee and leg injuries.

His unofficial role models now ought to be Bob McAdoo and Bill Walton, former MVPs and Hall of Famers who found new life as valuable reserves on championship teams with the Lakers and Celtics, respectively.

Thibodeau credits Rose for his own coaching and financial success and says the Chicago-born point guard has had a “helluva career.”

“He did it early on, like most young players, with his talent,” the Knicks coach said after Rose scored 23 points against New Orleans. “He didn’t have the experience that he has now. So he has the mental part down now. He doesn’t have maybe the same athleticism, but he has the same quickness. He puts enormous pressure on you.

“I told him this when I brought him to Minnesota, he had a great start to his career but derailed some by injuries to go through, three consecutive years. Most guys couldn’t do that — one year is very difficult to get through. But to then come out on the other side … I think he’ll have a great finish to his career as well.”

Rose as a starter through his in-and-out career: 19.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg and 5.9 apg. Rose as a reserve, pro-rated to 36 minutes: 22.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg and 6.2 apg. He gets up shots more frequently than in all but one of his first four seasons.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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