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In the perfect-world NBA, all player roles fit like skinny jeans and prove ideal vehicles for their abilities.
In the actual Association, roster construction and team dynamics often force players into roles that either mask their full range of skills or ask too much of them.
We’re here to focus on the latter.
The following five players are among the league’s most accomplished. They have 21 All-Star selections among them, and no one has earned the distinction fewer than two times.
These are household names, but they aren’t No. 1 options. Or rather, that isn’t the job type that best fits with their skills. Not on their current clubs, nor anywhere else.
Whether fighting (relative) inefficiency, struggling with inconsistency or bumping against not-quite-elite ceilings, they all have reasons they’d work better as supporting pieces than featured stars.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
While LaMarcus Aldridge carried the San Antonio Spurs’ offensive torch last season, he averaged only 14.3 shots the previous two campaigns. Those San Antonio attacks ran through Kawhi Leonard, who the Spurs traded away for DeMar DeRozan.
Considering DeRozan is younger than Aldridge (29 to 33), more ignitable (career-high 27.3 points per game to 23.4) and the centerpiece of the Leonard swap, he is the logical choice to lead San Antonio’s Leonard-less offense.
“In terms of how he generates his offense, DeRozan is not all that far from Leonard,” Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated wrote. “Both are disciples of Kobe Bryant: wings who pull up and pivot their way into bucket after bucket, often overcoming a rather considerable degree of difficulty.”
The Spurs are more comfortable with ball-pounding than their reputation suggests. Last season, they posted up more than anyone. Two years ago, they let Leonard isolate on 12.6 percent of his offensive possessions. All of this will help DeRozan feel at home, since 13.3 percent of his possessions were isolations last season and another 7.0 percent were post-ups.
But that isn’t how elite offenses operate in the modern NBA.
Last season, San Antonio finished 17th in efficiency, its worst ranking since 1996-97. Toronto, meanwhile, made a concerted effort to have better ball movement and spacing, and it jumped to third in efficiency. However, DeRozan had his lowest player efficiency rating in three years (21.0, a good-not-great 23rd among qualified players).
His inside-the-arc style is too easy for elite defenses to game-plan against when it’s an offense’s focal point. His regular-season success has yet to translate the playoffs—the most critical time for a top option to perform. He’s only a career 41.0 percent shooter in the postseason, and he posted an abysmal minus-7.0 net rating during his latest go-round.
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Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Blake Griffin was the Detroit Pistons’ high man in points (24) and assists (five) during his first game after his midseason move to the Motor City, setting the tone for the remainder of the season. Over his 25 appearances with the Pistons, he led the team in scoring by 125 points, had 114 more shots than any of his teammates and had 46 more assists, too.
Under new Pistons head coach Dwane Casey, Griffin could get even more control of the offense.
“We’re going to empower him to expand his game, a lot like DeMar DeRozan in Toronto,” Casey said on ESPN Radio. “Expand his game out to the three-point line, have some point-forward responsibilities with the basketball out on the floor bringing it down. Because he’s more than just a back-down, post-up player.”
Griffin can function as a multifaceted offensive hub. He’s a gifted passer for his size—the 6.2 assists he tallied per night with the Pistons would have been the fourth-most ever recorded by a player 6’10” or taller—and he’s making strides as a shooter (he set career bests in free-throw shooting and three-pointers last season).
But he’s better at filling in the cracks than bearing the weight of the entire structure.
The best Los Angeles Clippers clubs always had better net ratings with Chris Paul than Griffin. The latter has never cracked the top five leaguewide in scoring, and he hasn’t reached the top 10 since 2014-15. His career average of 4.3 assists per game is impressive for his position, but it hardly indicates he’s capable of carrying an entire offense.
Griffin has that role in Detroit, but that’s largely due to a dearth of other realistic options. He rarely handled it in L.A. because it wasn’t worth taking the ball out of Paul’s hands. And while Griffin capably steered the Clippers through Paul’s 18-game absence in 2013-14, that was four-plus seasons and a slew of injuries ago.
Griffin turns 30 in March. He’s coming off the least efficient campaign of his career. He hasn’t averaged 22 points—something 20 different players did last season—in five years. Deploying him as a primary offensive hub is asking him to level up when evidence suggests he’s trending down.
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Tony Dejak/Associated Press
Imagining him running any offense at this point isn’t easy, since he spent the past four seasons mostly spotting up along the arc while mixing in the occasional post-up. He hasn’t averaged 20 points or 15 shots since he left the Minnesota Timberwolves following the 2013-14 campaign.
And yet, he stands as a pretty clear-cut No. 1 option for the LeBron-less, Kyrie-less Cavs. Unless No. 8 pick Collin Sexton hits the ground sprinting like a bull seeing red, Love shouldn’t have much competition for touches. Maybe Rodney Hood would change that, but he hasn’t re-signed yet and wasn’t close to reliable in Cleveland.
This might feel like getting back on a bicycle for Love, since he ran the Gopher State with 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game in 2013-14. But he never won as a primary player, and he’s only had as many playoff trips as seasons spent with James. Cleveland valued Love enough to give him a four-year, $120 million extension, but it shouldn’t expect to get a $30 million impact from him.
“He’s not a max player,” an Eastern Conference scout told Bleacher Report’s Greg Swartz. “He’s not a franchise player; he’s probably the third guy on a really good playoff team.”
Love’s lack of athleticism has hurt him as the Association has shifted further out to the perimeter. He’s retained some value as a spot-up sniper (41.5 percent outside last season), but that role only works if someone else is spoon-feeding him shots. Deploy him as a pick-and-pop sidekick, and he can be an asset; ask him to lead your offense in 2018-19, and he’s sure to come up short.
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Chuck Burton/Associated Press
Kemba Walker is the Charlotte Hornets. The franchise record books feature a collection of his career works, and he continues creating further separation from his supporting cast. Charlotte’s second option hasn’t come within five shots per game of Walker since 2015-16.
But the scoring point guard’s All-Star rise has yet to spark a team-wide elevation. The Hornets are coming off back-to-back 36-win seasons and have only made the playoffs twice during his seven-year tenure. That’s not all on him, of course—Charlotte’s payroll shows a crippling series of blunders—but it does suggest he’s closer to very good than great.
Walker is a high-level scorer and distributor. He’s one of only six players to average at least 20 points and five assists each of the last three seasons.
But he’s not quite elite in either category. He has yet to post a top-15 finish in scoring and topped out at 14th in assists (2013-14). He isn’t a particularly efficient shooter (41.5/35.8/83.4 career slash), and he’s below average on isolations (44th percentile last season).
Switch him from Batman to Robin, though, and he’d rocket up the sidekick rankings. He can initiate offense when needed (92nd percentile pick-and-roll ball-handler), and he’s a steady spacing source off the ball (39.5 percent on catch-and-shoot triples). He shouldn’t dominate late-game touches (37.7 percent shooting in clutch situations), but his knack for creating bail-out buckets would make him an interesting Plan B.
Walker is hungry for playoff success, so a step down the offensive pecking order shouldn’t be a problem if it’s made in that pursuit. He has improved a ton as a No. 1 option—he was a 39.5 percent shooter through his first four seasons, but 43.4 percent in the last three—but his talents best fit the No. 2 slot.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Are we conveniently kicking John Wall after a down season that was halfway wiped out by knee surgery? Yes and no.
Sure, it’s easier painting him as an overmatched first option when he’s averaging 19.4 points on 42.0 percent shooting than 23.1 points on 45.1 percent shooting. But there are greater concerns than a relatively rocky 41-game sample.
He turns 28 in September. That isn’t old by any measure, but it is an age at which it’s tricky for any pro hooper to keep improving—let alone one who is over-reliant on athleticism due to a shaky outside shot (career 32.7 percent from three) and has had surgical procedures on both knees.
“For the first time in his career, projecting Wall’s future requires considering at least as much downside as upside,” Sports Illustrated‘s Andrew Sharp wrote.
To be clear, Wall is a prodigious talent. He can play the game faster and see it more slowly than most. His burst would make track stars jealous, and world-class butchers can appreciate the precision with which he carves up defenses.
But it’s fair to wonder if he’d be better off as a second option, or at least a 1-B. Among the 33 players to log 15,000-plus minutes and have a career usage percentage of 27-plus during the three-point era, Wall’s 17.3 turnover percentage is the highest, and his 51.8 true shooting percentage is tied for second-lowest.
As a co-pilot, Wall wouldn’t need to always floor the gas pedal. He’d theoretically be probing wider driving lanes or passing into clearer windows, because if those spots didn’t open, he could reverse the ball to the 1-A player and let him attack. A more discerning approach should yield better shooting rates and fewer turnovers, or perhaps the best version of Wall we could hope to see.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.