Team USA and the Importance of Role Playing

Posted on August 9, 2006 by


Anderson Varejao plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers. This may not be known by too many NBA fans.  In fact, fans of the Cavaliers may be surprised to learn that he is one of their own.  After all, he only averaged 4.6 points per contest last season.  Clearly Varajao is not an NBA star or even an above average scorer.  No, Varejao is just a role player. 

What’s a role player? Each team employs players who take the majority of the team’s shots and score the majority of the team’s points.  These players are the scorers.  But everyone can’t be a scorer.  A team only has so many shots in a game to take.  So some players have to contribute by filling other roles than taking shots. Varajao’s skill is rebounding.  Had Cleveland played Varajao 33 minutes a game last year, and he maintained his per-minute performance, Varajao would have averaged 10.2 boards per contest.

To illustrate what rebounding can mean for a team we turn to Varajao’s summer time employer, Team Brazil.  Yesterday Brazil took on Team USA in an exhibition basketball game.  Team USA has scorers in abundance.  Eight of the thirteen players who took the court for Team USA averaged at least 20 points per contest last season in the NBA.  Only Shane Battier did not finish in the top two in scoring on his respective NBA team. 

Facing Team USA was a team lacking any NBA stars.  Other than Varajao, only Leaonardo Barbosa has logged significant time in the NBA.  And Barbosa didn’t even play that well in the game.

But Varajao did.  Varajao played more than any other player on either team.  In his 33 minutes Varajao did even better than what he did for the Cavaliers this last season.  Although he only took six shots – making three – Varajao hit the boards.  When the game was over Varajao had sixteen rebounds.  Team Brazil finished with 41 rebounds, while Team USA only had 25. Yes, a team of mostly non-NBA players out-rebounded a team of NBA stars by 16. Hence it is not surprising that Team USA was only able to win by four points, 90-86. 

Why did a collection of All-Stars struggle against a team of unknowns?  The answer is in the question. Brazil brought a team to the game.  Team USA brought a collection of stars.  If this were the Davis Cup and each of our stars got to play one-on-one against Brazil’s best, Team USA would easily win.  But basketball is not five games of one-on-one, but one game of five-on-five.  In a game of five-on-five, a team needs both scorers and role players to be successful.

Unfortunately, Team USA has an abundance of scorers and a dearth of role players.  If we define a scorer as a player who averages at least 16 points per 40 minutes played, we see that Team USA has only two players – Shane Battier and Bruce Bowen that do not fit this definition.  And Bowen didn’t play against Brazil.

The average NBA team employs fewer than five scorers.  In other words, actual teams have a combination of scorers and role players.  All-Star teams, though, typically only have scorers.

What happens when all you have is scorers?  A good example is the New York Knicks.  Last year the Knicks had scorers in abundance.  Eddy Curry, Channing Frye, Stephon Marbury, Jalen Rose, Jamal Crawford, and Nate Robinson all offered performances last season that fit the definition of a scorer.  Even the players who did not cross the threshold last year – like Steve Francis, Quentin Richardson, and Maurice Tayler — have typically been scorers in the past.  In fact, of the Knicks who played at least twenty minutes per contest, only Antonio Davis and Qyntel Woods have never been scorers.

Scorers in the NBA are paid the most, so a roster where these players are in abundance would be expected to have a very high payroll.  Not surprisingly, the Knicks had the highest payroll in NBA history last season.  But without productive role players, the Knicks couldn’t win much, finishing the season with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

The outcome for the Knicks should not have been a surprise.  Although the team had scorers in abundance, the ability of these players to produce wins was quite low.  An average NBA player will produce 0.100 wins per 48 minutes.  On the Knicks, players like Eddy Curry, Jamal Crawford, Maurice Taylor, Jalen Rose, and Quentin Richardson have spent either their entire career, or the vast majority of their career, south of the 0.100 line.

As often noted in this forum, wins in the NBA are not just about scoring.  No, wins require that a player score efficiently, rebound, and avoid turnovers.  The Knicks last year had a collection of scoring guards who typically scored inefficiently.  They had a center in Eddy Curry who could score but couldn’t rebound.  And they led the league in turnovers.  Put it all together and it is not surprising the Knicks collection of scorers couldn’t win.

Team USA, unfortunately, is following the Knicks blueprint.  Yes, Team USA does have mostly above average performers.  In fact, players like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are two of the most productive performers in the NBA.  But rather than complement these top scorers with top role players, Team USA has tried to complement top scorers with more players who can score. 

And so we see the problem.  For Team USA to be successful, players who are accustomed to contributing to wins via scoring must now imitate Varajao.  Although Varajao doesn’t score, his per-minute performance last year rivaled many of the scorers employed by Team USA.  Yes, role players can be very productive, when they know their roles.  But Team USA’s scorers have never had to be strictly role players like Varajao.

If Team USA is going to be successful, though, many of these scorers are going to have to become Varajaos.  And this transformation has to happen quickly.  If not, the 2006 World Championships will resemble the 2004 Olympics, and the 2002 World Championships.  In those games Team USA brought a collection of scorers, not a team.   And such a collection does not do well when faced by a team where everyone understands their role. 

– DJ