Watching the end of the Hornets-Grizzlies game last night, there were a number of things that stuck out—Chris Paul is unbelievable, Memphis is somehow resilient now, Rudy Gay finally realizing his potential, etc—but more than anything else, I noticed Marcus Thornton, the rookie guard for New Orleans. He’s surprisingly solid, and has been playing well all season long. Last night in the fourth quarter, in a close game, he didn’t look out of place on the floor. Between Chris Paul and James Posey, there was Thornton in the backcourt, more than holding his own.
For a rookie drafted in the second round, that’s a pretty serious endorsement. And while it may not happen in New Orleans, there’s a good chance that Marcus Thornton will wind up making serious contributions to a contender down the line. He’s that good.
Or more specifically, he’s good at specific things that are important. I’ve mentioned this around here before, but the importance of a “glue guy” on a Championship contender cannot be understated. In a close playoff series, you’ll often see the superstars cancel each other out, and when it’s all said and done, people like Tayshaun Prince or Trevor Ariza wind up deciding the NBA Title. Seriously.
This insight isn’t unique, of course; people have been touting the importance of players like that for years. But they need a name. The biggest reason I’ve never expounded on this theory is because calling someone a “glue guy” just sounds idiotic, and vaguely condescending. Like calling a quarterback a “game-manager.” We’re not talking about placeholders here. These players often decide championships.
So what are we talking about, exactly? We’re talking about athletic swingmen that can defend the other team’s best player, and on the offensive end, stretch the court with perimeter shooting. Every title team since the Kobe/Shaq Lakers has had one. Last year, it was Trevor Ariza making crucial steals and backbreaking 3s for the Lakers in the playoffs. The year before, James Posey played the role to a T for Boston. For all of those Spurs titles, there was Bruce Bowen—killing teams with the corner three, and harassing superstars on defense. For Detroit in 2004, Tayshaun Prince did the same thing. For Miami in 2006, it was James Posey again.
Every year, the title team has a guy like Posey, always on the court for his defense, and with a knack for making big plays on offense. So why not just call this weird position a “Posey”? When you imagine the “glue guy” or “role player” that I’m describing, there’s a good bet you’re imagining Posey*, or maybe Bowen. So “Posey” it is.
And as for Thornton, he’s got an excellent shot at becoming one of the League’s next Poseys, not the least because, you know, he plays with James Posey every night in New Orleans. But also because he’s got just the right mix of skills, an underdog mentality, and by all accounts from this season in New Orleans, a willingness to do whatever it takes to get on the court. And that’s the thing that makes these guys so fascinating.
They are always afterthoughts. Posey, Prince, Bowen, Ariza… They became indispensable only after everyone had written them off as irrelevant. That’s not a coincidence. The reason these players excel at doing the “little things” that win championships is because that’s the only way they’d ever find a place on the court. Marcus Thornton’s a 2nd round pick; if he doesn’t play great defense, avoid turnovers, and take good shots, he just won’t see the court.
So while players may be more gifted elsewhere in the NBA, someone like Tyrus Thomas doesn’t need to focus exclusively on defense and developing a reliable corner three; a lottery pick with breathtaking athleticism, he’ll get minutes no matter what. And he’ll also never be a key contributor on a championship team. Marcus Thornton might, though. Because these are the people that winning teams need.
Keep an eye on Thornton over the next few years. He’s not indispensable yet, but at some point, he’s going to crack the rotation on a very good team, and you’ll see what the fans in New Orleans have seen so far this season. He’s just an excellent player to have on your team. One day, he’s going to be a Posey.
Every good team has a superstar. But guys like Posey, Roger Mason in San Antonio, Mikael Pietrus in Orlando, and a handful of other indispensable role players are what sets the great teams apart from the good teams. We often look at playoff series as “Kobe vs. Carmelo,” but when you really pay attention, it’s often someone like Trevor Ariza that makes the difference, because he’s more reliable than Denver’s designated Posey, JR Smith.**
Anyway, keep an eye on Marcus Thornton. He’s the one on James Posey’s right shoulder.
* We cannot mention Poseys without talking about Scottie Pippen. If God created James Posey, then the devil created Scottie Pippen. He was unfairly good at playing this role for the Bulls; he could lockdown any player on the opposition, and his otherworldly athleticism allowed him to dominate on offense, as well. Michael Jordan was the greatest player of all time, and Scottie Pippen was the greatest Posey of all time. It’s not a coincidence that the ’90s Bulls were the best team ever.
** That JR Smith is the Denver Nuggets’ version of James Posey explains why it’s possible that they’re fatally flawed, and impossible not to love.