NBA teams need balance to win in 2015. Rules changes and tactical advancements have made team play more essential on both ends of the floor. Great offenses need elite shooters, great passers, crafty screen-setters and spot-up players that are willing to actually move instead of always standing in a corner. Great defenses need guards willing to ride ball-handlers' hips, big men to play angles to seal off the basket and all players to make third and fourth rotations to dangerous areas.
The game's evolution has opened up new ways to qualify (and quantify) a player's value. No longer are the elite scorers the only valuable commodity. Increasingly, it's the decoys and the obstacles that contribute just as much to a team's success.
That's the genesis behind the second annual Film Room All-Star team. These are 13 players that add tremendous value to their teams without being actual All-Stars. They are the glue guys, the situational superstars ... whatever other cliché you want to use, except we're going to actually give those clichés real meaning.
A couple notes:
- No actual All-Stars will be on this list. This isn't because the actual All-Stars are overrated -- in most cases, they are also Film Room All-Stars. This is about honoring those whose talents fly under the radar. (We're assuming Kyle Korver gets picked to replace Dwyane Wade. Otherwise, he'd be this team's captain. Also: no Mike Conley because he'd be an All-Star in the East).
- A lot of candidates will be left out. Almost every good team has at least one indispensable role player/situational star/glue guy. We can only spotlight 13. Everyone we considered will be noted.
- These players are usually more valuable to their teams than any other one: Each team needs different kinds of supplementary players depending on their stars or style of play. Place any one of these players on a different team, and they'd lose some of their value. We don't believe that should be held against them, which is why they are being celebrated.
On to the list:
1. GORDON HAYWARD
Franchise player? Maybe, maybe not. But while Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert get all the press, it's clear Hayward is by far the Jazz's most important player. His shooting has rebounded to normal levels after falling off last year and the rest of his game continues to incrementally grow. Without him, the Jazz's offense dies: Utah scores 106.3 points per 100 possessions when he's on the court and a horrid 93.5 when he isn't, per NBA.com. The former mark is better than all but seven teams; the latter is worse than everyone but the 76ers.
It's Hayward's versatility that makes him a Film Room All-Star. If basketball had five-tool players like baseball, Hayward would qualify. He can shoot from distance, score in one-on-one situations, make essential passing reads, defend his position and run in transition. The Jazz need all of those skills because they don't have great point guard play and are learning an offense that requires constant ball and player movement.
For someone that's criticized so often for being unable to create his own offense, Hayward sure has a lot of moves. Only six perimeter players score more points per possession on isolation plays in the entire league, per Synergy Sports Technology*.
Hayward succeeds because he's strong, quicker than folks realize and equally capable of going left and right. He mixes his drives up with a series of crossovers; every so often, he'll confuse a defender by going away from a screen or even throwing a behind-the-back dribble in there. He's one of the rare players that likes to step back going to his right, which is very difficult to do because it's hard to square up from that position.
He also has unique ways to create space. Hayward can drive his body into a defender's chest, then swish 10-foot leaners while contorting his body in mid-air. He's not even looking at the hoop when he begins this floater.
This is all made possible because Hayward's footwork is impeccable. Separation is created not by what happens up top, but by what happens down below. Hayward jams his feet into defenders, whether it's to step back or block their angle to cut off his drive. He can appear small driving into the trees, but he makes himself bigger and stronger because he takes away the opponent's strength.
This also explains why he draws fouls on 22 percent of his isolation plays and 16 percent of his overall possessions, per Synergy. By contrast: Kevin Durant is at just under 21 percent on isolations and just better than 14 percent overall. When defenders have their space constrained, they tend to foul.
Combine that with his excellent spot-up shooting, developing pick-and-roll game, speed and athleticism, and Hayward is quietly one of the league's best guards. Don't be too late to jump on his bandwagon.
2. JRUE HOLIDAY
Holiday was an actual All-Star while chucking away on a bad 76ers team in 2012-13, then became a more complete player in anonymity after switching conferences. Holiday is not without flaws -- his shot selection is still shaky, he takes plays off and he should be shooting more threes -- but the ways he succeeds are unique to his position.
Holiday may already be the best defender at his position in the league, and that's without locking in for all 24 seconds of the shot clock on every play. His slippery frame allows him to fight over screens and his quick feet make it difficult for even the speediest point guards to drive around him. He's also tough fronting the post on switches and sneaky about slipping his hands in dribbling and passing lanes, both when he's beat and when he's defending on the opposite side.
Offensively, Holiday is crafty running all sorts of pick and rolls. He's equally capable of executing one up top at the end of the shot clock as he is running one inside the three-point line, a key in New Orleans' system because those plays put Anthony Davis closer to the rim. As a scorer, he's average, but he becomes elite when you consider all scoring opportunities that come from his pick and rolls. The Pelicans score more efficiently on Holiday's pick and rolls than the Clippers do Chris Paul's and the Rockets do on James Harden's, per Synergy Sports Technology. Among starting point guards, only Stephen Curry's pick and rolls yield a more efficient return.
Having Davis sure helps there, but Holiday's timing and passing can't be overlooked.
Remember, too, that Holiday is still young and point guards sometimes take years to fully emerge. The Pelicans paid a heavy price to acquire Holiday, but he's proving to be worth it.
3. DRAYMOND GREEN
Green is the reason Tom Ziller coined the phrase "situational superstar" in the first place. His value manifests itself everywhere for the Warriors, whether it's guarding bigger players, anticipating a team's set, spacing the floor, setting screens, executing dribble handoffs, rebounding and pushing the ball so others can run the wing, deflecting alley-oops away, tipping in missed shots when desperately needed, defending smaller players on switches ...
The list could go on and on.
4. MARKIEFF MORRIS
What LaMarcus Aldridge is to the Blazers, Markieff Morris is to the Suns. Morris isn't as good as Aldridge and the Suns' half-court offense isn't as pretty as the Blazers', but both players are essential hubs of their teams' attack. Without them, their teams have no balance.
Like Aldridge, Morris occasionally takes too many jumpers, but it serves a purpose. Phoenix needs the bailout option of him in the mid-post sizing up his defender; otherwise, the half-court offense becomes even more predictable than it already is. Like Aldridge, Morris is versatile: he can run pick and pop and he has great touch on shots from all sorts of distances, especially on those tricky attempts in between the mid-range and the basket:
Few options are better than Morris isolated in the mid-post against anyone, be it a smaller or bigger defender. Only one big man (Dirk Nowitzki) is more efficient on isolations than Morris, per Synergy Sports Technology.** Morris is a decent shooter off the catch (46.5 percent), but he's even better when he dribbles once (53.4 percent) and twice (51.8), per SportVU data. And because he can convert so many different kinds of shots, he also doesn't turn the ball over much.
That's critical in late-game and late-clock situation, where Morris thrives. There's no way to gameplan for shots like these:
Like Aldridge, Morris is an excellent defender that still has room to grow. He's capable of switching onto smaller players, but possesses the length to go toe to toe with bigger ones. He's just as able to clamp Dirk Nowitzki's space ...
... as he is Monta Ellis':
Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas drive Phoenix's attack, but Morris makes the biggest impact on the team's success. The Suns outscore teams by nearly nine points per 100 possessions when he's in and get beat by nearly seven per 100 possessions when he's out, per NBA.com. He's the hub of their offense and one of the key cogs of their defense. At $8 million a season, he is one of the league's biggest bargains.
5. ANDREW BOGUT
The Warriors are a very good team when Bogut doesn't play. They are a great team when he does. The most basic numbers bear this out: they are 27-3 when he starts and 10-5 when he doesn't.
Bogut thrives because he knows his strengths and accepts his limitations. He doesn't post up and rarely chases any player out to the three-point line, but he doesn't have to. He keys Golden State's offense with dribble hand-offs and pinpoint passing:
He's an elite screen-setter even when he doesn't have the ball. His ability to screen one way, then quickly re-screen the other on pick-and-roll opportunities helps free Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson for open looks. He's also the king of the paint "screen" that prevents help defenders from contesting drives to the basket. (I put "screen" in quotes because he loves to grab those opponents' arm when the referees aren't watching):
The Warriors' defensive scheme is also built around him, though perhaps less so now that they switch more often on the perimeter. Players are funneled to Bogut, who is always waiting at the rim to alter a drive. Thompson got the block on this play, but the reason was because he baited Goran Dragic into driving at Bogut and Bogut held the finish off long enough for Thompson to recover:
Golden State can get far with the Splash Brothers carrying the offense and its bushels of long wing players stonewalling opposing teams. But to win a title, the Warriors need Bogut healthy and anchoring both sides of their attack.
6. COURTNEY LEE
Everything written about Lee in December (see the third subhead) remains true. The Grizzlies need to continue giving him extended minutes, even if it means less time for Tony Allen now that Jeff Green is also there.
7. KHRIS MIDDLETON
The Bucks have several Film Room All Stars candidates, but with apologies to Zaza Pachulia, Jared Dudley and Jerryd Bayless, it's Middleton that earns the nod on our team. Once an afterthought in the Brandon Knight-Brandon Jennings trade, Middleton has become arguably the most important piece of the deal, depending on whether you believe Knight's impact is as strong as his numbers. He's been especially good since Jabari Parker went down, keeping Milwaukee firmly in the playoffs despite losing one of its top scorers.
Middleton can shoot the damn ball, whether on the move or stationary. He ranks 10th in the league in spot-up efficiency among players with at least 75 possessions, ahead of well-known shooters like Stephen Curry and Wesley Matthews. Don't ever do this against him:
Better yet: his shooting release is so quick that he can fill it up from anywhere on the court. That's critical for Milwaukee, which likes to invert the floor and put players in different spots to confuse the defense. Middleton isn't an unskilled player relegated to spotting up and defending. He's a skilled player capable of doing more, but willing to do less. That allows Jason Kidd to run him off screens, initiate the offense and even post up smaller defenders.
But it's on the other end where Middleton makes the biggest impact. He's not a lockdown defender, but he knows how to use his length, a critical skill in Kidd's aggressive pick-and-roll scheme that shows ball-handlers a flood of bodies and arms on every screen. Middleton gets plenty of steals himself, but helps create many others. Here are four turnovers he caused without getting any credit on the stat sheet:
The Bucks' defense is a collective effort, but Middleton's carrying a large percentage of the load on the perimeter. He can guard his man, plug the middle and switch effectively on any perimeter defender. Milwaukee surrenders just 95 points per 100 possessions when he's in and a more pedestrian 103 when he's not, all because his versatility allows Milwaukee to cover for the flaws that Knight, O.J. Mayo and Bayless often exhibit.
Combine that with his jump shot, and you have a prototypical wing for the spacing era that makes the minimum.
8. TYSON CHANDLER
Chandler went back to Dallas and immediately returned to being the player that anchored their championship team in 2011. In many ways, he's actually been better this year. His rebounding is up, his screen-setting is more refined and his importance to the Mavericks' defense is even greater since he has no real backup.
Let's start with the screen-setting. Dallas' offense is even more pick-and-roll heavy than it was in 2011, so the many tricks Chandler's learned are even more valuable. He's become an expert at the Spurs-ian tactic of making it look like a screen is coming on one side, then switching to the other at the last minute before the defense can react.
Chandler's presence is a huge reason Monta Ellis and Chandler Parsons get all that space to drive to the basket. Toss that onto the pile of skills we know Chandler has -- offensive rebounding (a major key on a team with so many threats that need extra attention), rim protection, pick-and-roll rim runs and more -- and you could argue Chandler's been Dallas' second-best player behind Nowitzki. Any injury to him is catastrophic for Dallas' hopes.
One of the league's most misunderstood players is quietly having a banner (and mostly healthy!) campaign for the resurgent Wizards. John Wall is their engine, but Nene is their backbone. Even now, some wonder why he doesn't dominate games, forgetting that he actually does in ways that don't involve points, rebounds or assists.
In a year with no clear Defensive Player of the Year favorite, Nene merits serious consideration. Why are the Wizards better defensively after losing their best perimeter stopper in Trevor Ariza? Because Nene is walling off the paint, switching onto guards, boxing out, contesting shots and preventing the passes teams use just to initiate their sets. His impact is clear:
Nene makes the simple uncomfortable. He'll face-guard your superstar that clearly is supposed to get the ball:
He'll stop a rolling big man, then rotate out to your Stretch 4:
He'll stone your quick point guard on a switch:
He'll keep your best rebounding threat off the glass and let someone else get credit for the board:
He'll make your best post player look totally uncomfortable:
In addition to being a great defender, he's also an excellent passer, screen-setter and secondary ball-handler that has become a very good mid-range shooter and is regaining some of his explosiveness around the basket.
So he doesn't get 20 and 10. Big deal. He brings more value than most big men that approach those numbers.
10. PATRICK PATTERSON
The definition of a Stretch 4 is someone who pulls opposing big men out of the paint because they fear his three-point shot. It also helps if the player can at least hold his own defensively.
That's been Patrick Patterson's M.O. since he arrived in Toronto as part of the Rudy Gay trade. He shot 41 percent on three-pointers last year after coming to the Raptors and is up to 42 percent this season. He is a competent mid-range shooter when run off the line, canning 42 percent on long two-pointers last year and 44 percent this year. And while he's not a good rebounder or rim protector, he moves very well laterally, allowing him to execute Toronto's defensive scheme well enough where the Raptors don't lose anything on that end by putting him in.
All that makes Patterson a great decoy. The Raptors love to run a set where multiple players stack at the top of the key and fan off in different directions before a pick and roll. Patterson always drifts to the wing because his man is understandably reluctant about helping off him to divert the roll man's path, a practice known as "chucking":
Why does Tyler Hansbrough get a layup? Because if his man chucks all the way, he suffers the fate of poor Cory Jefferson:
It's no accident the Raptors score nearly 113 points per 100 possessions when Patterson is on the court compared to 106 when he sits. The Raptors' pick-and-roll game fuels their elite offense, and nothing lubricates a pick and roll more than a big man that can stretch the defense.
11. DANNY GREEN
Little has gone right for the Spurs in their rocky defense of last year's title, making Green's steady contributions all the more valuable.
Green's succeeding in the same ways he did last year -- great defense, fantastic spot-up shooting, chase-down blocks -- except he's done well to improve his weaknesses. He'll never be a penetrating guard, but he is now dangerous attacking the driving gaps presented in the Spurs' offense and making smart passing reads:
This tiny bit of spice on top of his 41-percent three-point shooting and elite defense on and off the ball makes a big difference. Teams can't just run Green off the line recklessly anymore. He's still way better when he doesn't have to dribble, but he's giving opponents just a little extra to worry about.
12. WES MATTHEWS
Little has changed since Drew Garrison spotlighted Matthews two years ago. It's not just that Matthews is an elite spot-up three-point shooter, it's that he knows how to put himself in position to be an elite spot-up shooter. He slides into open positions brilliantly, whether on LaMarcus Aldridge post-ups or Damian Lillard pick and rolls.
He's grown his game too, showing why every NBA player should work on all their skills even if they don't need to use them in games on their specific teams. The Blazers use his post game as a major weapon in their offense now, even if the matchup isn't favorable. He fights for deeper position and has even improved as a passer when the defense commits.
Matthews has renewed energy on the other end, too. As Portland's defense has improved, so to has Matthews' role expanded. He's replaced Nicolas Batum as the team's best man-to-man defender and displays excellent technique contesting spot-up opportunities when he has to scramble. The Blazers' conservative defense means Matthews doesn't have long distances to travel, but it's still noteworthy that only 10 players* allow fewer points per possession on spot-up opportunities, per Synergy Sports Technology.
Matthews is going to cash in this summer. If he keeps this play up, he'll be worth it.
13. MICHAEL KIDD-GILCHRIST
Kidd-Gilchrist may forever be known as The Guy Who Can't Shoot, but that stigma obscures the many ways he helps the Hornets. He may not space the floor with his shooting, but he makes teams pay for leaving him in other ways. Cutting when his man leaves him or turns his head, for example:
Or, racing in for an offensive rebound:
It's getting to the point where the threat of a cut or offensive rebound is just as damaging as the threat of a three-point shot. Teams are slowly becoming more reluctant to give Kidd-Gilchrist a free run to the basket, which allows Charlotte to breathe a tiny bit in their half-court offense. It's a different form of spacing.
And offense is Kidd-Gilchrist's weakest feature. He's evolving into a lockdown defender, rebounds very well for his position and generates the few fast-break points the Hornets do get either by pushing the ball or running the wing. Year after year, the Hornets are not the same team when he's not on the floor.
Not bad for someone who can't shoot.
ALSO CONSIDERED: Jodie Meeks, J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Robert Covington, Darren Collison, DeMarre Carroll, Nikola Mirotic, Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson, Darrell Arthur, Anthony Tolliver, Omer Asik, Kyle O'Quinn, Trevor Ariza, Serge Ibaka, Paul Pierce, Zaza Pachulia, Rudy Gobert, Donatas Motiejunas, LaVoy Allen, Jason Thompson, George Hill.
*: Minimum 50 plays
**: Minimum 25 plays