“Rotation” Player or “Role” Player – What’s the difference (and who cares anyway)? Part I

The Toronto Raptors enter this critical offseason with a ton of questions about their roster. In order to attempt some answers, I’m going to begin by defining our terms. Basketball commentators often use the terms “rotation” and “role” player as if they’re interchangeable. They’re not, and I want to make the distinction, so if you read our blog and we describe Tommy Tootall as being a “rotation” player, you’ll know what we mean.

This post is particularly relevant because in my view the Raps’ starting five is solid, although some distance from championship-ready. If Gay-A. Johnson-Valanciunas-DeRozan-Lowry could magically remain injury-free for all 82 games, and the team had a respectable bench, we would be playoff-bound. Therefore it’s my hope that Masai Ujiri is concentrating his discerning eye on developing that bench, which begins with determining the rest of the “rotation”.

Let’s turn to baseball for a moment, in order to consider the useful term “5-tool player”. In that game, the tools under the microscope are the ability to: hit for average, hit for power, run, throw and field (i.e., catch the ball). All players other than pitchers are graded on their skills for each tool. Basketball doesn’t have 5 tools; as a game of almost constant motion, both horizontally and vertically, it has about 17. An NBA player must be able to: shoot from close in and far away, make and receive passes, defend (and think!) at high speed, jump at the right split-second for rebounds, box out, block shots…crazy difficult. Obviously not all players can do those things at the same skill level. A player who can do most of them (just not as well as a starter) is a rotation player. One who is significantly weak in many “tools”, but extraordinarily capable in one (or two at most) is a role player.

Jan 28, 2013; Toronto, ON, Canada; Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry (30) goes to the basket to score against Toronto Raptors point guard Jose Calderon (8) at the Air Canada Centre. The Warriors beat the Raptors 114-102. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Long-time Raps fans will remember Dell Curry with considerable affection. He was the ultimate catch-and-shoot guy, draining over 42% of his 3-balls at age 37. He also is Stephen Curry’s father, and Young Master Curry has inherited his father’s astonishing shooting prowess from long-distance (#1 in the NBA in 3-point attempts & makes,, & #3 in percentage). Junior can also distribute, shoot the mid-range ball, dribble in a phone booth – you get the picture. So Daddy Dell was a role player par excellence, while son Stephen, teetering on the cusp of superstardom, is the starting point guard of the formidable Golden State Warriors.

More obvious role player examples: Spurs’ Matt Bonner and Knicks’ Steve Novak [stretch fours, or power forwards who shoot from distance] and Nets’ Reggie Evans [rebounding and under-the-basket mayhem]. Here’s a previous-generation bonus: Kurt Rambis, who was more of a hockey enforcer than a basketball player, and played 15 seasons without making a 3-pointer.

I’ll take a look at rotation-grade players in greater detail in Part II.

Topics: Masai Ujiri, Matt Bonner, Stephen Curry, Toronto Raptors

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