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Requiem for the One-Tool NBA Specialist

If we’ve learned anything this postseason, it’s that there’s an extraordinary premium placed on outside shooting. And if a player can’t connect from deep, they’d better be able to do lots of other things at a high level. Gone are the days of Ryan Anderson and Tony Allen. To stay on the floor in the playoffs, players need to be able to do it all.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Four years ago, the Warriors trailed the Grizzlies 2-1 in the Western Conference semifinals when Steve Kerr made a peculiar adjustment. Golden State matched up its 7-foot, 260-pound center, Andrew Bogut, on Memphis’s 6-foot-4, 213-pound wing, Tony Allen. The Warriors weren’t trying to swallow Allen with size, though. It was just the opposite. Bogut “defended” Allen by sagging off the then-career 27.1 percent 3-point shooter, daring him to shoot. This allowed Bogut to clog the paint and prevent the Grizzlies from effectively running actions through their focal points: Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, or Zach Randolph. Allen was a defensive specialist, but he couldn’t make the Warriors pay with spot-up 3s and he was an ineffective playmaker off the dribble. Memphis suffocated offensively, and lost three consecutive games as the Warriors marched on.

In the modern NBA, the playoffs are where specialists go to die. The Tony Allen Treatment has since been replicated against other poor shooters over the years—most notably when the Warriors used the same tactic during the 2015-16 West finals against Thunder wing Andre Roberson—but this postseason, teams have been even more eager to help off average shooters, not just bad ones. And today, role players must do even more than shoot at an average or better level.

This postseason has seen Pascal Siakam and Al-Farouq Aminu join the Tony Allen Club in the way they’ve been defended. To be clear, under normal circumstances, these guys shoot from deep at a digestible rate. But in the postseason, defenses have dared them to chuck it in exchange for extra rim protection and upping the pressure on primary ball handlers such as Kawhi Leonard and Damian Lillard. Elite shooting is obviously a premium skill and its importance proliferates in the playoffs.

Siakam averaged 16.9 points and shot 41.6 percent on corner 3s this season, but the Bucks treat him off-ball like he’s an ineffective presence.

Look how Giannis Antetokounmpo helps on Leonard and Gasol, then doesn’t even think about abandoning Gasol to rush Siakam, daring the Most Improved Player candidate to hurl one from the corner. Siakam has shot the ball well from the corner this season, but he’s shot only 36.2 percent on corner 3s over his full career, and just 22.6 percent on above-the-break 3s. Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer has stuck with the philosophy at the heart of his league-best defense: If average shooters want to try their luck, let them have at it. In the Eastern Conference finals, it’s worth it if it means deterring Leonard from getting to the basket.

Sixers coach Brett Brown made the same decision in the second round, putting Joel Embiid on Siakam after Game 1. Leonard still destroyed the Sixers, but the idea was to turn Kawhi into a playmaker. Leonard is an average passer, who struggles to locate open teammates and deliver the ball accurately. The Bucks are better equipped to swarm him than the Sixers were; they’re betting he’ll pound the air out of the ball and fail to find an open teammate.

And if the Raptors are able to mount a comeback against the Bucks after their 118-112, double-overtime victory in Game 3, then Leonard will need to make more plays for his teammates. It’s not like the road will get any easier. Adjustments in the playoffs are everything. The sport changes. Pace slows down. Teams run their best actions more often. Players try as hard as possible on every play. The entire organization is focused on one opponent instead of dispersing resources toward scouting their next week’s worth of games, and there’s practice time to install any adjustments. On the court, holes are exploited in ways they aren’t in the regular season. All-Stars can prove to be ordinary on the playoff stage, and solid players can become also-rans or liabilities. It is so hard to build a team when you’re trying to develop talent, attract free agents, and support your coaches, but ultimately can be schemed out of a series with your best guys still on the court.

Out West, the Warriors have neutralized Lillard by trapping or blitzing his pick-and-rolls, and forcing the ball to other players. Mission accomplished so far: The Warriors lead 3-0 in the series despite not having Kevin Durant. Both Aminu, a 35.3 percent 3-point shooter in four seasons with the Blazers, and Moe Harkless, at 33 percent from 3 over the same period, have been treated like they can’t shoot at all.

Trapping presents risk for a defense. It forces rotations that often yield open shots—either spot-up 3s or drives to the rim. But the Warriors can comfortably trap Lillard because they don’t consider Aminu a threat to shoot or drive and make a play off the dribble. In the clip above, Stephen Curry lurks near Seth Curry, and Klay Thompson stays attached to CJ McCollum. Draymond Green helps off Aminu to stop the short-rolling Enes Kanter, then gives Aminu the time and space to brush his teeth and shave before launching an open 3. Next time you’re playing lazy playground defense like I do when my out-of-shape body is exhausted five minutes into a half-court game, just say you’re playing smart defense like Draymond. It’s not lazy defense, it’s smart defense!

Trade-offs occur all the time on defense, and Golden State’s decisions steer Portland away from possessions that end in a quality shot for Lillard or McCollum. In the best-case scenario for a Dubs defensive possession, the ball goes to Aminu.

The Blazers know this song all too well. They sang it for five games against Oklahoma City in the first round when they showed little concern for Thunder wing Terrance Ferguson. In the second round against Denver, Portland allowed ice-cold Nuggets shooters like Will Barton, Torrey Craig, and Paul Millsap to brick open 3s all series by doubling Nikola Jokic.

Evan Turner isn’t defending his assignment, and Lillard is under the rim sagging off Craig, ready to help on Jokic. Denver couldn’t hit a shot, and their non-primary perimeter players couldn’t generate enough baskets off the dribble, either. Role players need to do more than shoot. They must also defend, or else they’ll be exposed by their opponents running them through screens to get a mismatch for the offense. And they must dribble and pass on offense, or else they won’t be a threat when attacking a closing out defender.

The best role players today are proficient scorers and passers off the dribble, and not just quality shooters. As good as Siakam and Aminu were during the regular season within their respective roles, the demands for NBA role players in the playoffs is greater than ever, since the league has become so perimeter oriented. Siakam, who’s only 25, is already a good player and very well may continue to improve his shooting and playmaking, but his inconsistent results in the Eastern Conference semifinals and finals is a reminder of how much any player must develop to thrive at the highest levels of playoff basketball.

Of the remaining teams, there are only a few 3-and-D players who are also capable off the dribble. The Bucks have Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon, both of whom are effective spot-up shooters and can make plays off the bounce. Brogdon is one of the league’s best: He was a point guard in college who’s become a dynamic shooter in the NBA. He shot 47.5 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s this season, and shot 57 percent when driving to the rim against closeouts, per Synergy. On the other side, the Raptors have two ex-Spurs in Danny Green (though his passing can be infuriating), and Leonard, who turned from a projected 3-and-D role player into a star. The Raptors could use OG Anunoby, but he’s a shaky, lower-volume shooter, much like Siakam.

The Blazers don’t have anyone who fills an off-ball role better than Aminu or Harkless, and they’re getting beat by a bunch of them who can. The Warriors have the ultimate off-ball players in Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala. Thompson is an all-time great shooter who makes smart passes and defends at an elite level, while Green overcompensates for his subpar shooting with stellar playmaking and defense. Iguodala is the exception. The former Finals MVP shot only 33.1 percent on spot-up 3s this season, but he’s a far more capable player off the dribble than Siakam and Aminu, which gives him offensive versatility. Iguodala excels if his shot isn’t falling since he can be used as a pick-and-roll playmaker or as a screener who can score or pass on the roll, and he can make smart plays within the offensive flow.

In the modern NBA, players can’t survive deep into the playoffs without a diverse skill-set. Kirk Goldsberry spent a portion of his tremendous new book, SprawlBall, on Ryan Anderson, who signed a four-year, $80 million contract with the Rockets in 2016 because of his shooting ability. Anderson symbolizes the game’s evolution from the post to the perimeter, but Anderson and players like him have rapidly seen their value dissipate in the postseason since they’re stationary players who don’t generate value off the dribble—plus, they’re liabilities on defense. Teams feast on weak defenders as soon as they hit the floor. And if those players are anything less than elite at shooting, well, they’d better be able to pass.

Finding players who can do all these things obviously isn’t easy. Teams are always on the hunt for them; it’s why teams give chances to players like P.J. Tucker, who played five seasons overseas, or why undrafted players like Danuel House make rosters. It’s why prospects with long wingspans and smooth shooting strokes like Mikal Bridges rise into the lottery. The most cost-efficient way to find these players is either on the free-agent scrap heap or through the draft.

The 2019 draft class is littered with talented but flawed players at guard and wing. Some of them will lead teams astray in their never-ending search for the right supporting cast around a star. It will be interesting to see whether guys like Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter, Duke’s Cam Reddish, or Tulsa’s DaQuan Jeffries will become Middletons or Aminus.

The success of a role player can have as much to do with their skill as their situation. Would P.J. Tucker be one of the game’s best small-ball 5s if he were on the Sixers or Nuggets? No. Those teams already have superstar centers in Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, which would prevent Tucker from frequently playing the 5. The Rockets have only Clint Capela, a prime example of the shrinking value of centers who can’t score. Centers are still important, but even the best struggle to guard perimeter players. Unless the big makes an overwhelming positive impact on offense, like the Process or the Joker, then he’ll often see his role diminished in the postseason like Capela did when the Rockets went small with Tucker at center.

It’s actually quite puzzling that Blazers head coach Terry Stotts stuck with Enes Kanter for two games against the Warriors. Kanter can’t shoot and he’s an unthreatening passer on the roll. The Warriors can harass Lillard, not just because of Aminu’s average shooting, but also because Kanter is a nonfactor coming off the roll. And whether it’s the Bucks or Raptors against the Warriors in the NBA Finals, it’ll be fascinating to see if Golden State is able to expose Brook Lopez or Marc Gasol on defense. The centers are critical to offensive spacing, but at some point, all teams need to play without a traditional center, even if it’s only for a limited amount of time.

Finding players like Tucker—nevermind Draymond—is easier said than done. There are stout players with long arms who can theoretically defend multiple positions and serve as a screener or off-ball presence on offense, but few can perform like Tucker and Green, whose minds are the source of their greatness. Green is a basketball genius who plays defense like he’s John Wick seeking vengeance for his puppy. Tucker isn’t as skilled as Green, but he’s wired the same way.

Two prospects often projected to fill similarly versatile roles are Kentucky’s PJ Washington and Tennessee’s Grant Williams. At 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Washington’s sheer size combined with his offensive skill and defensive mobility provide him with the ingredients found in the league’s most productive and versatile role players. But his defensive intensity waned in college; does he have the dog in him to be like Tucker? Williams will never lack effort, but he is short on athleticism—and just short. Williams is 6-foot-6 in bare feet, just like Draymond, but he’s not as athletic and his wingspan is two inches shorter. Both players are worth a gamble considering their projectably versatile skills, but their potential speaks to the difficulty in finding a player who can fill this sort of role.

Most teams will likely need their wings to play “big” at some point in the postseason if league trends continue into the next decade. Any wing, forward, or big prospect must prove they can effectively switch screens. Teams need all the data they can get to find these players, which is why all prospects competing in NBA-combine scrimmages were required to switch. Croatian forward Luka Samanic was the big winner at the NBA combine; at 6-foot-11, he can handle the ball like a guard and shoot at a competent level; he also displayed mobility switching against guards and activity around the rim. So, too, did Georgia big man Nicolas Claxton, who ran Tom Crean’s college offense and showcased his natural lateral quickness. It would not be a shock if both players rise into the first round.

The 2019 draft class is weak with star talent, but it’s filled with guys who could blossom into important role players if they manage to develop their skills and land in the right situation. It’s a challenge, though. A player can blossom into a star defender like Tony Allen and still be rendered useless on offense. A player can be a lights-out shooter and still get targeted on defense. A player like Siakam or Aminu can become a competent shooter, but lack the proficiency that earns a defense’s attention, thus suffocating driving lanes for his star teammate.

As the regular season turns into the postseason, a line is drawn, and players are evaluated with different criteria. What made them useful in December can make them a footnote in May. Shooting is the hottest commodity in this league, but this postseason has shown us that a player must be capable at almost every other facet of the game as well if they want to be a real contributor. Today, even role players must do it all.