The NBA is a league of tiers. At the top lie the few players who have proved they can be the best player on a championship squad. In 2021-2022, there are only five such men, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, and Kevin Durant.
Tier 2 is made of superstars who have never shown they can be the top dog on a title team. This group comprises Chris Paul, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, and Joel Embiid.
In Tier 3 lie the perennial All-Stars. These players are almost guaranteed a spot in the mid-season classic and is made up of athletes like Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum, Paul George, Bradley Beal, Donovan Mitchell, Zach LaVine, Jimmy Butler, and Devin Booker.
Tier 4 is reserved for players who’ve made the All-Star squad but aren’t yearly locks. In this section, athletes like Brandon Ingram, Karl-Anthony Towns, Pascal Siakam, Jaylen Brown, Julius Randle, and Jrue Holiday reside.
Tier 5 is for the young studs in the NBA who are potential All-Stars but haven’t made the leap yet. Ja Morant, LaMelo Ball, Darius Garland, Evan Mobley, Anthony Edwards, De’Aaron Fox, Deandre Ayton, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander rest here.
25 or so players call tier 6 their home. This grouping includes multi-faceted players who aren’t quite at an All-Star level. Think of players like Lonzo Ball, Myles Turner, Malcolm Brogdon, Tyler Herro, Tobias Harris, Fred VanFleet, Jerami Grant, and CJ McCollum.
Finally, we land at tier 7, this article’s focus.
Tier 7 is reserved for the NBA’s role players, athletes who aren’t tasked with playing a multi-layered game like the players above them. Instead, these men fill out a role for their squad.
Don’t be fooled by these role players’ outer spot in the NBA’s solar system. Role players are essential for a team’s success, often making the difference between a title and a first-round exit from the playoffs.
Next, we’ll rank the top-10 role players in the association.
10. P. J. Tucker - 3-and-D Wing
P. J. Tucker spent the first six years of his career playing abroad, perhaps stifling any ambitions of becoming an advanced scoring option in the NBA. When Tucker finally got his call up to the big leagues in 2012 with the Phoenix Suns, he became an instant success as a solid role player, filling out the part of high energy defender and solid outside shooter.
Fast forward to the present, and P. J. Tucker, 36, is still one of the best role players in the association. After helping propel the Bucks to a title last season with his incredible defensive effort and solid outside touch, it’s more of the same this year in Miami. Through nearly half the 2021-2022 season that has seen hundreds of players in and out of competition due to injury and coronavirus protocols, Tucker has been a steadying influence for the Heat, starting in 32 out of a possible 36 contests.
During his time on the floor, he’s shot an excellent 45.5% from deep, helping spread the floor for Jimmy Butler’s dives to the rim and Kyle Lowry’s bullrushes down the lane. On the less fun end, he’s slowed some with age but is still a top-end defender, capable of harassing wings on the perimeter and bodying up big men on the block. Overall, he’s holding his assignments to 1.3% under their normal average, a number that’s better than it seems, considering the range of players he switches onto nightly.
9. Jae Crowder - 3-and-D Wing
Jae Crowder’s got a bit of Dennis Rodman or Ron Artest’s attitude in him. You hate him when he’s on the opposing team, but find instant love for him when he joins your hometown squad.
Jae Crowder’s shooting 34.3% from deep this season off 5.4 attempts per game, helping spread the floor for teammates Devin Booker and Chris Paul. On the other end, he’s defending 12.7 field goal attempts per game, one of the highest marks for a non-center in the league, while stifling his men into a 42.6% field goal percentage.
The Marquette product has solid 3-and-D numbers, but you can throw them away. Crowder’s value lies in his attitude. He’s one of the few men in the world whose eyes light up at the chance to defend a superstar. Most players sigh, knowing they will be sore for the next few days when they see LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Kawhi Leonard on the schedule. Not Crowder, though. He loves that kind of contact.
You can almost picture him rubbing his hands together, with an evil smirk spread across his face in the locker room before tip-off against a top-shelf player. He delights at bodying up an All-Star and giving them something to worry about.
Jae Crowder’s attitude filters down to his teammates. There is no fear on this year’s Suns team, and while Crowder can’t take full credit for Phoenix’s approach to defense, he’s one of the main reasons they’re ranked third in the league in DEFRTG.
8. Joe Harris - Three-point Shooter
Joe Harris went down with an ankle injury that required surgery at the end of November.
He isn’t capable of setting up his teammates (1.0 APG).
Harris is one of the worst finishers at the rim the league has seen in the last decade, connecting on an ugly 41.7% of his attempts within three feet of the basket.
He allows his assignments on defense to shoot over their typical field goal percentage.
None of that matters.
Joe Harris lands on our list of top-10 role players because he’s the best high-volume three-point shooter in the league.
Last season Joe Harris finished first in the association in long-distance shooting with a scary 47.5% mark.
This season he’s still a killer, hitting 46.6% of his attempts from beyond the arc.
Joe Harris knows what he is, and he rarely steps out of his role as a spot-up three-point shooter. Over two-thirds of his shots have come from beyond the arc this season.
Joe Harris’s ability to spread the floor creates space for the Nets big-3—Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving—to work with, transforming Brooklyn’s offense from deadly to the best the league’s seen this century.
If you leave Joe Harris to help on Durant, Harden, or Irving, he’ll beat you by himself, a feat few role players in the association can boast of, and the reason the Washington native is incredibly valuable.
7. Alex Caruso - Perimeter Defender
Lakers GM Rob Pelinka must be kicking himself for letting Alex Caruso walk. One man’s bad luck is often another man’s good fortune.
In this case, Bulls GM Arturas Karnisovas got himself a nice windfall in AC, one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Alex Caruso is third in the league in steals (minimum 10 games played) at 2.0 per game and fourth in deflections with 3.5 per contest.
Going beyond the numbers, Alex Caruso’s energy has seeped out and saturated his teammates. DeMar DeRozan recognized AC’s nightly contributions in early December,
He’s a dog, man," DeRozan said, per The Athletic’s Darnell Mayberry. “It’s times we look at the stat sheet after the game and it’s like four or five steals. Just the energy that he brings defensively triggers us because we try to live up to the standards that Alex is going to bring out there on the court. And it’s big. It’s exciting to see. It’s incredible the things that he does defensively.”
How can you put a number on IQ and hustle? How can you stat check a man’s willingness to grind through his screaming lungs and run back on D?
DeMar DeRozan is an MVP candidate. Zach LaVine is a surefire All-Star. Still, the Chicago Bulls wouldn’t have the best record in the East at 24-10 without Alex Caruso’s perimeter D and constant energy.
6. Seth Curry - Vacuum Scorer
Seth Curry went from being known as Stephen Curry’s little brother to a garbage time option, then a decent bench player, and a three-point specialist.
In 2021-2022, he is no longer just an excellent outside shooter. He’s one of the best vacuum scorers in the league.
Curry takes less than half his field-goal attempts from distance, and his offensive numbers are staggering. Check out his shooting figures:
0-3 feet: 72.7%
3-10 feet: 56.5%
10-16 feet: 60.8%
16 feet- 3P line: 56.8%
Going deeper into the stats, according to Cleaning the Glass, he’s pouring in 129.9 points per 100 possessions, placing him in the 98th percentile among all guards in the league. Curry has also been a critical cog in the 76ers best 5 five-man lineup—J. Embiid, T. Harris, T. Maxey, D. Green, and S. Curry—showing his numbers aren’t merely flashy filler stats.
Seth Curry’s not a lead playmaker, nor is he an above-average defender. He’ll probably never make an All-Star game in his career. Still, he’s one of the best bucket-getters in the league.
5. Jordan Clarkson - Vacuum Scorer
Last year’s Six-Man of the Year, Jordan Clarkson’s numbers are down slightly in 2021-2022 from 18.4 PPG to 14.8 PPG. His three-point stroke has been off (30.5% from deep), but he’s still firing away, averaging 8.4 attempts per game.
Despite Clarkson’s struggles from beyond the arc, he’s a ball of the instant offense. He rarely looks to pass the ball (2.4 APG), but he jacks up 14.0 field goal attempts per game, constantly pressuring second unit defenders and helping spearhead Utah’s attack when All-Star Donovan Mitchell is on the bench.
Jordan Clarkson works the pick and roll about as well as any bench player in the league, averaging 4.9 possessions per game as the ball handler and clocking in with 0.92 points per possession, good for the 73rd percentile. The former Laker is also adept at shooting off screens, connecting on a solid 38.5% of his attempts.
Utah has the best offense in the league with a 117.3 rating, a 3 and a half points higher than the second place Hawks (113.8), a larger gap than the difference between Atlanta and the 13th place Toronto Raptors at a 110.5 OFFRTG. The Jazz have scored at a historic clip through the first half of the season. Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, and Bojan Bogdanovic have led the way. Still, Jordan Clarkson’s ability to put stress on second units has also been a significant factor in Utah’s success this season.
4. Matisse Thybulle - Perimeter Defender
Matisse Thybulle has a 9.7% usage rate, which lands him in the third percentile among all guards. The Washington Product shoots well under 30% from deep, and he averages 1.1 assists per game. Thybulle is a non-factor on offense.
None of that matters because he’s the best perimeter defender against guards in the league. He’s fourth among all backcourt players in the league (minimum 10 games played) in defensive field goal percentage holding his assignments to 36.5% from the field.
Even more impressive is that the three players ahead of Thybulle (J. Butler, M. Moody, and A Reaves) have not been tasked with guarding the opposing squad’s best offensive weapon. Thybulle has, though. He’s proven he can stifle the best guards in the league, an immensely valuable skill.
After Thybulle held MVP frontrunner Stephen Curry to 2-13 as his primary defender, including two blocked shots, in a 76ers victory earlier in December, Joel Embiid told reporters he believes the third-year guard should win the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Thybulle blocked a jumper or floater 53 times last year, tops in the league. This year he’s on pace to top 50 again. If he continues to disrupt on defense the way he has through the first half of the season, the former Husker has a solid case to be named the best defender in the league.
3. Desmond Bane - Vacuum Scorer
Desmond Bane is not a household name.
The second-year TCU product is already one of the best point-machines in the league. He’s averaging 17.3 PPG, and he’s connecting on 42.0% of his 6.8 three-point attempts per contest.
He’s not much of a playmaker in the half-court (2.2 APG), and he only averages 0.3 isolation possessions per game, showing he’s not ready to take over when things bog down at the end of possessions. Bane earns his money in spot-up situations. He’s ranked in the 90th percentile in standstill shot attempts, making him a perfect running mate with his teammate Ja Morant.
The defensive numbers don’t love Desmond Bane. He’s allowing his man to shoot 45.5% from the field, putting him towards the middle of all NBA defenders. Bane also lands outside the top-10 on the Grizzlies in defensive rating with a 107.7 mark.
Despite what the data says, at 6-5, 215 pounds, Bane has the size and speed to be an upper-echelon ballhawk. He might need a few more years to learn the ins and outs of high-quality NBA defense, but he’s got the attitude and dimensions to be a nuisance on the less glamorous end.
Over the next few years, Desmond Bane’s career could launch to the next level. He might become a better overall defender and playmaker, boosting him from a role player to a fringe All-Star candidate. For now, he’ll have to settle for one of the best vacuum scorers in the league, not too shabby for the 30th pick in the 2020 NBA draft.
2. Bobby Portis - Vacuum Scorer/ Top-Notch Defender
In 2017, Bobby Portis broke Nikola Mirotic’s jaw during a preseason practice session. Mirotic went to the hospital, and Portis was suspended for the first eight games of the season. At the time, many experts wondered if this was the beginning of the end for the former Arkansas standout.
Portis bounced around a bit, going from Chicago to Washington to New York, picking up the reputation as a me-first player who only cared about padding his stats on offense.
A few years and a chip make a tremendous difference. Now Bobby Portis is a crucial member of the Milwaukee Bucks and one of the best role players in the association.
This year Portis is averaging 15.8 points per game to go along with 9.0 rebounds per contest while shooting 42.9% from distance. On the less glamorous side, he’s defending a team high 14.3 field goal attempts per game while holding his assignments to 5.2% less than they normally shoot.
Bobby Portis isn’t a playmaker. He hasn’t attempted a single isolation shot this season, and he isn’t much of a pick-and-roll finisher (30th percentile). He excels at spot-up opportunities, landing in the 88th percentile, and playing aggressive D.
“Everybody wants to start in this league. I just want to be a star in my role,” Portis said to reporters a couple years ago.
This year he’s lived up to his own expectations, staying within his role of a shooter/high-energy defender. Portis has an estimated plus/minus rating (how many additional points are contributed to a team’s scoring margin by a player compared to the league-average performer) of +1.7, placing him in the 84th percentile in the NBA, showing he’s making a massive impact for the Bucks.
1. Mikal Bridges - 3-and-D Wing
Mikal Bridges is the best perimeter defender in the league. Unlike other defensive stalwarts like Matisse Thybulle and Alex Caruso, he has the size at 6-6, 209 pounds to guard bigger wings like LeBron James or Jimmy Butler. At the same time, he also has the foot speed to harass point guards like Stephen Curry or James Harden.
Bridges takes on Phoenix’s most challenging defensive assignment every night, locking down the best offensive weapons in the league and stymying the actions they’re used to running nightly.
The former 10th overall pick shut down arguably the two best offensive backcourt players in the league earlier in December.
Here’s a breakdown:
Mikal Bridges gives the Suns a considerable advantage over West rivals, the Warriors and Jazz. Bridges has already shown he can lock up Curry. While the Suns haven’t played Utah yet, after the way the former 10th overall pick has harassed other top options into submission, Donovan Mitchell shouldn’t be a problem.
Chris Paul is the heart of the Suns, and Devin Booker is their soul. Still, Mikal Bridges’ rise to a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate might be the difference from Phoenix getting knocked out in the Western Conference Finals versus winning the whole thing.
The Warriors and Jazz depend on Curry and Mitchell to run the offense and open up space for their shooters, and when they can’t draw double teams or score in one-on-one situations, it throws a huge monkey wrench in their plans.
Bridges defense is so good it deserves 250 words.
He’s an excellent three-point shooter as well. “The Warden” is hitting 38.6% of his long-distance bombs, helping spread the floor for Chris Paul’s midrange ventures and for Devin Booker’s sprints to the rack.
Role Player Are More Valuable Than Ever
The adage, “superstars, win titles,” held true during past seasons. Last year, the Milwaukee Bucks changed the narrative by winning their first championship since the 70s behind only one true superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, an All-Star in Khris Middleton, and a cast of excellent role players.
In 2021-2022, the best teams in the league feature an assortment of high-quality role players who excel within their domain and don’t step beyond their coach’s expectations. We’ve also seen teams like the Lakers, Hawks, Celtics, and Mavericks struggle to get stops and hit from a distance because their role players haven’t played as well as they should.
In the end, the title could come down to a Bobby Portis three-pointer in the waning minutes of game seven. Or perhaps Mikal Bridges will stuff his assignment’s clutch shot attempt, bringing the championship home to Phoenix.
Nobody can predict the future, but one thing is sure: Our list of role players will play their parts throughout the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs.