NBA Daily: Rough Times for Five Key Role Players

A quarter of the 2020-21 season has been played and many teams are trying to dig themselves out of a hole. Chad Smith identifies five struggling role players that will need to turn things around in order for their teams to find success.

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Sports Editor
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Role players may not have the spotlight, the insane contracts or the endorsement deals, but they are vital pieces that contribute to team success. There have been countless examples in the past, including the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers just last year. The focus for the role player is to excel in one or two areas of the game that they are highly skilled in.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has continued to shoot the lights out for Los Angeles this season. Jordan Clarkson has cemented himself as the favorite for Sixth Man of the Year for the red-hot Utah Jazz. There have been pleasant surprises like Nicolas Batum with the Los Angeles Clippers and vital contributors like De’Andre Hunter with the Atlanta Hawks. Even Andrew Wiggins has produced for the Golden State Warriors.

These players have been thriving in their roles so far this year and their teams are winning because of it. But, at the opposite end of the spectrum, you might find these five players, who just haven’t gotten their season off the ground. Their teams rely on their production, which goes a long way when determining whether or not they make it to the postseason. Time is running out as we hit the quarter-mark of the season but there is still time for these guys to turn it around.

JJ Redick, New Orleans Pelicans

Coming into this season, the New Orleans Pelicans had a very odd collection of talent on their roster. The pieces didn’t really seem to fit well with Zion Williamson and Steven Adams playing alongside each other. The floor spacing looked even bleaker with Lonzo Ball and Eric Bledsoe not providing much of any outside shooting.

In fact, the most glaring issue with this team is their clear lack of three-point shooting. That is the one thing that JJ Redick has been known for his entire career, but the 14-year veteran has gotten off to a slow start this season. New Orleans currently ranks last or in the bottom three in nearly every statistical category related to three-point shooting.

Despite his slow start, Redick would seem to be a coveted trade piece for a title contender. Perhaps a change of scenery could do the sharpshooter.

Redick’s shooting percentages have been abysmal this season. He is shooting 30 percent from deep, the lowest mark of his career. The struggles are not just behind the arc, however, as he is also shooting just 44 percent from inside the three-point line. Throughout his career, he has only had two seasons in which he shot that poorly.

Perhaps a change of scenery would do Redick some good. Either way, he must figure out his shot if he’s to make any meaningful on-court contributions this season.

Robert Covington, Portland TrailBlazers

The run of bad luck in Portland has continued as Terry Stotts’ team has been hit hard by the injury bug once again. Zach Collins is still on the shelf after ankle surgery and, after missing nearly all of last season, Jusuf Nurkic is out with a broken wrist. CJ McCollum was putting up career-high numbers to start the season but is currently in a walking boot.

After making several great additions over the short offseason, the Trail Blazers were supposed to lean on their depth. Derrick Jones Jr. has been invisible aside from the occasional highlight dunk, Harry Giles has barely seen the floor and Enes Kanter has provided some offensive punch in his return but their biggest acquisition has not lived up to expectations. But, arguably the biggest disappointment has been Robert Covington.

Covington was supposed to be the defensive presence on the wing that Portland has lacked for so long. His ability to knock down three-pointers was also supposed to give Damian Lillard and McCollum even more room to operate. But, on the season, he is averaging just 1.5 made threes per game after averaging more than two per game in every season of his career.

On the floor, Covington is shooting just 30 percent overall and an even worse 27 percent from distance. The 30-year old has scored in double figures just twice this season and has missed the last two games due to a concussion. With so many guys out of the lineup and inconsistent play from others, Portland needs Covington to step up now more than ever — if he can turn it around, the team might just barely be able to withstand their current bout of injuries.

Aron Baynes, Toronto Raptors

After having a career-year in Phoenix last season, Aron Baynes was meant to fill the void left by Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka up in Toronto. But his production has fallen off of a cliff, to the point where Nick Nurse has had difficulty justifying his minutes. Last week he made his first three-pointer of the calendar year, while last Sunday’s victory over the Indiana Pacers was the first time he scored in double figures since just after Christmas.

The big man’s shooting percentages are down across the board: he is shooting just 18 percent from beyond the arc after shooting at a 35 percent clip last season. The numbers don’t even tell the full story, as this situation has a Roy Hibbert-type meltdown feel to it. Fortunately, Toronto has developed another rising talent in Chris Boucher that has stepped in and filled the void.

Baynes is a 31 percent career shooter from distance, so that is not a large part of his game. The problem is he has been unable to finish around the rim, either, nor fit into any type of role on offense. His calling card has always been defense, but he has been underwhelming on that end of the floor as well.

What Toronto thought they were getting with Baynes is exactly what Boucher has been — and more — so, while a return to form might not make-or-break their season, it might be the difference between a roster spot and a stint on the waiver wire for Baynes.

Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers

While the Clippers have been one of the best teams in the entire league, not all of their pieces are thriving. Lou Williams nearly won his fourth Sixth Man of the Year award last season but, so far this season, he hasn’t even been the sixth-best player on his own team.

Perhaps playing fewer minutes has contributed to his regression, or perhaps it is the loss of Montrezl Harrell, who took home that award last season. The two were a dynamic force off of the bench for Los Angeles a year ago, but Williams just has not been able to find his groove without the big man.

Williams’ 18 points per game average from last year has been cut in half this season; it is the first time since the 2006-07 season that he has failed to average double figures in scoring. It wouldn’t be so bad if he was aiding in other areas, but that isn’t happening, either. His assists are down from 5.6 to 2.5 per game while he is offering nothing on defense.

The good news for the Clippers is that they are winning despite his struggles. That said, the team, as much as Williams himself, is likely hoping to see a turnaround at some point this season.

Dāvis Bertāns, Washington Wizards

After opting out of the bubble in Orlando last season, Dāvis Bertāns elected to play it smart when it came to his upcoming free agency. He signed a five-year contract to stay with the Wizards as one of their most potent offensive weapons.

Unfortunately, the sharpshooter has been anything but that this season, getting off to a rocky start in nearly every category.

Last season, Bertāns nearly doubled his career-best scoring average, finishing at 15.4 points per game. He shot 43 percent from beyond the arc and had an effective field goal percentage of 60. But those numbers have fallen significantly this year as he is scoring just 11.8 points per game on 36 percent shooting from deep and 37 percent overall.

His effective field goal percentage, free throw percentage, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks are all down from last season. In their loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Friday night, Bertans played 25 minutes and was 0-7 from the floor and finished with just one point.

It has been a rough season in Washington D.C. as the Wizards own the worst record in the entire league. Russell Westbrook has been a shell of himself, while Thomas Bryant is out for the season and the basketball world is just waiting for the team to finally let go of Bradley Beal. The problems for Washington are much deeper than Bertāns, but he is not contributing at the level that he has in the past; if they ever want to dig themselves out, Bertans must step up.

Chad is a Basketball Insiders contributor based in Indianapolis.

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