Earlier in March, Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Billy Donovan praised the Raptors' cohesive second unit of Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl, which has helped lead Toronto to the best record in the Eastern Conference. "They play with no agenda," Donovan said. "They play to make the right play."
The key to the success of Toronto's bench has been the willingness of every single player on the floor to accept their role. That might sound simple, but as role players around the league explain, it's often a process that requires setting aside your ego, making sacrifices, and finding the right opportunities.
Miles was selected by the Utah Jazz in the second round of the 2005 draft, and like almost every player that makes it to the league, he had a glowing resume. He was named All-Dallas Area Player of the Year by The Dallas Morning News as a senior at Skyline High School and appeared in the top 20 of most high-school-senior prospects lists around the country.
Today, Miles is a 3-point specialist and a wonderful veteran presence in Toronto's locker room. But that was not the case when he started his pro career.
"That was when it was all about me," Miles told theScore. "Not that I was playing selfishly, but everything (I did on the court) was geared towards being about me at the end of the day. I made the extra pass not because I wanted to get it to my teammate, but because it would be an assist for me."
In his first season with Utah, Miles played in 23 games and averaged 8.8 minutes and 3.3 shots per game. Over several seasons, he watched successful teams in the playoffs, seeing the camaraderie between teammates and how often they were making plays for each other. There was no specific light-bulb moment for Miles, but he slowly recognized that he needed to change his approach.
"I realized I don't need accolades to know that I was a good teammate or I did the right thing," Miles said. "Don't get me wrong, you want the chance to shine. But being prepared to play the game the right way is the type of teammate I want to be. I don't think anyone wants to be the guy that no one wants to play with."
J.J. Redick entered the NBA in 2006 as the reigning national college player of the year at Duke. By his second season in Orlando, Redick was an afterthought, averaging 8.1 minutes per game. That's when he understood his superstar days were behind him, and he needed to adapt.
"It was a mindset switch," Redick told theScore. "It was more about survival." Redick remembered a particular conversation he had with Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. Both huge fans of Broadway plays, Krzyzewski told Redick to pay attention to the background actors on stage - the ones who were not part of the main dialogue.
"They have to star in their role," Redick said. "They have to nail their facial expressions. They have to time everything perfectly for a musical. It didn't resonate with me at the time because at Duke, I was getting the ball every time down the floor. But as I grew as an NBA player, the notion of starring in your role really resonated with me."
Several role players say they're grateful for finding themselves in the right situations to start their careers. J.J. Barea credits Jason Terry, Devin Harris, and Jason Kidd for helping him survive his first few seasons in the NBA. "It was huge just watching them work," Barea told theScore. "It helped me a lot. The first couple of years, you have to learn to be patient. It’s not easy."
Taj Gibson still thinks about how differently his career would have gone if it didn't begin with the Chicago Bulls. "If I was in Sacramento or somewhere else, playing with players that weren't playing the right way, it would have been different," Gibson told theScore. "I played for a team that competed. I never had to get selfish or be around negative teammates."
James Johnson played for four NBA teams in his first seven seasons, and admits it was initially difficult to give up shot attempts and take a backseat to other players.
"That was one of the hardest things to let go," Johnson told theScore. "Most of the time, you just feel like you're better than the person who has the opportunity now."
With the Miami Heat, Johnson has found the perfect situation. Teammates and opponents alike refer to him as the Heat's Swiss Army knife - a player who does a little bit of everything.
"The role that has been given to me here in Miami is my dream job," Johnson said.
It took Jamal Crawford almost a decade to find his dream job, and even then, he accepted it with some hesitation. Over his first eight seasons, Crawford was one of the most reliable scorers in the NBA. But he never made the playoffs.
"I was getting known as a good player on a bad team," Crawford told theScore. "I got to a point in my career where I was just tired of it."
In 2009, Crawford was traded from Golden State to Atlanta. A starter who once averaged 39.9 minutes per game, Crawford accepted a bench role with the Hawks, averaged 18.0 points in his first season in Atlanta, and won the Sixth Man of the Year Award. More importantly, he made the playoffs for the first time.
Since that season, Crawford has missed the playoffs just once and won two more Sixth Man of the Year Awards. "I've had, like, what - 18 head coaches in my career," Crawford said. "Every coach sees you and your role a different way. More than anything, overcoming that is what I'm most proud of."
Accepting a lesser role after experiencing individual success as a starter can be difficult. Vince Carter did it and remains in the league at the age of 41. Allen Iverson didn't and played his last NBA game at the age of 34. After Isaiah Thomas was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, he was vocal about not coming off the bench - a role he later accepted, though reluctantly.
"I was just willing to do whatever it took," Crawford said, "and the bench role was there for me. It was an adjustment. It's still an adjustment, because you sacrifice a lot. A whole lot. I didn't know how much I would have to sacrifice."
A role player's performance can go under the radar. For Trevor Booker - who's played for four teams over the past four seasons, including two this year (the 76ers and Pacers) - the fanfare is secondary to the respect you command in the locker room. "Guys like myself don't get noticed by fans," Booker told theScore. "But coaches and teammates appreciate what we do."
Marc Gasol spent seven seasons as Tony Allen's teammate. Hearing him describe Allen is like reading a five-star Amazon review.
"Great guy, great player," Gasol told theScore. "The most relentless guy I've ever seen. He will always fight over screens. He always contests shots. He's never going to be out of place. He reads plays and understands what teams are trying to do and is always a step ahead. He prepares well for the game.
"He takes care of his body. You could always count on him to do his job. You never had to worry about him. Every player wants to score 20 points, but he has no problem running 100 sprints, scoring four points, and shutting down the opposing team's best offensive player."
Goran Dragic has rarely shared the floor with teammate Udonis Haslem in his two-plus seasons in Miami, since Haslem has only appeared in 65 games over the last three seasons. But the Heat guard considers the 37-year-old forward to be the most important player in the locker room.
"I've learned a lot from him the past three years," Dragic told theScore. "His experience in the locker room and how he gives advice to younger players and even older players like me. It's awesome. He takes care of his own players."
Players who can no longer contribute on the court can still have a positive impact by making their voices heard.
Haslem says he picked up tips on being a leader from many former teammates, including Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton, Ray Allen, and Brian Grant.
"I took a little bit of something from each one of those guys," Haslem told theScore.
Though Haslem has developed a reputation as one of the best locker-room voices in the league, he said the transition into the role was very uncomfortable.
"The strong move silent," Haslem explained. "I'm just not much of a talker."
Over time, like many role players, Haslem has come to appreciate what he brings to a team.
"When you see how you can impact and inspire guys with your voice, it makes you want to keep going," Haslem said. "You have to evolve."
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)