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In Praise of Complementary Players

Complementary players are not those who sit at the end of the bench and say "nice shot" a lot (those would be complimentary players). No, we're talking about players whose skill sets complement the team's stars. They fill a niche, maybe two, without getting in the way. They add without subtracting. They accept their role, perhaps grudgingly, and pour their energy into it. They relinquesh, at least temporarily, their quest to be "the man". They don't win MVPs; they win championships.

Many complementaries are defensive specialists, because defense is additive. Playing tough D does not deprive a star of the opportunity to play D in the same way that shooting deprives him of the chance to shoot. But even defensive studs need at least one reliable offensive skill. Bruce Bowen was the archetype. He dominated games at the defensive end by harassing the opposing star to the point of distraction (sometimes to the point of ejection). On offense he pulled his defender out to the corner and let the other Spurs play 4 on 4. Occasionally his defender, frustrated with Tony and Manu's shredding or Timmy's up-and-undering, would leave Bruce to go lend a hand. What happened next was so predictable entire arenas full of opposing fans would see it coming and shriek "Nooooo" before the pass even reached Bruce's hands.

Fabricio Oberto was another classic complementary. On offense he'd stand quietly on the baseline, almost out of bounds and well out of the action, watching his defender's eyes. As soon as the opponent glanced over at Timmy, Fab was gone. The defender would look back to where Oberto used to be and "hey, where'd he go"? Oh there he is, under the basket making an unmolested reverse layup.

Complementaries work on the little things. Oberto couldn't elevate to block shots or snare offensive rebounds, so he wrestled and flopped and fouled and mastered the art of tipping missed shots out to a waiting guard. Do you remember Steve Kerr stepping out of the broadcast booth in game 6 of the 2003 Western Conference Finals to slay the Pretty Ponies with 4-4 shooting from behind the arc? Of course you do. Do you also remember Dallas isolating him repeatedly on defense, hoping to victimize his 37 year old legs? Steve used every trick in the book to hold his own against vastly superior athletes, even snagging a steal at one point. He added brilliantly, without subtracting, sparking a series-ending 23-0 run.

Can NBA megastars become complementary players? Many would say we already know The Answer. It's the only thing Michael Jordan ever failed to accomplish on the basketball court. David Robinson did it, but he's an exceptional human being. Let's just say it's very, very difficult.

Who are today's complementary Spurs? Having traded a few away does the team now suffer from a shortage? Matt Bonner complements Duncan and Parker on offense and just might be figuring out how to "not subtract" at the defensive end. Among the new additions Antonio McDyess is complementary but Richard Jefferson is a pure star and Dejuan Blair is pure beast, almost an anti-Oberto. George Hill is TP-lite on offense, most effective when attacking one-on-one. Keith Bogans may lack a reliable offensive skill and Ian Mahinmi clearly lacks a complementary player's savvy. Theo Ratliff? Marcus Haislip? Malik Hairston? Michael Finley's defense? Roger Mason's shooting percentage in limited minutes? The next 50 games are about answering such questions and experimenting to figure out who can best complement the stars. It will be interesting. It may not be much fun.

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