- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Every summer during the NBA’s free agency period, the relocation of the league’s brightest stars creates the biggest splashes and garners the majority of the headlines. If a team has the ability and financial wiggle room to land a big name or two, the summer is deemed a success in the eyes of fans.

But the less flashy pickups - the complementary pieces to the puzzle, the wild cards - can prove nearly as crucial a move in building a championship team.

Those could come in the form of a veteran free agent, the signing of a player from overseas or a draft day pickup. But whether it’s a transaction involving an already established player (New OrleansJames Posey, Houston’s Ron Artest) or a European prospect (Portland’s Rudy Fernandez) or the acquisition of a troubled or still-developing type (Denver’s Chris Andersen), teams aim to find those role players knowing the move’s success or failure can equal the difference between contending and falling short.

“Every team needs complementary players or role players because the star players are called on to carry a heavy load, but no team is a success without quality role players,” Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld said. His team has three All-Stars on the roster, but despite injuries the Wizards have reached the postseason in each of the last four seasons because of key contributions from a non-All-Star.

“Stars are always tough to find,” Grunfeld added. “But once you get a star or two or three on your team, quality role players make their jobs a lot easier.”

And they can end up playing decisive, semiheroic roles.

Think of the Rockets of the mid-1990s and the Lakers and the Spurs of this decade. All had their superstars, but they also had the extra dash of Robert Horry to add to the recipe. And Horry seemingly always found a way to contribute, whether by way of unheralded defensive play or getting open for the big shot.

Horry, who helped teams to seven titles over his 16-year career, retired after last season. But taking up his mantle was Posey, who became one of the most coveted free agents on the market after Gilbert Arenas, Baron Davis and Elton Brand signed their respective contracts last summer.

The New Orleans Hornets this past summer signed Posey away from the Boston, roughly a month after he played a key role in the Celtics’ championship run. Posey earned his second ring; he contributed to the Miami Heat’s championship in 2006, playing a reserve role.

Posey’s numbers don’t jump off the page. He averaged 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds during the regular season for the Celtics, and then in the postseason slightly increased his output to 7.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and a .400 shooting clip from 3-point range. But his skills as a perimeter threat and strong defender are key elements to a team’s success.

Posey - who had played for five teams in his nine seasons - sought a long-term deal this summer, and the Celtics weren’t willing to meet his asking price. Multiple teams pursued Posey, and New Orleans came out on top, believing his skills as a strong defender and perimeter threat and his winning ways were well worth a four-year, $25 million contract.

“Many times a player’s statistics paint an inaccurate picture,” Hornets general manager Jeff Bower said when the team signed him in July. “James’ stats only tell half the story. He’s all about his team and playing whatever role is necessary for him to contribute. He likes doing the hard things, the rebounding, the loose balls, the competitive nature, the things that turn into points and rebounds for himself and for his teammates.”

The Hornets fell short in the playoffs last season because of weak depth, but suddenly they have a savvy veteran who can help shore up the bench with his winning intangibles and ability to fill in at both guard and forward.

“It’s not an exact science, but you can have a blueprint for how you set up your team with stars and then work around them, putting players in place around them,” one Eastern Conference front office official said. “You never know what type of injuries you’ll have, so you try to put together a versatile team, so you look for role guys who can play multiple positions.

“Sometimes you have to be a little lucky and get a guy a little early who’s not yet what he can be, but you develop him,” he added. “But other times, you have to be willing to pay a little more than someone else if you want to get that piece.”

The Wizards two years ago signed Roger Mason Jr., who at that point had played only 43 games in three seasons for Chicago and Toronto. Mason developed in the system over the course of two seasons and last year filled a key need, averaging 9.1 points a game off the bench. A free agent this past summer, the San Antonio Spurs signed Mason away from the Wizards for $7.5 million over two years, hoping he can play a key role in their aging rotation.

The Los Angeles Clippers, meanwhile, got outbid for one-time franchise player Elton Brand by the Philadelphia 76ers but landed an All-Star caliber player in Baron Davis. From there they added complementary pieces in Ricky Davis and Marcus Camby.

“When Elton left, we were left with about $12 million under the salary cap, so we were fortunate to be able to get Davis and Camby,” said Mike Dunleavy, coach and general manager of the Clippers. “So we were fortunate in that regard. … You always hope to build your team around a high-level player and then add players whose skills can complement your superstar. You need those guys, whether it’s on defense or on offense. When your top players are double-teamed, your opponent can’t account for everybody, and someone can step up.”

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