Late-Added Role Players Paying Dividends in NBA Playoffs

Sometimes the roster additions roster that go unheralded during the winter months end up reaping the sweetest rewards.

Forget the major trade overhauls and seismic shifts. There are also some legitimately important pieces that come off the bench for the NBA’s final eight teams who did not break camp with their current group. In fact, some were not even sought after on the trade or buyout markets. Now they have found a home and a place of value.

They’re not just seeing playing time but also contributing positively to their team’s success.

Without these unsung heroes, playoff rotations would be just a tad short and success that much more difficult to attain. Let them be unsung no more as we praise their impacts almost half-way through the postseason:

James Ennis, Philadelphia 76ers

Few people projected James Ennis playing 21 minutes per game in the playoffs, but even fewer could foresee him leading the league in two-point field goal percentage at 79.2 percent this postseason.

A role player like Ennis will always have his impact muted to a certain extent, but he’s taken advantage of his minutes and continues to be an important piece off the bench for Sixers coach Brett Brown. Here’s a guy that is playing six more minutes per game in the playoffs than he did in the regular season—incredibly rare for a role player.

Ennis is not asked to do much within the Philly offense. He earned his way into consistent minutes via energy and offensive rebounding during the first round against the Brooklyn Nets and hasn’t yielded his rotation spot since. Essentially, Ennis is length on defense and shooting on offense, providing the proper 3-and-D buzzword-filler the Sixers need.

As a career 35.7 percent three-point shooter, he is especially needed against a versatile Toronto Raptors team once JJ Redick checks out. Having proper spacing around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons is crucial. The addition of a role-playing shooter like Ennis was absolutely perfect for the Sixers, and they got him from the Rockets for a second-round pick swap. Now they have a shooter with a long, fluid stroke that makes defenses pay when ignored:

Ennis plays with such immense energy and determination that his presence is invariably felt.

He’s perfected the timing for those high-risk, high-reward backdoor cuts when his defenders pay too much attention to the Sixers’ multiple elite scorers. Cuts from the corners to the basket can muck up spacing if they don’t produce a layup—an extra defender or body is now positioned at the rim, which closes layup lanes.

But Ennis is choosey with his spots, and that results in easy looks at the rim:

It’s no wonder his field goal percentage is so high. Ennis has shown an ability to maneuver the floor while being the ignored man, and that earns a great deal of trust.

How far has it extended? The coaching staff is drawing up sets for him after timeouts, trying to keep his hand hot and build that confidence for when he gets kick-out opportunities:

Perhaps my favorite trait is his wonky over-the-head pump fake. Ennis slowly raises the ball atop his forehead circa decade-old Al Jefferson, with a slow and gimmicky motion that should only work at your local YMCA. Defenders constantly bite on it, however, giving Ennis a lane to the rim:

From a purely analytical standpoint, Ennis hasn’t made quite the impact on defense the Sixers would like. That said, the length this 6’7″ swingman provides is better than other options in Philadelphia. Without his presence on the roster, Brown would have to turn to Furkan Korkmaz or TJ McConnell, a flimsy young wing or a non-shooting six-foot point guard, respectively.

Ennis is the epitome of a role player, and he’s earning his keep.

Austin Rivers, Houston Rockets

April 30, 2019; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Rockets guard Austin Rivers (25) shoots the basketball against Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) during the second quarter in game two of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Watch Austin Rivers play and it’s hard to believe that the Phoenix Suns didn’t want him, opting to cut him rather than utilize his talents. A heady ball-handling scorer, he did not click with the Washington Wizards earlier this season, but the role has simplified for Doc’s son since arriving in Houston. He’s a floor spacer, re-penetrator and tertiary option at most.

The clarity on this role has certainly raised his effectiveness. Rivers is scorching hot from three during the playoffs, going 12-23 (52.2 percent) through the Rockets’ first seven games. Combine that with his regular season three-to-one assist ratio since arriving in Houston and the guy has clearly found his niche as a bench scorer within a simple, free-flowing system.

Adding another scorer and creator to the roster has lightened the burden on James Harden and Chris Paul to create everything themselves, especially in the Harden-Rivers pick-and-roll combination. Mike D’Antoni has frequently used guard-to-guard ball screens to get Harden open because of the way opponents hide other players. If Rivers and Harden share the floor, teams routinely hide their worst option on Rivers.

He’s making them pay for that strategy.

The Golden State Warriors will stick Stephen Curry on Rivers, and the latter’s proven an adequate screener and pick-and-pop threat. Sometimes Harden gets to the rim, other times he hits Rivers for a three. But when Rivers catches and drives, he’s an effective enough finisher and ball handler that the Rockets get a quality look.

This two-man action is working on all levels:

Curry is an important piece to attack in a postseason series. It’s far too high an exaggeration to call him a bad defender, but his size and athletic portfolio in comparison to his teammates makes him the obvious target.

Flanking Harden with not just pick-and-pop threats, but guys that can drive to the hoop after they screen unlocks a great deal of playmaking potential for the Rockets. Rivers is an incredibly important piece for them in this series with Golden State.

He has to stay hot.

Danuel House, Houston Rockets

Apr 20, 2019; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz guard Kyle Korver (26) dribbles the ball as Houston Rockets forward Danuel House Jr. (4) defends during the second half of game three of the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Vivant Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Despite facing offensive juggernauts like the Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz, Houston’s defense has been the third-best across the postseason in terms of efficiency metrics. This is a very good defensive club, with tenacious guards and versatile, savvy bigs.

Enter Danuel House, a role player on-and-off the roster throughout the season. House’s spot was in question as the Rockets toyed with the idea of bringing in a more polished veteran on the wings.

Thankfully for the team, Daryl Morey refrained from any shiny new objects and stuck with the Texas A&M product. He’s been a defensive savior for this Rockets squad that lost Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute from last year’s Western Conference Finalist squad.

That defensive aptitude has allowed House to play through cold streaks on offense. He’s shooting below 30 percent from the field this postseason—an incredibly damaging mark by any measure. But if House regains the shooting stroke he demonstrated during the postseason, he’ll find his way back onto the floor.

That’s because, per Synergy Sports metrics, his opponents have shot 14-42 (33.3 percent) from the floor when House has been the primary defender. That number should earn him a second chance to crack the rotation, particularly in a long series where coaches make plenty of adjustments.

Based on his overall length and quick-twitch athleticism, House’s defense makes him a great matchup within Houston’s switching scheme. He’ll have a role to play in this series yet. You just wait.


Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference, stats, or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of May 6, 2019.