Sometimes it seems like we forget the “team” part of “team sports.” Sure, we acknowledge that a combination of talents leads to a better result, but we still focus on that talent aspect. How the players come together is vital to any team’s success, as well as its dynamic, and having clearly defined roles is a big part of that.
Let’s use some relatively recent examples of championship matchups to explore the importance of roles within a team.
The Spurs trumped the Big Three of the Heat by having more players step up and fulfill their roles.
LeBron put up an average of nearly 30 points while Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh each averaged double digits, but Mario Chalmers and Chris Andersen — role players key to the Heat’s success, as Andersen proved in the 2013 playoffs — contributed low totals. A large bulk of the weight landed on LeBron’s shoulders as Wade underperformed and five Spurs averaged double digits. San Antonio outrebounded, outshot, and outdefended Miami by strides.
The young, budding Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard impressed. The seasoned veteran and five-time champion Tim Duncan was his usual rebounding presence while the gritty, versatile Tony Parker paced the team in points. Manu Ginobli hit some key threes, and Patrick Mills stepped up and hit 13 in limited action. (Only LeBron had more threes in the Finals, with 14.) Danny Green and Boris Diaw played their roles as bench players entering to help with sharpshooting and rebounding, respectively. And, of course, the Spurs passed the ball as well as they ever had.
While Leonard was the best player all-around for the Spurs in the Finals, it truly was the team that functioned together to outperform Miami in all regards with a resounding victory in five games. At least seven players stepped up and performed their function as part of the whole effort, and the better team effort prevailed.
World Cup Final
It should mean something on the soccer pitch when it’s debatable whether or not the scoring leader, who is in the running for the Golden Boot, is one of the best five players on the team. The Germany national team boasted a number of great players and was undoubtedly one of the top three teams in terms of talent. (See more on their path to the final here.)
Golden Glove winner Manuel Neuer contributed greatly on the defensive end. His sure-handedness allowed the defense (comprised entirely of center backs) to play farther forward and provide support to the offense. Captain and defender Philipp Lahm adapted to the role of center midfielder beautifully, allowing him to assist on both ends of the pitch.
The all-time scoring leader Miroslav Klose scored a few times this Cup in his last international games, while Thomas Müller, the 2010 Golden Boot leader, contributed five goals. Between Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger, one of the two seemed to be in the right place at all times.
For Argentina though, the tournament success was really mostly in the hands of Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano. The latter player was a big reason why Germany didn’t score in regulation, but Messi didn’t have a spectacular knockout round, despite FIFA awarding him with the Golden Ball. Germany’s solid defensive work and attacking emphasis eventually paid off in an extra time goal to win the Cup.
The composition of a roster is incredibly important, even beyond the 11 expected starters, and it’s because the versatility and ability to complement other players’ strengths is so vital to a team’s success.
Even for the U.S. team, this aspect of a team working was evidenced in the early going. Altidore’s loss based solely on his overall ability might not have seemed much, but he served in a physical role up top in a way other U.S. players did not. In that way Altidore was more valuable to the team because of his particular function.
Other players like John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin stepped up and contributed their bits, but this was only possible because it wasn’t solely about getting Dempsey or another particular player to score. That’s the main reason the U.S. team was able to make it to a knockout round game.
Roster composition was a strength for both San Antonio and Germany. The entire compilation of talent counted as more than its sum because each part was used in its role well, and a number of players shined as a result.
The Spurs and the German national team both benefited from stars executing their roles well, while their championship opponents may have relied a bit too much on the few big names responsible for getting them there. In both soccer and basketball, sharp passing and an excellent team effort are essential to win at the highest level. Let’s never forget how much team contributions can trump individual efforts.
Dan Johnson is editor-in-chief of Three for Ten Sports and former managing editor of The Collegian at Grove City College.