Winning basketball games is a lot easier when you have a good bench. A look at recent NBA history makes that quite clear. In the 2011 Finals, the Mavericks’ bench consistently outplayed the Heat’s, a key reason as to why Dallas was able to pull the upset. The Celtics won a title in 2008 with a great bench led by James Posey and P.J. Brown. While many attribute their inability to repeat to injuries to Kevin Garnett (missed entire postseason in ‘09) and Kendrick Perkins (missed Game 7 of the Finals in ‘10), those injuries revealed a lack of depth, especially in the frontcourt, that the Celtics’ opponents were able to feast on. It’s incredibly difficult to win when guys like Brian Scalabrine are playing over 20 minutes per game (as he did in the ’09 playoffs). Having a strong bench has become even more important in 2011-12—with so many games and so little time to rest, teams can’t afford to stick their top guys out there for 40 minutes a night. Only one player, Kevin Love, averages more than 38.4 minutes per game this season. Seven guys did that in 2010-11.
So which benches are getting it done this season? Everyone knows about Oklahoma City and what guys like James Harden, Nick Collison, and Daequan Cook bring to the table (not to mention Eric Maynor when he's healthy). But what about those other units that don’t get nearly the same hype? Here’s a look at some of the league’s most underappreciated second units.
“Wait a minute,” you’re probably thinking. “Chicago’s bench gets plenty of hype!” That may be true, but as far as underrated benches go, the Bulls’ group still ranks right up there. Among players who’ve played at least 200 minutes for Chicago this season, the Bulls’ top four in Defensive Rating differential (number of points per 100 possessions the team surrenders when they’re on the floor – number of points per 100 possessions the team surrenders when they’re off the floor) are reserves—Taj Gibson (-16.1), John Lucas III (-9.9), Luol Deng (-7.3), and Omer Asik (-5.5). Their bottom three? Carlos Boozer (+12.0), Joakim Noah (+8.3) and Richard Hamilton (+6.1), all of whom start for Chicago. Obviously, there’s a trade-off here—the Bulls do perform better offensively with their starters on the floor. But for a team constructed around defense, it’s telling that the team’s best defenders all come off the bench. Also worth noting: Lucas has played more than 20 minutes in one game this season, January 11 against Washington. Lucas played 45 minutes that night and Chicago allowed 64 points, tying its season low (though, again, it was against the Wizards).
Philly is the rarest of teams: it’s managed to find success without a superstar and without stockpiling high draft choices. Instead, the Sixers under Doug Collins have been built around a couple established veterans, Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala, and a slew of mid-first round and second round picks, all between 21 and 25 years old who compete like hell and play defense. Whether this formula can win in the playoffs is yet to be seen, but right now Philly’s sitting pretty at 18-7, third in the East after a 16-point win over the Bulls on Wednesday. Much of the Sixers’ young talent comes off the bench, including guys like Louis Williams (the team’s leading scorer at 15 ppg), Thaddeus Young, Nikola Vucevic (just returning from injury), and Evan Turner (finally showing some of the potential he flashed at Ohio State). Among players who haven’t started a game this season, Williams and Young rank 1-2 in win shares (have earned 2.6 on the season). Another way of determining how much a player is impacting his team is by noting how well they do when he’s on the floor. Right now, Young’s total +/- of +180 ranks fifth in the league. If you go by +/- per minute on the court, he’s first in the league by a considerable margin, as the Sixers outscore their opponents by .28 points per minute with Young on the floor. What’s more, if you look at Philly’s top three- and four-man units, in terms of +/- per minute, you see that the Sixers perform just as well (and in many cases, better) with some of their key reserves on the floor. Among Philly’s top 8 three-man units, Young is included in every one of them. So are guys like Williams (two) and Vucevic (three), both of whom compare well to starters such as Iguodala (two) and Jrue Holiday (three). Elton Brand and Jodie Meeks appear a combined three times. The message? Play Thaddeus Young more. A lot more!
Portland Trail Blazers
When it comes to assigning success to the Blazers, most of the credit is heaped upon the team’s efficient starting unit of Raymond Felton, Wesley Matthews, LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace, and Marcus Camby. And they deserve it—the stats back them up as one of the league’s best starting units. But lost in the shuffle are the contributions of bench players such as Nicolas Batum, Kurt Thomas, and Jamal Crawford, all of whom bring a specific skill set off the bench. Batum is an athletic defender, Thomas is the ageless, physical banger down low, and Crawford can immediately ignite an offense in need of a spark. Looking at some of their five-man units, many of the Blazers’ most successful units include two or more of their three key reserves. In order of +/- per minute, Portland’s best five-man units are: 1. Felton-Batum-Wallace-Aldridge-Camby; 2. Crawford-Matthews-Wallace-Aldridge-Camby; 3. Felton-Crawford-Batum-Aldridge-Thomas; 4. Felton-Crawford-Batum-Wallace-Aldridge; 5. Felton-Matthews-Wallace-Aldridge-Thomas. Obviously the starters are in there a lot too, but those lineups go to show that there isn’t a tremendous drop-off in production when one or more of the starters sit.
San Antonio Spurs
Want to know why San Antonio sits in third in the West despite Manu Ginobili playing just five games so far this season? A lot of it has to do with the bench Gregg Popovich and GM R.C. Buford have assembled. Though the Spurs’ Big Three of Tony Parker (29 years old), Manu Ginobili (34), and Tim Duncan (35) are a bit younger than the Celtics’ Big Three, the Spurs have shown how to remain competitive through smart drafting and free agent signings. Like the Celtics, the Spurs don’t usually get a high draft choice, but they’ve used the ones they have gotten on players who were overlooked or underrated for some reason, such as DeJuan Blair, Danny Green, and Tiago Splitter (Blair and Green were second-rounders; Splitter was taken 28th overall but stayed overseas for three seasons), not to mention Gary Neal (undrafted, signed as a free agent in 2010) or Matt Bonner (45th overall selection back in ’03). The Celtics’ bench consists mostly of free agent retreads (Keyon Dooling, Jermaine O’Neal, Chris Wilcox) or inexperienced youngsters (Avery Bradley, E’Twaun Moore)—there’s a reason why San An’s handled the lockout well and Boston hasn’t (until its recent hot streak). The Spurs’ most successful three-man unit in terms of overall +/- doesn’t contain any starters—it’s Green, Splitter, and Bonner, each of whom rank among the league’s top 15 in win shares for bench players (maximum one game started). Just look at San Antonio’s top three-man units: Splitter, Green, and Bonner are up there more than anyone else. That’s not to say that they’ll be playing the most minutes come playoff time, but in a regular season where depth is so important, the Spurs are again showing why they’ve been the NBA’s most successful franchise of the past 15 years.