5 Benches That Could Hold Back NBA Playoff Contenders

What makes San Antonio so frustrating for opponents and fun to watch for us, the fans, is the parallel personnel magic GM R.C. Buford and coach Gregg Popovich seem to always have working. It’s twofold: The Spurs’ core of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili still play as if they were men 10 years younger, while a rotating cast of reserves and spot starters keep the team’s unbroken chain of success alive. So well that even Sunday night’s win over Minnesota didn’t hit a bump when Manu Ginobili left the game with an injured hamstring that could keep him out two weeks. The Spurs’ reserves will suffer, to be sure, with the former Sixth Man’s absence but it won’t hinder the team’s playoff chances or viability as an NBA contender. San Antonio’s bench was already one of the best in the league by several measurements by Hoopsstats.com. Not all teams are so lucky. Here are a few contenders whose benches aren’t helping their case, whether it’s to just get to the playoffs or go deeper than the first couple rounds.

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Stephen Curry is a man who should not be crossed, averaging 21.9 points per game in the last 10 games, third-best among NBA point guards. The success spreads to the Warriors’ whole backcourt, which is in the NBA’s top five in efficiency and scoring per 40 minutes. The continued injury-rehab cycle of Andrew Bogut has thrown the Warriors’ bench into a mess, however, forcing rookie Festus Ezeli to start 31 games and leaving the reserves just undersized Carl Landry to fill the role of a big man unafraid to play strong down low (Andris Biedrins is not that player).

Landry is a bright spot, grabbing 6.5 boards per game on a reserves unit that collects the most defensive rebounds per 48 minutes and holds its opponents to one of the lowest averages, as well. Still the Warriors give up the fourth-most points per 48 minutes, with 19.1 and outside of Landry and Jarrett Jack, few options exist for the Warriors to choose from if they want offense from their reserves. One positive is that although the W’s are third-worst in shooting three-pointers, their reserves realize it and curb their attempts from deep, shooting the fewest per 40 minutes of any bench.

Four of Indiana’s regular starters (David West, George Hill, Paul George, Roy Hibbert) make both the Pacers’ offense and defense better when they play according to 82games.com’s plug-minus finder. It’s almost a clean sweep, too, among the team’s top five minutes getters: Lance Stephenson‘s defense is just 1.6 points per 100 possessions worse when he plays. All overall have a positive effect on Indiana, which has allowed the Pacers to stay near the top of the defensive rankings the past month and reel off marquee wins in the last two weeks.

But no one in the next five for minutes played — that would be Tyler Hansbrough, Gerald Green, D.J. Augustin, Ian Mahimi and Sam Young — affects the Pacers’ offense and defense positively in both offense and defense when they play. Green and Augustin are the only players who can say they help when they’re on the court, and even in those cases their defense is barely one point per 100 possessions better. The point is their benefits are slim while some have big negatives attached to their game — the Pacers score 16.4 points more per 100 when Mahinmi is squarely on the bench, for one.

Just as Indiana’s top five can’t score, neither can its bench (it’s third-worst here), what with the second-worst shooting percentage of just over 38 percent. And that’s fine because as hard as it can be to watch, Indiana’s has absolutely stuffed opponents on defense recently. The bench can’t say that, allowing opponents’ reserves to score more, have more assists, rebound better and shoot better from the field, three and free-throw line all season. The reserves have to hold the line for Indiana and generally have. What is troubling, however, is that even small advantages for opponents are much more pronounced when the entire Pacers roster has trouble scoring to keep up.

It’s obvious but it still requires addressing: Houston’s patchwork bench is not doing any favors for coach Kevin McHale. And yet, how could it? This team only has one player in its bottom eight, Greg Smith, who was a Rocket last season and that was only for eight games. Daryl Morey didn’t assemble a balanced team so much as he piled a bunch of things together like a garage sale, and McHale has pulled off his best MacGyver impersonation to make it all hold together and somehow work. Continuity is not a word spoken often around Rockets HQ.

The key to the success despite the turnover? Don’t put too much responsibility on the shoulders of the bench. Smith is more than a serviceable center by shooting 65 percent and recording a double-double per 36 minutes, and Carlos Delfino‘s true-shooting of 55 percent is his career high, but they are a risky gold standard to ride to playoff success. They simply aren’t defending. Opposing benches rank in the top-five in shooting and three-point percentages when they play Houston, and average the fifth-most points against the Rockets per 48 minutes. To be fair, no one on Houston plays defense let alone its star, James Harden, who all but drapes a red flag by his side for players to run through as they go by. Houston’s offensive firepower, its counter to its defensive problems, reaches to its bench where reserves shoot in the top-five in both threes and overall. Still, my concern is what will break down more reliably in the spring, Houston’s shooting or its defense? I’ll take its defense — the weakest link all year, and one its bench does nothing to improve.

When Miami allowed Nikola Vucevic to grab 29 rebounds and nearly outrebound the Heat by himself on New Year’s Eve, it was the clearest sign of how the innovative small-ball approach could fail. A six-game road trip out West in the past week hasn’t cured the team’s rebounding woes, and they still rank last in offensive rebounding differential, getting 6.5 fewer than their opponents per 100 possessions. It’s a wound that won’t heal because the Heat’s offense otherwise runs so well because of the small-ball strategy — and the bench hasn’t been a salve.

Per Hoopsstats, the Heat reserves are second-worst in offensive rebounding (just an astounding 1.5 per 48 minutes) and in the lower third in defensive boards, as well. Allowing second chances is why only the Blazers’ reserves are worse at field-goal percentage defense.

It isn’t all bad, it’s just each good thing about Miami comes with a bad footnote. Miami’s reserves shoot a league-best 40 percent from three and are 13th best in shooting percentage … but they score the second-fewest points per 48 minutes. They turn the ball over so little they’re in the top-five best there … but distribute it so poorly they’re fourth-worst.

The good news is that Portland plays its bench the least per game, according to Hoopsstats.com’s numbers. While it’s impressive Portland’s starters have kept the team afloat in the Western Conference’s top eight nearly by themselves, it’s as if the Trail Blazers are paying with credit and deferring a big bill come spring. That’s when the heavy minutes Portland’s starters play will take their toll. Nicolas Batum (38.8 minutes per game), J.J. Hickson (29.3) and Wesley Matthews (35.0) all are playing career highs in minutes this season, LaMarcus Aldridge (37.7) is within two minutes to his high and Damian Lillard (38.4) play the most among rookies by a whopping seven minutes. The starters’ legs, while young, can’t sustain that kind of workload when the team’s reserves scored 17 combined points in their last two games, losses to Golden State and Oklahoma City. Portland is the worst bench in field-goal percentage (.377), three-point percentage (.279) and points per 48 minutes (11.9), and their defense can’t mitigate such numbers, either, allowing the highest field-goal percentage to opposing reserves.

Meyers Leonard, when healthy, is a productive big man in the making and Luke Babbitt‘s confidence in his shot is one of the best developments arguably of the entire season. Sasha Pavlovic fills a defensive go-getter role Matthews plays in the starting five, too. Together though, the sum of Portland’s spare parts isn’t greater than its individual links. The reserves are caught in somewhat of a Catch-22 by coach Terry Stotts: He doesn’t have the confidence to play them major minutes but they won’t become better — especially scoring, where the reserves are lacking most — without the confidence of more playing time. Instead, that limbo and resulting lack of production has been like a weight sled attached to the Trail Blazers’ season, one that rarely allows the starters to make progress with their sprint.

What do you think?

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