Last night, Denver ran away from L.A. in the Staples Center because they dominated at points in the second and late in the third quarter. George Karl trusts his bench, almost too much in fact. His goal this year might be to coach this team like its intramurals. That’s just speculation, but with the way he hands out minutes, 11 guys all average double figures, we wouldn’t be surprised. Having a decent bench is always important, but it’s never been stressed like this. Five games in six nights will leave your team playing more up and down than a seesaw if the second unit can’t hoop.
The myth about being deep is it’ll help in the playoffs. Wrong. Teams win in the playoffs because they have the best players, and the best closers. Rotations shorten in the second season, and as the defense tightens, eighth and ninth men suddenly can’t make shots. But in the regular season? In a condensed season? The difference between a No. 3 seed and a No. 8 (especially in the West) will be a good bench.
We’ve already rated the 10 best Sixth Men. Now, here are the five deepest teams in the league.
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5. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
The fifth-most effective bench lineup, at least statistically, the Bucks don’t have a known commodity off the pine. There’s no Jamal Crawford here, or even a Leandro Barbosa. But this is one of the few teams that rolls with a team of 10 starters and gets away with it. Part of that is due to injuries for a number of their best players, but nine players on the roster have actually started at least six times this year. Mike Dunleavy (10.7 points) and Shaun Livingston (best A/T ratio among the team’s regulars) are silently having effective years. There’s also Ersan Ilyasova (7.4 rebounds per game) and Drew Gooden. Gooden’s currently starting but the former Jayhawk came off the bench for most of the year, and HE’S BALLING: 18 points, 7.8 rebounds on 57 percent shooting in his last five games.
With Stephen Jackson struggling, he’s come off the bench in the past five games, which only adds more fuel. Of course, Jack has been so bad this year (9.6 PER, 36 percent shooting) that maybe this isn’t a good thing.
4. SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Their near comeback against Dallas last weekend was all the evidence I needed for this. 51 consecutive bench points. Honestly, that might be the most eyeball-popping stat I’ve seen this entire year. Of course, the Spurs’ bench is helped by the confidence Gregg Popovich gives them. No one has a firmer leash. I remember talking to Chris Webber at the start of the year about Rick Adelman, and he specifically said the former Kings’ coach will give guys the rope to either play aggressively or hang themselves. Pop is the same way, and with superstars who aren’t ego driven, he can ride a hot hand.
Whereas Ginobili once anchored this unit, it’s now a mashup of role players. Gary Neal isn’t a household name outside of NBA diehards, but he’s already been key in four or five close games. Tiago Splitter is quietly averaging 9.2 points and 5.5 rebounds. Danny Green, Matt Bonner and T.J. Ford have all played roles as well. And for now, Kawhi Leonard is starting to make up for Manu’s absence. Once the Spurs are at full-strength, the rook will move back to make the bench even deeper. Naturally, this bench takes and makes the second-most amount of treys in the NBA, the shot that’s become San Antonio’s calling card.
3. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
For some reason, to me, the Sixers have been the most boring team to watch over the past three years. They’ve changed this season, and I don’t think it’s the media hype making me view them any differently. Evan Turner is actually turning into a decent NBA player. Two weeks ago in a four-point home loss to Denver, Turner was everywhere, spinning into the lane, leading fast-breaks and scoring three or four times in key fourth quarters situations. He ended the night with 20 and 11, and while that was his best game of the year, he’s already scored in double figures 10 times this year.
Who else has their leading scorer coming off the bench (Lou Williams)? To add on to that, the Sixer bench is also No. 1 in the NBA in efficiency difference (13.7), meaning no one outplays other benches more than they do. They also have one of the best, and most improved (dating back to last season), bench players in the league in Thaddeus Young, a guy who’s a walking matchup nightmare for opposing backups.
2. DALLAS MAVERICKS
When you think of the ultimate Sixth Men in the NBA, Jason Terry is at the top. He IS what a Sixth Man should be about, and he’s done it for years in Dallas. While Ginobili was often the best player coming off the bench in the NBA, if Popovich ever came into a tricky situation, he’d just start him. No lineup was definitive. But Terry has started just once in the Mavs’ last 37 playoff games. So far this year, he’s doing it again, anchoring (15.3 points a night) the highest-scoring second unit in the league. 45.4 points a night the Dallas bench gives them, and with so many interchangeable parts, teams never know who’s going to be coming from where.
Normally, the big names off the Dallas bench are Lamar Odom and Vince Carter, and while they’ve both struggled this year, even at their worst, they are talented enough to score against second-stringers. Roddy Beaubois is their J.J. Barea this year, and Ian Mahinmi (7.7 points, 5.5 rebounds a game) went from a liability to a very good backup center. The bench only shoots about 44 percent, but their efficiency difference is second among benches, behind only Philly.
1. DENVER NUGGETS
While they average slightly less points per game than the Mavs (43.3), the Nuggets’ second unit is somehow both destructive and efficient. As a group, they shoot just below 50 percent, and lead all benches with 4.6 steals per game. George Karl has them pushing at a faster pace than any other team in the league, and because of this, no bench has guys who play bigger minutes; No bench has a second unit with larger roles. Part of that comes from not having a superstar. Ever since they swapped ‘Melo last spring, the Nuggets became the opposite of Ocean’s Eleven.
Andre Miller is the center of it all. He’s still putting up 11.1 points, 7.2 assists and 1.4 steals a night, and there are about 20 teams that would love to have him starting. Al Harrington came back from the dead to have a renaissance year (15 points a night), and the Nuggets have also hit the jackpot with a couple of banished outcasts. Rudy Fernandez is back playing the free-wheeling style that he had during his rookie year in Portland, and even Corey Brewer, a cat three or four organizations said wasn’t even good enough to make their team, is playing over 16 minutes a game and averaging 7.9 points.
As Karl told the Denver Post recently about the different combinations of players he’s tried this year, “Our top 50 combinations do not have a minus. There’s not one of our top-50 combinations with a minus.”
Who do you think has the best bench in the league?
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