When most fans of the NBA think about reserve players, they think about the best sixth men. The role of the sixth man continues to grow as fans see guys like James Harden (pre-Houston), Jason Terry and Manu Ginobili “ball out” for their respective teams.
However, having super-subs doesn’t necessarily mean a team has a strong bench. Many times those elite sixth men primarily play with the starters, and don’t develop the same on-court chemistry with the other subs on the roster.
The best teams have that synergy all the way through, and the closest units might even come up with nicknames like the Bulls’ “Bench Mob” or the Knicks’ “Mobb Deep.” But it’s more than just a fancy nickname or paying homage to a broken-up hip-hop group. They have to produce.
Last season the top five scoring benches included the Spurs (41.9 points per game), the Denver Nuggets (41.6), the Dallas Mavericks (41.0), the Philadelphia 76ers (40.8), and the Phoenix Suns at (35.6). Obviously points don’t tell the whole story. The Bulls (29.2) finished 23rd respectively in bench scoring, but produced effective minutes in a number of other ways.
As we move forward to this season’s official tip-off, here is a look at the potential top ten benches going into season.
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10. BROOKLYN NETS
Key players: C.J. Watson (PG), Keith Bogans (SG), MarShon Brooks (G/F), Andray Blatche (PF/C), Reggie Evans (PF/C)
The Nets’ reserve rotation should be a fluid one with Brooks and Blatche receiving the bulk of the minutes. Brooks started all but nine of the 56 games he played in last year, but is firmly planted in a reserve role heading into this season. He averaged 11.9 points as a reserve and should be in the same neighborhood again. A motivated Blatche could be the free agent bargain of the offseason. Just two seasons ago, he put up 16.8 points with 8.2 rebounds before losing his way and falling into the dog house for both Flip Saunders and Randy Wittman last season. He is still very talented and if most of his minutes are playing against other reserves, he should capitalize.
Evans is a hard-nosed defender (when he isn’t flopping) and rebounder. He averaged 1.8 offensive rebounds last season in limited minutes and should net Brooklyn a few extra offensive possessions this coming season. Watson and Bogans will help spread the floor, shooting 38 and 36 percent respectively. Mirza Teletovic and Josh Childress round out the bench and may also see spot minutes on a very good Brooklyn team.
9. SACRAMENTO KINGS
Key Players: Aaron Brooks (PG), Marcus Thornton (G), Travis Outlaw (SF), Thomas Robinson (PF/SF), Chuck Hayes (PF/C)
Who? What? I know this isn’t the early 2000s when Bobby Jackson, a young Hedo Turkoglu, and Scot Pollard formed one of the original bench mobs. But the 2012 Kings have serious firepower off their bench, starting in the backcourt. Brooks is back from China where he averaged 22 points per game. His scoring ability has never been a question. Thornton started 51 games last year and averaged 18.7 points, but now heads to the bench behind Tyreke Evans. The dude has no fear when it comes to taking big shots and is capable of keeping the Kings in games with his offense. He finished 27th in clutch rankings, which measured production in the 4th quarter or overtime, per 82games.com.
Robinson could end up in the starting lineup, swapping places with Jason Thompson. But right now the No. 5 pick in the draft will rebound and attempt to get easy baskets around the rim for the Kings’ second unit. Chuck Hayes will anchor the defense with his lower body tree trunks attempting to deny opposing post players position down low. Shooter Jimmer Fredette and Jack of All Trades, Master of None John Salmons complete a rotation that will be difficult to stop offensively.
8. INDIANA PACERS
Key Players: D.J. Augustin (PG), Gerald Green (SG/SF), Sam Young (F), Tyler Hansbrough (PF), Ian Mahinmi (C)
This bench is almost completely comprised of newcomers with the exception of Hansbrough. His intensity, grit and willingness to take charges earn him ample playing time in Frank Vogel‘s system. His per-36 minute averages of 15.3 points and 7.2 rebounds make him invaluable to the Pacers. Gerald Green has turned a corner professionally and is now, again, turning heads on the court. Eighty-nine percent of his shots come from outside of the paint despite instilling fear in opposing big men when he is in the air. His addition was a shrewd move and he may end up starting a few games if Danny Granger‘s knee isn’t 100 percent.
Augustin started for the woeful Bobcats last year, and had a decent season with averages of 11.1 points, and 6.4 assists. Augustin is sometimes a bashful shooter, but is well suited for a backup role on a contending team. Mahinmi was one of the few bright spots for Dallas in the playoffs, averaging 7.3 points and 4.5 boards in 17 minutes. He is the perfect complement to Roy Hibbert – providing many of the same attributes without hurting the Pacers anywhere. This rotation might be untested, but should still be one of the best benches in the league.
7. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
Key Players: Maalik Wayns (PG), Nick Young (G/F), Dorell Wright (F), Spencer Hawes (F/C), Lavoy Allen (F/C)
Injuries to the 76ers frontline make it difficult to predict how good this bench will be. Let’s just assume Andrew Bynum will play the majority of games at center. I realize that’s about as big of an assumption as his fro is, but I digress. Philly is deep up front with Hawes, Allen and even Kwame Brown. Hawes takes opposing bigs away from the basket because they have to respect his 49 percent field goal percentage, which comes on a lot of 12-18-foot jump shots. Allen shocked the world with his efficiency in the playoffs last season, much to the chagrin of Kevin Garnett and the Celtics. He shot 59 percent against the Celtics in the conference semifinals and is poised for a huge year if the frontcourt picture in Philly gets muddy with a significant injury to Bynum.
Philly is also capable of hurting teams with perimeter defense and outside shooting in their second unit, courtesy of Wright and Young. Both are corner three-point specialists with Wright shooting 41 and Young shooting a prolific 48 percent from that area of the floor. When you throw in the coaching prowess of Doug Collins, it’s easy to see that Philly will not suffer with their starters off the floor.
6. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Key Players: Eric Maynor (PG), Kevin Martin (SG), Perry Jones III (SF), Nick Collison (PF), Hasheem Thabeet (C)
The Thunder struggled at times without backup point guard Eric Maynor last season. He is a calming, pass-first guard that paces the offense when the electric Russell Westbrook takes a breather. His return will be huge for OKC’s second unit, especially with James Harden now in Houston as part of the Kevin Martin/Jeremy Lamb acquisition. Many times last season Harden was forced to bring the ball up – unable to look for his own shot – and he averaged a career-high 3.7 assists. Martin (17.1 points per game last season) replaces Harden’s scoring (16.8) but doesn’t have the same ballhandling skills Harden did.
Nick Collison doesn’t wow you with stats but he plays solid defense and does all of the little things that coaches and basketball purists love. He is the glue to the Thunder’s second unit. Thabeet will have backup duties to himself with Cole Aldrich now in Houston. He doesn’t have much pressure on him other than to rebound and block shots, which he can do just by standing on the court. Jones III, Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb will see spot minutes and are in a great situation where they can learn from the veterans in front of them. This bench was truly the product of a tight-knit team that believed in each member 1-15. Now with a shocking trade right before the season, the jury is out on how they will gel. I had to knock them down a few notches.
5. MIAMI HEAT
Key Players: Norris Cole (PG), Ray Allen (SG), Mike Miller (F), Rashard Lewis (F), Udonis Haslem (C/PF)
Versatility in the second unit makes the Heat that much more difficult to deal with in their quest for a back-to-back championship. Ray Allen’s resume speaks for itself but Miami is adding the wrinkle of posting him up against smaller guards. Mike Miller looks healthy and was a flamethrower from the outside in the preseason. Lewis will not be rushed to contribute, and he seems comfortable taking a few less jumpers in Miami’s system.
Norris Cole fine tuned his jumper and high-top fade over the summer and looks ready for a bigger role as a reserve. Udonis Haslem is the only defensive-minded reserve that will see significant run. That’s where Miami will suffer with this unit. Joel Anthony and James Jones will see some time as well but the aforementioned five will command most of the minutes. Miami finished 21st in opponents bench points differential last season at minus-4.6 during the regular season (they decreased that number to minus-2.3 in the playoffs). Look for that number to turn towards the plus side with their improved personnel being relied on more heavily during the regular season.
The Heat reserves will be three-point happy, but it’s not likely they will all be off in the same game. If they are…there is always LeBron and Wade to pick up the slack.
4. DENVER NUGGETS
Key Players: Andre Miller (PG), Corey Brewer (G/F), Wilson Chandler (G/F), Anthony Randolph (F/C), JaVale McGee (C)
It doesn’t matter if the starters or the reserves are on the court – the Nuggets insist on engaging teams in track meets. Their tempo lends to great production, at least offensively. The athleticism of their backup unit borders on freakish, and has probably forced the veteran Andre Miller to stay in better shape than he would probably like to at this stage of his career. Miller is the floor general and rightfully so, ranking 10th all-time in assists at 7,472. In 27 minutes per game last year, he handed out 6.7 dimes and has largely the same role this season.
The fact that Denver is willing to pay JaVale McGee $44 million to be a reserve says a lot about their roster and team chemistry. McGee will cement a defense that is better than advertised as the Nuggets gave up the 11th-fewest points in the paint by opponents last season. McGee and Randolph are extremely quick and long, giving Denver unique speed in the frontcourt.
Wilson Chandler could start on many teams. Yet the Nuggets have the luxury to bring him off the pine, and use him in much the same way the Celtics use Jeff Green. He played just eight games last year after returning from China, but he’s ready to play multiple positions this season. Brewer, Evan Fournier and Timofey Mozgov may also see some time here, which gives Denver the option to play a variety of ways when deploying their bench.
3. SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Key Players: Gary Neal (G), Manu Ginobili (G), Stephen Jackson (F), Matt Bonner (F/C), Tiago Splitter (C)
As mentioned earlier, the Spurs were the highest-scoring bench in the league last season. A large part of that is because Gregg Popovich likes to rest his starters throughout the season. San Antonio’s reserves, on the whole, averaged a league-high 21.5 minutes per game last season. Expect much of the same this season.
Ginobili is still as crafty and productive as they come. His acrobatic finishes at the rim often overshadow his superb passing skills. He averaged 4.4 assists last year in just 23 minutes per game. Jackson is fearless and gives them an edge they don’t have anywhere else on the roster. Plus, he can defend. Neal and Bonner bomb away from three to lead San Antonio’s bench the third-highest triple percentage in the league (38), making almost five three-pointers a game (4.7 to be exact).
Splitter and DeJuan Blair will compete for minutes, but Splitter has the edge based on last season. Still, Blair is a rebounding menace that, if unleashed, would average 16.1 points and 9.3 rebounds based on his per-36 minute averages. That’s a nice luxury for Popovich. Nothing about the Spurs is ever really sexy, except their remarkable consistency. Their bench always plays a large hand in those wins, and with the starters another year older, there is no reason for Pop to stray from a working formula.
2. BOSTON CELTICS
Key Players: Jason Terry (G), Courtney Lee (G), Jeff Green (F), Jared Sullinger (F/C), Darko Milicic (C)
Anemic production from the Boston bench has plagued them for years, and ultimately led to their undoing in their recent playoff pushes. Without a solid second unit, tired legs and injuries couldn’t be avoided. The Celtics were 29th in bench scoring (23.2 points per game) and 30th in average bench minutes played (just 15.8). It’s just been flat-out ugly.
The Celtics addressed their bench deficiency by bringing in 2009 Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry. He gives Boston another playmaker off the bench, as well as reliable scoring (15.1 points and 3.6 assists per game last year).
Lee is an underrated two-way player that shot 40 percent from three. But his calling card is perimeter defense. He and Darko will be the defensive enforcers on Boston’s revamped bench. That’s right… Darko and his 1.3 career blocks a game average.
All of that would be enough to get Boston into the top 10 of this list, but with the return of Green and the unexpected draft day gift of Sullinger, the Celtics reserve unit is better than a lot of NBA teams. Green looked like a man possessed in the preseason, and Sullinger has been better than advertised, especially rebounding the ball. Leandro Barbosa and Chris Wilcox are at the end of the bench, which seems insane. The reserves will struggle with the Celtics’ defensive principles at first, but Doc Rivers is gushing about the possibilities his roster now presents.
1. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Key Players: Eric Bledsoe (G), Jamal Crawford (SG), Matt Barnes (F), Lamar Odom (PF), Ronny Turiaf (C)
The Clippers get a slight edge over the Celtics for the top spot by virtue of having two former Sixth Man of the Year award winners in Crawford and Odom. Vinny Del Negro has all the pieces to make the Clippers a contender in the West. Each game I understand more and more why the Clippers insisted on keeping Bledsoe when they were negotiating for Chris Paul. Bledsoe’s speed and ability to disrupt the passing lanes (and even block shots) is just stunning. Crawford should see a lot of open looks this season and improve on the second-worst field goal percentage of his career (38 percent) from a season ago. He is the master of the 4-point play, and historically, very strong in fourth quarter play. Over his career, he has more than 10 game-winners.
The Clippers are also counting on Odom’s return to form. No one had a stranger year than Odom last season in Dallas, but he’ll have the comfort of being back in L.A. and playing on a deep roster this year. The Clippers were 28th in assists from reserve units and 29th in defensive rebounding. Odom will help in both areas – he has career averages of 3.9 assists and 8.6 rebounds. Barnes gives them some toughness and defense on the perimeter, and Turiaf handles the same duties on the inside.
Grant Hill, Willie Green and Ryan Hollins complete the key reserves for this juggernaut bench. They can score, they can defend, and they can rebound. Now will all that talent transfer to extra wins for a team that has legitimate hopes of getting out of the West?
Do you agree?
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