NBA teams can’t win a title without stars, but stars can’t win titles without some help from their bench. Depth isn’t the most important ingredient to success, but a depleted team can run out of steam over a long season. A bench unit in basketball is like special teams in the NFL; kickers, punters, and gunners don’t make a team a championship contender, but what they offer on the field can be the difference between winning and losing.
The importance of a productive bench is one of the emerging trends of the NBA season. It’s been especially noticeable in Western Conference playoff teams. The Clippers are outscoring teams by a league-best 14.8 points per 100 possessions and have the league’s best record at 9–1. They’re contenders due to their Big Three of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, but their bench has turned them into a juggernaut.
What the Clippers are doing this year is just the same, but brand new. Doc Rivers still isn’t staggering the minutes of Griffin and Paul, even after experimenting with it this preseason. Through 10 games, Griffin has shared the floor with Paul for 89.5 percent of his minutes, which is the near equivalent of the past three years (89.9 percent). This led to problems in the past because their reserves got roasted: From Josh Smith to Jeff Green, or Glen Davis to Hedo Turkoglu, Doc has swung and missed on his reserves at an alarming rate. The names added this summer — Raymond Felton, Marreese Speights, Brandon Bass, and Alan Anderson — still resemble the same driftwood signings of seasons past, but it’s actually working at a level higher than ever before.
Their all-bench lineup of Jamal Crawford, Raymond Felton, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, and Marreese Speights is outscoring teams by an astounding 14.7 points per 100 possessions. Rivers has employed hockey-style line substitution patterns. On Saturday against the Thunder, the Clippers used their bench for five minutes and 28 seconds spanning the first and second quarters, and then went back to the unit for the opening 4:06 of the fourth quarter.
This group has done a good job of putting the ball in the basket, but it’s the defense that sets them apart. The lineup has posted a tremendous 91.1 defensive rating, switching screens 1 through 4, and sometimes 1 through 5. “I knew we’d be one of the top offenses in the league,” Austin Rivers recently told the Los Angeles Daily News. “On defense, I didn’t know how we were going to be. I thought we would maybe struggle. The fact that we’re [first] in the league right now is [expletive] shocking.”
Here, Wesley Johnson defends three players within the span of five seconds, starting at the left block on David Lee, then switching onto Kyle Anderson, and then to Manu Ginobili. Johnson puts a cherry on top by using his long wingspan to swat away Ginobili’s shot attempt. That type of versatility is highly sought after across the league, and the Clippers have taken advantage of it on a near-nightly basis from their bench.
There are no guarantees that the Clippers’ reserves maintain this level of production, but so far the versatility they’ve shown appears to be sustainable. No matter the case, it’s been their differentiator: They’re building massive leads with their star-studded starting five, and maintaining them behind their feisty bench, led by Jamal Crawford, who will probably be a scoring threat deep into his 50s.
James Harden and Russell Westbrook, two MVP candidates who are posting video game numbers, do not get this kind of support. Harden is averaging 30 points, 13 assists, and eight rebounds per game; and Westbrook is posting 30.9 points, 9.4 assists, and 8.9 rebounds. The season is young, but never in NBA history have two players finished a single season averaging more than 25 points, seven assists, and seven rebounds, per Basketball-Reference (the only others are Westbrook in 2015, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, John Havlicek, and Oscar Robertson).
The issue with Westbrook’s and Harden’s supercharged seasons is the Rockets and Thunder benches aren’t providing the same ancillary support that the Clippers bench is. The Rockets are 5–4 with a negative-0.2 net rating, and the Thunder are 6–3 with a plus-0.3 net rating, and without Harden and Westbrook on the floor, they’ve been dismal.
Oklahoma City is 24.2 points per 100 possessions worse without Westbrook. The Thunder’s point differential isn’t nearly as significant as Houston’s though, since they have other scoring threats like Enes Kanter that keep the team afloat.
The Rockets are 40.6 points per 100 possessions worse when Harden is off the floor; their offense goes from historically amazing (114.1 offensive rating) to historically abysmal (82.8 offensive rating).
Harden is everything you want that you don’t really need. He’s your Yeezys, your 70-inch TV, your Porsche. But he also fills the Rockets’ basic needs; he’s their source of food, water, shelter, and clothing. With Harden, they have perhaps The Greatest Show on Hardwood, but without him they’ve been borderline unwatchable. This could all change once Patrick Beverley returns to the floor this month. Beverley isn’t a transformative player, but the Rockets are currently operating without a single proven playmaker other than Harden. If P-Bev can provide a spark along with his usual tenacious defense, the Rockets could enter the upper echelon of teams in the NBA.
For an idea of what a productive bench could do for the Rockets, one must only look at the baby Lakers. They’re the surprise team of the NBA, with a 6–4 record and the league’s 10th-best net rating (plus-3.1). Luke Walton’s motion-based offense has activated the Lakers’ young core, and they’re quickly becoming a team that should be taken seriously as a playoff contender. On Saturday night, their bench scored 73 points on 30-of-48 shooting with 17 assists, and only three turnovers. Walton has coached the team for only a few months, and already they’re displaying breathtaking moments of ball movement like this:
Jordan Clarkson, the 46th pick in the 2014 draft, quickly proved he belongs in the NBA over the last two years as a starter, and now he’s feasting off the bench. Clarkson has scored 20 points three times this season, and he’s doing it with efficiency, not volume. Clarkson serves as an example of what can happen when a good player is placed in a great system. “We’re trying to do a good job of leading this second group, bringing the energy, scoring the ball, pushing the pace,” Clarkson said recently. “Coach gave that to us. That’s our role and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Clarkson, along with Lou Williams, leads a Lakers all-bench unit that is outscoring opponents by a blistering 28.1 points per 100 possessions. The frontcourt includes Larry Nance Jr., Tarik Black, and rookie Brandon Ingram. Only two teams have all-bench lineups that have logged at least 50 minutes together this season: the Clippers and Lakers. While the Clippers bench has helped make them the best team in the NBA, the baby Lakers bench has been a franchise-stabilizing force.
“[Playing unselfishly is] a lot easier said than done in professional sports. People want to put their numbers up. They have friends, family, media, and social media,” Walton said of the Lakers bench. “They’re putting the team ahead of ego. That’s awesome.”
Seven Segments or Less
A quick survey of the trends, tricks, and trivialities that color the NBA.
Rajon Rondo Still Isn’t Playing Defense
It’s been almost two years since Rajon Rondo admitted he hadn’t played defense “in a couple of years.” “Bad Rondo” still shows up more than “Good Rondo.” Maybe he’s still not trying on D; at least that would explain his numbers. The Bulls defense is 10.4 points per 100 possessions worse with Rondo on the floor than they are with him riding the bench. It’s eyesore moments like this:
Rondo improvises an attempt to force a turnover, but when he’s clearly caught out of position, he prances across the court, back to his man, for a tepid close out on Dennis Schroder. The Hawks point guard sunk 43.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s since last season, so it’s not like you’re daring for him to take it. This happened less than three minutes into the game, so fatigue could not have been an issue. It’s just laziness.
Here are two other instances where Rondo tries for a reach around deflection instead of fighting over the screen:
The Bulls like to switch screens when they can, but Rondo switches an inordinate amount of times, even when they’re capable of regularly defending a screen. In that second clip, Rondo actually grabs Schroder’s hand instead of battling back into the play.
This isn’t to say Rondo isn’t making positive contributions to the Bulls. Jimmy Butler shoots 11.1 percent (eFG%) better with Rondo on the floor than without. It’s so early and statistics are especially fuzzy, so it’s difficult to make declarative statements. But effort isn’t a number, and it’s especially troubling that these “giving up” plays are happening only 10 games into the season. Rondo defends like he thinks he’s still a superstar on offense, when in fact he’s a borderline-replacement-level starter. He must miss the old Rondo.
The Kings Would Be Foolish to Trade Willie Cauley-Stein
Willie Cauley-Stein’s defensive rebounding is abysmal, he struggles to execute, his effort is waning, and Kings head coach Dave Joerger has reduced his playing time.
Sacramento are reportedly open to trading Cauley-Stein, according to ESPN’s Marc Stein. Despite what I said above, this would be a mistake. What’s happening with WCS’s game now is exactly what happened in college. All of Cauley-Stein’s flaws today were observable during his sophomore year at Kentucky. It wasn’t until he was a junior that he cut down on his fouling, improved his focus, and became a reliable player. Sacramento knew this when they drafted Cauley-Stein, so it’d be unfair to expect him to be ready this soon when most big men aren’t, anyway.
The Kings are trying to win games. That’s why Joerger prefers the DeMarcus Cousins–Kosta Koufos as his starting frontcourt. But therein lies the rub of not prioritizing development. Cauley-Stein is one of the most promising young players on the Kings’ roster. He can get them to where they want to be as a team. By feeding his minutes to retread bigs like Koufos, who truly don’t impact winning in a significant way, the Kings are only shooting themselves in the foot.
Cauley-Stein is one of the freakiest athletes to enter the NBA in recent history, a defender capable of switching all screens and protecting the rim, an explosive rim-runner who scored efficiently last season. He happens to have a track record of developing slowly. What Cauley-Stein needs is opportunity to work through his mistakes without looking over his shoulder. Sacramento can make that happen by shifting its priorities toward the future. Maybe it will eventually help build a winning team, because what Sacramento’s been doing hasn’t been working.
Kenny Atkinson Is Bringing the Nets Back From the Dead
After the Nets hired Kenny Atkinson this offseason, his former Hawks colleagues and players praised Atkinson’s ability to communicate team concepts to individuals. To hear Jeff Teague tell it — “My guy!” — the Nets were getting their very own Coach Eric Taylor.
You can already see the reason for the enthusiasm. The Nets are only 4–5, but beyond their record, they have put out a highly respectable product, with some surprising individual performances. Process matters over results, particularly for teams in a retooling/rebuilding phase. Where the Hawks borrowed heavily from Mike Budenholzer’s old Spurs teams, the Nets are resembling the Budenholzer Hawks teams that Atkinson helped coached.
The Nets returned only five players from last year’s roster, including Sean Kilpatrick, who joined the team on a 10-day contract. Kilpatrick has been a key contributor, especially during the absence of one of the 10 newcomers, Jeremy Lin. Despite so many new faces on the roster, the Nets are whipping the ball around the court and attempting 3s at a near-league-high rate (third-most attempts per game). Per SportVU, they ranked 19th in passes made and 14th in potential assists last season, compared to fourth and sixth, respectively, this season. Play types that stagnate ball movement, like isolations and post-ups, have been largely replaced by spot-ups and transition. They were 21st in pace (possessions per 48 minutes) last season; and now they’re third. Atkinson has his young roster playing hard on defense, forcing turnovers at a top-10 rate, and pushing for easy fast break opportunities.
The Nets unintentionally buried themselves alive with the 2013 blockbuster for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Now, three years later, Atkinson is grave digging, trying to revive the franchise with the hopes of building a winner. Brooklyn’s pulse beats as it awaits its savior.
Poeltl’s What You Want, Bebe’s What You Need
Does the name Lucas Nogueira ring a bell? No? The player Toronto picked up after the 2013 NBA Draft? The dude who has an Afro so big he couldn’t wear his hat? The guy with the nickname “Bebe”? Still nothing? Ah, understandable since Bebe has toiled in obscurity since until last week when Jonas Valanciunas suffered a left knee contusion that opened the door for the Brazilian to get some playing time.
Now they call him “Long Weeknd.” The Raptors outscore opponents by 23.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, their best mark on the team. He’s been a pick-and-roll machine converting 88.2 percent of his buckets. Toronto’s 2016 lottery pick, Jakob Poeltl, had been getting consistent minutes prior to Valanciunas’s injury, and he’d been playing admirably well, too, but Nogueira stole that time away, outperforming Poeltl on both ends of the floor.
ATO of the Week: The Memphis Miracle
While you were watching election night in America last Tuesday, the Nuggets and Grizzlies were still playing basketball. With 4.7 seconds left in the game, Denver had possession and a 107–106 lead, but they threw the ball away and eventually, after a long video review, the referees (incorrectly) awarded the ball to the Grizzlies with 0.7 seconds left on the clock. Then this magic happened:
Everything about this is perfection. The timing between Vince Carter and Marc Gasol is like that of a star quarterback and tight end on a lob pass for a touchdown.
Good Things Happen When Malcolm Brogdon’s on the Floor
The injury to Khris Middleton hurt Milwaukee’s chances of making noise this season. But injuries often lead to opportunities and Malcolm Brogdon, a rookie point guard out of Virginia, has taken advantage of his. Brogdon’s individual numbers will make you snooze — 8.2 points, 3 assists, 2.6 rebounds — but watch him and you’ll see why he’s a local hero in Milwaukee.
Sometimes he’ll slither his way to the middle of the floor and deliver sick bounce passes to the rolling big:
Other times, he’ll just straight-line drive and kick out more sick bounce passes:
He’s proving to be a player Jason Kidd can rely on to run the point off the bench. “I have a lot of trust from Coach Kidd. He believes in me and so do my teammates,” Brogdon recently said. “It’s very helpful when you have people who believe in you and want you to do well.”