Before last season, Lou Williams was expected to contend for the Sixth Man of the Year award. Montrezl Harrell, his Clippers teammate, was not. Harrell had developed into a solid player over his first three seasons, but he was more of a glue guy, sticking his hands to a few rebounds and lobs to make an impact. At the time, he was almost an afterthought in the Clippers’ rotation.
By season’s end, however, Harrell had transformed from a hustle player into a star substitute. He averaged 16.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per game off the bench, both career highs, on the way to finishing third in Sixth Man of the Year voting. Williams won the award (for the third time), and Pacers southpaw Domantas Sabonis finished second, yet Harrell’s 8.7 win shares topped them both. Harrell may not have received a trophy, but he did more than enough to earn an unofficial title: the NBA’s best seventh man.
Harrell didn’t have much competition at the time. Only 22 reserves logged at least 20 minutes per game while making 60 or more appearances for their teams last season. However, the Clippers may have started a new movement. Through the first quarter of this season, 66 reserves are playing 20-plus minutes, according to NBA.com data.
They’re not just filling space, either. Led by Williams (19.9 points per game) and Harrell (19.0 PPG), the emerging group of seventh men consists of former All-Stars (Rajon Rondo, DeAndre Jordan) and even an MVP (Derrick Rose). There have never been this many productive bench players giving their teams meaningful minutes.
Bench players have had an uneven history in pro basketball. The concept of the sixth man precedes the NBA, dating back to the ’40s, when Red Auerbach coached the Washington Capitols of the Basketball Association of America. Later, in the NBA, Auerbach brought balance to his championship Celtics teams with backup contributors like Frank Ramsey, Sam Jones, and John Havlicek. For a while, other organizations weren’t able to replicate that success. But in the ’80s, a new crop of reserves including Kevin McHale, Michael Cooper, and Vinnie Johnson played major roles on title teams.
In 1984, Lakers coach Pat Riley told The New York Times, “There was a time when you sent in a substitute and crossed your fingers, hoping he wouldn’t hurt you too much. But the game has changed.”
Indeed, the game continues to change. Instead of going for broke to sign three or four superstars, organizations are constructing more balanced rosters around one or two stars, which leads to a more even distribution of minutes. As president of the Heat, Riley has shaped a lineup of eight players who receive at least 23 minutes per game. The 2019-20 Heat rely on two important subs—Goran Dragic, a former All-Star, and Tyler Herro, their 2019 lottery pick and a Rookie of the Year contender. When Dragic is healthy, Herro fills the role of seventh man, scoring 14.2 points a game and shooting 38 percent on 3-pointers, helping Miami to a 19-8 record.
You can see this kind of setup slowly taking shape elsewhere, too. The Lakers, the NBA’s best team, work in Kyle Kuzma, Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, and Dwight Howard at least 20 minutes per night. At full health, Rondo has carved a new role for himself as the seventh man.
In Dallas, Tim Hardaway Jr. was the seventh man for the first month of the season before moving into the starting lineup. Even without his production, the Mavs bench chips in 44.3 PPG, fourth most in the NBA. Everyone on the second unit averages at least six points per game.
“Between load management and players playing fewer minutes per game than ever before, we knew that our bench would be an important focus of our offseason,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban told me over email.
There’s good reason to believe bench production is only going to increase. The league is playing at the fastest pace since the 1985-86 season, with teams averaging 101.2 possessions per 48 minutes. A decade ago, the Spurs led the league with 39.3 bench points per game. In 2019-20, that number would rank ninth. And that’s not just because of a quicker pace. In 2009-10, reserves scored 30.7 percent of their teams’ points. In 2019-20, they account for 33.3 percent of total points. More action means players need more rest, which could help explain why teams are depending on deeper rotations thus far.
“The faster the game [and] the fewer half-court possessions, the more important rotation management will be,” Cuban said. “I don’t think this trend changes for a while.”
Most important, perhaps, is the effect that load management has on all of this. The NBA runs on star players, but those stars no longer want to run themselves into the ground. They’re more mindful of taking nights off and cautious when returning from injuries, which has opened up opportunities for guys who probably would’ve stayed in their warm-ups a few years ago. A dozen of last season’s All-Stars have reduced their workload thus far this year, and nine have missed at least 10 games. The minutes these reserves get now will likely pay off if they’re needed during the playoffs.
Last season, the Nets didn’t have any max players, but they developed a formidable mix of skilled starters and reserves. Their bench unit scored 47.8 points per game, second most in the NBA behind only the Clippers, and the Nets fought their way into the playoffs. In the summer, stars took notice. Before he signed with Brooklyn, Kevin Durant reportedly told the Nets front office, “I love the system. I love how you guys play.” Even though he is out for the season and Kyrie Irving is missing time with injuries, the Nets can still rely on that system to win games until they’re healthy, with players like Spencer Dinwiddie filling in. Dinwiddie recently rose from the bench to become the Nets’ best offensive player, supplying 21.4 PPG.
On the opposite coast, the Clippers built a similar model and ended up with a similar result. Their understudies became leading men, earning a spot in the playoffs and pushing the Warriors to a six-game series. In the offseason, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George joined the roster. And now they’re 20-8, second in the Western Conference, with one of the league’s deepest rosters. Over the weekend, Harrell notched his second 30-point game off the bench, which leads the league. Those performances give Leonard and George the luxury to take nights off. It might seem counterintuitive, but now that Harrell and other bench players are sitting less, they have their teams sitting pretty.
Jordan Teicher is a freelancer who has written for The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker.