Reserve judgment: Who has best benches?

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Randy Hill

Veteran columnist Randy Hill is a frequent contributor to
Although most observers have been perplexed by the brackish nature of the NBA mainstream, the league's 2009-2010 season could be decided by its sub culture. Face it, no matter how much loot and planning each team has invested in developing a five-man combination of domination, bench marks continue to play a prominent role. So while immunity from fatigue, foul trouble and injury have yet to materialize, the depth of a team often defines its success. To that end, we are here to examine relative bench strengths of teams that, for now, really seem to matter. And if you don't think having a fine bench matters, please consider this: 11 teams ranked in the top 12 for plus-minus from bench players are sitting with records of .500 or better. While plus-minus can be conveniently applied to many theories, this one is hard to ignore after finding most of the weaker teams pooled toward the bottom of the same list.
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Anyway, let's begin in Orlando, where big thinkers in the Magic organization decided that reaching the NBA Finals can be great exposure or provide a chance to be exposed. So, with Hedo Turkoglu departing as a big-ticket item in free agency, Orlando brought in Vince Carter as a perimeter star to provide offensive balance for low-post prince Dwight Howard. But it also should be noted that Ryan Anderson was a big throw-in chip from the Carter-landing deal with the New Jersey Nets. The 6-foot-10 Anderson is a deadeye sniper who fits the Magic scheme of posting Howard and daring double-teams by spacing out a legion of shooters. General manager Otis Smith also brought in legit ballers named Matt Barnes and Brandon Bass, who could contribute versatility and toughness. He also re-signed Marcin Gortat to work as Howard's caddy or play alongside him when additional power was required. Fortunately (work with me here), big money forward Rashard Lewis missed the beginning of this season after testing positive for a banned substance. This enabled Anderson to launch his Orlando journey with starter's minutes, time he used to pump in more than 14 points per game and establish himself as a viable option and a rotation regular. Meanwhile, Bass and Barnes have combined to average 17 points off the bench; it should be noted that while Orlando currently sits at 29th in bench scoring, having Anderson in the ranks should provide a level of depth that would serve them well next spring. A somewhat less conspicuous acquisition by Smith was dragged into the spotlight when point guard Jameer Nelson recently went down with an injured knee. This left starter's minutes for 34-year-old Jason Williams, who — after sitting out all of last season — is averaging 9 points in the last three games — all Magic victories. A similarly fluid availability situation has accompanied bench issues of the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. You may have noticed that while they were cruising to eight victories in their first 11 games, the Lakers were working without the considerable talents — and tender hamstring — of 7-foot post man Pau Gasol. But now that Gasol has returned, the Lakers' bench — which is ranked in the middle of the pack for offensive productivity — has been fortified by the job-description switch for Lamar Odom. L.O., who had been starting at power forward, now returns to a sixth-man role that often requires him to initiate the triangle offense during the usual second-quarter idling of superstar Kobe Bryant. But even before Gasol checked in and Odom began subordinate duty, the Lakers were second-best in the league for winning the second quarter. While this period often is the province of respective benches colliding, Bryant was seeing enough second-quarter action to rank ninth in the league for second-quarter scoring average. With Gasol back, Bryant's second-quarter minutes and productivity should decrease, making him fresher (in theory) for the fourth quarter, and leaving Round Two for Odom, freakishly athletic guard Shannon Brown and reliable big-man shooter Josh Powell. Team this trio with energetic guard Jordan Farmar, and the Lakers offer a bench that has enough specific skill to hold the fort while Kobe chills, with enough offensive humility to rely on the various options of the triangle to create scoring opportunities.
While the Lakers' bench now seems sufficiently formidable, it has ample competition in the Western Conference. Please note that the NBA's top three teams in bench points are (in order) the Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets. The bench upgrade in Dallas was generated when the Mavericks brought in veterans Shawn Marion, Drew Gooden, Tim Thomas and Matt Carroll. While Marion works from the starting lineup, his presence helps in the dispersal of minutes. The Mavs also have reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry on the payroll and providing 17 points per game. Thomas and Carroll join Terry to give Dallas an impressive crew of shot-makers not named Dirk Nowitzki. Things also are going quite well in the reserve department for the Nuggets, whose biggest move was acquiring rookie point guard Ty Lawson in a deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves (it should be noted that the T-Wolves somehow managed to pick three points guards in the first round of the 2009 NBA Draft and still missed Brandon Jennings). As a change of pace (from quick step to warp speed) at the point, Lawson presents the defense with more pressure than that faced by George Karl's barber. But don't overlook Denver's acquisition of two-guard Arron Afflalo, who stepped into the defensive stopper role vacated by Dahntay Jones. This enables Karl to continue using J.R. Smith off the bench in a super-sub role that hands Denver almost 17 points per game. Lawson, Smith and Chris "Birdman" Andersen give the Nuggets a good head start against any team's reserves, but Karl eventually could miss the 10 per-game, frontline points provided by the now-departed Linas Kleiza. Another point guard was the main order of business in Portland, where the personable (yeah, I'm kidding) Andre Miller was brought in to provoke more offense from the likes of rising stars Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. But it seems that with Roy and Miller on the floor at the same time, the Blazers' plus-minus evaluation geeks have determined the machine may be breaking down a tad. So, in order to maintain a pecking order that insists on the team being built around the shot-creating efforts of two-guard Roy, Miller has been jettisoned for duty on an already successful bench. The relative rise of starting center Greg Oden leaves Portland with a legit reserve in Joel Przybilla, while gunner (and I don't use that word in the pejorative) Rudy Fernandez is a threat to go off at any time. However, the Blazers' depth advantage has taken a hit with an injury to small forward Travis Outlaw. In addition to removing 10 points from the sub detail, Outlaw's absence puts more of a burden on Martell Webster. But a healthy return by Outlaw would leave the optimistic Blazers with a bench unit of Miller, Outlaw, Fernandez and Przybilla. That could help win plenty of playoff second quarters. Utah's Jazz can be found at No. 2 in the league for plus-minus bench performance thanks to the return of Carlos Boozer. Yeah, Boozer is starting, but the inability to get rid of him returns Paul Millsap to reserve duty and — with rookie point guard Eric Maynor — gives the Jazz a chance when the starters sit. Any review of Western Conference benches is contractually obligated to include the San Antonio Spurs, who — through the tactic of starting veteran Michael Finley at shooting guard — can include Manu Ginobili as a reserve. Off-season additions such as Antonio McDyess and rookie second-round steal DeJuan Blair enable the Spurs to compete when aging Tim Duncan needs some R&R. It should be noted that an early run on ankle injuries has created even more time for last year's newcomers (George Hill and 3-point ace Roger Mason Jr.) that, in theory, makes the Spurs a team you don't want to mess with next spring. But we've been using this injury-as-blessing-in-disguise- for-the-purpose-of-depth-building for a couple of years. The addition of small forward Richard Jefferson makes the bounty potential even more acute. However, if Gregg Popovich can't muster the usual consistent effort and expertise on defense, the rise in fresh bodies may not matter. Fresh bodies had been needed in Cleveland, where Coach Mike Brown — a Popovich disciple — has three subs who were starters on last year's team that finished with the league's best regular-season record. Newcomers Shaquille O'Neal and Anthony Parker put Zydrunas Ilgauskas and troubled Delonte West on the pine, while bouncy second-year power forward J.J. Hickson has taken over for Anderson Varejao. Assuming that Shaq Vs. Shoulder works out in the Cavs' favor, Boobie Gibson will join with the others to give Cleveland more experience off the bench than it had during last year's playoff fizzle. Sub culture is slowly rising in Atlanta, where the red-hot Hawks are a messy 25th in points off the bench despite the contributions of newcomer Jamal Crawford. Crawford is getting almost 17 points per game in Coach Mike Woodson's tight rotation; his ability to play either guard spot gives Atlanta much greater versatility than it had a year ago. Swingman Maurice Evans and first-year Hawk Joe Smith are other veterans who will be valuable in a playoff run, while rookie point guard Jeff Teague can be a revelation in transition once he learns the NBA ropes. Even though the offensive numbers may suggest otherwise, the Boston Celtics' bench — ranked No. 1 for plus-minus differential — could have a severe impact on the coming postseason. Rasheed Wallace was added through robust fanfare as a proven commodity capable of scoring and defending — inside and out — against centers and power forwards. Marquis Daniels arrived from Indiana with reasonable offensive skill and the capacity to defend at least three positions. Shelden Williams, another first-year C, has been fine as the fill-in for injured Glen Davis and departed Leon Powe. Eddie House remains as a game-breaking shooter, but Boston has yet to acquire a point guard good enough to help keep Rajon Rondo from playing excessive minutes. While these powerhouse teams attempt to dazzle us and each other with reinforcement potential, the league's weaker teams would seem to have weaker benches, too. But even though the scoring numbers suggest that the New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves are doing fine with bench production, please note that even though good stand-ins are nice to have, nothing (or at least very little) beats having a great starting lineup. Teams with mediocre to bad starting lineups tend to play reserves a bit more just to see if anyone in uniform can ease the current predicament. When weighing the offensive production against the defensive liability, the obvious strength of a bench is clear. Before it's over, Ryan Anderson and Shannon Brown may play vital roles in the 2010 efforts of the Magic and Lakers, respectively. But after the benches are cleared and the minutes settle, the next championship figures to be decided by guys with names like Bryant and Howard.
Tagged: Hawks, Celtics, Cavaliers, Mavericks, Nuggets, Pacers, Lakers, Bucks, Timberwolves, Knicks, Magic, Trail Blazers, Spurs, Jazz, Raptors, Jason Terry, Andre Miller, Dirk Nowitzki, Antonio McDyess, Joe Smith, Lamar Odom, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Eddie House, Joel Przybilla, Richard Jefferson, Shawn Marion, Rasheed Wallace, Hedo Turkoglu, Tim Duncan, Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter, Pau Gasol, Matt Barnes, Manu Ginobili, Carlos Boozer, Maurice Evans, Jamal Crawford, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Dahntay Jones, Travis Outlaw, Marquis Daniels, Matt Carroll, Dwight Howard, J.R. Smith, Delonte West, Anderson Varejao, Martell Webster, Linas Kleiza, Brandon Bass, LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, Rajon Rondo, Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar, Paul Millsap, Leon Powe, Anthony Parker, Roger Mason Jr., Glen Davis, Greg Oden, Rudy Fernandez, Arron Afflalo, Marcin Gortat, J.J. Hickson, Ryan Anderson, Brandon Jennings, Ty Lawson, Jeff Teague, Eric Maynor

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