How Important is a Deep Bench, Really?

Watching the Portland Trail Blazers dismantle the Dallas Mavericks in the first three quarters this weekend, followed by the Mavericks’ bench dominating the Blazers’ in the fourth, I postulated, is bench depth that important?

There have been many instances this season that have addressed the Portland bench as much improved over last year, and while I agree, this isn’t saying much considering the ineptitude of last season’s bench unit. Their bench is still ranked near the bottom.

But as the Blazers sit with the league’s third best record, is the bench really that important?

Who has the ‘Best’ Bench?

Since metrics can be deceiving because of less time on the floor, we’ll use scoring as a measure of production.

Looking at the best eight teams in the league (by winning percentage as of January 19th), here is how bench production compares to starter production;

It should be said that the Los Angeles Lakers are near the top of the league in bench scoring, a team that is currently near the bottom of the Western Conference.  Three of the top eight teams are in the top half of the league in bench scoring, while four are in the bottom ten. The Spurs are the only team in the top ten, and with Coach Greg Popovich resting his older, important players, their bench has a high usage rate.  

The most basic reason to have a good bench is to allow the starters to rest. Obviously, some need more than others and some personnel fit better than others. Is there any reason that Portland should move one of their starters to bench to improve the bench scoring? The five guys who start, play well together and are all relatively young and are able to play 30-36 minutes a night. Any team would wish to play their starters the entire game, it just so happens that on the Blazers, the Pacers, the Rockets and the Warriors, their best five players all play together in the starting lineup.  

The reasons that one of your best players doesn’t start is either that there is another player who plays the same position who is better or, isn’t a fit chemistry-wise. A team like Portland has starters that work as a well-oiled machine, all complimenting each other. There two most used bench players are just imitations of who they substitute for; Mo Williams for Damian Lillard and Joel Freeland for Robin Lopez. Freeland is the defender and rebounder, still capable of a little offense and Mo Williams is a creator and scorer. On the flipside you have a team like the Los Angeles Clippers that start JJ Reddick as opposed to Jamal Crawford (who most would agree is a better player). Reddick is an off the ball player, which is perfect for point guard Chris Paul. Crawford is a dribbler, a player who needs the ball in his hands. Crawford and Paul contradict each other since they bring much of the same skillset.  The teams that have benches that rank in the bottom ten don’t have anyone on their bench that is better than a starter or contradicts another starter’s style.

A Good Bench is Just One Good Player

Each one of these teams has the best collection of starters in the NBA. There isn’t a team that you’ll find out of the playoff picture that makes you say, “if they just had a better bench they’d be in the playoffs.” This really means they need one good player, or specifically scorer, coming off the bench. This one player is more important than a having a decent backups at all five positions.

The Warriors just made a trade. They currently have the worst scoring bench in the NBA. Harrison Barnes is their best bench player, but he’s not much of a do it yourself scorer. One of the players they brought in was Jordan Crawford, a player who is capable of making his own shot. The Warriors had this last year with Jarrett Jack, a player they lost over the summer and replaced with a starter in Andre Iguodala. The Warriors would take that exchange still to this day and their record is better for it, but they still lost an important piece. He provides a similar skill set as the starters he plays behinds, but at a lower level.

When healthy the Rockets have Jeremy Lin, the Heat have Ray Allen, the Blazers have Mo Williams, the Pacers have had Luis Scola (and now Danny Granger), the Clippers have Jamal Crawford, the Thunder have Reggie Jackson and the Spurs have Manu Ginobili. There are other impact scorers for some of these teams, like Jeremy Lamb for the Thunder and the Clippers with Darren Collison, but the bench is really one player that is a sixth starter. Anyone of these players could start on a bottom of the conference team, and many of them have at one point in their career.

Injury Replacement

The most useful part of the bench is filling in for an injured starter. Chris Paul is replaced by Collison, and JJ Reddick by Crawford. It has kept the Clippers afloat. Reggie Jackson in OKC has shown he can fill in admirably. This is the most valuable contribution of the bench. Once the playoffs begin, you won’t see San Antonio getting 43% of their points from their bench. They’ll tighten up their rotation and their starters will see a significant increase. By default though, once the replacement is starting, they’re no longer part of the bench.

- Graham McConnell