In recent campaigns, the importance of a good, reliable bench unit has soared out the window as the rise in superteams grew larger.
This is not to say that the Golden State Warriors regret not having a consistent Sixth Man of the Year contender in their second unit because, well, their back-to-back championships speak for themselves. But since every franchise can’t be blessed with four future Hall of Famers there have to be alternative routes to the top, even if it doesn’t culminate in a ring. The recipe for success is simple: Get a superstar, whether via the draft or by trade, and then build around them — more or less, that’s how it works in the modern NBA.
Naturally, the six lowest scoring benches this season also happen to boast a large amount of the league’s very best players – Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Paul George, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid and, of course, the Warriors. Rocket science, this is not. In a superstar driven-landscape, this is the tried and true method to reach the postseason.
LeBron James is almost certainly not extending his eight-year streak of reaching the NBA Finals summit by executing this exact strategy – Kevin Love, Chris Bosh, et al — but this Lakers roster, youth-driven headache and all, is the exception.
In 2017-18, just four the of NBA’s top 10 scoring bench units reached the playoffs: the aforementioned James-led Cavaliers (6th), the Kawhi Leonard-less San Antonio Spurs (4th), the notoriously superstar-absent Miami HEAT (8th) and the Toronto Raptors (5th). Of that group, only Cleveland went past the second round after defeating Toronto in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. From there, the postseason teams ranked in order by bench points went as follows: Washington Wizards (16th), Utah Jazz (17th), Boston Celtics (18th), Indiana Pacers (T-22nd), Golden State Warriors (T-22), Philadelphia 76ers (24th), Houston Rockets (25th), New Orleans Pelicans (26th), Milwaukee Bucks (27th), Portland Trail Blazers (28th), Oklahoma City Thunder (29th) and Minnesota Timberwolves (30th).
Beyond all that, you’d have to go back to 2014-15 to find the last time a top two-ranked bench scoring unit even made the playoffs. That season, both the Celtics (41.4) and the Spurs (41) did so, only to be wiped out in the first round. During the three seasons since then, those first- and second-highest scoring units – one time for the Lakers, Kings, Pelicans and Nuggets, two times for the Nets — finished with a combined record of 164-328 and an average conference standing of 13th place.
Again, this isn’t any grand breakthrough or novel theory. No, not at all. The NBA demands star power and, generally speaking, you can often sort franchises into one of two categories: the Haves or the Have Nots. This year, however, there are three high-scoring bench groups poised to make some serious noise in the postseason, all without a go-to superstar to boot. Only time will tell if they can buck the everlasting trend of their historical prisons but, as it stands, nobody wants to face the Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento Kings or Brooklyn Nets in a seven-game series — and for good reason.
Los Angeles Clippers
Once the calendar flipped to December, the Clippers were basketball’s surprise darlings at 15-7, led by the perennially underrated Tobias Harris and his motley crew of veteran contributors. From Danilo Gallinari to Avery Bradley, Los Angeles had taken their presumed rebuild season by the scruff and effectively ignored all the outside noise. A few months later, the Clippers aren’t nearly as red-hot and no longer feature Harris — who was traded to Philadelphia close to the deadline — but they’re hanging in there. As of now, the Clippers are 34-28, good enough for the NBA’s seventh seed in the Western Conference — but just 4.5 games separate the Jazz in sixth and the Lakers in 11th.
To the Clippers’ credit, they’re 4-3 since dealing away Harris and the always-bold Steve Ballmer still wants to make a playoff push, even if it costs them their first-round pick, according to Sam Amick of The Athletic. Los Angeles’ bench is the best scoring bunch in the NBA by a considerable margin, dropping a ridiculous 53.2 points per game — six full points more than second place. At the top of the totem pole is Lou Williams, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year winner and microwavable sharpshooter. Any roster that boasts Williams’ 19.9 points per game average gets a massive headstart in this bench category and his tally is 33rd-best in the entire league.
But it’s not just him either, as Williams has formed a terrifying one-two punch with breakout sensation Montrezl Harrell. The 6-foot-8 big man has seen his basic statistics jump to 16.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, thus demanding opposing defenses to stay sharp and focused versus the Clippers’ renowned second unit. Elsewhere, Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green have done well to replace Marcin Gortat and Boban Marjanovic’s season-long efforts. And don’t forget, they’ll get Luc Mbah a Moute and Wilson Chandler back for the playoff push eventually too. As good as this bench squad has been all campaign, it got even scarier at the trade deadline.
Next up are the Kings, who are currently tied in the loss column with eighth-seeded San Antonio. Overnight, Sacramento morphed into a fast-paced, high-scoring monster, much in part thanks to the massive growth both De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield have found alongside one another. But the Kings’ grind for their first playoff berth since 2005-06 doesn’t fall on their budding stars, because for the second-straight season, the Kings are in the top five for bench scoring. This year, the Kings have nearly replicated their 44.4 points per game average. It’s a drop from first to fifth in the category, but they’ve also surpassed last season’s win total by four already in late February.
Some of this has to do with Sacramento’s skyrocketing focus in pace – outlined here – but there are some absolutely potent members of the Kings’ core bench rotation. Bogdan Bogdanovic has averaged the squad’s third-highest total from the second unit (14.7 PPG) and the Serbian continues to be a nuisance for any defense. Still, Bogdanovic mostly succeeded in this same role during his rookie campaign in 2017-18, ditto for second-year forward Justin Jackson – the latter of which was moved to Dallas at the trade deadline. Newcomer Yogi Ferrell, who signed with the Kings last summer for $6.2 million over two years, has had his fair share of bright moments too, including a scorching-hot 19-point performance on 4-for-4 from three-point range during a season-defining victory over the Spurs earlier this month.
But the grandest addition to the Kings’ lethal bench rotation is rookie Marvin Bagley III, hands down. In just 25 minutes, Bagley has torched defenses to the tune of 14 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, outworking and out-leaping most other backups. When Bagley missed 11 games with a bone bruise in his left knee, the Kings went just 4-7. That alone speaks volumes about the talents of the former Duke standout.
In the wildcard department, there’s the also the quickly improving Harry Giles, now playing the best professional basketball of his young career. After missing the entirety of last season as he rehabbed and strengthened a previously torn ACL, Giles has recently earned a spot in head coach Dave Joerger’s crowded unit. Since officially entering the mix in January, Giles has scored seven or more points in 13 of his 23 appearances.
As the Kings prepare for the important stretch of games for the franchise in over a decade, they’d do well to lean on their impressive and young second unit. It’s worked wonders so far.
Perhaps the surprise to end all other surprises, the Nets — owners of a whoppingly poor 69-177 record from 2015-18 — are your sole holders of the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed. The cherry on top is that it comes in the campaign that Brooklyn finally regains control of their first-round pick after what feels like an eon. Nevertheless, the Nets have been banged up since the year began, but somehow they continue to chug along while head coach Kenny Atkinson tinkers with his deep roster. D’Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris have been the only totally healthy starters as the Nets have needed to bounce back from longterm injuries to Caris LeVert, Allen Crabbe and Spencer Dinwiddie throughout the season already.
Heading into March, the Nets will only be missing Dinwiddie, who inches closer to returning after thumb surgery last month, but their bench unit remains fearsome all the same. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Shabazz Napier, Ed Davis and DeMarre Carroll have proven to be useful pieces once more, combining for about 36 points per game as a foursome. Of course, Napier and Davis came from Portland as highly-recommended free agent signings during the offseason and became reliable role players for the well-oiled Nets. Even better, Carroll underwent a career resurgence during his first year in Brooklyn (73 starts, 13.5 points) and has seamlessly embraced his new second unit catalyst role for the scrappy Nets this time around.
The Nets’ bench mob has scored about more points per game in 2018-19 – good for a 47.2 average and the 2nd-best mark league-wide – and it’s been a fascinating reshuffling to watch. Shockingly, replacing Quincy Acy, Dante Cunningham, Tyler Zeller and Timofey Mozgov with Carroll, Davis, Napier and, at times, Jared Dudley, Crabbe and Hollis-Jefferson has given Brooklyn so many clear and obvious upgrades. In any case, the final piece to this gasoline-infused backup battalion still remains the return of Dinwiddie, last year’s third-place finisher in the Most Improved Player race and clutch bucket-getter extraordinaire. Before his ill-timed injury, Dinwiddie was even putting together a compelling case for a late All-Star Game bid, averaging 17.2 points and 5.1 assists in 28.6 minutes per game.
The Nets play fast, work hard and jack up three-pointers at an efficient rate, all while starters and key figures have bobbed in-and-out from the injury report the entire year. There’s a reason why many have pegged Brooklyn as a top-seeded team’s worst first-round nightmare, but their reliable bench contributions might top the whole list. Once they get healthy once and for all, the Nets may just be a force to be reckoned with.
Ultimately, it’s hard to project how these revelation seasons will pan out for the Clippers, Kings and Nets, especially as two of them battle it out for the same spot in a crowded, competitive conference. Even more spectacularly, these three crews have done it without a bonafide superstar on their roster – a true sign of their roster’s balanced attack from top to bottom.
Although Russell, Harris and Fox have all shown signs of getting there, it’s certainly not the same as having a rested MVP candidate to put away any late and lingering affairs. Now, Los Angeles will need to keep surging without Harris, while Brooklyn looks forward to getting healthy and Sacramento attempts to give the reins to the youngsters.
April is right around the corner, folks, and if things fall into place, these three franchises could be a tough out in the postseason.
A reality that’s fully in play due to their incredibly strong bench units.