Year after year, the teams that wind up competing for the NBA title would hardly be considered the deepest ones with the most productive benches. Even during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season—wherein every talking head seemed to think depth would win the day—it was the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder, two teams whose reserves ranked among the shallowest in basketball, who duked it out for the title.
How easy it can be to forget that the rules of basketball only allow five players per team on the court at any given time.
Depth may not be necessary or sufficient for ultimate success in The Association, but it's certainly helpful. Any team in its right mind would rather have more quality players to turn to than fewer.
Just ask the Los Angeles Clippers, whose own entry into the league's elite via the ever-crowded Western Conference will depend (in part) on the improvement of their bench.
The Clips did well to upgrade their subs over the summer, in spite of GM Neil Olshey's abrupt departure to Portland. Head coach Vinny Del Negro, team president Andy Roeser and director of player personnel Gary Sacks (since promoted to vice president of basketball operations) worked together to bring Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, Jamal Crawford, Willie Green, Ronny Turiaf, Matt Barnes and Ryan Hollins into the fold.
Not a bad crew to assemble, to say the least. Last year's reserves ranked 26th in the NBA in scoring, 22nd in minutes played and 23rd in overall efficiency, according to hoopsstats.com.
Of course, the Clippers' hopes will ride on the backs of their starters, chiefly the All-Star tandem of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. It'll be incumbent upon CP3 to play at an MVP-level once again and for Blake to take the next step toward superstardom for the Clips to truly challenge the Lakers in their own building and put the rest of the West on notice.
But even a pair of studs like Paul and Griffin can't carry a team to the top on its own, especially in today's NBA, where superteams reign supreme.
Which is where the Clippers' bench comes in. They don't have a "Big Three" like Miami, Oklahoma City or San Antonio, much less a "Big Four" like their Staples Center co-tenants.
What the Clippers do have, though, is plenty of quality and versatility surrounding their own dynamic duo. DeAndre Jordan is an athletic shot-blocker in the middle whose slow-but-steady improvement will be crucial to the cause. Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups are both capable (if aging) defenders who can stretch opposing defenses with their outside shooting.
But inherent among LA's starters is a daunting docket of injury risks. Paul is coming off thumb surgery and first arrived in LA with a history of knee injuries, as did Butler. The same concerns continue to dog Blake, who missed his rookie season with a broken left patella and was forced to stay home from the Olympics after suffering yet another (albeit relatively minor) knee injury. Billups is still recovering from a season-ending Achilles tear and will need time to work himself back into playing shape once he returns.
Luckily for the Clippers, they now have the requisite horses at their disposal to cope with such potential pitfalls and rest those who are most susceptible to injury recidivism. There's Eric Bledsoe, CP3's understudy at point guard, who's shown some serious potential in the limited time he's enjoyed on the court. There's Odom, who's coming off a miserable year in Dallas but should enjoy his LA homecoming as Griffin's chief support. There's Grant Hill, a superstar of yesteryear who transformed himself into a sharpshooter and perimeter defender in Phoenix and who may yet give chase to Tuff Juice's starting spot, and there's also Matt Barnes to provide energy and hustle on the wing.
Then at shooting guard, there are Crawford and Green, who are both dynamic scorers who can produce points in a hurry and soak up Mr. Big Shot's minutes, should he require a lengthy respite.
Which reserve will be most crucial to the Clippers' success this season?
With such solid backups on the bench, Del Negro won't have to ride his starters so hard over the course of an 82-game season. The more he can substitute Bledsoe for Paul, Odom for Griffin and Crawford for Billups without losing much in the way of effectiveness, the better-rested his stars will be, whether for crunch time during the season or for the team's postseason push, when LA's best will be called upon to play big minutes amidst a shortened rotation.
And, of course, the healthier the Clips' key players will be when the team can least afford to have them sidelined.
The added depth on the bench, along with a return to regular practice time and a more normal schedule in a post-post-lockout NBA, will also make it that much easier for VDN to eventually pare down the use of his bench as most contenders tend to. For a coach like Del Negro, who's hardly considered a savant in his profession, having more competent options at his fingertips can only increase the likelihood that he might actually get it right. He'll have the leeway to toy around with different lineups and rotations as the season rolls on to see what works and what doesn't, all the while giving his core players the breathers they so desperately need.
With that said, none of LA's newfound depth will matter if VDN misplays his hand, if he and his staff fail to distribute minutes effectively and establish a tidy, seven-or-eight-man group in time for the playoffs.
But there are still five-and-a-half months between now and the end of the regular season, five-and-a-half months for the Clippers to come together as a team and prepare to do more than just win a playoff series.
Basketball may be a five-man game, but LA will need many more than five healthy bodies to survive (much less thrive) against the likes of the Lakers, the Thunder, the Spurs, the Nuggets and the Grizzlies in a Western Conference that's as deep as...well...the Clippers' bench.