The NBA isn’t always a strict meritocracy. That tough-to-swallow reality might seem unfair, but it’s blatantly obvious in the lineup constructions of virtually every team.
Across the league, good players languish on the bench while generally inferior options see the court ahead of them. It’s particularly en vogue in today’s NBA to insert a defensively oriented wing into the starting lineup ahead of a more dangerous scorer or playmaker.
In recent times, we have Gregg Popovich’s use of Manu Ginobili to thank for this strategy. However, the scoring sixth man has been around for a while.
It’s hard to fault what Popovich does with Ginobili, or what copycat coaches are doing with Jamal Crawford, J.R. Smith, Jason Terry, Lou Williams and even Carl Landry. But the use of a bench gunner—or bruiser in Landry's case—to anchor the second unit is a limited exception to the rule that the five best players at each position should be starting.
In the cases this article examines, we are excluding the guys mentioned above. Let's call it the "Ginobili Justification Theory."
What we're left with is a number of reserves who are outplaying their competition in the starting lineup, but still aren't taking the court for tip-off. The guys on this list fit better in their teams' starting lineups and have outplayed their starting counterparts so far.
Here are 10 NBA super-subs who are ready for—and deserving of—a starting role.
Note: Stats from Nov. 13
The Sacramento Kings are going nowhere fast. They’re made up of a collection of shoot-first, defensively indifferent gunners who just don’t fit together. But things could make a little more sense if coach Keith Smart moved Marcus Thornton into the starting lineup ahead of Isaiah Thomas.
Replacing an undersized point guard, Thornton would make the Kings’ starting five a bigger, more explosive and more unselfish unit. Thomas, despite handling the ball more than Thornton, averages fewer assists than him (1.4 against 2.4).
More importantly, removing Thomas from the lineup would give Tyreke Evans the chance to move back to the point guard slot he occupied in his rookie season. Evans hasn’t matched his first-year production for three straight seasons now, and could certainly use a kick-start.
Tinkering with the starting lineup won’t solve all of the Kings’ problems, but Thornton makes more sense than Thomas as a starter.
Tyrone Corbin needs to find a way to get Derrick Favors more minutes. He’s a budding star who has paid his dues with over a year of reserve duty behind Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, so it’s time to shove him out of the nest so he can spread his wings.
The problem in Utah is that Jefferson and Millsap are the Jazz’s two best players. So taking one of them off the floor in the interest of playing Favors doesn’t make a ton of sense. But guess what does make sense: playing all three of them together.
Sorry, Marvin Williams.
Last season, Utah’s most effective lineup included all three Jazz bigs playing together, with Millsap sliding to small forward. The Jazz didn’t use the ultra-big lineup often, but the five-man unit that featured Millsap, Favors and Jefferson together was a net plus-51 in points. Utah’s next-most effective lineup was only plus-20.
Favors is ready, and Utah’s best lineup features him as the power forward.
Tobias Harris starting for the Milwaukee Bucks is cause for a double take in any case, but with Mike Dunleavy playing extremely well, it borders on nonsense.
Dunleavy, coming off his better seasons in recent memory, is doing it again this year. He is presently averaging 12.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists in just 26.7 minutes per game. Most impressively, Dunleavy is shooting a sparkling 55 percent from the field and 65 percent from three.
Harris, a tweener forward with limited mobility, isn’t matching Dunleavy in any statistical categories.
Because Scott Skiles is pulling the strings, you might assume Harris starts because he’s a superior defender, but that isn't the case. Dunleavy held small forwards to a PER of 10.1 last year, better than Harris’ 14.7.
Kosta Koufos isn’t a bad player, but he’s definitely not as good as JaVale McGee.
McGee has a higher PER (21.9 against 15.9) and blows Koufos out of the water in several meaningful statistics. Per 40 minutes, McGee averages 8.2 more points and 2.1 more rebounds than Koufos. Despite that, Koufos has started every game for Denver and is playing more minutes per contest than McGee is.
While McGee has had mental lapses in the past, his playoff production against the Los Angeles Lakers back in May gave the basketball world a glimpse at his true potential.
It’s only a matter of time before McGee cracks the starting lineup, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s ready right now.
The Indiana Pacers have buried Gerald Green behind either Sam Young or Lance Stephenson in the starting lineup this past week, a strategy that makes no sense whatsoever.
Green earned his way back into the league last season with New Jersey, showing he had become much more than just a dunker. He hit 39 percent of his threes last year and, according to 82games.com, held small forwards to a 9.9 PER, making him a valuable defensive asset as well.
With Danny Granger expected to be out for three months with a knee injury, the starting lineup (which is exceptionally unathletic outside of Paul George) could really use Green’s defense, rebounding and perimeter shooting.
Green gives the Pacers' starting lineup the most help in every key area of need.
Spencer Hawes shouldn’t start for the Philadelphia 76ers just because of his mullet. But the hair certainly helps.
Hopefully ironic coif aside, Hawes is the Sixers’ best big man right now, bottom line. Kwame Brown and LaVoy Allen have both earned starts at center over Hawes despite the fact that he’s outproduced them all season.
He leads all Sixer bigs in rebounding (7.4 per game), blocks (1.3 per game) and assists (1.6 per game). In addition, he’s put up more points than Allen in three of Philadelphia’s last four contests.
With Andrew Bynum sidelined for at least another five weeks, the Sixers need consistent production at the center spot. Hawes can give them that, particularly on the offensive end.
Here’s our first case of a sub deserving to start by default. Steve Blake is simply not a viable NBA starter. He’s averaging just 5.1 points and 3.4 assists per game while hitting just 35 percent of his shots.
Darius Morris isn’t exactly a world-beater, but in just 17.6 minutes per game, he’s putting up 6.6 points and 2.2 assists while converting 40 percent of his field goals and 45 percent of his threes.
Obviously, it’s not hard to outplay Blake at this stage in his career, but Morris is younger, more athletic, bigger and arguably a better shooter than Blake is. Plus, Blake has never shown any great skill as a pick-and-roll artist, a role Lakers' point guards are going to have to play in Mike D’Antoni’s new offensive system.
It’s hard to say whether Morris will be any good in a new style either, but we know for sure that he’s a better overall option now, regardless of the system.
In addition to Mike Dunleavy proving he’s a better option than Tobias Harris at small forward, Larry Sanders has shown that he’s ready to start ahead of Samuel Dalembert at center.
Sanders is putting up averages of 10.3 points and 9.2 rebounds, both of which far exceed Dalembert’s 5.0 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
Sanders also has the edge in paint protection, averaging three times as many blocks as Dalembert (2.3 against 0.8) this season.
Maybe Scott Skiles is trying to teach the young, somewhat immature, Sanders a lesson by bringing him off the bench. But if he's going to play him nearly twice as many minutes as Dalembert, he might as well just let him start.
Brandon Roy's nagging knee issues could be just what Alexey Shved needs to crack the starting lineup.
He has certainly done enough with his limited minutes so far to justify a starting role, but in Roy’s absence, Rick Adelman has opted to start either Chase Budinger or Malcolm Lee instead of Shved.
The Russian import has put up excellent averages of 8.4 points, 4.1 assists and 3.3 rebounds in just 21.7 minutes per game. He has shot the ball better than Roy so far and projects to up his percentages, as perimeter shooting was his forte in the Euroleague (33-of-67 from three last year).
With his veteran leadership, Roy is better off as the leader of the second unit. Though Shved is really an oversized point guard, starting him at the 2 would be a win-win situation for the Timberwolves.
Monty Williams sure seems to have an aversion to playing Anthony Davis at center. Otherwise, how would you justify Ryan Anderson coming off the bench?
Robin Lopez, the Hornets’ current starter at the 5, is putting up numbers well beyond his career averages (11.0 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game). Nonetheless, Anderson is still outproducing him, pouring in 15.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game off the bench
Production aside, the real reason Anderson should start is so Anthony Davis can cut his teeth at center. Right now, it appears the Hornets are content to allow him to develop away from the basket. What he really needs is to take his lumps down low, because when he fills out, he will be a monster underneath.
The Hornets’ best move now, and for the future, is to move Anderson into the starting five.