No matter how good a team's starters are, it is impossible to win an NBA championship without a quality bench. A single player—even a superstar—can only do so much on the court, and on those nights when the shots aren't falling for a team's No. 1 option, others are forced to make big plays in the clutch.
Many times, those called upon down the stretch are members of a team's second unit. But referring to them as mere "backups" or "substitutes" doesn't give those players nearly enough credit: Even reserves in the NBA are elite-level talents in their own right.
We've seen a number of benches around the league make a statement this season—many second units have been forced to step up to due to an injury to one of their team's front-line players. And with a full 82-game campaign on deck, having a reliable crew of backups is perhaps even more important this year than it was during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.
Note: Statistics are accurate as of Dec. 4.
San Antonio's reserves led the NBA in bench scoring last season (41.9 points per game), but the Spurs might be even better this year. The Spurs are the only franchise whose backups average double figures in points (39.8 PPG), rebounds (15.4 RPG) and assists (10.5 APG).
While its brand of basketball may not be terribly exciting to some (and somewhat less exciting when four of its starters sit out simultaneously), San Antonio's depth is the primary reason why it has been able to get out to a 14-4 start this season.
The team's three top scorers are all over the age of 30, yet as a team, the Spurs still average more than 102 points per game thanks to the young legs coming off of the bench.
Even on a base level, it's a struggle to game-plan against San Antonio simply because the team comes at you in waves: 13 players on the roster average at least 10 minutes per game.
With all of the drama surrounding the other team in Hollywood, the Los Angeles Clippers aren't getting enough kudos for being in first place in the Pacific Division. Even more glaring is the lack of love that the Clippers bench has received for the team's 11-6 start.
On a squad that boasts two All-Stars (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin), backup combo guard Jamal Crawford actually leads the Clippers in scoring (17.6 PPG). Reserve guard Eric Bledsoe (9.9 PPG) has looked fantastic this season, while forward Matt Barnes (8.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG) is still a gritty, hard-working presence in the frontcourt.
Coming off of the bench is often a thankless job, but the Clippers backups approach it with the perfect attitude. "Just go out there and have fun and play with a tremendous amount of energy and play with almost reckless abandon," said forward Ronny Turiaf in an interview with Eric Patten of Clippers.com.
A resurgent Vince Carter (13.1 PPG, 42.4 percent from beyond the arc) is having something of a career renaissance as the leader of the Dallas Mavericks' second unit.
The Mavericks get 41.5 points per night from their backups, and with such talents and Carter, Elton Brand and Darren Collison coming off of the pine, Dallas is one of the NBA's deeper teams. And much to the dismay of the rest of the league, the Mavericks bench will only get better once Dirk Nowitzki returns to the starting lineup.
Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle thinks of each of the top eight guys in his rotation as a "starter," and he has full faith and confidence that they'll get the job done on a given night.
"Who starts and who finishes is not nearly as important as our collective effort toward winning," said Carlisle in an interview with Dwain Price of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "That's what we're all looking at."
No team's reserve unit grabs more rebounds than the Milwaukee Bucks' second string (23.4 per game)—a group that also blocks an impressive 5.1 shots each night.
Mike Dunleavy (10.8 PPG) is the most prolific backup for a Bucks team where four of the top six scorers come off of the bench (Dunleavy, Beno Udrih, Larry Sanders, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute).
A common misconception is that the Bucks are heavily reliant on Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings to score points. There are quite a few players on Milwaukee's roster who can fill it up whenever their number is called.
Milwaukee's bench may have had the single best performance of any team's second string this year when it helped turn a 27-point third-quarter deficit into a 93-92 victory over the Chicago Bulls back on Nov. 26.
The Washington Wizards aren't ranked first in many things this season, but they do have the most prolific bench in the league.
If wasn't for the 64 points that they received from their reserve unit back on Dec. 4, the Wizards wouldn't have been able to pull off their 105-101 upset of the defending champion Miami Heat.
"It's important to have that punch off the bench," said Washington head coach Randy Wittman while speaking with Michael Lee of the Washington Post. "Our bench comes out and delivers."
The Wizards backups average a league-high 46.2 PPG, and they also pull down 20.9 boards per game for good measure (second in the NBA).
While some may view the productivity of the subs as an indictment of the team's starters (who average just 44.2 PPG), the reality is that Washington is one of the few teams that doesn't miss a beat when its second unit is on the floor.