Teams with stars win championships. Teams that play their best with the game on the line win championships.
But championship teams share another common trait: Often, they have the best reserves and bench players.
What happens when your stars get hurt? What happens when they’re stuck in double coverage? What happens when they simply start slumping? That’s when the bench players need to be counted upon to take some of the load off. Some of these guys haven't always been reserves, and for some of them, 2012 marked the end of their professional days. Some of them have even spent some of the year on IR or the DL, but the fans' love for them never died, and their impacts as backups will never be forgotten.
Here’s a look at some of the most beloved bench players in sports today.
Teams with stars win championships. Teams that play their best with the game on the line win championships.
Last season, Lou Williams didn't start a single game for the Philadelphia 76ers, but he still led them in scoring with 14.9 points per game. It was the highest scoring average of his career, but it still wasn’t enough for the Sixers to keep him around after he spent the first seven years of his career in Philly. The 2011-12 Sixth Man of the Year candidate tweeted during the summer that the Sixers had “decided to move in a different direction,” and he signed with the Hawks.
And the Hawks have been very happy to have him. He’s averaged 14.3 points and 3.1 assists in 26.4 minutes per game as the Hawks have moved into second place behind the Heat in the Southeast Division.
And now that James Harden has moved into a starting role with the Houston Rockets, maybe Williams does have a shot at the Sixth Man award this season—if he keeps it up.
The Lakers’ performance in 2012-13 thus far has been nothing to brag about. But while most of the attention has been focused on the stars and their successes—or lack thereof—Jodie Meeks has been doing some pretty special things for L.A.
Meeks has been one of the primary benefactors of L.A.’s coaching transition from Mike Brown to Mike D’Antoni. His per-game averages have risen since D’Antoni took the reins, as have his shooting percentages. Overall in 2012-13, the former Sixer has only averaged 8.6 points and 2.2 rebounds in about 18.7 per game. But recently, his performances have been much better: He’s scored in double figures in seven of his last eight games, and his impact has been particularly significant as the Lakers have finally been able to string together a few wins.
Plus, if this team does decide to do any damage down the stretch this season—which, let’s face it, it will—Meeks is going to be a key component of its success.
It’s hard to be a popular benchwarmer when the guy ahead of you on the depth chart is one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. But that’s how good Tuukka Rask has been for the Boston Bruins—even though his opportunities have been extremely limited, especially over the last few years.
Whenever (or if ever) the NHL returns, Rask will be the Bruins' starter, barring disaster. But up to this point, despite the fact that he's had a pretty lights-out career, he's been a backup, save for a few brief stretches. Rask has had his consistency issues, but in the grand scheme of backup goaltenders, there have been few with stronger resumes than his. Throughout his five-year career in the NHL—in which he’s been limited to 102 games—he’s registered a 2.20 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. Pretty good for a backup.
Now that Tim Thomas is taking a leave of absence from the NHL, it seems as though Rask is finally going to get his time to shine. If the NHL is ever taken off life support, that is.
Forget, for a moment, the BS that Lamar Odom pulled in 2011-12 with the Dallas Mavericks. Also forget the fool to whom he is married.
Instead, focus on what Lamar Odom was able to do for the L.A. Lakers from 2008-2011, when the bulk of his workload came as a bench player.
In those three seasons, Odom—for the first time in his career—was used primarily as a bench player. And in those three years, he averaged 12.2 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists while the Lakers rolled to two NBA championships.
His stats may not have been as good as they were while he was starting, but he did his part to help his team win two titles, and doesn’t that matter more?
Before Odom was dispatched to Dallas and decided he no longer cared about helping his team win, he was one of the Lakers’ most critical assets, even off the bench. And people actually liked him, including his teammates.
Now that he’s back in L.A., seemingly the only place he wants to make himself useful these days, maybe he can turn things around for himself and be more helpful in about 17 minutes per game for the Clippers, too.
The Dallas Mavericks have seemingly fallen from grace as the younger teams in the Western Conference—teams like the Clippers and the Thunder—have risen. But Vince Carter is trying his best to give the Mavericks some kind of valuable asset off the bench once the starters get tired.
Carter is no spring chicken anymore. He’ll be 36 in January, and his days in the NBA are numbered. But even in his old age, he’s still giving his all to the Mavericks, and it is, at the very least, something.
The Mavericks have a plethora of problems right now. Just a season after getting embarrassed at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoffs, they’re in fourth place in the Southwest Division and look like they’re going to need a lot of help to make it back to the postseason this year.
But at just a few games under .500, they’re certainly staying afloat, and Carter—with his 11.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 24.0 minutes per game—has been key in helping this team stay alive.
When J.R. Smith arrived in New York last season, he helped to spearhead the Knicks’ resurgence. Granted, he arrived right around the same time Jeremy Lin began starting, so there was that too. But with Jeremy Lin moving into a starting role, it was crucial that Smith helped to provide some necessary relief off the bench, and he did his job well.
In 35 games with the Knicks in 2011-12, Smith averaged 12.5 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists. This season, his numbers are up: In 32.2 minutes per game, he’s averaging 14.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists as New York has cruised to the top of the Atlantic Division standings.
The Knicks have a good thing going on right now. They have a nice mix of star power in their starting lineup and on their bench, and they have a good mix of youth and veteran talent. Smith is one of the players who helps them fulfill their potential.
The New York Knicks may be the oldest team in the NBA this year, but they’ve been doing just fine for themselves: They’re currently second in the Eastern Conference and first in the increasingly tough Atlantic Division.
And though the Knicks have taken plenty of flack for being old, having bench players like the ones they have is one of the primary reasons they’ve been so successful.
Rasheed Wallace’s glory days may be far behind him, but since joining the Knicks in 2012-13—his first time back on the court since the 2009-10 season—it’s been so far, so good. In about 14.6 minutes per game, he has averaged 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game, averages that aren’t too far off what he was posting when he was with the Celtics a few years ago.
Plus, 'Sheed has the kind of veteran experience and passion for the game that will really help this team down the stretch, if he can stay healthy.
All things considered, life has been pretty good for the Chicago Bulls while they wait for Derrick Rose to return. And one of the big reasons for that has been Nate Robinson.
There have been plenty of guys on the Bulls’ roster who have ably compensated for Rose’s absence, but Robinson has been one of the most significant.
In 26 games this season, he has registered 10.8 points and 3.6 assists off the bench for the Bulls, who have the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference and are sitting atop the Central Division.
At the beginning of this season, Robinson may have seemed expendable. Now, as the Bulls contemplate the roster moves they'll make when Rose returns, Robinson is suddenly one of the pieces that doesn't seem to be going anywhere.
All of the top teams in the NBA have guys on this list, and the L.A. Clippers are no exception. Playing in the Pacific Division is no easy task with the Lakers constantly breathing down their necks, but it’s a little easier with deep benches composed of players like Jamal Crawford.
Crawford has skipped around a bit in the last few years, playing for New York, Golden State, Atlanta and Portland. But he’s always played his role, no matter where he’s been: He provides some much-needed offense off the bench. This season, Crawford has contributed 16.1 points and 2.4 assists in about 29.3 minutes per game for L.A.
His stats may be dwindling a bit because opposing defenses are onto him, but over the course of the Clippers’ recent 10-game winning streak, his assists-per-game average has actually increased.
No matter what, he’s finding a way to do his job and help his team win.
Brian Wilson may not be a prototypical bench player, but he does spend much of his time during an average game sitting on the bench—especially in 2012, when an injury kept him there. But even then, his popularity has never diminished.
Closers never spend a ton of time in the game, but when they’re good, they’re some of the most beloved players out there. Count Wilson as a guy who has established himself as one of the most significant members of the San Francisco Giants when he’s healthy—and as one of the bona fide fan favorites, even when he’s not.
Wilson may not be in the game all that much, but in terms of the key members of the Giants’ pitching staff, he’ll always be at the top of the list. For four consecutive seasons from 2008 to 2011, he registered 36 or more saves with a 3.00 ERA. Even though he was limited to a single save in 2012 due to injury, he still was one of the fans’ favorite people, even though his impact was pretty much solely as a cheerleader.
Jason Terry hasn’t been able to settle into a solid role yet with the Boston Celtics, but throughout his career, he’s been most effective off the bench.
Some guys just know how to best help their team. And sometimes, that doesn't mean starting.
Terry is one of those guys. Even though his future with the Celtics seems to be as a starter, at least until Avery Bradley returns, he knows he makes the most sense as a sixth man.
In eight seasons with the Dallas Mavericks prior to joining the Celtics, Terry averaged 16.1 points and 4.1 assists in 32.7 minutes per game. He joined the Celtics primarily to fill the role vacated by Ray Allen, but for now, he'll have to get used to starting until Bradley returns to the action.
After that, he can return to his rightful role as a stellar sixth man.
Whether he likes it or not, Ray Allen is now a sixth man. And whether he likes it or not, it’s a role that suits him.
Allen hated being a sixth man so much that it ruined his relationship with the Celtics and his legacy in Boston. He was so offended at being relegated to a bench player in the wake of Avery Bradley’s arrival that he chose to spurn the Celtics’ contract offer in July in favor of a less lucrative one offered by the Heat—even though he knew he wouldn’t be a starter there, either.
The truth is, Allen is a terrific asset off the bench. He excels from long range, and, especially in Miami, he spreads defenses to free up opportunities for the big guns. Even though his minutes in Miami are down from where they were in Boston last year, the Heat definitely appreciate his 11.9 points per game and his 47.3 percent clip from three-point range.
One of the other primary pieces of the puzzle for the Bulls early this season has been Taj Gibson. Though he’s been dealing with an ankle injury of late, he’s made a name for himself as one of the most durable players in the league, so it doubtlessly won’t be long before he’s back in action.
And the Bulls need him back in action.
This season, he’s averaged 6.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and a block in about 19.3 minutes per game, but he’s one of the guys who is capable of having a big performance right when the Bulls need it—like he did against the Celtics last week, when he came up with 13 points, five rebounds and four assists in 26 minutes.
Gibson may not be the most consistent player on the court, but he gives Chicago the frontcourt depth it needs to compete in the East.
Here, we have the case of the bench player who was so undeniably good that before long, he became the starter—and got the veteran sent far, far away.
In the midst of the most challenging season the Boston Red Sox have encountered in decades, Will Middlebrooks was one of the very few bright spots.
The third baseman came up to the Show in early May last season, when Kevin Youkilis went down with an injury—and soon after Middlebrooks' debut, it became sadly apparent that the team no longer had any need for good old Youk.
Middlebrooks was the future, and it didn't make sense to let him waste away as Youkilis' backup, although when Youkilis came off the DL, Middlebrooks was briefly relegated to the role of a backup.
But not for long. He was just too good to be a reserve forever, so after the rookie's brief stint as Youk's backup, it was goodbye Youkilis era, hello Middlebrooks era.
Andre Brown began the season as the New York Giants’ third-string running back. He’ll likely end the season on injured reserve (though he could make a comeback fro the Super Bowl, if the Giants get there—ha!), but that doesn’t mean that what he was able to do during a brief stretch of the 2012 season should be overlooked.
Brown had his biggest moment of the season in Week 3 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With Ahmad Bradshaw unable to go due to an injury, Brown stepped in and registered the Giants’ game-tying two-point conversion as well as their game-winning touchdown.
Even after that game, Brown continued to be the Giants’ diamond in the rough in 2012, registering seven touchdowns in New York’s next eight games before suffering a broken leg in a big win over Green Bay in Week 12.
His fellow backup running back, David Wilson, also had his fair share of shining moments behind Bradshaw. He certainly had his issues with turnovers, but even as the Giants' season has crumbled over the last few weeks, he's had three touchdowns in three games—with zero fumbles.
Even if Brown doesn’t play another snap in 2012 (which he most likely won’t), and even if the Giants end up going nowhere in the postseason (which is most likely a reality), these two RBs still came off the Giants’ bench to keep hope alive for at least a little while.
Brian Scalabrine may not be one of the most well-known Celtics ever, and he may not have the gaudiest stat line, but he is certainly one of the most beloved Celtics, and upon his retirement, he is certainly in the Benchwarmers Hall of Fame for all that he has contributed to the benchwarming cause.
Even in the grand scheme of bench players, Scal barely ever played. In his 11 years in the league with New Jersey, Boston and Chicago, he only averaged 3.1 points and 2.0 rebounds per game. But the times he did play…there was never a more joyous sight at the TD Garden than watching the big redhead sink three after three to the befuddlement of everyone on the court, including his own teammates. The Bulls got a taste of what he could do in terms of morale last season, too.
And even when he wasn’t getting in the game, he was still the best cheerleader you could find.
You’re going to have to interpret the word “popular” liberally here. You may even have to travel back in time to three or four months ago, when the New York Jets’ acquisition of Tebow seemed like one of the most exciting—and potentially brilliant—offseason moves in the NFL.
Hindsight is 20/20, of course.
When Tebow first arrived in New York, Jets fans were thrilled. They flocked to stores to buy their green Tebow jerseys. They imagined all of the new and exciting things the offense could do with him running the Wildcat. And in case anything happened to Mark Sanchez, the team had a very solid option to replace him—or so we thought.
Still, no matter how much the Jets tanked this season, Tebow kept hope alive for the fans, at least for a while. Their chants of “Tebow Time” gave them something to look forward to in the face of immense disappointment, even if Tebow Time never actually came to fruition.
Manu Ginobili has long been one of the best sixth men in the NBA, and he’s long been a vital part of the San Antonio Spurs, even though the roster has always been crowded with a multitude of talented players.
Ginobili has spent the entirety of his 11-year career with the Spurs, and he’s averaged 15.0 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 27.8 minutes per game, mostly as a sixth man. He’s also a two-time All-Star and has been a part of three championship teams, helping to build the Spurs into one of the Western Conference’s most ferocious beasts.
There is plenty of talent on the Spurs, and yet Ginobili has established himself as one of the most valuable players on the team without even starting. He knows his role, and he knows how to best help his team win.
With the Washington Redskins’ season hanging in the balance, Kirk Cousins certainly proved to be good enough to keep the 2012 season alive.
When 2012 NFL Rookie of the Year (at least in my world) Robert Griffin III went down with a knee injury late in a critical Week 15 matchup against the Ravens—a game the Redskins absolutely had to win to maintain their playoff hopes—Cousins entered the game in relief. He led Washington’s game-tying drive with 29 seconds left before leading them to a game-winning field goal.
The next week, in yet another game the Redskins desperately needed to win in order to stay atop the NFC East, Cousins led them to a 38-21 victory over Cleveland.
If the Redskins do indeed end up winning the division and heading to the playoffs, everyone will look at RGIII as the reason. But there’s no underestimating what Cousins did to help the cause.