Debating NBA Depth vs. Star Power for Playoff Success
There’s no question that a deep bench can help an NBA team survive the grind of an 82-game regular season, but when it comes to playoff success, a 10-man rotation really doesn’t count for much.
In theory, that's bad news for the Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and New York Knicks. Those teams have used their excellent benches to remain at or near the top of their respective conference standings.
By no means does a good bench doom a team's playoff hopes; that doesn't make sense. But using history as a guide, we can definitively say that bench depth matters far less than star power when it comes to playoff success.
"Hang on," you're surely saying. "What do you even mean by 'playoff success'?"
Well, for our purposes, "success" doesn't mean making the playoffs or even winning a series. We're looking at the teams that actually advance to the NBA's ultimate stage, the finals. That's success in this context.
The Dallas Outlier
In the five most recent NBA seasons, just one team—the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks—made the NBA Finals in a year in which their reserves ranked in the top 10 in bench points during the regular season. The Mavericks subs finished No. 2 that year with a solid total of 39.5 points per game.
They're the outlier, though.
If we look at the other teams that have made the finals since 2007-08, we see that only a couple of them had even average levels of regular-season bench production. The 2007-08 Boston Celtics, for example, got 27.8 points per game from their bench, which ranked 18th in the NBA. And the 2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers rated 16th in the league with 28.7 bench points per game.
The overwhelming trend, though, is blatantly obvious: NBA teams that make the finals generally do it in spite of horrible bench production.
Last year's NBA champion Miami Heat ranked 28th during the regular season with 23 bench points per game. When they made the finals the year before, they were dead last. The 2009-10 Lakers won rings in a season in which their bench scored just 25.2 points per game, good for a No. 28 ranking during the regular season.
The list goes on and on, and there's no getting around the irrelevance of a strong bench during the playoffs.
Oh, and here's the kicker: Every single one of the 10 teams we're studying here (the ones that have been in the last five NBA Finals) have gotten reduced production from their benches during the postseason.
All of them.
So, no matter how good, bad or ugly, a team's regular-season bench production is, every club that had playoff success in the last five years substantially cut its use of bench players during the postseason. So, what does that mean?
Star Power Matters More
Well, for starters, it means that benches are obviously less important during the postseason. But it also means that star power simply matters more.
That makes sense, considering that there's more time off between games during the postseason, there are never back-to-back sets and players aren't conserving energy for a grueling regular-season schedule. Depth matters when teams are tired and worn down, not when they're running on adrenaline and playing like there's no tomorrow.
That's sort of an anecdotal explanation of why stars matter more than depth, but don't worry, we've also got quantifiable proof of that theory.
If we take those same 10 NBA Finals teams we discussed earlier, we see that eight of them had a player who finished in the top three in MVP voting during the season in which his team made the finals. What's more, only two teams, the 2008-09 Orlando Magic and the 2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder, played in the finals without a player who had already won an MVP award in a prior season.
And we all know that those two teams featured massive star power in Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant, respectively. Neither of those guys have MVP trophies, but KD finished second last year and Howard came in fourth in 2008-09.
Think about that: In order to make the finals, you basically must have an MVP (or someone very, very close to it) on your roster. Conversely, we've shown that having a good bench has absolutely no positive correlation with playoff success.
Star power matters more.
What That Means This Year
We started by mentioning that the Clippers, Spurs and Knicks all have benches producing at high levels this season. Based on what we've learned from studying the last five years of NBA data, we can make a pretty strong argument that those clubs won't benefit from their reserve depth once the playoffs roll around.
The obvious counterargument is that a good regular-season performance from a bench can help a team secure a higher seed, which makes the playoff road slightly easier. That's definitely true, but we have only to look to last year's No. 1 seed, the San Antonio Spurs, to prove that a high seed due to strong regular-season bench play doesn't count for much when you run up against a star-laden club like the Oklahoma City Thunder.
By no means are the Clips, Spurs and Knicks doomed because they have good benches. After all, they've got stars on their rosters too. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan and Carmelo Anthony are all huge names, and Duncan has won an MVP. All we're saying is that their benches, which make them look dominant in the regular season, won't matter in May.
The Other Upshot
The things we've learned about the values of bench depth and star power don't just tell us to be wary of clubs with good benches. They also tell us to put more stock in top-heavy clubs with MVP talents.
All three of those teams rank 22nd or worse in bench points per game this year, and all three have massive amounts of star power. Obviously, it's not a revelation that the Heat and Thunder are primed to make deep playoff runs because of their stars. They've got the two best players in the game in James and Durant, respectively, plus a handful of other All-Star talents (Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka).
And hey, they were both in the finals last year.
The Lakers are the interesting team here, as they're probably the most unbalanced, top-heavy club in the league. They've got four superstars (assuming we're still counting Pau Gasol as such) and nobody worth a damn on the bench. If L.A. can cobble together enough wins to make the postseason dance, history tells us that its shallow bench will matter less, while its big guns will matter more.
Nobody's saying the Lakers are a surefire playoff threat (if they even make it that far), but there's clear evidence that shows teams like them are built to win series when rotations shorten and stars carry the load.
Overall, it's not surprising that stars win titles; everybody knows that. But it is pretty amazing how little bench play matters in the postseason. Adjust your NBA championship odds accordingly.
*All bench stats via HoopStats.com.
**All stats accurate through games played Jan. 19, 2013.
***MVP voting info via Basketball-Reference.com.
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