Sometimes the difference between a good and great basketball team is a quality bench.
Fresh off the All-Star break, a game which celebrates the league's brightest stars, now is a good time to look at some of league's unsung heroes. While these guys might not have their names announced on the PA before every game, they are no less important to their teams success.
Coming off his worst shooting season since his rookie year of 2000-01, Jamal Crawford has been stellar in Los Angeles this year.
The Clippers can credit Crawford as a big reason for their current standing as the third seed in the Western Conference.
Crawford has been electric off the bench, averaging 16.8 points per game. Only Blake Griffin has contributed more to the team in the scoring department. The only players on the Clippers who have player more minutes than Crawford are superstars Griffin and Chris Paul.
Crawford contributes a stout 29.5 minutes per game, which gives the Clippers a nice scoring threat for all those minutes. And he can do everything on the offensive side of the ball: He can beat any defender one-on-one, drive to the hoop and hit shots from way beyond the three-point arc.
Teammate Chauncey Billups sings high praises of Crawford's play:
He has a knack to score, any kind of shot. He can shoot tricky layups, five feet behind the 3-point line, fade left, right, I mean, he’s fading out of bounds. When he gets hot, he’s just this nightmare. You have to have a heightened confidence to play that way. Everybody in the N.B.A. has confidence, but they don’t have that.
The Oklahoma City Thunder may have lost the best bench player of 2011-12 when they traded away James Harden, but the player they got in return is no slouch himself.
Kevin Martin is putting together another fine season. This is the first season in which Martin is being used primarily as a bench player since his rookie campaign in 2004-05, and the shooting guard is adjusting well.
Martin is as close to a pure scorer as you can find. In 2008-09, he averaged 24.6 points, but contributed little outside of scoring, as he averaged only 3.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game.
Playing with guys like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook obviously brought down his scoring average. He is putting up 15.0 points per game this season, the lowest since his second season in the league.
He is having his most efficient shooting season, however, shooting 45.4 percent from the field and 43.6 percent from beyond the three-point line. His three-point field goal percentage ranks ninth in the NBA. He is also great from the free-throw line, where he shoots 90.4 percent, which is third in the league.
While Martin isn't making Thunder fans forget about Harden, he is giving them one of the best bench players in the league.
J.R. Smith plays a pretty similar role for the Knicks that Jamal Crawford does on the Clippers.
Both come off the bench. Both provide great bursts of scoring. Both play a kind of street-style basketball that is difficult to defend. Both are a huge reason for their teams' success this season.
The main difference between the two is that Crawford is a better scorer, while Smith does other things well.
While Crawford's 16.8 points per game are only a shade better than Smith's 16.2, Crawford is more efficient than Smith, who shoots 40 percent from the field, 34 percent from three-point land and 77.7 percent from the free-throw line—all significantly less than Crawford's respective numbers.
Smith is not only a pure scorer, however. He contributes 5.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. The rebounding numbers in particular are very impressive for a 6'6" shooting guard.
Smith is one of the most important players on the Knicks, who currently hold the second seed in the Eastern Conference and look poised to make a deep playoff run. Other than Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton, Smith sees the most court time on the team per game, averaging 33.4 minutes of playing time a game.
He is also the team's second-highest scorer, its third-best rebounder and one of only two players on the roster to have played in each of the team's 50 games this season.
Playing for the dreadful New Orleans Hornets, Ryan Anderson is often overlooked when people discuss quality bench players.
The 6'10" power forward is an incredibly versatile player. His scoring off the bench is excellent and for a big man his three-point shooting (40.2 percent) is second to none. He is also shooting 44.2 percent from the floor, 85.6 percent from the free-throw line and is averaging a career-high 17.1 points per game.
He is also a pretty solid rebounder. Last season with the Orlando Magic he averaged a career-high 7.7 rebounds per game. This year that has dipped to 6.4, but that is still quite good.
Anderson has proven the critics wrong who insisted that his excellence last season was based mainly on the low-post presence of Dwight Howard.
If Anderson was not on such a bad team, he would surely be a big name star. Any team could use a guy like him coming off the bench.
Despite their recent slump, the Golden State Warriors have quietly put together a nice half-season of basketball.
A big reason for their turnaround from a disappointing 23-43 season in 2011-12 has been their point guard play. And it's not just the superb Stephen Curry who deserves the credit.
Jarrett Jack is doing a wonderful job off the bench for the Warriors. His stellar skills as a point guard allow the Warriors to give Curry some rest without having too big a drop-off.
Jack is a very efficient shooter from all parts of the floor. He is shooting 47.2 percent from the field and an impressive 41.2 percent from beyond the arc. He is one of the better free-throw shooters, knocking them down at an 86 percent rate. All of this efficiency allows him to average 13.0 points per game while attempting an average of 10.5 shots per game.
Additionally, Jack is a good distributor. His 5.8 assists per game are nearly as good as star teammate Stephen Curry's 6.4. His 3.2 rebounds per game make him a pretty decent rebounder for a point guard.
Jeff Green's 10.3 points per game might make him seem like an odd choice for this list. But look at what he has done recently.
It's no secret that since Rajon Rondo tore his ACL the Boston Celtics have been on a tear. A big reason for that has been the resurgence of Green. In the month of February, Green has increased his points per game to 13.8 and shot a terrific 51.2 from the field in the process. He has also posted a 38.9 three-point field goal percentage in that span.
Green has contributed in other areas as well, most notably on the defensive end. He and Avery Bradley have helped turn the Celtics defense into one of the premiere units in the league. He shows tremendous energy and heart on defense every night. He has also averaged 4.0 rebounds per game and 1.7 blocks in the month of February.
He is doing all this coming off major heart surgery, which caused him to miss all of the 2011-12 season, which makes Green an easy player to root for. If Green keeps up this kind of play, the Celtics will be a tough team to play come playoff time.