NBA Benches That Got a Lot Better from Free Agency
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Having quality depth is as crucial to a team's championship hopes as building a strong core of superstars. That's why a few wise teams opted to use free agency to help bolster their bench.
A blockbuster move like Houston signing Dwight Howard will garner the necessary headlines and raise excitement among the fans. Still, it is just as important to have guys on the second unit who can keep the momentum going when the stars need rest.
This past season's NBA Finals is a good example of teams succeeding because of a solid bench. The San Antonio Spurs were able to get productive minutes out of guys like Gary Neal. As for the defending champion Miami Heat, they benefited from the likes of Ray Allen and Chris Andersen.
This summer, teams followed that mold and spent some coin on lesser names that could provide depth and give a spark off of the bench. Some squads even used the NBA draft to lay the groundwork for a rebuild of their second unit.
The teams that are being recognized today are the ones that have done the best job so far of retooling their reserves. It is important to keep in mind that these teams upgraded their benches rather than just using free agency to fill what they lost.
For instance, the Los Angeles Clippers made a couple savvy moves in adding guards J.J. Redick and Darren Collison to the fold this summer. However, those two are essentially replacements for the departed Chauncey Billups and Eric Bledsoe.
Here are the teams that made the best use of free agency to strengthen their bench this summer.
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The Cleveland Cavaliers took a few risks this offseason in the hopes that the reward will land them back in the playoffs.
The first gamble came on draft day when the team used the No. 1 overall pick on 'tweener forward Anthony Bennett of UNLV. Bennett is an explosive athlete that can provide a huge spark on the offensive end.
However, he's a bit undersized to play power forward, and there are concerns about whether he can defend either the 3 or 4. Also, he is currently on the mend from rotator cuff surgery. He should be ready for the start of the season, but it will be interesting to see what kind of shape he will be in.
The Cavs took an even bigger roll of the dice when they agreed to terms with oft-injured center Andrew Bynum. The former Lakers big man missed all of last season with a knee injury and has lost 392 of a possible 656 games in his NBA career.
If he can regain the form from his championship days in Los Angeles, Cleveland would have landed one of the biggest steals of free agency. Given Bynum's recent history, though, that's a huge if.
Cleveland made a less risky move when they signed another former Laker forward, Earl Clark. The former Louisville forward finished the season averaging 7.3 points and 5.5 rebounds a game, but really came on strong during February and March.
Even better, the Cavs nabbed a solid backup for fragile point guard Kyrie Irving by signing Jarrett Jack away from Golden State. Jack averaged 12.9 points and 5.6 assists a night for the Warriors. He also shot 45 percent from the field and 40 percent from behind the arc.
These moves, as well as using the No. 19 overall pick on Russian shooter Sergey Karasev, have the potential to bolster both the Cavs' bench and starting lineup.
Jack is a perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Bennett, when healthy, can be a scorer off of the bench if he's not immediately rushed into the starting rotation. Karasev will help space the floor, which will give Clark more room to work down low.
Cleveland really pushed their chips to the middle of the table this summer. With some luck, the reward will be worth the risk.
New Orleans Pelicans
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The New Orleans Pelicans made one of the more interesting moves of the summer when they signed former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans to a four-year, $44 million deal. With newly acquired Jrue Holiday and last year's big signing, Eric Gordon, already on the roster, the addition of Evans was a bit of a head scratcher.
Would he fill the Pels' glaring hole at small forward? Will he come off the bench? If so, why would New Orleans pay so much for a sixth man when they already had Ryan Anderson in that role?
How the Gordon-Holiday-Evans triumvirate works out remains to be seen. For now, it appears Evans' role is as a super-sub who will get minutes in a three-guard rotation, while also providing insurance for the oft-injured Gordon.
The acquisition of Evans also allowed the team to bring in rookie Jeff Withey, who was used as a throw-in on the three-team deal with Portland and Sacramento that landed Tyreke. Withey is still a bit raw, but the upside is that he gives the team another shot-blocker and rebounder.
With time, he could even develop into the team's long-term answer at center alongside last year's No. 1 overall pick, Anthony Davis.
New Orleans GM Dell Demps didn't stop at the Evans trade. He also added shooter Anthony Morrow to give a veteran off the bench that can space the floor. Essentially, he will fill the role vacated by Roger Mason Jr.
New Orleans even brought back Al-Farouq Aminu to be in the mix at small forward.
The team also added Greg Stiemsma as another rim protector and someone who can push Withey in practice. New Orleans is also one of three teams interested in former draft bust Greg Oden.
Head coach Monty Williams was an assistant during Oden's tenure in Portland, and that connection is the Pelicans' best hope of landing the former No. 1 overall pick.
When you include the addition of second-round pick Pierre Jackson (acquired in the Jrue Holiday trade on draft day), the Pelicans have been one of the busiest teams this offseason. Through sheer aggressiveness, they have turned a weak second unit into a strength.
Stiemsma and Withey give the team two solid frontcourt defenders. Jackson offers the speed at point guard spot they sorely lacked last season. Morrow will compete with Austin Rivers for minutes and is a capable shooter.
Most importantly, Evans is a starter-quality option that can provide a spark off the bench, a la Manu Ginobili in San Antonio. He won't get a ton of starts (unless Gordon goes down again), but he'll play enough to be a large part of the rotation.
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The Minnesota Timberwolves have made themselves pretty busy this offseason in an attempt to convince forward Kevin Love that they are a playoff contender.
It all started at the NBA draft, when the Wolves traded the rights to point guard Trey Burke to Utah in exchange for small forward Shabazz Muhammad and center Gorgui Dieng.
Muhammad gives instant offense off of the bench, while Dieng is a lanky big man that can block shots and rebound well. Both additions were good insurance policies if the team happened to strike out in free agency.
As it turns out, Minnesota stepped up to the plate and hit a few doubles and triples. They lured Kevin Martin away from Oklahoma City to be the answer they've been lacking at shooting guard. They also re-signed small forward Chase Budinger.
For the reserves, they brought defensive specialist Corey Brewer back to the team that drafted him.
Their best move may be retaining the services of one of last year's breakout stars, center Nikola Pekovic. According to SI's Tim Polzer, Pekovic is close to an agreement on a four-year, $50 million deal.
With Pekovic back at center as well as the additions of Budinger and Martin, Minnesota will have a second unit that will feature Muhammad, Brewer and Dieng. They will also have Alexey Shved to provide quality minutes at either guard spot.
The Timberwolves didn't make any huge moves this offseason. What they did do is make themselves remarkably deep while also keeping their young core intact. Muhammad could be special as an offensive spark plug and Brewer is coming off a solid season with the Nuggets.
After years of mediocrity, Minnesota is finally ready to return to the postseason.
Portland Trail Blazers
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The Portland Trail Blazers finished dead last in bench scoring last season with an average of 10.5 points per game from their reserves, according to Hoopsstats.com.
Barring an absolute catastrophe, they shouldn't have to worry about a repeat of that this season.
Portland didn't just bolster their bench this offseason. They basically went out and got an entirely different second unit.
The team drafted Patriot League superstar C.J. McCollum to back up Wesley Matthews and occasionally play alongside Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard. They also found Lillard a backup of his own in journeyman Earl Watson.
Before breaking his foot last season, McCollum was a lethal shooter for Lehigh. He shot a ridiculous 51 percent from behind the arc with an average of a little over five attempts per game. He averaged more than 20 points per game in his last three seasons.
As if that wasn't enough, the Blazers stole former lottery pick Thomas Robinson away from Houston. The Rockets, who acquired Robinson from Sacramento midseason last year, were looking to dump the former Jayhawk's salary in an attempt to make more cap room for Dwight Howard.
While he has yet to produce like someone who was selected with No. 5 overall pick, he is still only 22 years old and is coming off his rookie season. In the right situation, he can be a high energy reserve that provides quality production on the boards.
Joining Robinson among Portland's frontcourt additions is Robin Lopez, who was acquired in a three-team trade that landed Tyreke Evans in New Orleans. The ex-Suns/Hornets big man is coming off his best season as a pro, where he averaged 11.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks while playing in all 82 games last year.
The final piece was sharpshooter Dorell Wright, who was signed away from Philadelphia. Wright is a career 37 percent shooter from the three-point line and is just three years removed from averaging 16.4 points per game for the Warriors.
With the exception of Watson, any of these acquisitions could easily start for a number of other teams. Wright, McCollum and Robinson are sure to boost the second unit's offensive production. Lopez, meanwhile, could either start or play the role of mentor to last year's lottery pick, Meyers Leonard.
The Blazers could have fixed their bench scoring woes with McCollum alone. Instead, they made it a point to improve the unit as a whole and have a good chance of going from dead last in bench scoring last season to near the top this year.
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However, it is the team's subtle moves to improve the bench that will be worth keeping an eye on. The signing of Shaun Livingston is a slight downgrade from C.J. Watson, but Jason Terry (acquired in the KG trade) for Brooks evens it out.
Still, the Nets got a steal in the addition of forward Andrei Kirilenko. The man known as "AK47" is capable of producing on both ends of the court. He has averaged double-digits in scoring for all but one of his 11 seasons in the NBA.
He also has a career average of nearly two blocks and a steal per night. He doesn't rebound as well as he used to (his average is around five boards per game since pulling down eight a contest for the Jazz in 2005-06), but he is still serviceable on the glass.
More importantly, Kirilenko's presence allows the Nets to monitor Pierce's minutes, so that they can keep him fresh for the postseason.
The team also re-signed Andray Blatche and drafted Mason Plumlee with their first-round pick. Both men provide quality depth in the frontcourt and can be productive members of the second unit.
Blatche averaged 10.3 points and 5.1 rebounds a game for the Nets last season, while Plumlee contributed 17.1 points and 10 rebounds a night for the Blue Devils as a senior.
With Brook Lopez coming off foot surgery and Garnett getting long in the tooth, Plumlee and Blatche are a nice insurance policy to have.
The biggest key to the bench will be Terry. The team needs him to return as a catalyst off the bench like he was with Dallas for many years. During his lone season in Boston, "The Jet" saw his scoring dip to 10.1 points per game, which was his lowest offensive output since his rookie season.
Brooklyn's offseason additions were the right mix of youth and veteran leadership. With aging veterans like Garnett and Pierce, it is imperative that the second unit step up to give them a much-needed breather.
That will be as big a factor in Brooklyn's success as the arrival of two future Hall of Famers.
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It wasn't enough that the Sacramento Kings were able to land arguably the biggest steal in the draft when shooting guard Ben McLemore fell to them at pick No. 7. Instead, the team made a couple of underrated moves to improve their bench.
The Kings brought back undersized forward Carl Landry to provide energy and scoring off the bench. Landry, who played with the Kings for a couple seasons dating back to 2009-10, has averaged double-digits in scoring during each of the last four seasons.
Sacramento also gave undersized point guard Isaiah Thomas a much bigger counterpart when they acquired Greivis Vasquez from New Orleans. The 6'6" Vasquez is coming off his best season as a pro, averaging 13.9 points and nine assists a game for the Hornets.
While his elite size would give the Kings an advantage in the starting lineup, his slow feet hinder him when defending quicker point guards. He may be better suited in a reserve role or logging time at shooting guard.
The team also acquired Luc Mbah a Moute from Milwaukee. Mbah a Moute is a solid defensive small forward who held opponents to a field-goal percentage of 48.1 percent, according to 82games.com. Inserting him into the starting lineup would allow Sacramento to move John Salmons (who had an opposing field-goal percentage allowed of 51 percent) to the bench.
In essence, the Kings improved their bench by bolstering their starting lineup. The additions of McLemore, Vasquez and Mbah a Moute could all push starting-caliber players to the second unit. The worst-case scenario is their presence will push the incumbents to play harder.
When you throw in the return of Landry, the reserves could be a strong suit for a Kings team that already finished last season ninth in bench scoring.