Starters and stars get all the glory, but a deep NBA bench is a critical element of any team's regular-season success.
Key reserves take the pressure off of a team's marquee talents, allowing A-listers to reach the postseason in some semblance of good health. Plus, some particularly dynamic backups provide the kind of spark off the bench that comes in handy during the course of the occasionally monotonous 82-game regular season.
On the flip side, a lack of competent reserves can spell disaster for even the most dangerous starting units. The injury bug never seems to bite at a good time, so it's always important to have able reinforcements on hand.
As we go through the best bench units in the league, keep in mind that quality trumps quantity. So if one club has three excellent starting-caliber reserves, it'll rank ahead of a team that has five or six so-so substitutes.
In addition, it's vital that the bench talent fits in with the starters. It doesn't do a team any good to have a half-dozen one-dimensional scorers on the pine when it needs someone to defend the rim or distribute the rock. Just ask the Sacramento Kings.
The first team to crack the list is also the first proof that quality counts. The San Antonio Spurs earn their spot here almost entirely on the strength of three key reserves.
Manu Ginobili, Marco Belinelli and Boris Diaw are all extremely skilled players who have spent good chunks of their careers as starters. Even Ginobili, whom most people consider the league's exemplary "super sub," has started 346 games in his NBA tenure.
Belinelli comes over from the Chicago Bulls and should fit nicely into the role vacated by Gary Neal. He'll provide scoring and sound team defense.
Diaw is among the league's most creative passing big men, and he has proved in the past that he can do excellent work with a front-running team. As long as the Spurs are a playoff team, the Frenchman will be a terrific rotation piece.
And then there's Ginobili, who famously fell apart when the Spurs needed him most.
His 2012-13 NBA Finals performance is going to sting for a while in San Antonio, but Ginobili is still an ideal bench weapon. He can run the Spurs' offense in relief of Tony Parker, and defenses still fear his reckless, free-wheeling style.
With obligatory nods to Matt Bonner and Cory Joseph, San Antonio is in great shape off the bench.
If even one of the Miami Heat's two big offseason gambles pays off, there's a chance that the defending champs could make this ranking look pretty ridiculous.
But because the sudden rejuvenation of Michael Beasley or Greg Oden seems like such a long shot, it feels like the Heat are properly ranked for the time being.
Ray Allen is another year older, but he hit 42 percent of his triples last year. There's every reason to believe he'll continue to give Miami the shooting specialist it needs.
Norris Cole has been one of the league's worst statistical players during his two-year tenure, but he showed signs of real progress during the Heat's latest title run.
Up front, Miami will bring Chris Andersen back to provide energy, shot-blocking and a few key rebounds per game. And depending on how the Heat structure their starting five, either Shane Battier or Udonis Haslem will be available as frontcourt bench options.
Miami's in good shape if Beasley and Oden both fail to deliver. But if B-Eazy gets himself together, the Heat will have a uniquely talented scoring option off the bench. And if Oden somehow stays healthy, he'd represent a devastatingly effective weapon at the 5. His interior presence, rebounding and defense would give the Heat just the kind of muscle they'll need to tangle with some of the East's bruising front lines.
Miami checks in at No. 9 for now. But with a little luck, it could jump up the rankings in a hurry.
Like the Spurs, the Chicago Bulls don't boast an especially deep bench, but their projected eight-man rotation looks fantastic.
New acquisition Mike Dunleavy is on board at a discount, ready to drill threes and keep the ball moving on the perimeter. Over the past three seasons, Dunleavy has connected on 41 percent of his three-point attempts.
Not since Kyle Korver left town have the Bulls had such a reliable long-range option.
Kirk Hinrich will return to the bench with Derrick Rose taking control of the starting point guard job. Much better suited to running a second unit, Hinrich will be free to facilitate without the pressure of starting.
And Taj Gibson gives the Bulls one of the league's very best reserve bigs. An aggressive defender who gets up and down the floor extremely well, he ensures that Chicago loses very little when either Carlos Boozer or Joakim Noah needs a break.
With the way Tom Thibodeau runs his starters into the ground, the Bulls don't need much more than the three terrific reserves they've got.
Only the Portland Trail Blazers sported a worse bench than the Indiana Pacers last year. After watching its reserves routinely give back whatever gains the Pacers' starters accumulated during the postseason, Indy went into the summer with an eye toward shoring up a particularly shoddy cast of subs.
D.J. Augustin, Tyler Hansbrough and Sam Young are gone. In their places, the Pacers brought in Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland. Ian Mahinmi is still a decent backup 5, but the new additions have transformed the Indiana bench from one of the worst outfits in the league to one of the best.
And if Danny Granger can finally get healthy, look out.
The Pacers' starting five is elite, bettered last year by only the Oklahoma City Thunder's first unit in terms of net plus/minus, per NBA.com.
With a top-10 bench, the Pacers will be equipped to get through the regular season without burning out veterans like David West.
That could make all the difference in Indy's upcoming title pursuit.
The Denver Nuggets are loaded once again.
The offseason departures of Corey Brewer, Andre Iguodala and Kosta Koufos definitely lowered the team's ceiling, but by bringing J.J. Hickson, Darrell Arthur and Nate Robinson aboard, the Nuggets ensured that they'll be able to trot out at least a 10-man rotation this season.
As discussed earlier, quantity usually doesn't matter as much as quality. But for Denver, a team forever committed to running, depth is critical. Last season, Denver's bench was second in the league in scoring, averaging 41.3 points per game, per HoopsStats.com.
Wilson Chandler and Andre Miller are probably the Nuggets' best holdover reserves, but Robinson and Hickson both figure to play major minutes as well. Toss in the potential development of Evan Fournier and Timofey Mozgov, and Denver can pretty easily reach all the way down to its 11th man before it runs out of worthy rotation pieces.
There's no way this team finishes third in the Western Conference in 2013-14, but it should be able to contend for a playoff spot with its remarkably deep pool of reserves.
A lackluster 41-41 season helped the Dallas Mavericks fly way under the radar last year.
That's probably why most people don't realize the Mavs had the highest-scoring bench in the NBA, per HoopsStats.com.
Some of that had to do with the fact that Dallas also used its bench players for more total minutes than any other club. But on the whole, the Mavericks got efficient production from Vince Carter and Brandan Wright, easily the team's best bench players.
Carter surprised everyone by tossing up his most impressive season in a half-decade. In a bizarre final chapter to his career, the guy who used to be known for gravity-defying dunks and quitting on his team in Toronto has canned the highlights in favor of the selfless work of a second-unit leader.
Wright, back in town on a modest two-year deal, is an advanced-stat darling. His PER of 21.00 last year may represent his peak, but as a backup big, he'll continue to give the Mavs length, rebounding and high-efficiency scoring.
In addition to that duo, the Mavericks will bring in Wayne Ellington to shoot threes, Devin Harris to push the pace and DeJuan Blair to provide energy.
Besides those three, Dallas boasts a trifecta of young guards, Shane Larkin, Gal Mekel and Ricky Ledo, who might surprise.
The overall record might hover around .500 once again, but just like last year, the Mavs are going to have a terrific bench.
The positions might not work out perfectly, but in Jason Terry, Andrei Kirilenko, Mirza Teletovic, Reggie Evans and Andray Blatche, the Brooklyn Nets have a five-man unit to be proud of. As starters, that group could probably handle itself well against the first units of a number of Eastern Conference opponents.
But that bunch will be coming off the pine for the Nets this year.
It's possible that Terry's decline will continue, and there's no way to know how much longer Blatche will manage to stay motivated. But on paper, Brooklyn's subs are as dangerous as they are well-rounded.
There's plenty of scoring between Terry and Teletovic, Kirilenko can guard three positions, and Evans will take care of the glass. Really, the Nets have an embarrassment of riches on the pine—which, I guess, is what you get when your owner is embarrassingly rich.
Alright, I'll admit that the Houston Rockets' bench doesn't boast quite the depth of some of the teams we've covered so far.
But it's possible that Omer Asik and Patrick Beverley—both of whom figure to fill reserve roles this year—are the two best players on this list.
Asik is a top-notch defender who ranked fourth in the NBA in rebound rate last season, per ESPN. There might be four or five teams in the league for whom he'd come off the bench, and now that Dwight Howard is in Houston, the Rockets happen to be one of them.
That's unfortunate for Asik, who wasn't happy with the D12 acquisition and requested a trade shortly after the deal was done. But assuming Kevin McHale can keep his backup big man happy, the Rockets easily have the best frontcourt bench player in the league.
Beverley is also a starting-caliber guard. He showed during the postseason that he could produce like a member of the first unit, and it's still possible that he'll wrest control of point guard duties from incumbent starter Jeremy Lin.
Terrence Jones has a ton of potential, Donatas Motiejunas may yet become the stretch-4 Houston craves, and Greg Smith is comically underrated. Toss in veterans Marcus Camby and Ronnie Brewer, and you can see how there's plenty of insurance behind the Rockets' key players.
It's possible that Beverley and Asik both wind up starting, but for now, they give Houston depth that is unquestionably elite.
A massive 50-ton caveat is necessary before we start to talk about the New York Knicks' bench: Coach Mike Woodson is going to have to figure out how to use this ill-fitting collection of talent. If he can do that, the Knicks will justify this ranking.
If he can't, well...things could go bad in a hurry for New York.
Anyway, the Knicks reserves are absolutely loaded with scoring punch.
J.R. Smith earned himself the Sixth Man of the Year award last season, and Amar'e Stoudemire put up the league's 13th-best PER figure among qualified players, per ESPN. Granted, STAT missed all but 29 games a year ago and he couldn't defend a folding chair. But man, did that guy score efficiently when he was on the floor.
Also looking to contribute in the scoring department this year will be Andrea Bargnani, a new acquisition who's likely to start. This is the part where things get tricky for Woodson, as he'll have to find a way to utilize Stoudemire and Bargs in a way that doesn't totally undercut any hope of solid defense up front.
Rounding out the forward options, Metta World Peace is back home in New York. He could provide the defensive presence the Knicks badly need. He's over the hill, but if he hasn't tumbled too far down the other side, he'll be helpful.
Pablo Prigioni and Beno Udrih bring capable ball-handling and scoring from the guard spots, and Kenyon Martin will knock heads when necessary.
Ultimately, there's a lot to like about New York's talent on the pine. Assuming Woodson figures out a way to push the right buttons, this is a group that—on paper—could do real damage in 2013-14. Training camp will go a long way toward determining whether they'll fit well enough to deliver on the court.
Maybe you hate the way Jamal Crawford pounds the dribble and hoists contested jumpers as his primary offensive option. Maybe you find Matt Barnes' tough-guy posturing tiresome. Maybe I agree with you.
But we've all got to admit that last year, both of those guys were pretty darn effective.
They knew their roles and executed them perfectly. And now they'll have help from a revamped cast of specialists.
Darren Collison, playing on his fourth team in five years, was clearly miscast as a starter a couple of seasons ago. He's definitely not a first-unit player, and there's no way he reproduces the spark that the departed Eric Bledsoe generated last year.
But Collison is a good NBA player. He's certainly capable of delivering as a better-than-average backup. Behind Chris Paul, he'll be counted on to run the offense.
With Crawford handling the shot-creation and Barnes cutting all over the floor, that should be easy.
Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens will both stretch the floor, with Mullens hopefully using his underrated athleticism to drive past big men who close out on him too aggressively. Jamison is on his last legs, but the guy can still chase down rebounds and toss in a handful of garbage points without ever needing a play drawn up for him.
There's tremendous value in garbage scorers on NBA benches, and even if this doesn't sound like a compliment, Jamison is an all-time-great garbage man.
Rookie Reggie Bullock completely understands his role, which is a rare thing for such a young player. He can shoot the ball and he projects as a good wing defender, which, as D.J. Foster wrote during summer league, is nothing to sneeze at.
The Clips have what looks like a rag-tag bunch of castoffs and unproven players on their bench. None of them have the kind of well-rounded game that belongs in a starting lineup. And that's part of what makes them so good as backups.
They belong there, using whatever NBA skills they've got to patch together a great—if imperfect—second unit.
They also belong in the No. 1 spot on our rankings.