The Brooklyn Nets' starting five consists of an All-Star at each position and has received a great deal of attention since the team acquired Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett over the summer. Yet, it is the Nets' bench that will make or break their hopes of winning a championship this season.
Last year's Indiana Pacers demonstrated that a great starting lineup alone is not enough to bring home a title. Indiana's starting five was the second-most efficient five-man unit in the league, with an offensive rating of 108.6, per NBA.com, and had its way with the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, but a dismal bench was their undoing.
Brooklyn's bench is even more crucial to the team’s success based on the age of its starting five, particularly Pierce and Garnett, who are 36 and 37 years old, respectively.
The aging stars were forced to log heavy minutes for the Boston Celtics last season due to a lack of depth and an injury to Rajon Rondo. They were gassed by the end of the of the Celtics' first-round loss to the New York Knicks. The Nets' depth will allow first-year coach Jason Kidd to keep K.G., Pierce and the rest of the starting five (Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez) fresh for the playoffs.
Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News reported in August that Kidd is even considering resting Garnett on the second night of back-to-backs:
Brooklyn's bench was average at best last season, ranking 20th in points scored (30.4 per game) and 12th in efficiency differential (+1.2), via HoopsStats.com. Despite being over the salary cap and having few cap exceptions to work with, general manager Billy King significantly upgraded the Nets' second unit over the offseason.
King landed former Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry in the Garnett/Pierce trade and signed free agents Andrei Kirilenko, Shaun Livingston and Alan Anderson. They join returning reserves Andray Blatche, Reggie Evans and Mirza Teletovic to form a talented, versatile and deep bench.
The Nets' second unit boasts three players who averaged double figures in scoring last season (Terry, Blatche and Kirilenko) and Reggie Evans, who ranked sixth in the league in rebounds per game.
Jason Terry: 26.9 mpg, 10.1 ppg, 43.4 field-goal pct.
Andrei Kirilenko: 31.8 mpg, 12.4 ppg, 50.7 field-goal pct.
Andray Blatche: 19 mpg, 10.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 51.2 field-goal pct.
Reggie Evans: 24.6 mpg, 4.5 ppg, 11.1 repg, 47.9 field-goal pct.
Kirilenko may be the Nets' most valuable bench player. He is an excellent passer who contributes without needing plays called for him, which makes him a nice complement to the scorers on the starting unit. His ability to defend both forward spots allows him to spell Garnett and Pierce, and his long arms will pose problems for the elite small forwards in the Eastern Conference such as Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and LeBron James.
Kidd can go with a big second unit of Kirilenko, Evans and Blatche, which could match up well against the physical front lines of the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers in the playoffs or play Kirilenko at the 4 with Pierce, Joe Johnson or Teletovic at the 3 vs. teams like the Miami Heat that like to play small ball.
Blatche resurrected his career with the Nets last season and should continue to mature under Garnett’s tutelage. The former Washington Wizard averaged an impressive 19.5 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 1.3 blocked shots per 36 minutes, while shooting over 50 percent from the field.
The Nets' versatility extends to the backcourt as well. Terry is a streaky shooter with a championship pedigree who can serve as a primary or secondary ball-handler. The Nets need him to be a spark plug for the second unit and are hoping that his poor season with the Celtics was an aberration, rather than the beginning of the end for the 14-year veteran.
Livingston appears to regain a little more athleticism each year after a devastating knee injury in 2007 nearly ended his career. He is not the three-point threat last year’s backup point guard C.J. Watson was, though he knows how to run an offense and at 6'7'' can defend shooting guards as well as point guards.
Brooklyn's depth extends beyond its second unit. Teletovic had a disappointing rookie season, though he could develop into a deep threat by improving on his 34 percent shooting from downtown. Anderson gives the Nets another solid wing defender, and the team's first-round draft pick, Mason Plumlee, is an athletic 7-footer who is ready to play meaningful minutes if necessary.
The early returns have been positive for the Nets' reserves. They are averaging 36.2 points per game, up 6.2 points from last season, via HoopsStats.com, and are receiving contributions from several players. Kirilenko, Anderson, Livingston, Blatche and Terry are all scoring between 5.8 and 7.8 points per game, and Evans is grabbing 11.6 rebounds per 36 minutes in limited action.
If Brooklyn's bench continues to produce and solidify the rotation in the event of an injury, the Nets could contend for their first NBA championship.