Bench scoring is extremely overrated. Moreover, the cries that the Golden State Warriors have the worst bench in the league due to their league-low 23.0 bench points per game are misguided.
The Warriors bench has struggled mightily this season, but this is not best exemplified by the number of points they score.
The primary reason that the team is last in the NBA in bench production is that their reserves play the second-fewest minutes in the league. This has as much to do with the strength of the starters as it does with the weaknesses of the bench.
That, and the worst bench-shooting percentage in the league (38.6 percent).
But there is still more to a bench than scoring and even scoring efficiency. There's rebounding, defense and ability to take care of the basketball. Just like a starting unit, the second string should be evaluated in all phases of the game.
The Warriors bench leads the entire league in rebounds per minute, block the third-most shots per minute and are in the middle of the pack in turnovers per minute.
So while the lack of scoring is troubling, the perception that it's the NBA's worst second unit is a little extreme.
That being said, the bench is bad. Only Draymond Green and the injured Jermaine O'Neal post positive plus-minus ratings, and two key reserves—Harrison Barnes and Marreese Speights—are posting upsetting differentials.
Speights has the more egregious number, as opponents have outscored the Warriors by 157 points when he is on the floor this season. This is the 30th-worst differential in the league, and the worst for any player on a winning team.
Numbers one through 29 all play for one of the league's eight-worst teams.
Barnes is minus-77 on the season, meaning he has the seventh-worst plus-minus on a winning team. While Speights' number is worse, Barnes' is more disappointing.
The second-year small forward was expected by many to be the best bench player in the entire league this season, and he does not have the excuse of playing out of position (the power forward Speights has played center for most of the season due to injuries).
One of the six guys putting up a worse plus-minus for a good team is Toney Douglas, the former-Warriors point guard who now rides pine for the Miami Heat.
While this indicates that an even more atrocious bench was present for most of the season, it also shows that the front office is actively correcting the problem.
The Douglas trade brought Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks to Oakland, and Crawford has given the bench a substantial spark.
After struggling to become acclimated for a few games, Crawford has slowly begun to transform the second unit. Despite the hellish shooting percentages, the biggest weakness of Golden State's bench was the lack of a primary ball-handler and facilitator. He has a 2.4/1 assist-to-turnover ratio over his past five games, and he's posted a positive plus-minus rating despite cold shooting that is sure to turn around.
More importantly, Crawford's presence has helped Barnes get back on track.
During a 22-game stretch lasting from Dec. 15 to Jan. 28, Barnes averaged 6.7 points and 3.4 rebounds on 32.4 percent shooting. The numbers are ugly enough, but watching Barnes play was far tougher. A player who seemed to be blossoming into a star last postseason looked worse than he ever had before.
Had someone tuned in who was completely unfamiliar with the Warriors' roster, they could have mistaken any of those 22 games for Barnes' NBA debut.
While he has yet to find his shot, it seems as if his confidence and aggressiveness is finally back. Barnes has grabbed nine offensive rebounds in the past two games, and just about all of them have been the result of increased effort. He has also put up 18 total points in the two games, and while that still leaves him below his season average of 10.1, the way he has scored them—by attacking the basket—is encouraging.
Crawford's addition has not made things much easier for Speights, but O'Neal's impending return should do the trick. Speights has not had a particularly poor season, but has been forced to be the backup center with O'Neal and Festus Ezeli out with long-term injuries.
Speights—a poor interior defender even for a power forward—is simply incompetent as the second unit's rim protector. With O'Neal likely back sometime during February, Speights will be able to slide back to the 4 and thus improving both reserve frontcourt spots.
Despite things looking up, there are still some glaring holes in the bench. Another member of the "bad plus-minus on a good team" brigade is Kent Bazemore, whose minus-125 rating trails only Speights on the list.
Barnes is fully capable of turning it around and showing signs of life. Speights is being asked to do too much, which will change soon. Bazemore is simply not playing at an NBA level despite a less-than-demanding role.
The sophomore shooting guard had one thing going for him last year: defense. This season, he has struggled to defend, and his offense has never been viable. He has no outside shot (25.7 percent from deep) and cannot make plays (more turnovers than assists). The one thing he can do is get to the line, but his 53.1 free-throw percentage hardly makes it worthwhile.
His inability to contribute has forced starting-2 guard Klay Thompson to play more minutes than any player in the NBA this season, and his fatigue has begun to show.
Even at full strength, the Warriors will have a hole at backup shooting guard. The only way to fix this problem outside of another trade is for Jackson to reconfigure his substitution patterns.
Playing Crawford and Stephen Curry together is one option, as the pairing bears resemblance to that of Curry and Jarrett Jack last season. Crawford has nowhere near the savvy or playmaking abilities of Jack, but his status as a combo guard who can create his own shot, break down the defense and find open teammates would allow Curry to operate off the ball as he did last season with Jack.
The other option is playing Iguodala more with the second unit and Barnes more with the first. Iguodala's presence would improve the team's defense with the reserves in, allow them to get easier baskets in transition and would give the team two ball handlers and playmakers just as well as having Curry at the 2.
Giving Barnes more minutes with the starters would allow him to exploit mismatches in the post, attack weaker defenders and sneak in for putbacks like he did so well last season. This would also increase the team's bench points per game, for what it's worth.
The Warriors bench is slowly improving, and with some coaching adjustments should be a league average or slightly better unit come playoff time.
Whether or not they can get this team to the Conference Finals or further is still dependent on making another move.
The shooting is still terrible, and championship teams simply need knockdown shooters on their bench. There's not a Matt Bonner, Derek Fisher or a Mike Miller on this roster. Even if Curry and Thompson combine to hit 500 threes this season, the difference between winning and losing a playoff series will probably come down to one open look for Draymond Green.
This is a scary thought. At least Warriors fans can take some solace in the fact that the bench is starting to come together, and that they are in fact two healthy big men and easily attainable spot-up shooter away from real title contention.
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