Ranking the 5 Deepest Teams in the NBA
The San Antonio Spurs 2013-14 title run was a testament to the value of unheralded virtues like teamwork and passing, a reminder that teams can win in this league without a trio of superstars in the primes of their careers.
It was also a compelling argument on behalf of depth.
Not only did head coach Gregg Popovich's egalitarian distribution of minutes preserve his best players for the postseason—it also gave everyone else a chance to grow.
"It also does develop the bench, give them some confidence to play," Popovich said of his rotation strategy, per NBA.com's Jeff Caplan. "And hopefully in the end when playoff time comes, sometimes it’s a role player that steps up in a certain game and has a heck of a night and helps you."
Indeed, player development can turn an unspectacular collection of names into a well-oiled machine seemingly overnight.
But talent plays an important role, too. The Spurs had plenty of that, as well, even if it was often in the form of uncelebrated role players like Boris Diaw or Patty Mills.
The importance of second units is nothing new, even if they're receiving unprecedented spotlight in the wake of San Antonio's lopsided Finals victory. It's often the depth of a team's rotation that sets it apart from other playoff-bound competition.
Here are five teams who've successfully operated with that principle in mind, positioning themselves as the deepest threats of the 2014-15 season.
5. Dallas Mavericks
Like Gregg Popovich and Tom Thibodeau, Rick Carlisle is one of those head coaches who knows how to get the most out of his team. His bench may not be characterized by big names or Sixth Man of the Year candidates, but you can rest assured it will consistently overachieve.
The signing of restricted free agent Chandler Parsons got most of the attention this summer (along with the trade for center Tyson Chandler), but the Mavericks quietly improved their rotation from a number of angles during the offseason.
It remains unclear who the starting point guard will be when the preseason dust settles, but Dallas will rely on a veteran platoon featuring Raymond Felton, Devin Harris and Jameer Nelson. It's not a group that wows you, but there's plenty of starting experience among them. Carlisle will have the opportunity to play with matchups and ride the hot hand, making the best of Jose Calderon's departure to the New York Knicks (in the deal for Tyson Chandler).
And while Dallas lost sixth man Vince Carter to free agency, it still has a number of options on the wing—especially with the new additions of veteran Richard Jefferson and defensive specialist Al-Farouq Aminu. Jefferson's veteran presence could be especially valuable to the second unit.
As ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon notes, "At a minimal price, Jefferson can provide the Mavs’ bench a perimeter threat and willing defender."
There may also be increased opportunity for 24-year-old Jae Crowder, who averaged just 16.1 minutes per contest last season.
The Mavericks' options behind Chandler and power forward Dirk Nowitzki are limited, but some combination of Brandan Wright, Ivan Johnson and Greg Smith should get the job done.
Again, they may not be the biggest names, but they're the kind of role players from whom Carlisle will get the most.
Dallas' starting lineup made huge strides with the addition of Parsons, but it may very well be the team's depth that keeps it in the title hunt.
4. Golden State Warriors
In welcoming guard Shaun Livingston to the operation, the Golden State Warriors instantly own one of the league's very deepest rosters.
Livingston could earn minutes behind either point guard Stephen Curry or shooting guard Klay Thompson, making him a versatile resource who should accrue plenty of playing time. The 28-year-old started 54 games for the Brooklyn Nets last season and became one of the club's most consistent producers and playmakers.
Golden State will also benefit from his length and defensive pedigree.
Important as Livingston's addition will be to the Warriors' fate this season, it shouldn't overshadow the development of young, in-house talent that's similarly ready to make a big impact. Harrison Barnes (age 22) and Draymond Green (age 24) are both coming into their own and offer new head coach Steve Kerr some flexibility at the forward positions.
Though Barnes' evolution was somewhat stunted upon losing his starting job to Andre Iguodala last season, he's still good for 25-30 minutes on any given night. He also has the potential to really blossom any day now.
Golden State quietly signed Brandon Rush this summer, further stabilizing the wing rotation and bringing back a key bench contributor from the 2011-12 campaign.
While Green can survive as an undersized power forward, the Warriors' frontcourt situation is slightly less reassuring than the rest of the second unit. Marreese Speights can score some points behind David Lee, but the big question mark is who spells oft-injured center Andrew Bogut.
Last season, that responsibility fell to Jermaine O'Neal. Should he return (rather than retire) Golden State's bases will be covered.
If he doesn't come back, the Warriors may need to make one more minor move.
3. Denver Nuggets
Two developments are poised to take the Denver Nuggets' depth to another level.
First, Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee and Nate Robinson are all set to return from significant season-ending injuries—giving head coach Brian Shaw the kind of resources he sorely missed for most of last season.
Second, the Nuggets acquired old friend Arron Afflalo by trade from the Orlando Magic. The Denver Post's Christopher Dempsey describes the 28-year-old as, "the frontrunner to be the Nuggets starting shooting guard next season," meaning the team can shift Randy Foye to the bench after he started 78 games for Denver last season.
Foye becomes just one of the club's impressive reserves.
Joining him in the backcourt is point guard Nate Robinson, a lightning-quick spark plug who averaged 10.4 points per game with Denver's second unit last season (before tearing his ACL in January).
Denver's riches on the wing could give Shaw some decisions to make. Gallinari's return ostensibly suggests Wilson Chandler will return to the bench after starting 55 games last season. Chandler primarily came off the bench during the 2012-13 campaign, but Shaw could alternatively elect to play Gallinari with the second unit—especially as he attempts to regain his form early in the season.
Either way, Denver is set at the small forward spot.
Similar decisions may await the frontcourt rotation. Kenneth Faried would seem to be the only sure thing as the club's starting power forward, with very capable bigs J.J. Hickson and Darrell Arthur adding some second-unit support.
At center, however, Shaw could either go with Timofey Mozgov or JaVale McGee. Mozgov started 30 games a season ago with McGee limited to action in just five games due to an early-season injury. During the 2012-13 campaign, McGee played all 79 of his games with the second unit.
Though undersized for the spot, Hickson has also seen some minutes at center.
As Nuggets.com's Aaron Lopez put it, "Shaw began [last] season with the philosophy that the starters could wear the opposition down and the reserves could 'wear 'em out.'"
With some health on their side, the Nuggets may now find themselves doing just that.
2. San Antonio Spurs
There's a reason the San Antonio Spurs marched to a title last season without playing any of their players 30 or more minutes during the regular season.
This bench—which remained virtually unchanged during the offseason—is deceptively one of the league's very best.
"We have a very deep bench that helps us," Spurs guard Danny Green said during the NBA Finals, per Spurs Nation's Dan McCarney. "All season we haven’t had to play anybody more than 30 minutes on average per game, which is big for us. Everybody’s getting the chance to rest. Nobody’s played major, crazy minutes, and that’s because we have such a deep bench that we can trust them to come in and get the job done. It helps us keep guys fresh."
That bench is led by Green's backup and perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate Manu Ginobili. The 37-year-old only averaged 22.8 minutes per game last season but continued to make a substantial impact as a scorer and playmaker alike.
The other primary contributor off the bench is veteran forward Boris Diaw, a versatile big man who passes as well as he rebounds. Diaw made a name for himself during the playoffs, emerging as one of the club's most consistent and dynamic weapons.
The 32-year-old was rewarded with a lucrative three-year deal this summer.
While the Spurs will certainly miss the injured Patty Mills for at least half the season, replacement Cory Joseph is better than you might think. The 23-year-old actually started 19 games last season and has ingratiated himself to the team on account of his lively defense.
Meanwhile, swingman Marco Belinelli is coming off a campaign in which he averaged 11.4 points per contest and converted on 43 percent of his three-point attempts. The marksman helps maintain San Antonio's elite floor spacing and gives head coach Gregg Popovich another shooter on a wing that otherwise relies on Green, Ginobili and 2014 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
It's unclear how soon rookie Kyle Anderson will figure into San Antonio's plans, but he'll certainly serve as insurance early on. The UCLA product has drawn comparisons to Diaw, but his minutes may be limited from the outset.
1. Chicago Bulls
A season ago, the Chicago Bulls roster frequently seemed overpowered by opponents who simply had more firepower. No matter how much head coach Tom Thibodeau's troops overachieved, they were limited by a talent deficit underscored by the absence of former MVP Derrick Rose.
Rose's return to health is a game-changer in the talent department, but this summer yielded broader changes for general manager Gar Forman's roster.
The biggest addition was forward-center Pau Gasol, a 34-year-old former All-Star who averaged 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per contest last season for the Los Angeles Lakers. While Gasol is expected to start, his presence allows Thibodeau to continue bringing power forward Taj Gibson off the bench—ensuring one of the league's deepest interior rotations.
Finally adding 2011 first-round draft pick Nikola Mirotic solidifies that rotation even further. The 23-year-old Spanish-Montenegrin import could be more polished than most NBA rookies, potentially making an early impact in Chicago.
The Bulls also got deeper on the wing, drafting Doug McDermott to complement swingmen Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy. Though it remains to be seen who will start at the small forward spot, Thibodeau will have options. The continued evolution of second-year man Tony Snell won't hurt either.
Perhaps most impressively, the backcourt suddenly goes from a team weakness to one of its biggest strengths.
After starting 121 regular-season games for the Bulls over the course of the last two years, Kirk Hinrich will now lend his services to the second unit—where he'll actually rank as one of the league's better reserve guards.
Even better, this summer's signing of Aaron Brooks provides some additional insurance at the point and affords Thibodeau a change-of-pace option who can score in a hurry.
Solid as this rotation is on paper, it's worth adding that Chicago has a habit of playing exceptional team defense—a tendency that's consistently had a way of trickling down even to sparingly used pieces. The Bulls also feature a nice mix of young and veteran talent throughout the rotation, ensuring a leadership presence at virtually all times.