Metrics 101: Ranking the Best Benches in the NBA
Depth matters in the NBA.
Sure, some teams can dominate with unstoppable starting fives. But the players in those lineups are still human. They'll need breaks throughout their 48-minute battles, and may even succumb to injuries that force them out of action for sustained stretches.
Winning is unnecessarily difficult without a quality bench.
In general, teams' non-starters are lesser players than those who open games on the court, and the total product coming off the pine provides below-average production. But there are exceptions, especially after a few organizations used the trade deadline to strengthen their backups.
In the interest of remaining purely objective, we're using NBA Math's total points added (TPA) to determine these rankings. By summing the two components of TPA—offensive points added and defensive points saved—for every bench player currently rostered by each team, we can determine the total amount of value every squad's backups have provided. (i.e. A score of zero indicates perfect averageness and anything higher is better.)
Because TPA accounts for volume and efficiency, the players who receive the largest share of minutes will impact the standings most. But everyone matters.
10. Detroit Pistons
Offensive Points Added: minus-179.22
Defensive Points Saved: 39.81
Total Points Added: minus-139.41
Offensive MVP: Tobias Harris (29.62)
Defensive MVP: Stanley Johnson (36.14)
The Detroit Pistons haven't solidified playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference, but it's hard to pin too much of the blame on the bench.
Reggie Jackson has been largely disappointing since returning from his knee injury, to the point he's often been outplayed by Ish Smith. And even with Jon Leuer (one of the team's legitimate two-way contributors) moving into the starting five and pushing Tobias Harris to the pine, there's across-the-board depth.
Most of it tends to come in the form of defense.
According to TPA, the Pistons have nine rostered players with above-average scores on the preventing end. Five of them come off the bench: Stanley Johnson (36.14), Aron Baynes (16.84), Smith (13.48), Harris (3.7) and Reggie Bullock (0.89).
Throw in slightly-below-average stoppers such as Boban Marjanovic (minus-2.2), and you can see why Detroit's bench has saved more points on defense than all but six other organizations.
Honorable Mentions: Denver Nuggets (minus-145.63 TPA), Milwaukee Bucks (minus-173.51 TPA), Los Angeles Clippers (minus-214.26 TPA), Boston Celtics (minus-216.49 TPA), Cleveland Cavaliers (minus-228.35 TPA)
9. New York Knicks
Offensive Points Added: minus-108.8
Defensive Points Saved: minus-12.85
Total Points Added: minus-121.65
Offensive MVP: Kyle O'Quinn (minus-1.78)
Defensive MVP: Kyle O'Quinn (62.33)
Kyle O'Quinn is the saving grace of the New York Knicks' bench.
Willy Hernangomez has shown flashes of impressive two-way ability, even though his season-long grades have him as a slight defensive positive and negligible offensive negative. Ron Baker and Mindaugas Kuzminskas have also displayed upside while going through typical rookie pitfalls. Chasson Randle (only just acquired after waiving Brandon Jennings, per The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski) was solid on offense during his brief stint with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Aside from Lance Thomas, whose 2016-17 campaign has been a massive disappointment, there are no glaring detractors. On the flip side, O'Quinn is the only player whose name should begin to come up in Sixth Man of the Year conversations.
There's a reason the Knicks were trying to get a first-round pick for the fifth-year center from Norfolk State, as reported by Frank Isola of the New York Daily News. He's been one of New York's few defensive stalwarts, happily using his strength and physicality to overcome a relative lack of height (6'10") when protecting the rim. And he's also chipped in an efficient 6.4 points per game while occasionally showing off his passing chops out of the post.
Not much has gone right for the Knicks in 2016-17. But with injuries and roster changes creating bigger opportunities for their young contributors, the bench may look even better by the end of the season.
Note: Now that Joakim Noah is out for the season, per ESPN.com's Ian Begley, either Hernangomez or O'Quinn should start alongside Kristaps Porzingis. For these purposes, we're still considering them both bench players, since injuries are the only reasons for their movement into the starting five.
8. Utah Jazz
Offensive Points Added: minus-188.1
Defensive Points Saved: 71.96
Total Points Added: minus-116.14
Offensive MVP: Joe Ingles (27.22)
Defensive MVP: Joe Ingles (54.43)
The Utah Jazz boast plenty of depth, but a lack of continuity has prevented them from rising any further up the rankings. Suffering through endless streams of key injuries, head coach Quin Snyder has constantly shuffled the starting lineup. Already, he's turned to 17 different starting fives—an astronomical figure for a contender that's acquired no new pieces during the season.
But no matter who Snyder brings in as substitutions, they tend to play quality defense. Boris Diaw, Alec Burks and Dante Exum have been the only minuses on that end, but each has typically performed like an average defender and only barely dragged down the bench's total score.
Offensive production has been tougher to find, though that's starting to change as Joe Johnson spends more of his time at power forward and Joe Ingles continues to thrive.
The Australian forward has flown well beneath the radar, but the Jazz have excelled when he's on the floor, thanks to his steady all-around play, underrated passing abilities and knack for connecting on 43.8 percent of his three-point attempts.
Ingles won't get any love in the Sixth Man of the Year race, but his fundamental excellence on defense and consistent offense have made him one of the NBA's most valuable all-around backups.
7. Memphis Grizzlies
Offensive Points Added: minus-111.26
Defensive Points Saved: 15.14
Total Points Added: minus-96.12
Offensive MVP: Troy Daniels (17.98)
Defensive MVP: Vince Carter (26.63)
Vince Carter apparently doesn't believe in Father Time, and not just because he can't stop throwing down transition slams while in his 40s.
"Despite what Earl Sweatshirt told you, Carter’s knee cartilage seems to be just fine," Max Gaegauf wrote for the Sports Quotient while highlighting an impressive defensive sequence against the Spurs. "Even at the age of 40 he is springy enough to swat LaMarcus Aldridge’s jump hook and quick enough to recover to swat Kyle Anderson’s strong layup attempt."
Carter has fully accepted his role with the Memphis Grizzlies—showing off enduring athleticism as a weak-side rim protector and perimeter stopper while only taking shots that come in rhythm. As a result, he's been an asset on both ends, something he's only done twice. (And that was during his prime years with the New Jersey Nets and Toronto Raptors, per NBA Math's TPA archives.)
James Ennis, Andrew Harrison and others have likewise been beneficial presences on the preventing end, while Troy Daniels has been the only other scoring asset. This is a deep bench, even if it doesn't contain too many big names outside a declining version of Zach Randolph.
But Carter is still rather easily the best story.
6. Golden State Warriors
Offensive Points Added: minus-95.21
Defensive Points Saved: 88.06
Total Points Added: minus-7.15
Offensive MVP: Andre Iguodala (24.12)
Defensive MVP: Andre Iguodala (48.24)
Remember when the Golden State Warriors had to sacrifice all their depth in the successful pursuit of Kevin Durant? Gone from last year's 73-win roster are Leandro Barbosa, Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Brandon Rush, Marreese Speights and Anderson Varejao.
But it hasn't mattered.
According to NBA.com, the 2015-16 Warriors' bench outscored the opposition by 5.1 points per 100 possessions, which left it trailing only the Toronto Raptors (7.0) and San Antonio Spurs (10.9). This year's Warriors have actually upped that net rating to a sterling 6.7, good for second place.
So, why don't the Dubs rank even better here? Andre Iguodala has still been fantastic, and he's joined by veritable hordes of players who have taken to Golden State's system with aplomb.
Quality deadlines acquisitions have pushed a few squads past the defending Western Conference champions, who remained stagnant while the rumor mill churned. They've also failed to play the same number of minutes as many of the other top benches, since health has been on their side throughout the 2016-17 campaign. (TPA does take volume into account, as it's often tougher for second-stringers to maintain high levels of efficiency when receiving big minutes.)
Could the Warriors' bench handle more run? Head coach Steve Kerr presumably hopes he never has to find out.
5. Dallas Mavericks
Offensive Points Added: minus-88.76
Defensive Points Saved: 121.13
Total Points Added: 32.37
Offensive MVP: J.J. Barea (11.89)
Defensive MVP: Salah Mejri (58.23)
The Dallas Mavericks' second unit isn't filled with household names, but it has been quietly producing as the team digs itself out of an early-season hole. Even without Andrew Bogut, who was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in a deadline deal for Nerlens Noel, head coach Rick Carlisle has numerous defensive stalwarts to call upon.
Salah Mejri has been fantastic in small minutes, even if he's allowing 50.2 percent shooting at the rim, per NBA.com. His impact comes more from his constant desire to mix it up inside, as he's contesting a ridiculous 11.9 shots per 36 minutes and still finding time to hedge hard and recover against pick-and-roll ball-handlers.
Dwight Powell and Dorian Finney-Smith have also been commendable defenders in the frontcourt, even if neither should be left alone as the last man between the opposition and the basket.
"[Owner Mark] Cuban went on to say that Finney-Smith studies other teams’ offensive sets, neuroanalytics, and 'takes advantage of every tool that we have.' He also compared him to players like Marquis Daniels, Josh Howard, Shawn Marion, and Jason Kidd in the way he focuses on improving defensively," Doyle Rader wrote for Mavs Moneyball in December.
The improvement has just kept coming for the unheralded rookie.
Offensive stalwarts have been tougher to come by on Carlisle's bench; J.J. Barea is actually the team's only non-starter with an above-average score. But when so many different players can defend and give the bench a distinct identity, that's far less detrimental.
4. Houston Rockets
Offensive Points Added: 223.2
Defensive Points Saved: minus-185.2
Total Points Added: 38
Offensive MVP: Lou Williams (172.9)
Defensive MVP: Nene (21.4)
The rich got richer at the deadline.
By sending Corey Brewer and a first-round pick to the Los Angeles Lakers for Lou Williams, the Houston Rockets managed to pair their frontrunner in the Sixth Man of the Year race with another.
But as head coach Mike D'Antoni told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle about Williams, "And now, he'll be seventh man so he can't win the Sixth Man Award. We locked Eric [Gordon] in there. For the record, he's seventh man."
Williams was one of the NBA's most valuable offensive players while wearing purple and gold, thanks to his penchant for drawing whistles and converting at the stripe. And his success has carried over to the opening salvo of his Rockets tenure, as he's averaged 22 points on 13.5 field-goal attempts during his first two appearances.
The combination of Williams and Gordon is dynamite on offense, especially with efficient offensive frontcourt contributors such as Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker factored in. But the defensive woes can't be overlooked, and that's what drags Houston outside of the top three.
This bench has added more points on offense than any other, but only the Sacramento Kings have provided less defensive value.
3. Toronto Raptors
Offensive Points Added: minus-43.32
Defensive Points Saved: 129.9
Total Points Added: 86.58
Offensive MVP: Patrick Patterson (13.39)
Defensive MVP: Lucas Nogueira (109)
The Toronto Raptors can enjoy even more frontcourt depth with Serge Ibaka coming to town.
Pascal Siakam has been a strong defender during his rookie season, Patrick Patterson is still capable of spacing the floor and Lucas Nogueira has quietly been one of the league's most impactful defensive presences. Though the Brazilian 7-footer hasn't garnered much national attention, he ranks within the top 10 of NBA Math's leaderboard for defensive points saved despite playing fewer minutes than everyone else in the top 25.
Oh, and the Raptors now get to enjoy the physical defense of P.J. Tucker at small forward (and power forward in smaller lineups) after acquiring him from the Phoenix Suns at the trade deadline. He should mitigate the loss of wing depth after Terrence Ross' departure to the Orlando Magic. Even if Tucker can't rediscover the perimeter jumper that made him a three-and-D threat a few seasons ago, his work as a stopper and glass-eater will prove valuable.
Offense will be an issue for Toronto's bench, especially with Cory Joseph likely moving into the starting five while Kyle Lowry's wrist heals from surgery. But with Norman Powell, Tucker, Siakam and Nogueira potentially sharing the court at times, it might be impossible to score on the Raptors' non-starters.
2. Miami Heat
Offensive Points Added: minus-3.34
Defensive Points Saved: 90.47
Total Points Added: 97.13
Offensive MVP:Tyler Johnson (27.96)
Defensive MVP: James Johnson (62.35)
Though Rodney McGruder and Willie Reed, among others, have been solid minute-eaters off the Miami Heat bench, it's Tyler Johnson and James Johnson who have excelled in multiple ways.
Each has stood out as a positive on both ends, to the point that they're Nos. 2 and 3 in TPA on the entire Miami roster, trailing only Goran Dragic during the point guard's resurgent season.
Tyler Johnson has consistently served as a pesky and active defender, but it's on offense where he shines most. Though injuries hampered him during the middle portion of the season, he's shown (once again) that he's capable of knocking down perimeter jumpers and finishing shots around the rim—plus, he's proficient when serving as a primary distributor in a pinch.
James Johnson has been even more valuable: During his time with the Toronto Raptors, he was limited to a more traditional role. But Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra has allowed him to handle the rock and showcase the full extent of his skills, which has resulted in his per-game averages of 12.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists—all career highs.
1. San Antonio Spurs
Offensive Points Added: minus-4.8
Defensive Points Saved: 176.26
Total Points Added: 171.46
Offensive MVP: Patty Mills (69.1)
Defensive MVP: Dewayne Dedmon (66.36)
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich could take a bench lineup composed of myself and the first four people who read this article and turn it into a quality bunch.
So it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that he's morphed his team's second unit into an absolute juggernaut.
Dewayne Dedmon, Kyle Anderson and Jonathon Simmons are all quality defenders at their respective positions. Even David Lee has been a point-preventing plus while operating in a system that makes up for his lack of mobility. Patty Mills remains a dynamic scorer, while Lee and Manu Ginobili refuse to slow down in accordance with their advancing ages.
San Antonio even has the best rookie no one has heard of: Davis Bertans. He has used his athleticism and intelligence to make a positive impact on both ends.
Because the Spurs didn't make any deadline moves and have enjoyed health for much of the season (Pau Gasol's injuries, which have temporarily forced Dedmon into the starting five, notwithstanding), their bench's net rating should be telling. And it's been nothing short of stellar, outscoring the opposition by a league-best 10.6 points per 100 possessions.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.