Ranking The 7 Deepest NBA Teams This Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesFeatured Columnist IVMarch 7, 2023

Ranking The 7 Deepest NBA Teams This Season

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    Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown
    Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and Jaylen BrownMegan Briggs/Getty Images

    The NBA playoffs, when rotations shorten and stars spend more time on the floor, are roughly one month away. That means the value of roster depth is about to undergo its annual decline.

    So, let's celebrate it while we still can.

    The approach here may seem to cut against the conventional understanding of depth, which tends to focus much more on quantity than quality. That way of thinking has always felt wrong. Who cares if a team has 11 players who can take the floor without embarrassing themselves? That can't be the bar to clear. What really matters, and what should be much more important in the depth discussion, is quality.

    Sorry if this is controversial, but we're defining deep teams as the ones with the most players who are actually, well...good.

    To make the cut here, the player in question has to measurably help his team win over relatively large samples. Finding those guys requires some statistical cutoffs.

    To count toward his team's total, the player must have a box plus/minus of at least plus-0.1, indicating he has positively impacted his team's success when on the floor, and he has to have seen enough court time to qualify for the minutes-per-game leaderboard.

    As we run through the deepest teams in the league this year, you'll note that many of them belong on the short list of contenders. So maybe regular-season depth and playoff success are more closely related than some narratives would have you believe.

7. Phoenix Suns

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    Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Chris Paul
    Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Chris PaulKent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

    Positive BPM Contributors (4): Kevin Durant (7.2), Devin Booker (4.4), Chris Paul (2.7), Deandre Ayton (1.4)

    Here's the new high-end quartet for the suddenly terrifying Phoenix Suns, a team you might not have expected to see here. But hey, our criteria are tough, and even if you want to ding Phoenix for getting to count Kevin Durant, keep in mind that Mikal Bridges and the plus-1.0 BPM he amassed with the Suns still would have given them five qualified players.

    Had Cameron Johnson logged a few more minutes (and not also been traded), he would have made it six. Josh Okogie was on the positive BPM list as well until stat updates came in from games played March 5, dropping him from plus-0.1 to minus-0.2.

    If you're still hung up on the conventional notion of depth, the Suns are built to give you what you want. Because Phoenix can stagger its pair of superstar scorers, keeping either Durant or Devin Booker on the court at all times, it'll be easier for the eighth and ninth men we're mostly ignoring for this exercise to focus on their niche roles and bring something positive to the table.

    Okogie was a last-second cut, but he's a good example of that theory. A defensive specialist who can't create his own shots and needs the space created by elite scorers to get his corner threes off, the burly wing will look even better going forward. It's easier for role players to be productive when sharing all of their minutes with at least one All-NBA star.

    It's surprising that none of Phoenix's other support pieces graded out high enough for inclusion. Damion Lee owns a 61.2 true shooting percentage, Ish Wainwright offers uncommon heft and physicality at forward, Torrey Craig has has provided three-and-D usefulness for several teams, Landry Shamet is still dangerous when left open and Cameron Payne was once among the best backup point guards around. Every one of them has a negative BPM this season. Craig and Lee are the only ones from that group to top 800 minutes.

    It's hard to avoid thinking that if the Suns' stars had stayed healthier (or, in Durant's case, been on the team all year), they'd have seven or eight qualified players. A rising superstar tide lifts all boats.

6. Los Angeles Lakers

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    LeBron James and Anthony Davis
    LeBron James and Anthony DavisJonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    Positive BPM Contributors (5): Anthony Davis (6.7), LeBron James (6.2), Jarred Vanderbilt (2.2), D'Angelo Russell (1.1), Mo Bamba (0.6)

    Like the Suns, it's similarly strange to see the Los Angeles Lakers appear in a discussion on depth. For most of this season, they've been a two-man show flanked by insufficient support.

    But the numbers say what they say, and this updated version of the Lakers actually has some quality behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

    Several teams are technically tied with the Lakers' five positive BPM contributors, but we had to slot L.A. in the lowest position (though it's still better than 23 other teams!) because of the shallow pre-trade-deadline roster. Even now, three of the Lakers' five entries—Vanderbilt, Russell and Bamba—have barely played for the team.

    It also doesn't help that James and Russell are currently injured, and Davis has had his own struggles on the health front this season.

    The Lakers' deadline moves significantly upgraded the roster. If L.A. goes on an improbable run to make the postseason, it'll be because all of these new additions provide the spacing, playmaking and defensive energy the pre-deadline iteration of the team lacked.

    Well, actually, it'll be because James miraculously returns to the floor and looks like himself after missing (hopefully) just three weeks with his foot injury. But these other guys will help, too.

    Though they didn't post the required positive BPM numbers to qualify, several other Lakers bring at least one useful attribute to the table as well. Malik Beasley is a high-volume sniper capable of commanding tons of defensive attention, Austin Reaves has a glistening 66.6 true shooting percentage and Troy Brown Jr. is probably second only to Vanderbilt in terms of general defensive scrappiness.

5. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Jrue Holiday, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton
    Jrue Holiday, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris MiddletonAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

    Positive BPM Contributors (5): Giannis Antetokounmpo (8.1), Jrue Holiday (3.4), Brook Lopez (1.9), Bobby Portis (1.0), Grayson Allen (0.5)

    The minutes cutoff is hurting the Milwaukee Bucks here, as neither Khris Middleton nor new addition Jae Crowder count toward their total. It's alarming to note that Middleton also wouldn't qualify for the positive-value threshold either, but most of his minus-0.3 BPM owes to his slow, injury-riddled start to the season.

    Middleton has come on as of late and has been quietly vital to keeping the Bucks afloat when Giannis Antetokounmpo sits. Middleton-led units that don't feature Giannis have outscored opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions.

    The Bucks get the nod over the Lakers, who also had five players making the cut, because their quintet has been on their roster all season. Milwaukee was in desperate need of a playoff-caliber fifth starter (which may be Crowder), but both Allen and Portis have been positive contributors on balance.

    Allen might as well be wearing a bullseye on his back with the way opponents attack him, but he's also a double-digit scorer who's shooting 41.6 percent from deep. For a Bucks team that always wants to create as much space in the paint for Giannis as possible, Allen's shooting matters.

    Portis' tendency to stop the ball and hunt self-created shots may not contribute to offensive flow, but he's had positive BPM figures three years running. It's hard to argue with those results, and Portis' 43.8 percent three-point shooting (7-of-16) in only 16.6 minutes per game during the 2021 Finals proved that he could offer help outside the board-hoarding, volume-scoring realm.

    In addition to that quintet, the Bucks also trust Pat Connaughton, Jevon Carter and Joe Ingles to play significant roles, even though they all grade out as mild negatives in BPM.

    Perhaps the best endorsement of Milwaukee's depth lies in its performance without Antetokounmpo in the game. The Bucks are actually winning the minutes in which their MVP candidate rests. Compare that to how the Denver Nuggets get obliterated without Nikola Jokić on the court, or how opponents nudge ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers whenever Joel Embiid sits, and this team's quantity of quality shines through by comparison.

4. Los Angeles Clippers

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    Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard
    Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Kawhi LeonardHarry How/Getty Images

    Positive BPM Contributors (6): Kawhi Leonard (6.0), Paul George (2.8), Mason Plumlee (2.4), Norman Powell (0.4), Nicolas Batum (0.2), Terance Mann (0.1)

    After a handful of mostly surprising entries in the depth conversation, the Los Angeles Clippers are here to give the people what they expected.

    Over the last few years, it's become commonplace to joke that the Clips were trying to establish a monopoly on playable two-way wings and forwards. Though only a few of them managed the positive BPM figures necessary to qualify, the Clips still check in with a (so far) rankings-high six positively impactful players.

    Even their exclusions have something to offer. Your mileage may vary on Russell Westbrook, but he barely missed the cut here and has been much better with the Clippers than he was with the Lakers. The turnovers are alarming (4.3 per game through his first six contests with the team), but he's shooting 52.1 percent from the field, and L.A. has been 13.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor.

    Robert Covington and his plus-1.1 BPM don't quite meet the minutes criteria, and Terance Mann got in by the narrowest of margins, posting a 0.1 BPM in over 1,500 minutes. The borderline status of those two helps offset what might feel like the slightly unfair inclusion of Mason Plumlee, who logged many more minutes for the Charlotte Hornets than the Clips this season.

    This team offers one of the better illustrations of how we sometimes overvalue depth. Sure, the Clippers have loads of viable rotation options, particularly considering we haven't even mentioned Eric Gordon, Ivica Zubac, Marcus Morris or Bones Hyland yet. But they still depend entirely on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. They get soundly outscored when one or the other sits.

    It isn't necessarily a revelation to say teams need their best players on the floor to compete. But that stat is a strong reminder that even squads with what seems like high-end depth are ultimately still top-heavy operations.

3. Toronto Raptors

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    Scottie Barnes, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam
    Scottie Barnes, Fred VanVleet and Pascal SiakamMark Blinch/Getty Images

    Positive BPM Contributors (7): Pascal Siakam (3.2), Fred VanVleet (2.4), Jakob Poeltl (2.1), Chris Boucher (0.4), Scottie Barnes (0.2), Gary Trent Jr. (0.2), Thaddeus Young (0.1)

    The Toronto Raptors' problems this season never had anything to do with how much talent was on the roster. It was about how that talent was distributed.

    Too many positionless forwards and not enough centers or true point guards compromised their rim-protection and playmaking. Jakob Poeltl's return after what now feels like a four-year transfer loan to the San Antonio Spurs will clean up the latter, and better health for Fred VanVleet should shore up the former.

    This is now a more diverse team from a skill standpoint, and the Raptors' narrow BPM distribution shows a balance that fits the conventional conception of depth: several solid options chipping in without any one player running the show. Pascal Siakam leads the way here, but his 3.2 BPM is low compared to Giannis' 8.1 with the Bucks, Durant's 7.2 with the Suns or Leonard's 6.0 with the Clippers.

    In that sense, the Raptors fit our numbers-based slant on depth and the old-school one that tends to distinguish deep teams from ones led by superstars. This is much more of a collective than any group we've covered so far.

    OG Anunoby and Precious Achiuwa both fell short of the BPM threshold, so Toronto might even be getting shortchanged here. Those two bring athleticism, transition scoring and defensive tenacity. If either of them ever passed the ball successfully (both own single-digit assist percentages), they would have graded out better and given the Raptors up to nine positive BPMers.

2. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Desmond Bane, Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks
    Desmond Bane, Ja Morant and Dillon BrooksJoe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

    Positive BPM Contributors (7): Ja Morant (6.3), Desmond Bane (4.3), Jaren Jackson Jr. (2.9), Brandon Clarke (2.5), Tyus Jones (1.6), Santi Aldama (0.8), John Konchar (0.6)

    Starting center Steven Adams' absence sticks out like a sore thumb here, but he hasn't played in 70 percent of the Memphis Grizzlies' games, so he fails to qualify for the minutes-per-game leaderboard, and his 0.6 BPM doesn't count toward his team's total. Xavier Tillman Sr. (1.3) is in the same boat.

    Brandon Clarke still gets the nod by our criteria, even though his torn Achilles means he won't be available for the rest of the season.

    Even without those two, the Grizz outpace every team we've covered so far. And that's with Dillon Brooks, who leads Memphis in minutes and unsportsmanlike plays (unofficially), coming nowhere close to meeting our numbers-based criteria. His wretched 48.5 true shooting percentage on 22.1 percent usage has produced a minus-4.3 BPM. That's the second-worst in the league among the 84 players who've played as he has.

    Brooks is a fascinating figure in the depth conversation. Memphis clearly values what he brings, and it's hard to ignore the impact his defensive intensity has on opposing scorers. In that sense, he should certainly be viewed as a value-add presence in the rotation. But his individual numbers are so undeniably poor that they force a reconsideration of his worth. That Brooks' presence on the floor coincides with a significant boost to Memphis' net rating only complicates the picture.

    The best explanation for how the Grizzlies win Brooks' minutes actually justifies their position at No. 2 here. They have so many quality players that he's never out there without a ton of help. When Morant sits, backup Tyus Jones comes in and handles the offense just fine. Memphis outscores teams by 3.6 points per 100 possessions when Brooks plays without the All-Star point guard.

1. Boston Celtics

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    Al Horford, Derrick White and Jayson Tatum
    Al Horford, Derrick White and Jayson TatumNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

    Positive BPM Contributors (7): Jayson Tatum (5.3), Malcolm Brogdon (2.8), Al Horford (2.7), Derrick White (2.0), Luke Kornet (1.3), Jaylen Brown (1.0), Sam Hauser (0.5)

    It was difficult to separate the Boston Celtics from the Memphis Grizzlies, who also had seven qualifiers. In the end, the tiebreaker went to Boston because its excluded contributors were just better than Memphis'.

    The Celtics got seven entries without Robert Williams III, Marcus Smart and Grant Williams making their list. Time Lord hasn't played enough for his 3.2 BPM to count, and the other two somehow rate as negatives in BPM, despite demonstrated proof that both Smart and Williams are good enough to be on the floor during crunch time of NBA Finals games. Those three simply have better big-game track records, more accolades and passing grades on their eye-test evaluations than Brooks and Adams do for the Grizzlies.

    Smart was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2021-22, for crying out loud, and RWIII might have won the award himself had he stayed healthy. Grant Williams has shot 40.5 percent from deep since the start of the 2021-22 campaign and can guard across the positional spectrum.

    Zoom out, and Boston just belongs here. It has a legitimate candidate for Sixth Man of the Year in Brogdon, which by definition speaks to its depth. Kornet's shot-blocking is legit, Hauser is among the league's most dangerous long-range specialists, and Derrick White is an ace connector who manages to diagnose and provide whatever Boston needs on a night-to-night and even play-to-play basis.

    Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the headliners, but this Celtics team is a no-questions-asked contender because it can throw up to 10 players onto the floor knowing each of them will add more than they subtract.

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through March 5. Salary info via Spotrac.

    Grant Hughes covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@gt_hughes), and subscribe to the Hardwood Knocks podcast, where he appears with Bleacher Report's Dan Favale.