The Business of Being a Bench 'Superman' in the NBADecember 6, 2014
Playing in the NBA is a privilege earned by and reserved for only the world's most elite basketball players. Starting is a privilege among the privileged.
But coming off the bench has its perks. For Jamal Crawford—who spent the first nine years of his pro career as a starter before becoming a full-time bench guy for the Atlanta Hawks, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers—spinning that apparent demotion into a prominent promotion made all the difference.
"I was like, 'Okay, well, you've got to be Superman. Superman's coming in to save the day!'" Crawford told Bleacher Report. "It's just something mentally that messed with me that I don't feel like a scrub coming off the bench."
Apparently, playing the part of second-unit hero doesn't appeal to everyone. The league's offseason saw a slew of players much younger than Crawford—most notably Reggie Jackson, Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith—lobby for consideration in their respective squads' starting fives. Each of those three has gotten his wish, in one way or another, so far this season.
"It's hard to play in this league, and it's hard to start in this league," said Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks, who started just seven times in 714 combined regular-season and playoff games in his day. "I want all players to have aspirations to start. If you think that you shouldn't start, you're probably not the player that you should be.
"But you can't start all 15 guys. You can't play all 15 guys."
Starting at the Beginning
In Crawford's case, it's an honor when he gets to play major minutes alongside the likes of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Waiters had his turn to run with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love when the Cleveland Cavaliers' campaign began, but he has since been shuttled back to the bench. Smith found himself on the pine once again when Iman Shumpert returned from injury for the New York Knicks. Jackson started 13 games this season with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant sidelined, but has since resumed his sixth-man role.
Andre Roberson may be far from a superstar in OKC, but that didn't stop him from all but sewing up a starting spot on the wing for the Thunder prior to spraining his left foot in early November.
"It means a lot," Roberson said. "Especially me being a young player in this league, trying to solidify my role, going out there, playing as hard as I can, defending my butt off, rebounding, just going out there and fight for my team is what I'm here to do, whether I'm starting or not. It just means a lot to me that I am, and going out there and giving my all."
Frankly, Roberson is at the age where he should be pushing for a starting role. He's still exceedingly young, having just turned 23 in his second NBA season. Like so many players in their early 20s, Roberson has yet to reach his ceiling, let alone hit his head on it.
The younger NBA players are, the closer they are to their college days when a starting role was never in question.
"I had never come off the bench before," said Crawford, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, when asked whether starting was of any import to him when he entered the league in 2000.
Doc Rivers, Crawford's head coach with the Clippers, spent most of his playing career as a starter prior to joining the San Antonio Spurs in 1994. Rivers, then 33, had to adjust to coming off the bench, if only because Father Time had rendered him unfit to shoulder a starter's burden.
"I didn't know any other way," Rivers said. "I started after my fifth game as a rookie because somebody got hurt, and I never stopped starting until my 12th year in the league with the Spurs when I was so old I shouldn't have even been coming off the bench at that point."
Crawford, on the other hand, hadn't so much as sniffed the postseason prior to joining the battle-tested Hawks in 2009. "Their starting five was intact," Crawford explained. "They already went to the playoffs, and I was like, 'I don't care. I'm tired of just being a good player on bad teams.' And that's how people kind of labeled me. So I was like, I'll sacrifice, come off the bench, it's no problem."
In essence, Crawford had some say in his own evolution as a sixth man. He could've found a starting job back then—and probably could now if he tried—but chose a situation where a change in role was necessary.
Spencer Hawes made a similar decision this past summer. The Seattle native was a hot commodity among mid-tier free agents, as any 7-footer with three-point range could expect to be in today's shooting-obsessed NBA.
But rather than cash in as a starter on another subpar squad (he's been to the playoffs just twice in seven pro seasons), Hawes opted for the mid-level exception in L.A., where he'd be hard-pressed to start ahead of Blake Griffin, a perennial All-Star, or DeAndre Jordan, a budding Defensive Player of the Year candidate, with the Clippers.
"I've had a taste of the playoffs before, but being a part of this team will be just incredible," Hawes told Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski upon inking his new deal. "You get to a point where you really realize what's important, and I was thinking: 'What would my 12-year-old self have done? What would he prioritize?' It was this opportunity and what they're building with the Clippers."
Not all super subs take so well to such supposed demotions, in part because they don't all have the same say in it that Crawford and Hawes did. Andre Iguodala, who'd started every game in which he played during his first decade in the NBA, wasn't (and probably still isn't) so enthused about head coach Steve Kerr's decision to bring him off the bench for the Golden State Warriors this season.
"Guys are wired like that from a young age," Iguodala told USA Today's Sam Amick. "I mean I've been playing basketball since I was five, and you're just so used to just starting the game. Even when you're young, it's 'Starters vs. Scrubs.' That was kind of the [mentality]."
Iguodala's discomfort with the shift has been evident in his play. So far, he's posted career lows in nearly every major statistical category, even when considering his production on a per-minute or per-possession basis.
A Player-Coach Partnership
"I think the most frustrating thing is when a player doesn't know, game in and game out, what his minutes, his role, his rotation's going to be," said Graham Boone, the director of basketball operations at Tandem Sports and Entertainment. "We've had some instances in the past where guys, there'll be one night where they'll play 26 minutes, the next night they'll play nine. That's very frustrating, especially when there's no communication from the coach about it."
It's not always easy for a coach to tell a starting-caliber contributor that he's due for a role change. San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich still grapples with moving Manu Ginobili to the bench, even though the Argentine has served as a super sub during three of the Spurs' four title runs since 2003.
"I feel badly because he's a starter and he's come off the bench all those years," Popovich revealed during the Spurs' visit to L.A. in mid-November. "There's a little guilt involved there, but he'd rather win than have accolades."
A coach, though, can only do so much to placate a player's concerns or put him in position to succeed under these circumstances. Ultimately, it's on the player to prepare accordingly for a different role, with different units at different times of the game.
"As a starter, you need to be able to make your way early," said Craig Hodges, a 10-year NBA veteran who currently serves as an assistant coach with the D-League's Westchester Knicks. "You may be able to set the tone for the game, and when you're coming off the bench, you have to make sure you see where you can fit within the game."
Hodges' fit changed over the course of his decade-long NBA career. A noted sharpshooter who twice led the league in three-point percentage, Hodges spent his early years as a starter for the then-San Diego Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks before he became a full-time reserve, more or less, with the Phoenix Suns and Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls.
Hodges' sacrifices netted him back-to-back rings with the Bulls, in 1991 and 1992.
Hawes is searching for something similar with today's Clippers and has taken Crawford's advice when it comes to succeeding as a reserve.
"He said you just have to have the mindset of hitting the ground running and coming out more aggressive," Hawes said. "You don't have the luxury of being able to kind of work your way into the game."
Crawford took a unique approach to preparing for his shining substitute role. During the summer of 2009, just prior to joining the Hawks, Crawford refused to start when playing five-on-five pickup games. "I'd come in next, just so I could get used to not playing when the game was starting."
Crawford's method proved fruitful. He averaged 18 points per game that season in Atlanta, earning his first of two Sixth Man of the Year honors for his efforts.
The Sixth Man of the Year award is about as much of an accolade as any reserve could hope for nowadays. No second-unit staple has played in the All-Star Game since 1998, when a then-19-year-old Kobe Bryant was one of four Los Angeles Lakers—along with Shaquille O'Neal, Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones—picked to represent the West at Madison Square Garden.
Bryant, of course, was a special case. He'd go on to garner 15 more All-Star selections (and probably a 17th overall this season) as not just a starter but a superstar in purple and gold.
Crawford is clearly no Bryant, though he generated plenty of All-Star buzz prior to the 2013 edition in Houston.
There's much more at stake, though, beyond All-Star odds when a player's days of starting regularly are done. Such players can expect to see their earning potential shrink somewhat in a reserve role.
Crawford, for one, saw his salary reduced by more than half—from $10.8 million to $5 million—when he left Atlanta in 2011. Hawes' take for 2014-15 (about $5.3 million) is more than a million less than what he took home from the Philadelphia 76ers and Cleveland Cavaliers ($6.5 million) last season.
Iguodala needn't worry yet about a role-related pay cut; he's set to draw eight-figure takes through the end of the 2016-17 season, thanks to a contract he signed with the Warriors when he was still an everyday starter. That doesn't mean, though, that Iguodala is impervious to the issue.
"Really, in the NBA, it's 'I need to get paid like a starter,'" he told USA Today. "A team is not going to say, 'I'm going to spend $10 million for a guy to come off the bench.' A team is not going to do that. Or it's very, very rare."
Iguodala certainly isn't alone in this sentiment. Once upon a time, Ginobili was concerned about what a reserve role would do to his earning potential, as he told USA Today:
The first time (Popovich asked him to come off the bench), I was (worried about the financial factor) because it happened when I came from overseas and I had only two years (on his contract) and it happened in my second year, so it was in the back of my head a little bit.
It bothered me a little bit, but I knew that we had a big shot at winning a championship, and it's always better in any position to win a championship than not…I thought it was going to hurt me in my next deal, and then I realized that it was what's best for the team and I would do just fine.
Ginobili did, in fact, do just fine. He's made more than $100 million in salary since he first set foot in the NBA in 2002.
Iguodala's on pace to surpass that threshold well before his current contract comes due. Should he remain a reserve until he hits free agency in 2017, Iguodala's value on the open market would likely be measured against his peers in similar bench roles, rather than in relation to well-paid starters.
"If you have a guy that was one of the best sixth men in the league, you're probably going to look at comparing him with other sixth men with big contracts when you're doing the next negotiation," Boone explained.
That doesn't necessarily mean, though, that Iguodala and players of his ilk should expect their earning potential to slide invariably. Added Boone: "The bigger the role on your team, the more important you are to their future and their winning, you're certainly going to be able to negotiate for more money. There are some sixth men that are earning more than some starters on their roster because of their role on the team."
Taking One for the Team
To be sure, coming off the bench has its benefits. For aging veterans like Crawford, 34, it allows them to concentrate their efforts into shorter spurts. That way, they can preserve their bodies while also making the most of the minutes they do play.
But capable starters don't move to the bench so they can save their own bodies. Rather, they do it to help their teams win.
And, for many, it's worked. Hodges was on-hand in L.A. when Lamar Odom, a tremendous talent in his own right, propelled the Lakers to two titles in three trips to the Finals as a super-skilled reserve. Ginobili's ring collection swelled after Pop made that gut-wrenching decision to move one of his favorite players to the pine.
Just about every champion from the past decade benefited from having starting-caliber players among its reserves.
The Detroit Pistons might not have taken home the title in 2004 without the muscle of Corliss Williamson and the shooting off Mehmet Okur off the bench. Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton, both Hall of Famers, subverted their respective egos at the close of their careers to help the Miami Heat win it all in 2006. J.J. Barea saved the Dallas Mavericks from certain doom when he went from backup point guard to emergency starter in the 2011 NBA Finals. The Heat needed heroic efforts from Udonis Haslem and Ronny Turiaf while Chris Bosh was down during the 2012 playoffs and saw Ray Allen and Mike Miller play their parts in a pinch the following year.
As much as a team's playoff success is contingent on its starters' performance, no champion can reach the finish line without some bench strength from which to draw.
Crawford and Hawes, as the Clippers' key reserves, should find themselves in the mix for the Western Conference crown at campaign's end, right up there with Ginobili's Spurs and Iguodala's Warriors. The Mavs have fashioned a historically efficient offense with plenty of help from their sturdy second unit. The Portland Trail Blazers are legitimate title contenders thanks to the additions of Chris Kaman and Steve Blake to their once-anemic bench.
In the East, the Toronto Raptors are soaring with the help of their revamped reserves, the Bulls are surviving because of theirs, and the Cavs are still sorting out who belongs where—aside from their Big Three of LeBron, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. The Washington Wizards, meanwhile, brought Bradley Beal up to speed as a member of their second unit before returning him to their starting lineup.
"I've asked guys, 'Would you prefer to start or come off the bench?'" Boone said. "And the first thing they'd say is, 'Well, obviously I'd prefer to start, but as long as I understand my role, as long as we're winning, whatever the team needs me to do, I'll do.'"
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.