The NBA's Best Backups at Every Position
NBA reserves have a more-guts-than-glory gig that often features changing work conditions and an evolving responsibility list.
Sometimes they're asked to keep a good thing going; other games might call upon them to plug defensive leaks or spark a stagnant offense. They could be both featured and supporting players in the same contest, depending on who they're sharing the floor with. Additionally, their floor time can swing wildly from one night to the next.
It's a tough job to handle, let alone master, but a select number of second-teamers strike the right blend of energy, efficiency and reliability every season. Though their critical contributions often go overlooked, we have commandeered the spotlight to give them their due credit.
To identify the top backups, we weighed several statistical layers: the quantity, quality and sustainability of the numbers. Impact on a club's overall success factored in heavily as well, and the eye test helped pick out players who either can handle multiple roles or ace the specialist assignments placed in front of them. Only those who have started less than half of their games this season were considered.
With the rules locked in, let's run through the royalty of the 2015-16 NBA reserves.
Point Guard: Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
Isaiah Thomas is as unique a player as there is in the NBA.
Few guys could stop growing at 5'9" and still find their way onto a big-league roster, but this is Thomas' fifth NBA season. He's already produced as many 20-point outings during the 2015-16 campaign as All-Stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Paul George (three).
The Boston Celtics essentially treat Thomas as a spark plug, but the label doesn't quite fit for one big reason—he's the best player on the team. Despite getting only the fourth-most minutes, he paces the club in both points (22.0) and assists (6.8) per game.
And yet, his green light matches that of any quick-strike scorer.
"I'm a guy that scores in bunches and makes plays in bunches," Thomas said, via Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald. "...My teammates give me a lot of confidence to continue to keep shooting and continue to keep being aggressive."
That aggressiveness has its drawbacks, namely his career-worst 40.2 field-goal percentage. But he carries a need for consistency that most ignitable reserves never feel. There's a quantity the Celtics expect from him, because they aren't finding it elsewhere.
But Thomas is meeting that challenge. He's one of only five players ranking among the top 15 in both points and assists, and he's the lone reserve in that uber-exclusive group.
Honorable Mention: Darren Collison, Sacramento Kings
Darren Collison might prefer a starting role, but he thrives off the bench. He's not quite the consistent scoring threat Thomas is, but Collison can pile up points and/or assists in a flash.
Shooting Guard: Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs have anti-aging practices down to a science. No one better navigates the last leg of a career run than head coach Gregg Popovich, who carefully watches over high-mileage odometers and manages minutes in ways that promote longevity and efficiency.
At this point, it's expected for the Spurs to impress in their battles with Father Time. Still, it won't stop being remarkable to see things like this: a 38-years-young Manu Ginobili cementing himself as the early season's top reserve 2-guard.
He's currently hitting field goals (53.1 percent) and threes (47.8) at career-best clips. Regression could strike at any time, but that wouldn't soil the rest of his stunning statistics. Remove Pop's playing-time cap, stretch Ginobili's numbers out on a per-36-minute scale, and he's providing 20.2 points, 6.5 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 3.0 steals a night.
"Early in his 14th NBA campaign, Ginobili remains what he has mostly always been—the fiery heart and soul of a second unit the Spurs could not live without," wrote Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News.
Ginobili's production has had a major purpose. A small sample size skews the numbers a bit, but the Spurs have been an astounding 29.6 points better per 100 possessions with him than without.
It's possible to find better scorers and rebounders among the reserves at this spot. Over the course of the season, superior shooters and distributors may well emerge.
But no player in this discussion better combines those elements than Ginobili.
Honorable Mention: Alec Burks, Utah Jazz
Alec Burks does a little bit of everything, which nudges him ahead of substitute scorers like Jeremy Lamb and Kevin Martin. Burks can't seriously threaten the backup 2 throne without improving his 42.4 field-goal percentage, but the rest of his stat sheet is ready to enter the conversation.
Small Forward: Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
Andre Iguodala is the ideal reserve, skilled in a multitude of areas and malleable enough to fill several different roles.
He's overqualified for a traditional substitute role. To wit, his resume already includes an All-Star selection, a pair of All-Defensive appearances and a Finals MVP award. That's why the Golden State Warriors handle him more like a central figure than a standard second-teamer.
Though he opens games on the sideline, he closes most of them inside the lines. He led the Dubs in fourth-quarter minutes last season (656), and he's second on the club this time around (52). He'll often handle the toughest defensive assignment when he's in the game, and this deep roster allows him to bounce between scoring and distributing duties.
His numbers don't always impress upon initial glance. He'll typically touch a lot of categories on the stat sheet, but he rarely overloads any particular one. The exception to that rule is plus-minus, where he ranks fourth overall with a plus-14.6. That number helps cut to the core of his overall impact: he makes plays that affect winning.
"He's really the ultimate glue guy," Atlanta Hawks swingman and former Iguodala teammate Kyle Korver told Grantland's Zach Lowe. "He's so good at so many things. He has such a great feel—not just for what he's doing, but for what all 10 guys are doing."
In their annual survey for NBA.com, general managers named Iguodala the best role player and bench player who makes the biggest impact. If he's not the top backup overall, he's at least No. 1 at his position.
Honorable Mention: Justise Winslow, Miami Heat
Justise Winslow has just started his NBA career, and he already looks like a well-seasoned vet. He's acing defensive tests of all types and displaying expert decision-making on the ball.
Power Forward: Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers
Tristan Thompson's five-year, $82 million pact with the Cleveland Cavaliers almost lends itself to criticism. That's plenty to spend on any reserve, let alone a backup big who neither spaces the floor nor protects the rim.
But since both parties agreed that's what he's worth, there's little use in holding the amount over their head. Evaluate Thompson for his on-court impact alone, and he grades out near elite in multiple categories.
"He's one of the NBA's best offensive rebounders, bringing a non-stop motor to the court every single night," wrote Bleacher Report's Greg Swartz. "At 6'9" and 238 pounds, Thompson can play both post positions and is athletic enough to effectively defend the pick-and-roll."
Playing hard is a skill, and Thompson understands that as well as anyone. His energy, instincts and 7'2" wingspan have all helped him track down the third-most offensive rebounds since the start of his rookie year (2011-12). They've also turned him into an effective, versatile defender.
This season, he's averaging close to a double-double (10.0 boards, 8.1 points), while shooting a personal-best 67.6 percent from the field. He's holding opponents 5.2 percentage points below their field-goal average, and the Cavs are faring 7.3 points better per 100 possessions when he plays.
Only time knows if he's worth what Cleveland is paying him. But the early returns on this investment are extremely encouraging—Thompson reigns above all reserve power forwards.
Honorable Mention: Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls
Taj Gibson can often be penciled in here, and it's entirely possible his two-way play will move him into the top spot by season's end. But it's taking time for the 30-year-old to find his place among a crowded frontcourt and under new head coach Fred Hoiberg.
Center: Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
Clint Capela wasn't a regular in the Houston Rockets' rotation as a rookie until the postseason, and even then he was only logging 7.5 minutes a night. But high-level reserves can rise at any time, particularly when said player is pacing the entire league with a 79.4 field-goal percentage.
That number's not going to last—though his 67.7 percent mark in last year's playoffs hints it may not fall far—but what certainly can is Capela's ability to meet the requirements of a 21st-century center.
He is mobile and explosive, two traits that pay substantial dividends on rim runs and pick-and-rolls. His bouncy energy and 7'5" wingspan help him control the paint as a shot-blocker and glass-cleaner.
He's flooding the box score now, and his per-36-minute averages of 16.4 points, 12.5 rebounds, 3.5 blocks and 1.1 steals hammer home the point that this is only the beginning for the 21-year-old.
"Clint's been fantastic for us," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "...He's still got a lot to learn. But he's going to be a very nice player for a long time."
There are steadier big man options on other benches, but none with an upside as intriguing as Capela's. Given how promising his present has already been—Houston has been 26.0 points better per 100 possessions when he's manning the middle—his basement and ceiling are rising too quickly to deny him this spot.
Honorable Mention: Enes Kanter, Oklahoma City Thunder
Enes Kanter's defensive struggles are glaring (he ranked 469th in defensive real plus-minus last season, via ESPN.com), but his offense is impossible to overlook. He's nearly averaging a double-double in just 21.4 minutes a night (12.9 points, 9.3 boards) and converting a career-best 59.1 percent from the field.