NBA Metrics 101: Ranking Top 10 Benches in the NBA
Starters can take you far in the NBA, but they can't do everything.
For proof, look no further than the league leaders in minutes played per game. Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James are both riding the bench for 10.5 and 10.7 minutes, resepctively, during the average contest, while Paul George (10.9) and Damian Lillard (11.0) fall just behind. That's a significant chunk of the action for which those stars aren't available, and most normal players don't come close to logging that type of volume.
Benches matter. They can squander leads earned by the starters, or they can keep producing and give substantial boosts to the players on the floor for the opening tip. It's the latter bunches with whom we're concerned today.
To determine the league's best benches, we're turning to a simple calculation. Take the net rating earned by each bench and multiply it by the minutes they've spent on the floor, as determined by NBA.com. That accounts for both volume and efficiency, allowing the cream of the crop to rise to the top through exaggerated run or remarkable per-possession prowess.
10. San Antonio Spurs
Net Rating: 2.4
Minutes Played: 532
Bench Rating: 1,276.8
The only surprising aspect of the San Antonio Spurs' placement in these rankings is that they fall all the way down to No. 10. Maybe that should've been expected after early-season absences from Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker forced head coach Gregg Popovich to come up with contingency plans and play expected backups in the starting five, but it still runs counter to the historical success of the franchise's second units.
Take a gander at their bench net ratings (and league-wide ranks) over the last decade:
- 2016-17: 8.9 (No. 1)
- 2015-16: 10.9 (No. 1)
- 2014-15: 5.2 (No. 3)
- 2013-14: 9.1 (No. 1)
- 2012-13: 3.8 (No. 6)
- 2011-12: 9.7 (No. 2)
- 2010-11: 4.7 (No. 5)
- 2009-10: 4.4 (No. 6)
- 2008-09: 2.6 (No. 8)
- 2007-08: 4.3 (No. 7)
These are the worst bench numbers San Antonio has put up in over a decade. In fact, you have to travel all the way back to 1997-98 (Tim Duncan's rookie season) to find an inferior net rating, as the second unit outscored opponents by a meager 0.7 points per 100 possessions that year...and yet it still finished within the league's top half.
Rudy Gay has been a nice find for the Spurs. Bryn Forbes is shooting flames from beyond the three-point arc. Everyone is chipping in to play high-quality defense. And with Parker back and Leonard expected to join him shortly, Patty Mills and Kyle Anderson (when he recovers from his sprained MCL) are only going to give this unit more weapons.
Don't expect San Antonio to remain this low for long.
9. Detroit Pistons
Net Rating: 3.0
Minutes Played: 443
Bench Rating: 1,329
The Detroit Pistons' on/off splits have made for one of this season's strangest early storylines.
Andre Drummond has improved basically every part of his game, developing into an unabashed star in the Motor City who can carry his troops on both ends of the floor. Tobias Harris has morphed into an offensive juggernaut capable of peppering the opposition with triples while still attacking the hoop. Reggie Jackson has bounced back nicely, regaining his prior status as an upper-tier point guard.
And yet, the team's top net ratings don't come when these gentlemen are on the floor.
Part of this is statistical noise, likely stemming from smaller samples and the tendency of bench units to suit up against other second-stringers. But Detroit's non-starters have been universally useful, ranging from Ish Smith's drive-and-kick game to Luke Kennard's sharpshooting proclivities.
The Pistons' bench has a decidedly defensive feel, ranking third in points allowed per 100 possessions by playing disciplined basketball and contesting every shot in the half-court set. But it has also been able to avoid disaster on offense by minimizing its number of mistakes.
Aside from Boban Marjanovic, who has only played in seven contests, Smith, Jon Leuer and Kennard have been responsible for the most cough-ups. However, none of them have averaged more than 1.1 per game. Everyone has taken care of the basketball from start to finish, leading to the third-lowest turnover percentage throughout the NBA's 30 pine-dwelling bunches.
Maybe the Pistons don't have any Sixth Man of the Year candidates, and few of their reserves have emerged as go-to scoring threats. But a lack of negatives can often be just as valuable as a wealth of positives, especially when trying to avoid squandering leads earned by the starters.
8. Memphis Grizzlies
Net Rating: 3.0
Minutes Played: 517
Bench Rating: 1,551
Sometimes, one player can push an entire unit over the top.
Such is the case for Tyreke Evans and the Memphis Grizzlies' bench, as the swingman has put a new jumper on display and opened the door for so much more production. Heading into the 2017-18 campaign, he had taken 2.2 triples per game throughout his career and knocked them down at a 29.5 percent clip. While he suited up for the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings last year alone, those numbers stood at 3.0 and 35.6, respectively.
So much for that middling performance.
In 2017-18, Evans has connected on 41.8 percent of his deep attempts while lofting 4.7 per game—both of which are career highs. That has forced defenders to meet him right at the rainbow, both in transition and the pick-and-roll game, allowing him to use his speed and physicality to burst by them for easier finishes at the hoop. Everything has clicked.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Memphis second unit specializes in defense, as the reserves are ceding only 99.7 points per 100 possessions. Only five teams have been stingier, and that's due to the indefatigable efforts of Dillon Brooks, Andrew Harrison, Chandler Parsons, Jarell Martin, Brandan Wright and—well, let's be real—anyone else who gets called upon by the coaching staff.
Evans' newfound presence in the starting five threatens Memphis' placement here, but the reverse could hold true as well. When Mike Conley is healthy and in the lineup, he'll push someone to the pine, adding even more firepower to an already dangerous bunch.
7. Dallas Mavericks
Net Rating: 3.2
Minutes Played: 513
Bench Rating: 1,641.6
As the Dallas Mavericks bumbled their way to a 2-14 start, the bench struggled. It couldn't generate any offense during those 16 games and posted a minus-2.4 net rating.
But this team has steadily pulled itself out of the Western Conference basement, and the second unit has been a big reason why. While going 5-6 against a tough slate of competition, the bench net rating has climbed all the way up to 10.9, leaving it behind only the Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers an Golden State Warriors during that span.
With Maxi Kleber joining the starting five for a brief spell, Yogi Ferrell was able to boost the second-stringers on the scoring end, joining J.J. Barea to form a solid one-two punch out of the backcourt. During 10 games off the bench, he averaged 8.2 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.5 assists while shooting 42.3 percent from the field, 34.3 percent from downtown and 62.5 percent from the stripe.
Are those great numbers? Of course not. But they're decent enough to make him a convincing Robin to Barea's Batman—remember, we're talking about backups here. And since the 2-14 start, the sixth-man supreme has posted a scorching 12.4 points, 3.0 rebounds and 6.8 assists while slashing 44.0/41.2/73.1.
We won't beat around the bush.
Devin Harris, Dwight Powell and Salah Mejri have been excellent after beginning games in warmups. Ferrell gives Dallas another creator. But this team is finding more success without the starters because the Puerto Rican floor general has refused to miss shots while setting up one teammate after another.
6. Boston Celtics
Net Rating: 4.0
Minutes Played: 529
Bench Rating: 2,116
The Boston Celtics are a solid offensive squad when the non-starters are logging minutes, but that isn't their calling card. Just as with the organization as a whole, defense reigns supreme.
Thus far, the Beantown backups are allowing opponents to score a meager 98.7 points per 100 possessions, which leaves them trailing only the Dallas Mavericks (98.4). They don't hold their foes to inordinately low field-goal percentages or generate many turnovers, but they mitigate the damage of made shots by refusing to allow free-throw attempts and preventing second-chance opportunities.
In terms of personnel, where's the weak link?
Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier are defensive terrors in the backcourt, while Daniel Theis has impressed during his rookie campaign. Rarely is the big man in anything but the proper positions, and his physicality can force opponents out of their comfort zones. Though the latter "is expected to miss extended time" with a left knee injury, per The Vertical's Shams Charania, Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris are both defensive stalwarts whether filling starter or second-string roles, and Semi Ojeleye has more than held his own as a first-year forward.
Oh, and some guy named Brad Stevens is still calling the shots from the sidelines.
So again, where's the weak link?
I'll help you out: One doesn't exist, which is undoubtedly shocking for an organization that figured to have depleted depth after losing Gordon Hayward to a devastating ankle injury mere minutes into the 2017-18 campaign.
5. Utah Jazz
Net Rating: 7.6
Minutes Played: 515
Bench Rating: 3,914
Up to this point in the season, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles, Jonas Jerebko, Donovan Mitchell, Ricky Rubio and Thabo Sefolosha have all started games for the Utah Jazz. And the carousel doesn't matter, because virtually every group of backups has managed to find some semblance of success, especially as the team has overcome a slow start and worked its way back up the Western Conference standings.
Singling out just one player is difficult, since almost everyone has contributed positively in at least one facet of the game.
Sefolosha has served as a defensive ace who's somehow hitting 41.1 percent of his deep attempts. Joe Johnson and Royce O'Neale have been solid on the preventing end, even if their offensive exploits have disappointed. Burks is catching fire as a scorer, which adds desperately needed point-producing ability to a defense-oriented roster. The list goes on and on.
But perhaps no one deserves more credit than Ekpe Udoh, who has come off the pine in every game and locked down the interior during his 14.4 minutes per contest.
His 6.3 defensive box plus/minus is easily the team's best figure, outpacing Rudy Gobert's 3.9 by a significant margin. His 2.19 defensive real plus-minus, per ESPN.com, sits at No. 12 among centers and No. 19 overall—no member of the Jazz has been superior. Utah also allows 97.3 points per 100 possessions with the backup big on the floor, which would beat out the Boston Celtics for the NBA's best overall mark with room to spare.
Udoh may not be the only reason the Utah bench has found so much success, but his suffocating work can't be overlooked.
4. Houston Rockets
Net Rating: 10.1
Minutes Played: 397
Bench Rating: 4,009.7
The Houston Rockets are unabashed offensive juggernauts, capable of scoring on anyone no matter who's on the floor. Or so it seems, since the bench has produced a 109.6 offensive rating that trails only the marks earned by the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
That's particularly astounding because Eric Gordon, the seemingly unquestioned leader of the unit now that Chris Paul has rejoined the starting lineup, hasn't actually found his shooting stroke.
In his eight games since moving back to the bench, the 2-guard has averaged 12.4 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.6 assists, which already seems like lackluster production. Worse still, he's shooting 34.0 percent from the field, 21.7 percent from downtown and 81.5 percent from the stripe. He's been an offensive negative, no matter what his reputation and status as the reigning Sixth Man of the Year might indicate.
But Houston has survived—excelled, even—because it doesn't have any glaring liabilities in its rotation, plays fundamentally sound defense and mixes backups with starters so seamlessly. Even as Gordon struggles, for example, the mere threat of his skills puts perimeter pressure on the opposition.
Head coach Mike D'Antoni rarely goes to full-bench units. James Harden, Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson have spent just 46 minutes all sitting on the pine, per PBPStats.com, even though the Point God has missed significant time with injury. That's only two minutes per game, which renders the minus-37.6 net rating in that situation nearly irrelevant.
The Rockets' success can largely be credited to the heroics of Harden and the unrelenting all-around growth of Capela. But because the coaching staff is so skilled at deploying the second-stringers in the right situations, the bench has helped elevate Houston up the Western Conference standings as well.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers
Net Rating: 8.5
Minutes Played: 516
Bench Rating: 4,386
Last year, the Cleveland Cavaliers' bench posted a minus-1.3 net rating that left it ranked No. 14. This year, it's rocketed up the standings by improving dramatically on both ends of the floor. Not only can it score with anyone, but it's no longer giving away points like candy on Halloween.
"He can say whatever he wants, but there's no doubt he's done a great job of leading that second unit. And I think there's been growth in a lot of areas with that second unit. We just got tons of motion going on. Tons of movement. But you can't just have five guys doing that. You got to have someone in that group who is making that pass or commanding that double team or getting the ball into the paint and then with the movement and pieces that we have, kind of making it fit together well. So, I really think the way I look at it, we have two of the greatest basketball minds in the history of the game and one is leading the first unit and one is leading the second unit."
Wade does indeed deserve plenty of credit for accepting what could've been viewed as a demotion, and his inspired play has helped Cleveland rip off a remarkable string of victories. He's been particularly effective on defense, where he's able to take advantage of fewer minutes and show off his energy reserves.
He hasn't, however, been the only standout.
For all of the nice words Korver said about Wade, the sharpshooter might deserve even more love. He's been an unrelenting flamethrower, averaging 10.3 points and 2.1 rebounds while slashing 46.9/43.3/85.3—the middle percentage coming on a whopping 5.8 attempts per game. Plus, we can't overlook the drastic improvement of Jeff Green.
Cleveland began the 2017-18 campaign looking like it might struggle to make the playoffs. But the veteran-laden bench, along with continued excellence from LeBron James, wasn't willing to accept that narrative.
2. Toronto Raptors
Net Rating: 9.8
Minutes Played: 487
Bench Rating: 4,772.6
With OG Anunoby moving into the starting five for each of his last 12 appearances, the Toronto Raptors have mercifully made their starters rather consistent. Therefore, picking out the members of the bench mob is easy as well.
Six players have consistently come off the pine and averaged double-digit minutes, and all deserve to be showered with praise. Here comes a brief synopsis.
Pascal Siakam, providing the encore to an unheralded rookie season, has broken out as a consistent offensive contributor by averaging 7.0 points and shooting 51.0 percent from the field with a steady barrage of close-range finishes and mid-range jumpers. Lucas Nogueira continues to serve as one of the league's most underrated centers and is scoring 1.62 points per possession as a pick-and-roll rim-runner (98.5th percentile). Delon Wright, prior to injuring his shoulder, was developing into a two-way force capable of spelling Kyle Lowry and not sacrificing too much production.
C.J. Miles has been exactly what the Raptors expected, averaging 10.0 points while slashing 39.4/36.6/88.5 and taking 6.4 triples per game. Fred VanVleet's shooting numbers aren't so strong, but his steadiness as a distributor has allowed him to look the part of a convincing rotation member at the sport's highest level. And that leaves Jakob Poeltl, who I previously covered while pegging him as the team's most improved player.
By themselves, each member of this sextet has been impressive. All together, they provide so much spacing and relentless offensive production that they baffle opponents through effective simplicity. Nothing they run is too complicated, but the pace-and-space game still yields consistently positive results, to the tune of a 109.4 offensive rating that sits fourth among all bench units.
1. Golden State Warriors
Net Rating: 10.3
Minutes Played: 528
Bench Rating: 5,438.4
The Golden State Warriors aren't fair.
Their starters easily have the league's best net rating (14.4), and the bench somehow isn't that far behind. It falls just ahead of the Houston Rockets in per-possession effectiveness, but head coach Steve Kerr has called upon the second-string Dubs so frequently that the overall score still supersedes the total product of the Rockets, the NBA's Canadian representatives and everyone else with room to spare.
Omri Casspi refuses to miss shots, knocking down a staggering 58.3 percent of his deep attempts. David West has been a steady two-way presence with a healthy diet of mid-range jumpers. His effectiveness on the short roll opens up opportunities for everyone, giving the Warriors offense a new flavor.
How can we complain about Andre Iguodala, even during a season in which he's not finding much success from beyond the arc? Jordan Bell's penchant for off-the-backboard dunks shouldn't supersede how effective he's been on both ends as a rookie taken in the second round. Shaun Livingston remains a steady presence as the team's backup point guard.
That's already five names of positive contributors, and we aren't done. Not even close.
JaVale McGee is only playing 8.0 minutes per game, but Golden State has posted an impressive 10.7 net rating with him on the floor. His change-of-pace athleticism gives a tremendous boost in short spurts. Patrick McCaw has blossomed into a two-way contributor with a deadly three-point jumper and the versatility to contribute in a number of different roles. Nick Young is shooting 40.2 percent from deep while taking 3.7 such attempts per game. Even Quinn Cook and Kevon Looney have found success in limited roles.
So again, the Warriors are unfair. Teams with so much star power rarely lay claim to this kind of depth.