NBA Metrics 101: Ranking the Top 10 Benches
Great starting lineups can only carry you so far.
Though the five men who open games typically draw the lion's share of the attention, the second-stringers can often be the difference between success and defeat. If they bolster leads and stave off runs from the oppositions' best players, you'll be in great shape. If they hemorrhage points and fail to score any of their own, you'll inevitably get into some trouble.
To determine which of the league's 30 benches have been most effective in 2018-19, we're turning to two different pieces of information, both of which matter greatly when evaluating second-string performances: playing time and production.
Playing time is determined rather simply, as we're looking at the total number of minutes played by men not currently in the teams' starting lineups. Those opening quintets were determined subjectively (with the help of Lineups.com, but adjusting for minor injuries where necessary). To gauge effectiveness, we summed the same players' scores in NBA Math's total points added.
Once those numbers were gathered, we found z-scores in each category and then summed those marks to find the scores you see displayed next to the featured teams.
Objectivity reigns supreme in these rankings, which are purely retrospective rather than predictive.
10. Denver Nuggets: 0.788
Even though the Will Barton injury depleted the reserves at head coach Mike Malone's disposal by pushing Juancho Hernangomez into the starting lineup alongside Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets have plenty of second-string talent.
Trey Lyles (10.4 points per game on 44.4/24.1/65.2 shooting) has led the team in scoring off the pine, while Malik Beasley and Torrey Craig have held their own in high-energy roles. But the headliners come at the bookend positions, thanks to the inspired performances of Mason Plumlee and Monte Morris.
The former, long viewed as one of the better bench bigs in the Association, has allowed the team to continue playing a similar style when Jokic takes a seat. He can hit cutters from the elbows and function as a secondary distributor within the offensive schemes while exerting most of his energy as a pick-and-roll finisher, reverse-slam maestro and defensive menace around the hoop.
The latter, though, is a surprise.
Morris may as well be a first-year contributor, but he isn't quite a rookie, seeing as he played 25 minutes during the 2017-18 campaign. Total, not per game. Either way, he's played beyond his experience level, providing the offense with steady distributing and ball-handling skill while averaging 13.7 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.9 assists per 36 minutes.
This may well be the baseline for the Denver bench, which will only get stronger when Barton returns, either to pace the second unit or push Hernangomez back into a non-starting role.
9. Boston Celtics: 0.823
The Boston Celtics' pick-your-poison starting lineup typically draws most of the publicity (even during a season yielding unexpectedly futile offensive results), but the bench is by no means devoid of talent.
Marcus Smart has remained a valuable presence even while his shooting stroke is still featured on milk cartons. Marcus Morris continues to function as a Swiss army knife, averaging 13.5 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.5 steals and 0.2 blocks while slashing 48.1/44.4/83.3 and doing so much of the dirty work that doesn't necessarily translate to the box score. Aron Baynes' defense hasn't disappeared. Daniel Theis is a solid backup big in low-minute dosages. Semi Ojeleye's arms are massive.
And that brings us to Terry Rozier.
"The Celtics selected Rozier far above where anyone expected them to at No. 16 overall in the 2015 draft," Shams Charania penned for The Athletic while discussing the point guard's future in Beantown. "They nailed the pick. But committing a full five-year maximum contract to Irving this offseason would make it difficult to match a potential $16 to $20 million per year (or more) offer sheet on Rozier."
The very fact that such gaudy numbers are popping up serves as a testament to Rozier's effectiveness as a do-everything floor general, even while his jumpers are more likely to find iron than twine. His athleticism and passing flair make him an asset in any lineup, and the Celtics have correspondingly outscored opponents by 2.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
8. New York Knicks: 0.914
The New York Knicks find themselves in an interesting—and, to be perfectly frank, unexpected—spot.
Enes Kanter has thrown up plenty of double-doubles for the second unit, even exploding for 23 points and 24 rebounds in a Nov. 5 contest against the hapless Chicago Bulls. But he's also the only presence consistently coming off the bench (Noah Vonleh has bounced between units) who's posted a positive box plus/minus during the 2017-18 campaign.
The other main contributors—Damyean Dotson, Trey Burke, Lance Thomas, Mario Hezonja, etc.—are all in the red.
In fact, the Knicks' total score in one of our two subcategories is decisively negative. Only the Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks, Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers have posted lower cumulative TPAs from their non-starters.
Spoiler alert: None of them will be appearing as one of the seven remaining featured squads.
But total time spent on the court also matters, and the Knicks are blowing everyone else out of the water in that category due to the egalitarian approach employed by head coach David Fizdale. He's committed to giving everyone on the roster an opportunity during a rebuilding season, and that's led to the bench spending quite a bit more time on the floor than anyone else. Per HoopsStats.com, New York's non-starters have logged 120 more minutes than the second-place Brooklyn Nets.
Both categories count in this analysis, and that gives New York a nice boost despite the shaky production.
7. Miami Heat: 1.012
With Hassan Whiteside on the floor, the Miami Heat are outscoring opponents by...scratch that, they're being outscored by 0.6 points per 100 possessions. When Bam Adebayo logs run, the net rating jumps up to 1.2—the third-best mark on the team, behind only Josh Richardson (4.5) and Goran Dragic (2.8).
The backup center might not have as much raw physical talent as the starter, and he certainly doesn't provide the same glamorous per-game stats. But by avoiding the constant quest for blocks and playing fundamentally sound basketball on both ends of the floor, he's helping make a positive impact during his sophomore season.
Neither of them have the team's top frontcourt mark in ESPN.com's RPM, though:
If you're interested in team impact, that belongs to Adebayo. (We should note: That could also be due to some confounding factors, like the teammates who most commonly share the floor with these bigs.) If you're looking for individual prowess, Olynyk may actually be the most effective of the Miami center troika.
Either way, the bench is finding success that eludes some of the starters, and we haven't even touched on the quality play of Tyler Johnson and Wayne Ellington. Plus, if Dwyane Wade and/or James Johnson also returns to form, this score might only trend up as the season progresses.
6. Portland Trail Blazers: 1.81
Welcome to the Sauce Castillo show.
Though Nik Stauskas never emerged with the Sacramento Kings, Philadelphia 76ers or Brooklyn Nets, the Portland Trail Blazers are teasing out the best of him. He's connecting on 40 percent of his triples for the second consecutive season, but he's now doing so while shooting with more volume, making major strides as a secondary facilitator and thriving on his mid-range jumpers. Take a gander at the progression of his advanced offensive metrics:
- 2014-15: 49.2 true shooting percentage, 0.3 offensive win shares, minus-1.9 offensive box plus/minus
- 2015-16: 51.7 TS%, 0.0 OWS, minus-1.7 OBPM
- 2016-17: 54.0 TS%, 0.1 OWS, minus-1.7 OBPM
- 2017-18: 54.3 TS%, 0.1 OWS, minus-2.1 OBPM
- 2018-19: 57.7 TS%, 0.4 OWS, 1.0 OBPM
Those numbers are all in bold because they're all career highs. Stauskas is shooting better than ever, and he's finally functioning as a net positive on the scoring side, already accumulating more offensive win shares than he did throughout the previous four seasons.
Stauskas isn't the only player thriving off the Rip City bench. Zach Collins, Maurice Harkless, Seth Curry, Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard have all contributed in various facets of the game, with Collins, in particular, standing out for the second unit.
But if 25-year-old Stauskas keeps shooting the lights out, Portland will be in even better shape throughout the long quest for a Western Conference playoff spot.
5. Milwaukee Bucks: 1.872
Most teams struggle when their unquestioned superstar rides the pine, but the Milwaukee Bucks haven't functioned as "most teams" during the 2018-19 season. Even without the all-around efficacy of Giannis Antetokounmpo, they've managed to outscore teams by 5.0 points per 100 possessions.
For perspective, that would rank No. 6 in the season-long hierarchy, sandwiched directly between the Denver Nuggets (5.8) and Indiana Pacers (4.9).
In even better news, the Bucks have proved invulnerable when losing any one player. This effect isn't isolated to Antetokounmpo. That off-court net rating for the MVP candidate is actually the team's third-lowest mark, as Eric Bledsoe (3.7) and Brook Lopez (4.6) catching their breath still keeps Brewtown in the green.
The list of quality contributors off the bench is a lengthy one; Pat Connaughton, Donte DiVincenzo, John Henson, Ersan Ilyasova, Thon Maker and Tony Snell all deserve some credit. But the first name on that list is, quite surprisingly, the MVP of the group.
Surrounded by Bradley Beal (1.02) and CJ McCollum (0.93), Connaughton checks in at No. 74 in ESPN.com's RPM with a score of 0.99 that's boosted by positive marks on both ends of the floor. And that's by no means the only metric indicating the 25-year-old shooting guard has become a two-way asset after three years functioning as a detriment on both offense and defense. He's actually one of just 23 qualified players to post a score no lower than 1.5 in each component of box plus/minus.
Some regression seems inevitable, even in the schemes deployed by head coach Mike Budenholzer that have suited him so perfectly. Then again, he's also shooting worse than his career mark from beyond the arc, and the overall gains have largely come in more sustainable areas.
4. Dallas Mavericks: 1.978
Though the Dallas Mavericks don't have a single double-digit scorer coming off the bench, they do have a number of impact players keeping them competitive through a rash of injuries.
J.J. Barea's shooting stroke has been shaky throughout the 2018-19 season's opening salvo, but he's making up for the misfires by averaging 5.6 assists and only 1.6 turnovers. Thus far, no other qualified player has accumulated at least that many dimes without more cough-ups.
Meanwhile, Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith have both thrived on defense while knocking down the occasional triple. Devin Harris has looked like a two-way boon when healthy and on the floor. And though his role might be reduced slightly when Dirk Nowitzki makes his season debut, likely adding to the depth of talent for the Dallas second unit, Dwight Powell has continued to function as one of the NBA's more efficient bench players.
If anything, the Toronto-born big deserves more love than he typically receives, as Carlan Gay made clear for NBA Canada:
"Last season, Powell was the most efficient pick-and-roll finisher at the rim amongst rollers who had at least 50 possessions - finishing with an effective field goal percentage of 72.8%.
"This season, he's shooting 72% from the field (as of Oct 30) and has a PER of 26.7. Let's be clear, Powell won't keep his efficiency that high all season long, but he's well on his way to surpassing his career-high PER of 18.8 a season ago."
Don't be fooled by the relative anonymity of this Mavericks crew. The unheralded components can make plays.
3. Golden State Warriors: 2.943
Though Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green draw most of the headlines and unquestionably serve as the foundation for the Golden State Warriors' dynastic success, the bench players aren't too shabby.
Andre Iguodala is the headliner, though he rarely throttles up his play until the postseason is upon us. His 4.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.5 blocks won't jump off the page, but his switchability and well-rounded production are invaluable when the team can't afford to allocate too much money to complementary figures.
Then we have Jonas Jerebko and Quinn Cook, who are shooting 39.1 percent on 2.6 deep tries per game and 48.0 percent on 3.3 treys per contest, respectively. Alfonzo McKinnie has proved he belongs at the NBA level, posting 14.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.1 assists per 36 minutes while slashing 51.3/48.4/53.8. The big-man combination of Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney has excelled, providing frontcourt defense against a wide variety of matchups while only taking the looks afforded to them within the flow of the offense.
None of these players are going to draw much national attention. They shouldn't. They're best when blending into the background and supplementing the production of the squad's celestial figures. Plus, head coach Steve Kerr does an admirable job making sure one of his standouts is on the floor at all times—a tougher task when working through suspensions and injuries.
But without quality bench play, the Warriors wouldn't be able to maintain a 10.8 net rating in the 176 minutes that feature only one of Curry, Thompson, Green and Durant, per PBPStats.com.
2. Indiana Pacers: 2.975
Domantas Sabonis has arrived.
As Alaa Abdeldaiem elaborated upon for Sports Illustrated, he's not exactly playing like your typical center, even in today's wide-open NBA:
"Sabonis has also refused to let his size confine him. At 6’11”, 240-pounds, Sabonis can make plays anywhere on the floor. He can set rock-solid screens for guards on the perimeter, and he can lead dribble-handoff actions to give his offense some freedom. He can slip to the foul line and catch in open space, and he can make proper reads and make bounce passes off the dribble to teammates cutting backdoor.
"He’s a smart, decisive ball-handler, and thanks to the freedom [head coach Nate] McMillan has allowed him, Sabonis is able to tap into the Lithuanian fighting spirit he believes has been the cornerstone to his recent success."
The 22-year-old isn't just posting numbers that fly in the face of typical production from a backup—a designation that's only necessary because, for now, the Indiana Pacers remain committed to Myles Turner as the starter. His production would turn most of the Association green with envy.
Averaging 14.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.6 blocks is outstanding on its own. Only 53 different qualified players in NBA history have matched that line. Throw in just 2.2 turnovers per game, 68.5 percent shooting from the field, dazzling feeds to cutters (a skill being tapped into with more frequency as time progresses) and pristine defense, and you truly start to enter uncharted waters.
Tyreke Evans, Aaron Holiday, Cory Joseph, Doug McDermott and Kyle O'Quinn all deserve some credit for the success of Indiana's bench. But let's be real. This placement is about the astronomical rise of Sabonis, who might be the unquestioned favorite for Sixth Man of the Year if not for the off-the-pine efforts of the man responsible for the No. 1 finisher's spot atop the leaderboard.
1. Los Angeles Clippers: 5.799
- Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets: 104.84 TPA
- LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers: 99.52 TPA
- Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans: 88.9 TPA
- Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics: 83.81 TPA
- Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks: 78.0 TPA
- Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers: 77.22 TPA
- Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets: 75.35 TPA
- Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic: 72.79 TPA
- Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers: 70.61 TPA
- James Harden, Houston Rockets: 67.15 TPA
How do you earn a score that nearly surpasses the combined marks of the No. 2 Indiana Pacers and the No. 3 Golden State Warriors? Well, let's turn to the top 10 of NBA Math's TPA ladder and see if anyone immediately jumps out at you:
Yes, Montrezl Harrell is the only non-starter among the bunch. And though it's the stat shining the brightest light on him, this isn't just a case of TPA drastically overvaluing the specific contributions of a single player, either. The high-energy big man sits at No. 34 in ESPN.com's RPM and No. 9 in win shares, and the Los Angeles Clippers have a 4.2 net rating with him on the floor.
But Harrell, averaging 22.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.6 blocks per 36 minutes while shooting 66.9 percent from the field, isn't even the lone standout on the LAC bench.
How could we just overlook Lou Williams when the reigning Sixth Man of the Year is still playing at a solid level? What about Mike Scott, Boban Marjanovic, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (if he vacates the starting gig he currently occupies), Milos Teodosic and Luc Mbah a Moute?
This is a deep team boasting arguably the league's most effective bench player from 2018-19. It's also the easy choice at No. 1.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.