8 NBA Stars Who Made Coming off the Bench Cool
The NBA bench is a tough thing to glorify.
Generally, to be sent there is to be punished. No athlete wants to be a reserve, and it's hard to imagine a hopeful kid in his driveway fantasizing about an NBA future that involves checking into the game to modest applause at the six-minute mark of the first quarter.
Despite the stigma, a handful of NBA players have embraced backup roles. Every one of them did it differently—some through scoring, some through defense, some through playmaking. But all of them sacrificed, and that's always worth celebrating in team sports.
These guys made the reserve gig cool by specializing, by stifling ego and by finding ways to make a difference with the roles they had—rather than focusing on the ones they didn't.
This exercise also works as a sort of history on the evolution of the sixth-man role, but we're focusing most narrowly on the players who showed us that bench duties could still produce something special.
A reserve for the Boston Celtics during the early part of his career in the '60s and then again in the late-'70s, John Havlicek is the most important backup in NBA history. Though he owes much to his predecessor off the pine, Frank Ramsey, Havlicek is the best early example of the weaponized sixth man.
If the Celtics hadn't basically invented the concept of the super-sub with Ramsey, it's unlikely Havlicek would have ever spent a second outside the starting five. He averaged 19.3 points per game during his first seven career seasons, all as a reserve, leading Boston in scoring (19.9 points per game) and becoming the first and only non-starter to ever make an All-NBA team.
He pulled off those feats in 1963-64, a year that also saw the Celtics become the first NBA franchise to field an all-black starting five.
Prior to Havlicek, reserves were reserves because they weren't as good as the starters. But there was never any question the mythically energetic and skilled Havlicek was first-unit quality. The guy had it all.
"It would've been fair to those who had to play him or those who had to coach against him if he had been blessed only with his inhuman endurance," famed New York Knicks coach Red Holtzman once said, via NBA.com. "God had to compound it by making him a good scorer, smart ball-handler and intelligent defensive player with quickness of mind, hands and feet."
That endurance and talent were the reasons Havlicek was always on the floor at the end of games. His last-second steal in the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals, which produced one of the NBA's iconic play-by-play calls, showed future sixth men that non-starters could be great finishers.
Havlicek became a full-time starter in 1969-70, but by then he'd already helped the Celtics to six titles off the bench. Boston would win two more with him in the starting five.
He retired in 1978 as a 13-time All-Star with 11 All-NBA nods, eight seasons on the All-Defensive team, eight rings, the 1973-74 Finals MVP and more points than any player in Celtics history.
Havlicek is one of those rare cases where the original model remains superior to all of its successors. Scoring touch, high energy and shutdown defense would, separately, become defining characteristics of many great bench players to follow. But Havlicek had all of them.
If any single player made backup duties cool, it was him.
The Philadelphia 76ers' Bobby Jones won the first Sixth Man of the Year award in 1982-83, but Kevin McHale collected the next two in a row, extending the Celtics' legacy of overqualified backups.
We've come to view most modern sixth men as scoring sparks off the bench, typically backcourt gunners. McHale certainly got his points, but he's historically distinct as a backup bucket-getter who did his damage with one of the most polished post games the league has ever seen.
A true torturer on the block, McHale's instruments of mayhem included perfect footwork, pivots, shoulder fakes, up-and-unders and an array of deft half-hooks and flip shots. This wasn't some back-you-down bullying. McHale was surgical. The counters to his counters had counters.
McHale didn't become a full-time starter until his age-28 season in 1985-86. He'd already made an All-Star team by then, though, earning a nod in 1983-84 while averaging 18.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.
Like Havlicek before him, McHale plied his trade off the bench for highly successful Boston teams. The Celtics made three Finals and won two championships during McHale's years as a reserve from 1980-81 to 1984-85. Also like Havlicek, McHale returned to a backup role at the end of his career, making two more All-Star teams in 1989-90 and 1990-91 as a sixth man.
Vinnie Johnson is the best early example of what became the sixth-man stereotype.
A backup in all but one of his 13 NBA seasons (1982-83, his first full year with the Detroit Pistons, was the exception), Johnson earned his "Microwave" nickname by coming off the bench and heating up in a hurry. In him, the concept of the hyper-aggressive fire-starter guard took its first full form.
Lou Williams and Jamal Crawford, both of whom we'll get to, may not have had the same opportunities or enjoyed the same success if Johnson hadn't laid down the groundwork. He's the godfather of today's smallish, offense-first backup combo guards.
Notably, with Isaiah Thomas and Joe Dumars ahead of him in the rotation, Johnson never really had an argument to start. This was not a Havlicek or McHale situation; he was a specialist, deployed tactically against backup defenders who weren't equipped to cool him off.
Although, to be fair, Johnson had something in common with those Boston all-timers. His bench contributions also helped his team win titles. The Pistons snagged back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990 with Johnson cooking off the bench.
Michael Cooper is the rarest kind of bench "star"—one whose contributions came primarily on the defensive end.
That's not to say Cooper, a willowy 6'5" guard who sported trademark knee-high socks, didn't make a difference on offense. He averaged 11.8 points and 5.6 assists per 36 minutes for his career and became one of the league's better three-point shooters in his later years. But Cooper was a true menace on D.
He made an incredible eight All-Defensive teams (including five first-team honors) and was named the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year in 1986-87, a season in which he started two of the 82 games he played.
That's hard to process on multiple levels. First of all, there have only been four DPOYs who stood 6'5" or under (Alvin Robertson, Gary Payton and Sidney Moncrief are the other three). But secondly, all of those guys were regular starters. In fact, the DPOY with the second-fewest starts in his award-winning season was Dennis Rodman...who started 43 of the 82 games he played in 1989-90.
Cooper started twice in 1986-87. Twice!
Because we're dealing with an era that was even shorter on reliable defensive metrics than the one we're living in now, maybe you're skeptical Cooper really made that big of a difference on D. The fact that Larry Bird said Cooper was the best defensive player he ever faced should erase any doubt on that front.
It runs counter to current norms to have a defensive ace come off the bench because, in theory, the opponent's best scorers start. That just means we may never see a reserve quite like Cooper again. All the more reason to celebrate a truly unique bench player.
Oh, and continuing the trend, Cooper played a major role on five title-winning Lakers teams in the '80s.
Though he bears resemblances to past bench greats (good enough to start like Havlicek, and a reliable scoring spark like Johnson), Ginobili introduced a special flair to the sixth-man gig, bringing chaotic competitiveness and creative genius whenever he entered the game.
It was almost as if the shot of adrenaline that accompanied him was too intense for the opening tip. The game needed to settle itself for six minutes or so, and then Ginobili could shock it back into a frenzy.
There are five players in NBA history to average at least 18.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists per 36 minutes while posting a true shooting percentage above 58.0 percent for their careers: LeBron James, Magic Johnson, James Harden, Nikola Jokic and Ginobili.
Though some might argue Ginobili's breakneck style meant his body never would have held up under a starter's minutes, it's just as easy to ascribe a sort of idyllic sense of self-sacrifice to his career. Remember, he started over 70 games in two separate seasons and earned All-Star recognition in both of them. Yet he never complained about what many would view as a lesser role.
The four rings he won with the San Antonio Spurs suggest he played everything just right.
Ginobili exhibited mastery over the animal kingdom, dunked on the entire Miami Heat roster in the 2014 Finals at age 36 and nutmegged opponents whenever possible. Maximum cool points for all that stuff.
*Disclaimer*: I am not and cannot be unbiased about Ginobili, one of my three favorite players of all time. Choirs of angels sing in my head when he Eurosteps around a defender in old clips, and you'll never convince me that his male pattern baldness was the result of natural aging. It's my firm belief he willed the hair off his head for the improved aerodynamics.
Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams
Behold the chuckers.
Lou Williams and Jamal Crawford are the only players to win three Sixth Man of the Year awards, but their similarities go far deeper than that.
Just look at their eerily similar career averages. Crawford sits at 14.6 points, 3.4 assists and 2.2 rebounds per game. Williams owns marks of 14.5 points, 3.5 assists and 2.3 rebounds.
Both are shoot-first, defense-averse bucket-hunters who've spent the vast majority of their careers leaping off the bench and getting a shot up almost immediately, and both are the exact player type most people associate with the sixth-man role. There's no denying the shared Vinnie Johnson lineage here.
The two aren't without their distinctions. Williams' foul-drawing guile isn't something Crawford shares, while Crawford's playground handles set him apart. Returning to the similarity department, neither ever saw a shot he didn't like.
Though one-way play often rendered both Williams and Crawford vulnerable late in games, and though neither has played for a title-winner, these two deserve credit for taking a particular kind of reserve role to its extreme. We'll be referring to shot-happy backup guards as "Crawford or Williams types" for the next few decades.
Andre Iguodala started the first 758 games of his NBA career. But then, in his age-31 season, he agreed to a change that contributed to one of the greatest five-year stretches the league has ever seen.
If he hadn't acquiesced to new head coach Steve Kerr's request to come off the bench (behind Harrison Barnes, an inarguably inferior player) in 2014-15, it's hard to be sure things would have played out the same way for the Golden State Warriors, who won three championships and reached five Finals in the ensuing half-decade.
Iguodala's sacrifice made it impossible for anyone else to credibly complain about roles, shots or touches.
The best defensive wing on the team, Iguodala was also integral (second to Draymond Green, of course) in making the Dubs' Death Lineup work. He could switch across several positions, but his main task was typically guarding the best of the best. He won the 2015 Finals MVP in large part because he didn't turn into a pile of dust while defending LeBron James.
Incredible hands, next-level basketball IQ and a constitutional predisposition for making The Right Basketball Play under pressure, Iguodala was a do-it-all weapon for an all-time-great team.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise indicated.