Ranking Warriors, Knicks and the NBA's Best Bench Mobs
Depth is incredibly valuable in the NBA during the regular season.
Indeed, the merits of robust benches can be debated in the playoffs, when rotations shrink and it becomes harder for certain players to remain on the floor. Before that, however, there is no argument against the importance of capable bodies.
Star power may be the Association's foremost commodity, but supporting casts help maximize and preserve it. Eighty-two games is a long time. Injuries crop up, and teams, ideally, don't want to overwork their most pivotal players.
Looking at the league's most effective crop of reserves tends to reinforce this. The top benches, as determined by their point differential per 100 possessions, generally don't come from crummy teams. They're from playoff hopefuls and contenders.
So, which squads have the most effective second-stringers? And why have they been this good?
5. Miami Heat
Point Differential Per 100 Possessions: 2.1
What Makes Them So Special: Tyler Herro's Sixth Man of the Year candidacy
Depth beyond the starting five profiled as the Miami Heat's biggest issue before the season, and their rotation has been hollowed even further by absences from Bam Adebayo (thumb), Jimmy Butler (back) and Markieff Morris (neck). And yet, they're surviving.
Tyler Herro's glittering play is at once the most important and predictable factor driving the second unit's success. Injuries have necessitated recent spot starts, but he has done most of his damage off the pine. He's averaging 21.4 points and 3.8 assists while connecting on 39.6 percent of his triples, including 35.4 percent of his off-the-dribble triples, and his penchant for hitting ultra-difficult jumpers has offset a dip in efficiency around the rim.
Miami has also been fortunate enough to get standout performances from a handful of question marks. Gabe Vincent is drilling 37.5 percent of his threes and had been huge during the two-week stretch from Nov. 24 to Dec. 4. Opponents are shooting just 54.8 percent around the rim against Dewayne Dedmon, who leads the Heat in offensive and defensive rebounding rate.
Max Strus has canned more than 40 percent of his threebies. Caleb Martin is checking difficult defensive assignments while logging more time than any reserve other than Herro. Omer Yurtseven has even hinted at some nifty rebounding and finishing in flashes.
Make no mistake: Herro is the turbine that powers the Heat's depth. But they're not slaughtering opponents in the time he's spent without Adebayo, Butler and Kyle Lowry because of him alone.
4. Washington Wizards
Point Differential Per 100 Possessions: 2.1
What Makes Them So Special: Montrezl Harrell
Props to the Washington Wizards' reserves for cracking the top five despite the rotation's imperfect availability. Neither Rui Hachimura (personal reasons) nor Thomas Bryant (knee) has played this season, and Davis Bertans missed significant time with a sprained left ankle.
Perhaps these absences have actually helped the Wizards, allowing head coach Wes Unseld Jr. to establish a clear frontcourt pecking order. Montrezl Harrell never faced competition for playing time. Deni Avdija has made a defensive jump amid slightly increased reps at power forward. And Raul Neto remains exhausting to go up against.
At any rate, Washington has found real success during the Avdija-Harrell minutes. They combine to forge the rotation's seventh-most played duo, and the Wizards have outscored opponents by 11.5 points per 100 possessions in their minutes together. The team has also received a good amount of mileage from Bradley Beal-plus-the-bench combinations.
More than anything, though, Washington's bench has Harrell. He has single-handedly lifted the offense's efficiency on some nights. He's downing more than 66 percent of his two-pointers, and the Wizards see both their rim frequency and accuracy at the hoop explode when he's on the court. Opponents are hard-pressed to keep him off the offensive glass, and he arms every unit he anchors with a bankable finisher in the half court and transition.
It comes as no surprise Harrell-plus-starters ranks as Washington's second-most played lineup. Recent rough stretch in mind, the Wizards wouldn't have put so much distance between themselves and .500 without him.
3. Utah Jazz
Point Differential Per 100 Possessions: 3.5
What Makes Them So Special: Frontcourt depth and solo-star minutes
Last year, the Utah Jazz's defense crumbled whenever Rudy Gobert took a seat. This season, they field much closer to league-average stopping power without the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, the importance of which cannot be overstated.
There isn't one decision or player responsible for this climb. The Jazz have gone from using a slower-footed Derrick Favors in the middle during non-Gobert minutes to deploying Hassan Whiteside beside Eric Paschall or Rudy Gay, both of whom ensure Joe Ingles isn't overtaxed with power forward reps.
Donovan Mitchell's solo minutes also just so happen to be on the rise. The Jazz are plus-7.4 points per 100 possessions this season when he plays without Gobert or Mike Conley, on the back of a 120 offensive rating. These reps, while still a net positive, weren't nearly as effective in 2020-21.
Contrary to other squads, the Jazz aren't looking for their bench to float entire stints on its own. Stretches without both Mitchell and Gobert are a rarity.
Utah's backups instead fill very specific cracks. They let head coach Quin Snyder sit Gobert and Conley at the same time and then tether their minutes without Mitchell to one another. Ingles is the quintessential secondary playmaker. Jordan Clarkson puts pressure on set defenses even when he's struggling. Gay, Paschall and Whiteside diversify the frontcourt.
The Jazz might lack a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, but their cumulative depth features more variety—and is ultimately better off.
2. New York Knicks
Point Differential Per 100 Possessions: 4.8
What Makes Them So Special: Capacity to go full bench mob
Not all second units are built to be units. Second-stringers are instead inserted here or there to round out lineups still weaponized with bodies from the starting unit.
The New York Knicks' bench is the mother of all exceptions.
Alec Burks has been moved into the starting five, but his performance alongside Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin and Taj Gibson is part of this second-place finish. That fivesome is hammering opponents by 30.4 points per 100 possessions and grades out as one of the NBA's most terrifying lineups, bar none.
This is not to say the Knicks' backups are a one-combo pony. They tantalize because they can shape-shift and lift up certain starters. Julius Randle-plus-bench compilations are slaying opponents. Ditto for RJ Barrett-plus-second-stringer arrangements.
Toppin's motor knows no limitations. He can play next to Gibson or Nerlens Noel or even Randle. The synergy between Rose and Quickley is special and no doubt factored into Burks getting the starting-five call-up over one of them.
Go ahead and wait for collective regression. Opponents are shooting just 52.9 percent at the rim and under 25 percent on above-the-break threes against the Knicks' original starters off the floor. But this group has the talent and adaptability to weather reality checks, on top of Burks' promotion.
They push the pace. They put pressure on the rim. They get to the line. They force turnovers. They are, collectively, frenetic and have parlayed that energy into substance on which the Knicks not only depend, but survive.
1. Golden State Warriors
Point Differential Per 100 Possessions: 7.5
What Makes Them So Special: Capability in numbers
Success from second-stringers too often gets oversimplified. Perhaps this falls under the umbrella. Sometimes, though, the strength of reserves is really just about talent and having loads of it.
Like the Golden State Warriors do.
Head coach Steve Kerr has a ton of competence at his disposal. Nemanja Bjelica, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Otto Porter Jr., Damion Lee, Gary Payton II and Andre Iguodala (nursing a knee injury) would all crack the rotation of any other NBA team. That Golden State has Chris Chiozza and Jonathan Kuminga minutes in its back pocket is just unfair.
This much optionality can be something of a curse. Do the Warriors need to go 10-plus deep every game? Toscano-Anderson was already lost in the shuffle once. Kerr will have tough decisions to make when Klay Thompson and James Wiseman return from knee and Achilles injuries, respectively—and when the playoffs start.
Then again, 1-percenter problems aren't actually problems. Golden State reinvented itself on the margins, stocking the roster with a slew of competent reserves who can defend, play to the offensive system's strengths and then defend some more.
Though this group wants for someone who can carry the scoring burden, it is almost interchangeable with the non-stars. Stephen Curry-plus-backups are outpacing opponents by 22.8 points per 100 possessions. Steph-and-Draymond-Green-plus-reserves are a plus-48.4 points per 100 possessions.
Scarier still: Golden State's bench is bound to get deeper. Thompson's return will (eventually) move Jordan Poole to the second unit, and if Wiseman is any better than last season, look out.