Ranking the Deepest Teams in the 2021-22 NBA Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 9, 2022

Ranking the Deepest Teams in the 2021-22 NBA Season

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    With the playoffs and their shortened rotations just days away, this might be our last chance to give depth its due.

    Top-line stars matter most in the postseason, but it takes help from several sources to survive the slog of the regular season.

    Injuries are inevitable, fatigue is a given, and even if a full 82-game slate doesn't lend itself to nightly micromanagement and game-to-game adjustments, exploitable matchups still arise. The teams that have multiple contributors, ideally with varied skill sets, are the ones that tend to capitalize.

    Here, we'll run down the 10 deepest teams in 2021-22, using Box Plus/Minus as our main tool. We'll tally up every player that logged at least 750 minutes of court time while producing a BPM above zero—essentially the break-even point.

    This won't be a perfect system, but it keeps things objective and gives a good idea of how many net-positive contributors each team has on its roster.

    These teams navigated the regular season with quality and quantity.    

10. Milwaukee Bucks

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    Jon Durr/Associated Press

    Six Positive BPM Contributors: Giannis Antetokounmpo (10.9), Jrue Holiday (3.2), Khris Middleton (1.5), Pat Connaughton (1.1), Grayson Allen (0.4), Bobby Portis (0.3)

    You'll note the Milwaukee Bucks are a little top-heavy with Antetokounmpo lapping the field in BPM, but that shouldn't diminish the fact that this team got quality minutes from six players. That number would have been eight if DeMarcus Cousins and Jevon Carter had surpassed the 750-minute threshold.

    Both were above the break-even mark in BPM, but you definitely have to give their numbers some side-eye. Cousins actually rated better on defense, while Carter, who's basically only in the league because he can guard, earned most of his positive BPM on the offensive end. Small sample sizes are mostly to blame on both accounts, but consider that another reminder that these stats aren't perfect.

    If the idea of Milwaukee relying on Allen, Connaughton and Portis in the playoffs makes you a little iffy on its title chances, that's understandable. Allen, in particular, will have to prove he can hold up defensively so the Bucks can keep his vital shooting on the floor.

    It's also interesting to note that George Hill, seventh on the team in minutes played, isn't among the positive BPMers. Even when Milwaukee's postseason rotations shrink, he figures to keep a prominent role as Holiday's main backup.   

9. Atlanta Hawks

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    Jessie Alcheh/Associated Press

    Six Positive BPM Contributors: Trae Young (5.2), Delon Wright (2.3), Clint Capela (1.9), John Collins (1.5), Bogdan Bogdanovic (1.0), Onyeka Okongwu (0.9)

    The Atlanta Hawks technically tied with the Bucks' six positive BPM contributors, but we broke the deadlock in Atlanta's favor because of the smaller gap between its top and bottom entries. It felt more in keeping with the spirit of the exercise to give a nod to the team that wasn't getting carried by a two-time MVP.

    Don't construe that as a shot at Young, who probably rates among the league's top five offensive forces. Surround him with next to nothing, and you're still going to get a top-10 offense out of it—or at least that's been the case the last two seasons. This year, the Hawks are second in points scored per 100 possessions.

    Bogdanovic deserves special recognition for capably steering Atlanta's offense with Young off the floor. The combo guard is averaging 14.9 points and 3.0 assists per contest, and when he's played without Trae, the Hawks have scored at a rate that would rank in the 84th percentile overall.

    Watch out for Okongwu as well. He has actually held opponents to a lower field-goal percentage at the rim than Capela, who has started over the second-year center all season. Okongwu is more mobile and athletic than the guy he's backing up, and it seems it'll only be a matter of time until those roles reverse or Capela moves on via trade.

    Atlanta had a handful of notable names with negative BPMs, including De'Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Danilo Gallinari. Hunter and Gallo were both in positive territory in 2020-21, so there's a good chance Atlanta will rank even higher next year if that trio returns to form.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Seven Positive BPM Contributors: Kevin Love (4.1), Jarrett Allen (3.9), Darius Garland (2.5), Evan Mobley (0.4), Lauri Markkanen (0.3), Cedi Osman (0.2), Ricky Rubio (0.2)

    Anyone who hasn't yet voted on Sixth Man of the Year might want to consider Love's top position here, although watching him run second units from the forward spot all season should have already satisfied the eye test.

    The Cleveland Cavaliers' expectation-defying year is owed mostly to Garland's breakout, Mobley's defensive brilliance and Allen's All-Star contributions on both ends. But Love's ability to play alongside either of Cleveland's starting bigs and facilitate with the backups doesn't get enough credit.

    It's a testament to Cleveland's unorthodox approach to roster construction that big men occupy four of the top five spots in BPM. It seemed strange to pay Allen $100 million a few weeks after drafting Mobley, and stranger still to bring the 7-foot Markkanen into the fold as a starting small forward. At the time, it looked as if the Cavs had missed the memo on the NBA's downsizing trend.

    The mix worked, though, with Mobley and Allen's length mitigating the defensive issues caused by Markkanen having to guard a perimeter player more often than ever before. Zone looks, keyed by Mobley's mobility, also helped.

    If Love regresses or Markkanen struggles a little more on D next season, the Cavs could offset those losses by bringing back Collin Sexton in restricted free agency (-0.2 BPM in 2020-21) and coaxing another developmental step out of Isaac Okoro.

    Not that it's news, but the future's bright in Cleveland.   

7. Boston Celtics

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Seven Positive BPM Contributors: Robert Williams III (5.4), Jayson Tatum (4.8), Al Horford (4.3), Jaylen Brown (2.1), Payton Pritchard (1.6), Marcus Smart (0.5), Josh Richardson (0.2)

    Smart barely ranking sixth out of seven Boston Celtics is the biggest surprise here, although Williams beating out Tatum for the top spot also warrants a double-take.

    Then again, considering the Celtics have been defined by their league-best defense this season, Williams' team lead in BPM checks out. Tatum is going to make an All-NBA team and will probably finish inside the top 10 when MVP votes are tabulated, but Williams playing a free-safety role was the impetus for Boston's defensive transformation.

    Grant Williams, Daniel Theis and Derrick White all wound up with negative BPM figures that undersell their impact on the Celtics this year.

    Grant Williams' elite defensive versatility was vital to a Boston scheme that frequently required bigs (Robert Williams excluded) to switch onto guards at the point of attack, and his three-point shooting meant defenders couldn't ignore him in the corners.

    White's quick decision-making as a passer and solid wing defense bolstered the Celtics on both ends, and old favorite Theis will only be more valuable with Robert Williams set to miss at least some of the first round this postseason.

    Even with that trio getting the short end of the stick in BPM, the Celtics still rate just outside the top five in overall depth.

    Housekeeping: With twice as many players putting up at least a 0.5 BPM as the Cavs, Boston earns the No. 7 spot.

6. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    Seven Positive BPM Contributors: Karl-Anthony Towns (5.0), Patrick Beverley (2.7), Anthony Edwards (1.3), D'Angelo Russell (0.8), Jaylen Nowell (0.7), Jordan McLaughlin (0.5), Jarred Vanderbilt (0.4)

    Josh Richardson cost the Celtics this spot. It's not his fault, but he doesn't play for Boston anymore, and the Minnesota Timberwolves' low man, Vanderbilt (0.4) has a higher BPM than Richardson: 0.4 to 0.2. Those two differences are enough to get Minnesota the sixth position ahead of the No. 7 Celtics.

    This year's Wolves will finish higher in the West standings than they have since 2003-04, a true breakthrough for the franchise. It's not a coincidence that a handful of key players also hit new levels in the process.

    Beverley's 2.7 BPM is his best since his rookie year, when he only played 713 minutes for the Houston Rockets. If you adjust to account for volume, the 33-year-old guard turned in the best season of his career. Vanderbilt's first three years all featured negative BPMs, but the energetic forward hustled, rebounded, blocked and stole his way to a positive mark for the first time this season.

    Edwards' history is a little shorter, but he also engineered a major turnaround, flipping his minus-2.1 BPM as a rookie into this year's 1.3.

    Sometimes, stats that go beyond the box score can seem arcane. And they can feel downright misleading when someone like Beverley grades out as "better" than Edwards or Russell, whose roles were larger and whose star qualities shone brighter. But when you recognize that Minnesota's rise in the standings coincides with a handful of rotation players performing at or near career-best levels in a catch-all metric like BPM, it helps reinforce the fact that these stats are picking up something important.

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5. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    Seven Positive BPM Contributors: CJ McCollum (5.2), Jonas Valanciunas (2.2), Jose Alvarado (2.0), Brandon Ingram (2.0), Josh Hart (0.7), Willy Hernangomez (0.6), Jaxson Hayes (0.5)

    Yet another team with seven positive contributors, the New Orleans Pelicans edge out the Celtics and Wolves by virtue of having seven players at 0.5 BPM or better. 

    The first thing most New Orleans Pelicans fans will notice here is the presence of Josh Hart, who went to the Portland Trail Blazers in the trade that brought McCollum and his team-high BPM aboard. It seems fair to include him here, as he technically surpassed the 750-minute cutoff while with the Pels. FYI, this won't be the last time we count a positive-BPM player who's no longer with the team.

    Alvarado's inclusion is also noteworthy, as the 23-year-old undrafted rookie was on the periphery of the rotation until January. As New Orleans lost several backcourt bodies to injury, his defensive intensity and pass-first approach were impossible to keep off the floor. The NBA is still a shooter's league, and Alvarado (30.2 percent from deep) certainly isn't a shooter. But his overall positive impact shows there are other ways to make a difference.

    Ingram feels a little undervalued here, and Herbert Jones not making the cut at all doesn't seem right. Then again, BPM covers both ends of the floor. While Jones is a massive positive on D, he grades out as one of the Pelicans' worst offensive players.

    Between Jones missing the cut and Zion Williamson not being involved at all, the Pels are another team with the potential to rate even higher in our depth rankings next year.

4. Miami Heat

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Seven Positive BPM Contributors: Jimmy Butler (6.6), Bam Adebayo (3.7), Kyle Lowry (1.9), Caleb Martin (1.2), Max Strus (1.0), Tyler Herro (0.6), P.J. Tucker (0.6)

    The tiebreaking continues, as we slotted the Miami Heat above the previous four teams with a matching seven positive BPM players due to the quality of their quantity. That's a weirdly worded way of noting that all of Miami's seven entries are at least a 0.6 BPM. 

    We bumped up the cutoff from 0.5 to 0.6, splitting hairs thinner and thinner in the process. You could swap the Pels and Heat without causing any controversy.

    Martin, fourth on the team in BPM, made the Heat's roster on a two-way deal, which is basically code for "this guy's juuuuuust barely still in the league," only to wind up shooting 41.7 percent from three with block and steal rates in the top quartile for his position.

    Miami grabbed a guy anyone could have had and turned him into a two-way wing capable of logging over 1,300 minutes for a team that will finish first in the East. You just know there are executives across the league stewing on that one.

    Miami's scouting and player development remains undefeated.

    Throw Strus in there, too. The undrafted guard had a stint with the Chicago Bulls in 2019-20 before the Heat got ahold of him last season. Now, he's starting over $90 million man Duncan Robinson and raining threes at a 40.8 percent clip.

    Butler, Adebayo, Lowry and Herro are the headliners, but the Heat's stellar season was also driven by contributions from castoffs and discarded vets like Tucker, whom the Bucks inexplicably let walk in free agency.

3. Phoenix Suns

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Seven Positive BPM Contributors: Chris Paul (5.3), Devin Booker (4.0), Deandre Ayton (2.7), Cameron Johnson (2.7), Mikal Bridges (1.6), JaVale McGee (1.2), Jae Crowder (1.0)

    The Phoenix Suns are far from the only team so far with seven positive BPMers. But they're the first with seven guys sitting at 1.0 or better. 

    Paul leads the way, with Booker right behind him. That might raise some eyebrows given the likelihood that Booker will finish ahead of his veteran teammate in MVP voting, but you have to remember that BPM doesn't take into account Booker's roughly 200-minute advantage over CP3. Box Plus/Minus is a per-100-possession stat, so volume isn't a consideration—except insofar as we're requiring 750 minutes played to qualify.

    Johnson tying Ayton with a 2.7 BPM speaks to the reserve forward's unheralded importance to Phoenix's operation. Booker is the only Suns player with more made threes than Johnson, who has also turned himself into a trustworthy defender at either forward spot.

    If you're looking for another reason to lock the Suns in as prohibitive title favorites, note that these seven players are basically Phoenix's playoff rotation. Cameron Payne, Landry Shamet and Torrey Craig will also see time, but the Suns ran up their league-high win total by relying on the same players who'll carry them in the playoffs.

    On the flip side, among the seven players listed above, everyone but McGee logged at least 1,600 minutes. So if you're not searching to justify Phoenix's favorite status, and instead want to do some concern trolling, collective fatigue is a good area to focus on.

    Especially considering the Suns' taxing run to last year's Finals.

2. Memphis Grizzlies

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Eight Positive BPM Contributors: Ja Morant (6.1), Brandon Clarke (3.9), Desmond Bane (2.7), Steven Adams (2.0), De'Anthony Melton (2.0), Tyus Jones (1.6), John Konchar (1.4), Kyle Anderson (1.0)

    How have the Memphis Grizzlies put up a 20-4 record without Ja Morant?


    The Grizz are our first team with eight players contributing at least a 0.5 BPM, and this overachieving bunch left no doubt about belonging above the other teams covered so far. They all hit or broke the 1.0 threshold.

    Scoring efficiency matters, which is part of the reason Clarke and his 63.6 field-goal percentage rate so highly. But at the same time, you've also got to love how Melton (40.5 percent shooting) slips into Memphis' top five in BPM on the strength of his defense and secondary playmaking. He's the only Grizzlies player with at least 100 steals and 100 assists on the year. 

    The elephant in the room (or in this case, the elephant not in the room) is Jaren Jackson Jr. He's in negative BPM territory, despite a top-five case for Defensive Player of the Year. He leads the NBA in stocks (steals plus blocks), and though we trumpeted Memphis' depth as a reason for its success without Morant, Jackson's development into a scheme-defining defensive force might actually be the main factor.

    Let's call this what it is: an analytics blind spot.

    Between Jackson and Dillon Brooks falling short, you could make the argument that the Grizzlies actually belong atop these rankings. But we laid out the rules up front, and we have to adhere to them. That's why the next team, which is the only squad boasting nine players with a positive BPM, takes the crown.   

1. Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Nine Positive BPM Contributors: Stephen Curry (5.8), Gary Payton II (3.8), Draymond Green (3.1), Otto Porter Jr. (3.1), Nemanja Bjelica (1.1), Klay Thompson (1.1), Jordan Poole (1.0), Kevon Looney (0.7), Andrew Wiggins (0.5)

    The Golden State Warriors are a bit of a paradox. They rank first in depth by the criteria we're using, but they're also among the teams most dependent on a single player for success.

    Generally speaking, lineups without Curry don't work. The Dubs post a minus-3.5 net rating without the two-time MVP on the floor. Put any combo of the other eight guys listed above on the court with Steph, though, and suddenly everything looks just fine. The Warriors are a plus-10.6 with Curry in the game.

    It's almost like we need daily reminders that he remains among the league's most positively impactful forces. Whether he has the ball or not, Curry changes everything for the players around him.

    That's not meant to take away from the cadre of supporting pieces on Golden State's roster, all of whom bring a little something different.

    Payton is an on-ball menace, tied with celebrated disruptor Matisse Thybulle for the league lead (among players with at least 750 minutes played) at 5.2 deflections per 36 minutes.

    Green was the Defensive Player of the Year shoo-in for the first three months of the season. Porter rebounds everything and hits big threes. Bjelica stretches the floor and takes advantage of lumbering bigs as a small-ball center.

    Thompson is a five-alarm fire when he gets hot, Poole deserves more credit than anyone else for keeping the offense afloat in non-Curry minutes, Looney never misses games anymore and Wiggins...well, Wiggins started the All-Star Game.

    We'll look back on that last one and scratch our heads, but it happened!

    Throw all that together, and it's not hard to understand why the Warriors looked like no-questions-asked title threats when relatively healthy earlier this year. Maybe it's controversial in light of their season-ending slump, but if Curry gets back to full strength and bumps the other eight positive BPMers back down to their proper roles, the Warriors could move into the top tier of contenders again.


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through April 7. Salary info via Spotrac.