Group A: San Antonio, LA Lakers, Denver, Brooklyn, Phoenix, Cleveland, Milwaukee
Group B: Houston, Toronto, Indiana, Minnesota, Washington, Golden State, Portland
What's the difference between the two? Group B has exceeded expectations while Group A has wavered at times? Group A has a vastly stronger head-to-head record against Group B? Group A was voted to have better jerseys than Group B?
In fact, Group A, according to Hoops Stats, includes the top seven teams with the highest average bench scoring output, while Group B is the bottom seven. Yet, how should we process the importance of this contrast when more teams from the latter group are on track to make the playoffs?
Bench play is an interesting phenomenon in the NBA. While certainly important in moments of keeping pace or sparking a run, it isn't necessarily a requirement for success. For example, Indiana was second to last in bench scoring a year ago (only Portland was worse) and that didn't prevent them from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals.
For certain teams, having a quality bench is a luxury. For others, the second unit serves as a major question mark, especially when the starters are playing well. Either way, this topic's increased visibility and emphasis across SB Nation this week shows how paramount that unit can be for a team, and what it takes to create a truly successful bench.
In Miami, Hot Hot Hoops delved into the past and present of Norris Cole. The third-year guard's production actually declined slightly a year ago, but he has had a turnaround year this season by shooting 46% from the field, including 39% from three. Also noted by author Isaac Koppel: Cole's improved ability inside and from mid-range are making a mark. He's now more effective in pick-and-roll situations with Miami's undersized, athletic bigs, and he's creating more drive-and-kick opportunities too.
Added up, Cole provides a spark off the bench for a Miami team that often needs it -- especially when you consider the minutes restriction put on Dwyane Wade and a never-sure-what-you'll-get group that includes Greg Oden and Michael Beasley. While not necessarily the image of consistency, Cole's improvement has allowed for some (Wade included) to deliver in ways that cater to their strengths. Obviously the team goes as LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Wade go, but having a player that has learned how to complement both the team's starters and other bench players is clearly an added value.
There are a few other teams around the league that have had to rely on bench efficiency, though in different ways. A big example of this is in Brooklyn, where the Nets have turned the corner on a difficult start to the season and look headed for an easy playoff berth. This change was briefly covered by Net Income on Brooklyn’s affiliate Nets Daily. The piece highlighted a post by John Schuhmann of NBA.com, who noted the importance of depth for an aging team that was likely to have injury and fatigue issues.
"It makes you realize that, even though [starting center Brook] Lopez is done for the season, the Nets are still one of the deepest teams in the league, so deep that Jason Terry got a DNP on Thursday," Schuhmann wrote. "The talent was always there. The healthy bodies were not."
Brooklyn and Miami have vastly different bench styles -- one that relies heavily on the depth (Brooklyn) while the other simply needs it to give the starters a rest (Miami) -- but both are effective in their own way. You could argue, then, it isn’t so much about the bench being "good." Rather, it’s more about the bench being the "correct" fit into the style the team plays.
On the flip side, there are moments when the stars of the team are shining bright, but the guys behind them barely flicker in the distance. That is the case in Sacramento, where the trio of DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and Isaiah Thomas each average over 20 points per night -- but get very little help from anywhere else.
This was a main discussion point on Sactown Royalty this week. The author (@Aykis16 on Twitter) runs down the list of players that have underperformed on the team or simply aren't ready to contribute, from Carl Landy and Derrick Williams to Ben McLemore and Travis Outlaw. The article comes on the heels of Boston rookie Kelly Olynyk singlehandedly out-producing the entire Kings bench in scoring, rebounding and assists last week.
Sacramento could really use the help, as they are looking up at the majority of teams in the Western Conference. The author does rightly note that "the reason the Kings have no real depth is that they gave it up in order to acquire Gay." They are also one of the youngest teams in the NBA. Yet, it seems to prove the point further: a lack of bench impact is easily recognizable on both good teams and bad.
Sacramento is hardly the only team this year that has had less production than anticipated. There's the obvious example of reigning 6th Man of the Year J.R, Smith, whose antics outshone his inconsistent start to the year (he's managed to turn things around in recent weeks). Then there are teams that, like Brooklyn, struggled mightily once their top dogs went down to injury, like Memphis or New Orleans, but didn't have the firepower to keep afloat.
This brings the story to Portland. Amid a few other elephants in the room, including decreased ball movement and mediocre defense (two talking points that are brought up so many times on Blazer's Edge that Dave's latest game recap against Minnesota avoided beating them to a pulp), the Trail Blazers' second unit continues to be a major question mark.
The stories and stats laid out above might provide some hope for the Blazers, even if the bench has been one of the worst in the NBA by output.
As a start, a high-production bench doesn't necessarily correlate to success. Really San Antonio is the only "elite" team that shows up consistently in the top five of bench scoring, rebounding, assists, etc. Ironically, teams like Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Cleveland are often at the top of that list too -- all teams that have had their own ups and downs (lots of downs) this year.
Secondly, it isn't a requirement for the entire second unit to be strong. Instead, sometimes all it takes is to have one player be "that guy" coming off the bench to make an impact. Norris Cole embraces that role in Miami, spelling the starters (who are the overwhelming producers on the team) and understanding his role. That's the major key: Knowing your role and improving in that way can be tremendously important for a bench player, much like Cole did over the last year.
When speaking about "output," judging the best bench isn't always about who scores or rebounds the most. Instead, it's about reflecting on whether the second unit can embrace specific roles and acknowledging the fact that building a young team often comes with sacrificing a bit in the short-term.
In Portland, based on how well the starters have played, the end goal likely means having more Norris Cole-type players that fully understand their roles and develop with that in mind. That probably makes this a long-term project, even if there is a sense of urgency to strike while the iron's hot this year.
Ultimately, it's not always about comparing bench scoring to bench scoring or assists to assists. Instead, it's about which team's bench executed their plan better; doing otherwise is an apples-to-oranges conversation.