I'm always appreciative of anyone who can supply a good column idea. Jeff Wade of ESPN Dallas, a contributor to the Mavericks' broadcasts, did just that last week. Excited about the play of the deep Dallas bench, Wade asked on Twitter about historic great benches. I was sad to find I was nearly stumped. About all that came to mind were a pair of benches nicknamed by Jon Barry, from when he was in Sacramento and Detroit.
So, in true Prospectus fashion, I decided to answer the question statistically. My database includes starts going back through the 1981-82 season, which gives a timeline of the last three decades. But how to rate benches? Using total WARP seems to overstate the value of a single star reserve, often a de facto starter. To give a premium to deep benches I decided to borrow from Bill James and multiply the WARP of the best reserve by one, the second-best by two and so on, up to a total of four reserves--about the size of a typical rotation. I also used the same definition as the Sixth Man Award--more games off the bench than starts, which occasionally led to some unusual results, especially in the case of players that changed teams midseason. Still, I think this gives a good and interesting list. Let's take a look.
1. 2006-07 San Antonio Spurs (48.6)
This scores as far and away the best bench of the last three decades. Naturally, this group was led by Manu Ginobili (a year away from winning the Sixth Man Award). San Antonio complemented Ginobili with a fleet of strong outside shooters, including Brent Barry, Michael Finley and Robert Horry (in his penultimate season). The Spurs' bench was deep enough that Matt Bonner, a useful player in his own right, didn't play enough to qualify. Behind the contributions from reserves, and some guy named Duncan, San Antonio won the most recent of its four championships.
2. 1998-99 Portland Trail Blazers (37.6)
The Bob Whitsitt Blazers of the late '90s and early '00s were famous for their depth, and this was the deepest of the group. In part, they benefit from a timeshare at small forward. Walt Williams and Rasheed Wallace both started at the position at times, but mostly came off the bench, with Stacey Augmon getting the call a plurality of the time. Portland also had Greg Anthony and Jim Jackson as veteran reserves in the backcourt more than capable of starting, as well as a young Kelvin Cato anchoring the paint. The Blazers finished third in the West and lost to the eventual champion Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
3. 1999-00 Sacramento Kings (36.1)
Ah, the famous Bench Mob led by Barry. As it turns out, the Alternatorz in Detroit ranked just 24th despite 9.3 WARP from Barry himself. This group was deeper, with a young Peja Stojakovic still in a reserve role behind Corliss Williamson and a fine second-team frontcourt of Lawrence Funderburke and Scot Pollard. As a 10th man, the Kings had the potent but inconsistent Tony Delk.
4. 1991-92 Seattle SuperSonics (35.7)
During Shawn Kemp's third NBA season, he came off the bench and averaged a double-double (15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds per game). Kemp posted 10.3 WARP as the leader of this group, which also included steady Nate McMillan playing three positions. Dana Barros led the league by shooting 44.6 percent from three-point range. We haven't even mentioned Eddie Johnson, the former Sixth Man Award winner who was the Sonics' second-leading scorer at 17.1 points per game but barely rated better than replacement level because he contributed little besides scoring.
5. 1992-93 Portland Trail Blazers (35.4)
A Blazers bench that already featured one overqualified reserve (Clifford Robinson, who averaged 19.1 points and was a year away from an All-Star appearance) got another when Portland signed Rod Strickland to back up Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler. Strickland started 35 games alongside Porter when Drexler was sidelined and had one of his better seasons. The Blazers also got solid contributions from Mario Elie, a year before Elie went to Houston and established himself as a starter.
6. 2010-11 Denver Nuggets (35.2)
If you can remember all the way back to April, the Nuggets found themselves with seven starters after trading Carmelo Anthony to New York for three players who had been opening games with the Knicks. Raymond Felton and Wilson Chandler played heavy minutes off the bench, complementing a unit that was already strong with the likes of J.R. Smith and Chris Andersen. The depth allowed Denver to surge forward after the trade.
7. 2003-04 San Antonio Spurs (35.2)
For the second time--and not the last--Manu Ginobili. Ginobili was just barely eligible, starting 38 games while splitting time with Hedo Turkoglu. The Spurs also had Robert Horry (who was valuable in the regular season before falling apart in a playoff loss to his former team, the L.A. Lakers) and Malik Rose, but what really pushes them up the rankings is Charlie Ward. Ward gets credit here for his solid contributions in New York before he landed in San Antonio following a trade; he actually wasn't especially effective backing up Tony Parker.
8. 2009-10 San Antonio Spurs (35.2)
During Ginobili's last season coming off the bench, he was complemented by a pair of solid backups in the frontcourt. Rookie DeJuan Blair burst on the scene with terrific rebounding and high-percentage shooting, while Bonner shot 39.0 percent from three-point range. The Spurs make this list despite little qualifying depth; George Hill started too many games in place of the injured Tony Parker, meaning little-used Ian Mahinmi (0.5 WARP) was the last player that counted.
9. 2008-09 Denver Nuggets (34.0)
The Nuggets, who would reach the Western Conference Finals before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers, were a totally different game when reserves Andersen and Smith checked into the lineup. Both players supplied energy and efficient scoring, combining for 13.7 WARP. Denver's bench did fall off quickly after them, with Renaldo Balkman and Linas Kleiza rounding out the rotation.
10. 1981-82 Detroit Pistons (33.5)
The 1980s featured few deep benches, and this Pistons unit ranks as the decade's best. Perhaps the problem was that some of the best reserve talent ended up playing for teams like the Celtics and Lakers, who had relatively few minutes to offer. Early in the 1981-82 season, Detroit picked up Vinnie Johnson from Seattle, but Johnson was still about a year away from becoming "the Microwave." The group was led by Terry Tyler, an excellent rebounder from the wing, and also gets credit for Bill Laimbeer. Laimbeer started all 30 games he played with the Pistons, but came off the bench in Cleveland.
Projected to 82 games, the Mavericks bench would score a 35.1 and crack this list in ninth place despite the fact that reigning Sixth Man Award winner Lamar Odom doesn't qualify because he still rates worse than replacement level. However, Dallas ranks just third in the league, which reflects both the small sample size of the early season and the wild disparities between benches after the lockout.
So far, both the Philadelphia 76ers (48.5) and the Nuggets (48.2) are threatening to rank as the best benches in modern history. Doug Collins, as we've discussed, goes just eight and a half players deep, but any of the Sixers' top eight players could easily start and rookie Nikola Vucevic has been terrific in his limited playing time. (In fact, he rates ahead of Evan Turner in terms of WARP right now.) Louis Williams and Thaddeus Young both have to be considered Sixth Man Award candidates.
Denver's current reserve corps has just one player in common (Andersen) with the 2008-09 team that cracked this list, but the Nuggets continue to go deeper than anyone in the league with veterans Andre Miller and Al Harrington coming off the bench and Rudy Fernandez supplying shooting. Denver goes six deep in the frontcourt; third-stringers Kenneth Faried and Kosta Koufos could play quality minutes just about anywhere else in the league. During the lockout-shortened season, that's been a huge advantage for the Nuggets.
(These also include total projected WARP by reserves for a slightly different perspective. Teams with much higher bench rankings typically have several players that rate below replacement level. Teams with lower bench rankings usually have one highly valuable reserve, like Oklahoma City's James Harden.)
Team Bench WARP
PHI 48.5 24.3
DEN 48.2 26.6
DAL 35.1 18.1
SAN 29.5 13.4
NJN 28.1 4.2
CHI 27.0 15.7
CLE 24.9 7.3
OKC 23.1 14.5
MIN 22.4 12.2
ATL 21.8 11.2
Team Bench WARP
POR 21.1 12.4
IND 18.0 6.5
HOU 16.7 5.5
PHX 15.8 5.3
GSW 15.5 2.6
UTA 13.6 5.6
NOH 12.5 5.1
NYK 9.8 5.3
BOS 8.5 -3.0
WAS 5.7 -0.7
Team Bench WARP
MIA 5.2 0.6
CHA 4.4 0.0
LAC 4.2 -3.9
TOR 3.8 -7.2
SAC 3.7 -2.1
ORL 3.3 -4.2
MEM 2.4 -4.7
MIL 1.5 -0.8
DET 1.0 -6.1
LAL -5.6 -7.4
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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