Over the course of a season, NBA starters generally get the most minutes on any given team, and in turn, receive the most recognition for wins, as well as blame for losses.
This is, of course, a logical conclusion to come to. Starters open the game and usually close it too, so they play the most minutes. Therefore, they have the biggest opportunity to impact any given game.
Some bench players, the sixth men of the league, play as many minutes as a starter would. So they also get more recognition than the rest of the bench. The players that fill out the rest of the second unit play less minutes, are seen by the general public as small cogs in a big machine: They have a necessary if unspectacular function. Because of this, they are viewed as more easily replaceable than a big-minute player if they cannot perform up to task.
Although traditionally teams are built to have their starters as the best players, some teams decentralize their power from their starters in favor of having a more balanced attack throughout the game, and make an effort to build a stronger bench unit.
Last year's champions, the Golden State Warriors, are perhaps the best recent example of what having a strong bench can bring. While their starters operated with an otherworldly level of efficiency, the team also featured a bench with the highest NetRtg in the league, at 5.7. Golden State's bench also tied for the league's best eFG with 51.2%, and came in second for the best bench AST%, at 65.7.
Golden State's bench came in at 10th in total minutes played, meaning there was a significant difference between how much time they had on the floor compared to the starters. But, when you couple that with their bench's outstanding efficiency, it's easy to understand why the team was able to put up historically great offensive numbers on their way to going 67-15 in the regular season, and riding that wave to a title.
While the Warriors last year had the best-performing bench in the league, for the past three years, the San Antonio Spurs have the claim at the most balance between bench and starters.
San Antonio prides itself on keeping its players rested throughout the grind of an 82-game season for the playoffs. This means that for the past three years whether by way of a blowout win, blowout loss, or resting starters for a game or two Spurs have been at the top of the list of benches with the most minutes played.
In those seasons, the Spurs kept the same group of players on its bench. Over time, each player found a defined role within the unit. Patty Mills became a guard that would push the pace and take 3-pointers. Marco Belinelli became a designated wing shooter. Manu Ginobili was a pick-and-roll-ball-handler. Tiago Splitter (who started for the Spurs in most games, but often played the 5 with the bench unit) became a pick-and-roll big man and rim protector on defense. Cory Joseph blossomed into a hard-working defensive stopper.
San Antonio's bench improved every year that this group was together and becoming more familiar with their individual roles. In 2012-13, the bench had the 6th best NetRtg, with 4.9. In 2013-14, when they won the championship, they had the best in the league, at 9.1. The year after, they finished 3rd, at 5.2 NetRtg. Their scoring efficiency was there as well, as they finished in the top 2 for each of those years.
With this kind of bench production, one can see why the Spurs were considered a championship contender for each of these seasons, and why they won the title in 2014. Their starters are extremely talented, but just as with the Warriors' bench last year, when it was time for the second unit to come in, they minimized any drop-off on both offense and defense.
For the Spurs to challenge for a title this year, in addition to getting their offensive flow back up to speed, they need to have similar bench production that they've had in the past.
They're already off to a good start. Their OffRtg isn't very high, which is understandable. They lost Belinelli, Joseph, and traded Splitter away this offseason. They've had to shuffle pieces around, so just like with the starting unit, the flow isn't quite there yet. The offense is saved by the play of Ginobili, who is back to being his effective self after a bad season in 2015. And even though the OffRtg is down, their NetRtg is still at 8.3, good enough for second in the league so far, thanks to a lights-out defense.
As we saw against the Bucks on Wednesday, the Spurs' second unit is more than just a bunch of easily replaceable players. They each have unique abilities, that when put together can put the pedal to the metal. Mills and Diaw lead the way, scoring 13 and 11 points respectively, while Jonathan Simmons recorded 8 points off the end of the bench, and 4 other backups chipped in at least 4 points each. The second unit kept the opposition down after the starters built up a good lead, and let the starters get a chance to rest on the first night of a back to back, both of which are extremely important tasks to take care of.
Basketball is a team game, and while having good starters is important, having a strong unit can be a game-changer. If the San Antonio Spurs' bench can continue to improve upon its already sharp play throughout this long 2014-16 campaign, they'll be that much closer to being a legitimate contender again come April.
MVP OF THE GAME
Tim Duncan - 16 points on 7-11 shooting, 10 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal
Duncan did all this in just 19 minutes, by the way. That's right, at 38 years old, the veteran from Wake Forest is recording double-doubles in under 20 minutes of game action. Coach Pop got him out nice and quick so he can be able to go in San Antonio's SEGABABA versus the Memphis Grizzlies.
NUMBERS ON THE BOARD
- 48: Total bench points for San Antonio. Because the first unit played so well so early, the Spurs were able to give their bench extended time. In that time they performed strongly. That rest for the Spurs' starters is also extremely convenient, considering that this was the first game of a back-to-back.
- 33.8: Milwaukee's horrid shooting percentage on the night. The Spurs flew around the floor on defense, keeping the Bucks from getting comfortable at any point in the game.
- 10: Total turnovers for San Antonio. The Spurs didn't have a fantastic shooting night, going for 41.1% on the night. Butt they didn't turn the ball over and they played stalwart defense, not giving Milwaukee any chances to take advantage of a down shooting night.
- Kawhi Leonard had a bad shooting night for the first time in what feels like forever. He finished 3-12 from the field, but was able to record 13 points due to going 7-8 from the FT line. This is the first time Leonard has scored under 22 points in 6 games, and his lowest-scoring total since the second game of the season, an October 30 matchup with the Brooklyn Nets, when he had 16. Have we mentioned how much of a dynamite scorer this kid is lately?
- LaMarcus Aldridge didn't have a good scoring night either, going 3-10 from the field for only 6 points. But, while some may only concentrate on Aldridge's relatively shaky offense this year, they should also point out his relatively good defense. One of the biggest questions critics had when Aldridge signed with the Spurs was how he'd perform on defense. He's responded well, looking good when coupled with Duncan down low (as most do), and looking more competent than usual when playing the 5 on his own. In this game against the Bucks, he showed off his defensive ability, recording 5(!) blocks in 23 minutes.
- Jonathan Simmons has looked pretty nice in the minutes he's gotten recently. Simmons' minutes aren't regular yet, but he's slowly working his way into the rotation. He had a solid 27 minutes versus Denver on November 27, where he scored 12 points on 8 shots. He then scored 5 points on 5 shots against the Hawks on the next day. He didn't play versus the Bulls on November 30, but he came in versus the Bucks and had another solid outing, scoring 8 points on 6 shots in 20 minutes. If the postseason started today, Rasual Butler would be getting his minutes, because he's a veteran and the Spurs know what he's capable of. But, it is nice to see Simmons getting some run and playing competently. Here's hoping he can keep improving as the season moves along.