NBA benches: If backup rotations could win Sixth Man as collective
Earlier this year, all five of Atlanta’s starters were honored as the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Month, the first time the individual award was bestowed in that manner. That got us thinking: If end-of-year awards were given out in a similar fashion, how would the major races shake out this season?
For Most Valuable Player (or Lineup, in this scenario), you have to figure the Hawks’ and Warriors’ starting units would be the frontrunners. But what if the Sixth Man of the Year award was instead given to an entire bench?
Let’s break down the top five would-be contenders, using interactive data visualizations from PointAfter’s NBA players database to highlight each team’s best candidate for the actual Sixth Man of the Year (SMOY) award.
San Antonio Spurs
We have to begin with the franchise that has come to symbolize organizational depth over the past decade, a label that has proven itself again this season.
While the Hawks have produced a better overall record with their version of San Antonio’s pass-happy offense, the Spurs bench might still be playing the most beautiful basketball of any second unit. Led by former SMOY Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw (10.3 points per game on 53.6 percent shooting in March), the resurgence of San Antonio’s bench has coincided with the Spurs’ recent form.
Their backups dish out more assists (10.6 per game) than any other bench by a significant margin. That’s enabled them to post the third-best net rating (4.7) of any bench unit in the league, as well as a top-five scoring offense by traditional standards (40.3 points per game). Ginobili is still the de facto SMOY candidate for San Antonio this season, even though his numbers are slightly down across the board.
Los Angeles Lakers
Taking every facet of the game into account, the Lakers bench probably doesn’t deserve to be mentioned here. But the SMOY is usually an offensive-minded player, with defensive value put on the back burner (hello, Jamal Crawford and J.R. Smith), so L.A.’s second-stringers might actually garner some votes in this hypothetical balloting process.
The Lakers possess the highest-scoring bench in the league, with non-starters contributing 41.0 points per game. They’re also in the top five among bench units in offensive rating (100.8), rebounds per game (19.5), blocks per game (2.2), field goal percentage (44.5 percent) and three-point percentage (36.2 percent)—hear that, Byron Scott?
The players who comprise the bench have changed throughout the season, as 12 different players have started at least 17 games for the Lake Show. But the most deserving player for SMOY would probably have to be Ed Davis, who inexplicably received a DNP-CD on Sunday against Brooklyn despite being exactly the type of young, cheap player the Lakers should covet in their current situation.
By posting the best PER (20.4) of any Laker this season, Davis is fulfilling the potential that led to him being drafted No. 13 overall by Toronto back in 2010. Still just 25 years old, Davis uses his rangy figure to be disruptive on defense, rebound well (7.5 rebounds in 23.5 minutes per game) and convert high-percentage looks at the rim.
To say Davis is a longshot in the SMOY race would be an understatement. But just like the Lakers bench unit as a whole, Davis is better than people realize. He’s under contract through the end of next season at just $1 million per year, an absolute steal on the part of Mitch Kupchak.
A glaring weakness just last season, Indiana’s bench has ridden bounce-back years from Luis Scola and Rodney Stuckey to log the second-most points per game (40.9) in the league. Their offensive rating is actually 2.8 points higher than the Pacers’ starting unit, the best (or worst, depending how you look at it) differential between a starting lineup and bench in the league.
The Pacers are one of just three teams to adhere to such an oddity (the other two are Boston and Phoenix, both of which have been benefitted from Isaiah Thomas this season). Instead of relying on one sparkplug, Indiana has culled enough offense from each of its backups to support a well-rounded unit that is third among NBA benches in defensive rating (99.1), second in rebounding, fifth in three-point percentage (35.8) and fourth in plus-minus per 100 possessions (4.2).
Stuckey has essentially slid into Lance Stephenson’s old role. The former Piston isn’t afraid to shoot from anywhere, but this season he’s extended his range beyond the three-point line after hovering around 30 percent for the first seven years of his professional career.
Note: You can hover over each shooting zone to see a breakdown of the player’s percentages compared to the league average.
Golden State Warriors
Golden State’s starting lineup contains some of the most explosive offensive players in the sport, with the Splash Brothers deservedly getting a lot of love around the league this season. But the Warriors bench has also been instrumental in helping the team rise to the top of the Western Conference.
The Dubs boast the best net rating (7.0) of any bench in the NBA, and really have no obvious flaws to speak of on either side of the ball. Their bench is tops in eFG% (51.6), second in defensive rating (98.9), third in offensive rating (105.9), second in assist-turnover ratio (1.77)… you get the point. Golden State’s backups have even shot better than the team’s starting unit, posting a league-best 47.7 field goal percentage.
Some of the luster has come off of Marreese Speights's once compelling SMOY candidacy, but his absurd offensive production in limited court time (10.7 points in 16.3 minutes per game) is still worthy of recognition and has stilted up a career-high 19.6 PER.
Even with the Warriors’ near-flawless bench construction, there’s still one group of backups that has risen above the rest of the competition to establish itself as the clear favorite in the Best Bench conversation.
Toronto’s bench hasn’t just been one of the best second units this season—it’s produced one of the best five-man lineups, period. Greivis Vasquez, Lou Williams, James Johnson, Patrick Patterson and Tyler Hansbrough have a combined net rating of 15.7 points per 48 minutes, the sixth-best mark in the league for any five-man crew with at least 200 minutes played.
Back in December, Johnson was quoted as saying, “Our second unit be beating the first unit all the time [in practice] … [The starters] know they can rest easy during the games and take their break when they need it.”
Johnson probably wasn’t lying. The plus-minus of Toronto’s bench is 4.9 points better (per 48 minutes) than the team’s starting lineup. Their offensive rating of 109.5 would tie with the Warriors for the second-best mark among all teams, just a smidge below the Clippers (109.6).
Every player does his part. Vasquez continues to be one of the league’s most underrated distributors. Johnson draws the toughest matchup defensively. Patterson has morphed into a prototypical stretch-four, and the defensive metrics love Hansbrough this season.
But the straw who stirs the drink, and the leading SMOY candidate this year, is Williams. Atlanta’s front office let the ball-dominant combo guard walk last offseason, deeming him not an ideal fit. It was the best thing that could’ve happened to Williams, who’s averaging a career-high 15.1 points per game for the Raps.
Toronto’s offense has been 6.2 points (per 100 possessions) better with him on the floor, and it’s no wonder why that’s the case. When DeMar DeRozan was sidelined earlier this season, Williams ably filled the scoring void—he’s had 17 20-point games, including a 36-point showing against Cleveland back in November.
Williams didn’t have a great March, but with the Raptors locking up the Atlantic Division over the weekend, all the pressure is off Toronto. They’re guaranteed a top-four seed in the postseason, and can let Kyle Lowry and DeRozan rest up as the season winds down. If coach Dwane Casey is smart, he’ll make sure to keep Williams fresh for the playoffs, too.
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