There are a couple schools of thought regarding the value of a quality bench in the playoffs. On one hand, they always shorten during the postseason. The best guys need to be on the floor and stars see their minutes spike accordingly. Even the deepest teams lean heavily on their best five when the stakes rise. Eight-man rotations become the standard, as some role players are left out.
At the same time, there’s the issue of attrition, with the playoff slate becoming a heavy addendum to the annual 82-game odyssey. Sure, we didn’t really expect the collapse of the Clippers—whose toppling of the Spurs briefly framed them as title contenders—but that was a team that played two full seven-game series fielding six-and-a-half seven legitimate rotation players, depending on how you score Austin Rivers. The only L.A. regulars with positive playoff plus-minus ratings were the five starters, underscoring just how sparse its bench was. With or without the 3-1 series lead in Houston, Doc Rivers’ roster as constituted never had the perfect recipe to win a trophy.
All four remaining challengers received major contributions from their reserve groups. As the conference finals beckon, bench guys will be thrust into big moments, and despite limited floor time will inevitably have the chance to swing a game or two. Here’s how the field stacks up:
It’s been no secret that the Warriors boast perhaps the deepest, most experienced bench group in the league. Iguodala and Lee have made All-Star teams, while Livingston and Barbosa have played roles on playoff teams. There are no glaring playoff real plus-minus ratings here (Speights, out for Game 1, is the worst at minus-0.9). The Warriors don’t lean on their bench for as much scoring as the field, but its willingness to play team ball, defend hard, and let Stephen Curry run the show makes this unit just as valuable.
Averaging 27.6 minutes and 8.5 points per game in the playoffs—both better marks than starting center Andrew Bogut—Iguodala has been key in the sixth man role. At 31, he’s gradually accepted a reduced role and seen his team reap the benefits. In 10 playoff games, nearly 63% of his shot attempts come in zero-dribble situations and nearly 87% of his makes have been assisted. Though he’s struggled from the free throw line, the ability to bring in Iguodala, and Livingston to a lesser degree, allows the Warriors to dictate matchups defensively and switch on screens as they substitute.
On that note, the ability to cover James Harden with multiple staggered sets of fresh legs—Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and even Draymond Green are also possibilities—could prove key. Look for Speights and Festus Ezeli to log spot minutes, spelling Bogut and making life as difficult as possible for Dwight Howard. With personnel well-suited for the next seven-game gauntlet, Golden State continues to bathe in riches.
Before praising the efforts of the Rockets’ bench against the Clippers, a moment of silence for Donatas Motiejunas and Patrick Beverley. The former would have logged important minutes and the latter who would have bumped Jason Terry back into this group. At full strength, with the way Houston’s bench has contributed, they might have had a case for the deepest team left. Kevin McHale’s done great work to mesh seemingly disparate parts on both sides of the ball and forge a new, playoff version of this team.
Not long ago, this bench included Josh Smith, who was swapped into the lineup for Terrence Jones in Game 5, the first of Houston’s three straight wins. In those elimination games, Jones (plus-10.7) and Corey Brewer (a team-high plus-14.3) combined to average 27 points on 53% shooting. Brewer even carried the Rockets with a 15-point fourth quarter in Game 6, and if any of that magic lingers into the next round, some continued explosiveness (Houston leads the postseason in scoring) could provide a crucial extra gear as Harden faces a stout Warriors defense.
Capela, a 21-year-old rookie who played in the French League a year ago, has been solid in short spurts. Prigioni hit a big three and registered a plus-20 in Game 7, though his life will get harder if he’s forced to chase Curry around (a task for which no Rocket is properly equipped). Houston may not be the team to topple the mighty Warriors, but continued confidence from its reserves would go a long way.
The Cavs’ attack has stemmed almost entirely from LeBron James with Kyrie Irving hobbling and Kevin Love on the sidelines. Over the course of his career, James has proved perhaps the league’s most gifted at enabling oft-bizarre casts of role players to maximize their talents. The latest beneficiaries are Smith, Dellavedova and Jones, all of whom hit important shots to help Cleveland outlast Chicago.
It’s surprising, because on paper this is the thinnest bench left standing. In the bizarro 2015 we live in, you can go to the conference finals with James Jones getting run as your eighth man, on a bench with no useful post options (Kendrick Perkins comes in to foul people, sometimes). But Jones shot almost 42% from three against the Bulls, every single one of his playoff field goals has been assisted, and you still have to account for the 34 year old out there at all times.
Smith has averaged 11.3 points and 6.8 catch-and-shoot points (seventh-most in the league) in these playoffs. Though he can still shoot you both in or out of a game, he was terrific against Chicago, essentially saving the Cavs in the fourth quarter of Game 4 and setting James up to drain the game-winner. Dellavedova, though still more known for his wrestling expertise than anything, outplayed every guard on the floor in the series-clincher and earned the confidence of his coach—and perhaps more importantly, James. As good as LeBron is, he can’t win an entire series by himself, and no team appears more dependent on continued quality bench play than the Cavaliers.
Ok, it’s pretty fun to watch Schroder run around and try new things in his first meaningful playoff moments. But the fact is, Atlanta has been strapped for consistent contributions from its backups. Like the Clippers, all five Hawks starters have positive plus-minus ratings and all five reserves sit in the red. With LeBron menacing, the somewhat-forgotten subplot of the NYPD allegedly ending Thabo Sefolosha’s season will be rejuvenated as the Hawks figure out exactly what’s left in the kitchen sink to throw at him.
Sefolosha led the team in individual defensive rating (95.3) in the regular season and at 6'7" was Atlanta’s best perimeter defender. To provide a spark, Mike Budenholzer has utilized a Jeff Teague-Schroder dual-point guard backcourt for stretches, and the results have been mixed. They shared the floor in a limited capacity for just 32 games this season, and have logged a -9.9 net rating on the court together in the playoffs. Still, Schroder’s the most talented reserve and a true wild-card. He could provide a shot in the arm, but his bouts of sporadically poor decision-making could sink Atlanta just as quickly.
It’s incredible how much the Hawks achieved this season with such an unproven bench. Bazemore’s been marginally useful and Mike Muscala, a former second-round pick, made the largest impact of their reserve bigs against the Wizards. With the Cavs’ penchant for going small, perhaps Atlanta does so, too—but that leaves a lot of room for James to operate and places the defensive onus on Horford at the rim. The pressure will fall largely on Atlanta’s starting five to deliver the goods.