Friday, March 8, 2013

How Deep Are They?

Along with "clutch player," "great execution," and "hand down, man down," one of the most common platitudes you hear while watching an NBA game is "this team goes [X] players deep." While it is true that every NBA player is one of the best players in the world, there are certain guys who pretty much don't play unless a team has foul trouble or the game is a blowout. Announcers love to talk about how deep a team's bench goes, but how can one really quantify the depth of a bench? At Volume Shooters, we take a (highly scientific) look at this question using the following criteria: which team has the best player as the Xth guy in their rotation? One man's opinion is below:

(Best team) 1-deep: Miami Heat

A fairly obvious choice here considering the Heat have the best player in the world right now. While you could argue that a better scorer would be more important if the rest of your team has minimal talent, LeBron's variety of skills would allow him to adapt however the team needed on that night.

Also Considered: OKC Thunder, LA Clippers, San Antonio Spurs

2-deep: OKC Thunder

Once again, there are really only 4 teams under consideration for the best 1-2 combo in the league right now, as other contenders are either too old (Boston, Memphis, San Antonio), too young (Indiana, Denver), or too inconsistent (Atlanta, Brooklyn, New York) to warrant mention here. That leaves only the Lakers, Clippers, Thunder and Heat as legitimate contenders, and while CP3 and Blake are certainly awesome, neither of them can compete with Durant. Westbrook certainly gets a lot of flak in the media, but the team seems to play to his strengths and weaknesses, and his value on the defensive end is consistently underrated. Wade and James also have a strong case, but Wade has declined significantly even from 2 years ago. Only the Thunder have 2 players both entering the primes of their careers. Then again, I could just think this because Westbrook destroys the Nuggets every time they play...

Also Considered: Miami Heat, LA Clippers, LA Lakers

3-deep: San Antonio Spurs

Believe it or not, there are 5 different teams that have a multiple time all-star as their 3rd best player this year...but the reason is that 4 of these players are well past their primes. The Lakers have Nash, a formidable offensive player in the past but now a greater liability than ever on the defensive end. The Knicks have Jason Kidd, who was killing it on the offensive end to start the year but has regressed to his "Ason Kidd" days with the Nets of late. The Celtics have Kevin Garnett, who is still effective, but basically just shoots jump shots, sets illegal screens, and makes various detailed metaphors about cereal to the other team. This essentially becomes a toss-up between the Heat and the Spurs, with Chris Bosh and Manu Ginobli only slightly on the decline from the all-star peaks of their respective careers. I don't think most casual fans realize how devastating Bosh can be at times, and he gets bonus credit for being the most GIF-able athlete of our time (some examples here, here, and here), but Ginobli is probably just as effective as he was 8 years ago. Not somebody you want to see coming off the opposing bench in the playoffs.

Also Considered: Miami Heat, LA Lakers, New York Knicks  

4-deep: LA Lakers

I know, I know, the Lakers are having a down year this year, Kobe Bryant is old, Metta World Peace is crazy, their bench would probably lose to Baylor's women's team 5 on 5...but their 4th best player is Pau Gasol. Do you really want to argue that there is a better player in the league that still has 3 teammates clearly better than him? A quick scan of the elite teams reveals few good candidates; the less-than-elite teams can give us some decent players (Roy Hibbert, Monta Ellis/Larry Sanders, Klay Thompson, Kenneth Faried, Gordon Hayward) but nobody that is better than Gasol right now. Most bad teams don't even have one player as good as Gasol, let alone 4 guys. Almost by default, the Lakers are the last team standing.

(P.S. Why are the Lakers still sitting at .500 and 9th in the West? Well...because their bench would probably lose to Baylor's women's team 5 on 5. You will not be seeing them again on this list.)

Also Considered: Indiana Pacers. OKC Thunder, Denver Nuggets 

5-deep: Denver Nuggets

At this point, you begin to realize that most decent teams have 4 guys you can think of off the top of your head as solid players, and usually role players after that. The Heat have 4 all-stars, but their 5th best guy is...Shane Battier. The Lakers have the same, but their 5th best guy is...Metta World Peace. In fact, there is only one team that currently has all 5 starters averaging in double figures in points - the Portland Trail Blazers, and it is much more out of necessity than having great starters. Digging a little deeper, you see a few strong veteran 5th guys on some solid teams, like Tony Allen, Chauncey Billups and Vince Carter. But for my money, JaVale McGee has the potential to be better than any of the guys just listed (well, maybe not Vince Carter...and Billups was pretty good know, maybe let's just move on here). This list isn't about potential, but McGee has been extremely productive on a per-minute basis this year. He can't seem to get too many minutes (mostly because things like this are still a regular occurrence), but replacing Kosta Koufus with McGee as a starter would give Denver a very dangerous first 5.

Also Considered: Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks, Portland Trail Blazers

6-deep: Charlotte Bobcats Golden State Warriors

Without doing a complete film breakdown of the bench units of all 30 NBA teams, the decisions are getting pretty difficult at this point, and frankly...

So let's just go with the Golden State Warriors. They don't really get close to the cut for any of the prior slots, but their 6th best guy is either Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack, or Harrison Barnes, all 3 of whom are pretty darn good. They aren't really facing much stiff competition at this point - Lance Stephenson, Caron Butler, Ed Davis and Trevor Ariza aren't quite making the competition shake in their boots - and Charlotte fans, neither is Ben Gordon.

Also Considered: Indiana Pacers, LA Clippers, Denver Nuggets

7-deep: LA Clippers

DeAndre Jordan? ......Sure!

Also Considered: Utah Jazz, pre-injury Minnesota T-Wolves, LA Clippers, Syracuse University

8-deep and 9-deep: Denver Nuggets

Most of the title contenders are bunched near the top of this list, but the Nuggets fall a lot closer to the bottom, making them this year's "cute playoff team everybody claims they want to make a run, but secretly hope lose in the first round because who really wants to watch Corey Brewer launch mid-range J's for more than 7 games at a time?" That being said, Brewer and Wilson Chandler would probably start for half the teams in the NBA, but they are solidly the 8th and 9th guys in Denver's rotation right now. Chicago and the Clippers may have better bench units than Denver does, but as far as individual players go, Chandler is almost certainly the best 8th guy in the league.

Also Considered: Chicago Bulls, LA Clippers

So what do we learn from this list? In the past it has been theorized that championship teams need to be 8.5 players deep. Looking at this list, that seems like it could be a bit of a misnomer. While all the teams to make the depth rankings here are playoff caliber teams (and, not coincidentally, are almost all from the Western Conference), the elite teams tend to be clustered at the top, specifically as the best 1 and 2-deep teams. Bradford Doolittle summarizes this nicely in a recent article (Insider only) about the tendency for championship teams to have either a true superstar or two star-level players. It can certainly be valuable to have the luxury of a deep bench in the regular season, but when rotations shorten in the playoffs, the best teams are usually the ones with the best individual players on the court for longest.

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