by Nick Rattner
The last decade proved an definitive one for benches. Much ink was spilled over the rise of a new breed of superstar; it seemed no one would play hard as second-fiddle let alone auxiliary tuba (Mbenga). But if the Chicago Bulls’ success in the 90s taught bball fans anything, it was that a great team needs great players… and several not-so-great players (Cliff Levingston, Jud Buechler). Phil Jackson’s ability to get role players to play roles was discussed as frequently as was his ability to get star players to play hard. Indeed, ask any talking head on ESPN and they will tell you: a championship team needs depth. And depth is measured with a bench. So, with all this in mind, I wonder: what was the best bench of the last decade?
The bench, as a unit, defies the traditional rubrics of basketball excellence. Thus, the bench testifies to the abilities of the players, the charisma and planning of the coach, and the eye of the GM. Playing a secondary role, a bench becomes great not by amassing column-bending statistics but through effort, heart, resilience, and readiness. Two points in four minutes might not look like much on a box score but in the heat of the moment, with a star player limping off to the locker room, they might mean the difference between champion and also-ran.
In looking back over the decade and attempting to figure out which bench was best, achievement became a useful and appropriate guide. As a certain line of thinking goes, the best team is the one that wins the championship; even if this isn’t necessarily so, it is true that only raised stakes and a playoff atmosphere can really tell you what kind of team you have.
So, I went back and looked at all teams in the decade passed who’d played in their Conference Championship; from among these 40 teams, I chose one bench, the one whose role in their team’s excellence seemed more crucial than any other bench. I looked at the box scores from most regular season games and every playoff game those teams played in to get a sense of who did what and when (thank you basketball-reference.com). How many minutes did they play? How many points did they score? What sort of contribution did they make on the defensive end in terms of steals, blocks, and rebounds? How long had they been just sitting there before they came in and grabbed five boards and three assists in Game 7 of the Conference Semi-finals? Aggregate bench production, in terms of discrete stats and efficiency (eff), was another important factor (thank you hoopstats.com). Without further ado…
Despite having a hilarious amount of talent on their bench, the best bench was not the ’99-00 Portland Trail Blazers, though they trotted out Schrempf, Brian Grant, Bonzi Wells, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony, and the then-little-known Jermaine O’Neil. What? When the bench played well, the Blazers won but too often (clearly) they didn’t show. These Blazers reasonably expected to win it all on talent alone; we were a little glad they didn’t. One suspects that many of these stars-turned-bench players were unhappy with their role. Though they posted decent numbers (eff=35), our memories attest that they just seemed a little bored with it all.
Even if the Blazers failed to get a ring, they did succeeded in showing us that talent alone does not a great bench make. In so doing, they form a perfect corollary to the Best Bench of the Decade: the ’02-03 Spurs. The rotating cast included: Malik Rose (24.5 mpg., 10.4 ppg., 6.4 rpg.), Manu Ginobli (20.7 mpg., 7.6 ppg., 2 apg., 1.4 st.), Steve Smith, Speedy Claxton, Kevin Willis, Steve Kerr and Danny Ferry. Though the Spurs’ bench W-L match-ups (55-49 hoopstats) turned out less favorably than other teams, they played consistently, performing only slightly less well in games the Spurs lost (compared to the Blazers Bench, who played poorly in games that team lost).
For this bench, more than any other, the numbers lie. Nothing impressive numerically, but when Pop called a number, they were ready. Even the 12th man in their rotation (Danny Ferry) could wind up starting a playoff game, playing 30 minutes, and then come back six games later for 10 minutes and give solid output without every expecting to play again. Though the same could be said of any Spurs team in this decade, this squad (with the exception of Duncan) manifested perfect syncretism, with regular-season starters becoming bench players (Steve Smith, who didn’t even play in some games) and bench players blossoming into starts (Ginobli, of course).
And there are epic moments, like Kerr’s four clutch threes against the Mavs, effectively crushing their German over soul. He hadn’t played the entire playoffs yet Popovic felt completely comfortable going to the toe-headed assassin. There was Malik Rose’s slam over Mutumbo in the finals that jump started a groggy Spurs team and started a 19-5 run, which led to the Spurs gaining the finals edge against the Nets. Recall, that Rose also dropped 25 in 27 minutes in a must-win Game 2 (Spurs lost the opener) against the Mavs. He also played about 10 minutes more per game than Robinson. Even Kevin Willis had his moments, hitting a 40-foot jumper at the end of the first half of Game 1 against the Lakers. While no one remembers this team or these finals (perhaps the most boring of the decade), from a pure basketball point of view, this bench was the best. And they have the rings to prove it
Honorable mentions go to the ’01-02 Nets, with Richard Jefferson coming off the bench with the other Aaron Williams and Anthony Johnson. That same year, the Kings subbed in Turkoglu (until Peja went down in the playoffs at which point Hedu stepped right in and killed it), Bobby Jackson (who won 6th man the following year), Gerald Wallace, and (drum roll) Lawrence Fundeburke. That whole squad flowed as smoothly as a stream, a European stream, though their eff was less than the ’99-00 Blazers (further proof that stats are not the be-all when it comes to benches). Also: last year’s Nuggets (JR, Birdman, Kleiza, A. Carter), the Champion Celts (recall the late-addition Cassell, the unpronounceable Powe, and the uncontainable Big Baby), and any bench in any year that had a chair for Robert Horry.
For more Decade Awards, check out the archive.