Power Ranking: The Best Secondary Units
Close your eyes and imagine an NBA where no current starters exist. Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and Kobe Bryant? Never born. It’s an alternate universe, where the most adept bench players are thrust into the starting lineup. James Harden is the league’s best player and Jamal Crawford is headed straight for the Hall of Fame.
As I rank these hypothetical teams and how they’d fare if their bench players were to become full-time starters, the purpose of this exercise is to shed some light on the depth of a few playoff contenders that are expected to make some noise this spring. I realize that in a normal postseason teams use seven, eight-man rotations; for 48 minutes at least one starter will always be on the court. But right now, despite there being a thankful and guaranteed day of rest between each game, this year’s playoffs could still see a few teams benefit from the rotations that bore them their high seeds in the first place.
(Editor’s Note: I tried really hard to include the Lakers in this fictional exercise, but after 15 minutes of looking over their lineups, all I could do was cry. I don’t want to live in a world where Josh McRoberts is a starting center. I can’t. I WON’T. If all their starters never existed, this team would be set aflame and left for dead on the side of a highway. Then they’d move to Kansas City.)
Some of these lineups I’ve thought up on my own—as they’re the most traditional five-man units the team could have without deploying a starter—and others have in fact been of regular to semi-regular use by their respective coaches. With the latter, I’ll squeeze out some basic numbers with help from the two invaluable websites, BasketballValue.com and 82games.com. (Keep in mind, some of the points per possession numbers are based on very small sample sizes.)
10) Miami Heat: (No data)
Norris Cole, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem, Juwan Howard.
This lineup is four veteran’s veterans and a rookie. A shoot-first, aggressive, scoring point guard named Norris Cole; the only player of the five who can currently dribble a basketball. In real life, Miami remains a top-heavy team, despite their adding of Shane Battier and Cole this past offseason. This unit here is a scaled down version, with a bunch of shooters but nobody who’s proven he can consistently score one on one. They’d be an ugly storm of loud jump shots and contested three-pointers from the corner. Not a good group here.
9) Boston Celtics: (No data)
Avery Bradley, Keyon Dooling, Mickael Pietrus, Brandon Bass, Greg Stiemsma
This starting five is similar to Miami’s in that it consists of several veterans (and Greg Stiemsma) surrounding a young point guard who exists as the only one able to score off the dribble. But when you compare the two on the defensive end, there’s really no question which group is capable of having a larger impact. Bradley might be the best on the ball defender in the entire league right now, Pietrus is a versatile athlete who plays surprisingly quick on his feet and can quickly turn the evening for an opposing small forward into a nightmare, Stiemsma is blocking shots at a better rate than everyone in the league except Serge Ibaka, and Brandon Bass has REALLY broad shoulders. So, yea. Even when we look at Boston’s bench, defense still remains a big part of who they are, and how they choose their personnel.
8) Indiana Pacers: (Scoring .90 PPP, Allowing 1.16 PPP. A +/- of -16 in 40 minutes.)
George Hill, Leandro Barbosa, Louis Amundson, Lance Stephenson, Tyler Hansbrough.
I’m still not sure what exactly George Hill is as a player, but the more I watch him play, the more I believe that San Antonio knew what they were doing in letting him go. For the most part this unit is young, and lacking in the leadership department. There’s no true point guard and no real defensive presence.
7) Chicago Bulls: (Scoring .96 PPP, Allowing 1.02 PPP)
John Lucas/C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson, Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer. (Since Watson and Lucas are pretty much the same person—and have each logged about 30 minutes of action this season with these other four guys—I decided to combine the two units and split their numbers down the middle.)
No unit has more of a firm identity than Chicago, which, obviously, is defense. Brewer, Asik, and Gibson make up a more than formidable front court on one end, but on the other, the offensive game plan mostly revolves around cuts, screens, and getting Kyle Korver 15 shots a game.
6) Oklahoma City Thunder: (Score 1.13 PPP, Allow 1.01 PPP)
James Harden, Nick Collison, Nazr Mohammed, Reggie Jackson, Daequan Cook.
James Harden is the best player mentioned in this article. He manages to get others involved while knocking down almost every three-pointer I’ve ever seen him attempt and relentlessly placing himself at the free-throw line. He runs the pick and roll better than most point guards, and identifying a flaw in his game is like picking a Walking Dead character you don’t want to see turn into a zombie’s cheesecake—there pretty much aren’t any. With all that being said, there’s only so much one man can do. The rest of OKC’s players are either one-dimensional, or have yet to establish any niche at all.
5) New York Knicks: (Scoring 1.27 PPP, Allowing 1.02 PPP. A +/- of +17 in 22 minutes.)
Baron Davis, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Steve Novak, Jared Jeffries.
For my money, the most exciting of the group. Just like the real Knicks they’re a wildly unpredictable dark horse to be the best team in the league should they mange to fit all these puzzle pieces together. Three of these guys are excellent shooters, two of them are eye-dropping athletes, and one has managed to stay in the league despite having feet for hands. The confidence that exudes from this particular unit makes them scary. Whether that’s deserved or not remains to be seen.
4) San Antonio Spurs: (Scoring 1.06 PPP, Allowing 1.07 PPP)
Gary Neal, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner.
No point guard? So what! This team is the definition of versatility. Kawhi Leonard is Shane Battier 2.0, Danny Green can guard three positions, Gary Neal has shown there’s more to his offensive game than knocking down spot up three-pointers, Tiago Splitter is quietly growing into one of the more intriguing offensive big men in the league, and Matt Bonner is Matt Bonner. All five of these guys are willing to play multiple positions, and the multi-faceted ways they can beat you on both ends makes them a nightly nightmare.
3) Dallas Mavericks: (No data)
Rodrigue Beaubois, Lamar Odom, Ian Mahinmi, Jason Terry, Brandan Wright.
This group is AMAZING on paper, but in real life they haven’t actually logged any meaningful time together. Imagining each of these guys playing to their full potential on one unit is beyond dangerous. Terry is one of the league’s most underrated players, Beaubois is everyone’s pick to break out if he could ever string together some consistency (maybe Dallas just isn’t the place for him), Odom is a proven commodity despite this incredibly disappointing season, and the two remaining guys in the front court are more than capable at contributing regularly within the vacuum of limited roles.
2) Philadelphia 76ers: (Scoring 1.1 PPP, Allowing .89 PPP. In 78 minutes they’ve posted a +/- of +35. Yikes.)
Lou Williams, Thaddeus young, Nikola Vucevic, Jodie Meeks, Evan Turner.
I’m including Turner in this despite his recent promotion for two reasons: 1) It allows some statistical insight, and 2) He’s a few poor performances away from going back to the bench, however unlikely that might be. Philly’s second unit is well-rounded and terrifying. They can score in a variety of ways, and everybody on the court can knock down a jump shot. On defense they use their wide-ranging athleticism to magically transform turnovers into layups, and most importantly, they don’t beat themselves in any facet of the game.
1) Denver Nuggets: (Scoring .95 PPP, Allowing .84 PPP. A +/- of +11 in 50 minutes, which, in a way, means they’re good enough to beat an average team by double digits.)
Andre Miller, Al Harrington, Rudy Fernandez, Corey Brewer, Chris Andersen.
It was truly difficult to separate the starters from the reserves in Denver, and that’s exactly what makes them so dangerous come playoff time. What a lot of people overlooked in last month’s 91 point Westbrook/Durant explosion (at home) was that Denver was leading late in the fourth quarter with no Gallinari and no Nene. Sorry, but this team’s really good. Also, I really wanted to include Kenneth Faried on here but he’s started a majority of games in which he’s appeared. So yea, in real life keep in mind he’s in the mix along with the recently signed Wilson Chandler. This team is too talented.