Basketball is a five man sport. At any time in the game, only five guys can be on the hardwood playing defence, shooting threes or calling plays. However, it takes much more than just five players to make a good NBA team, with those back-up players there to pick up the pieces off the bench when called upon.
Whether it’s the reigning NBA champs or a team fighting for a lottery pick in the draft, those players coming off the pine play a huge role. They can dictate the play, hit clutch shots and hype up their team to force victory, and if they fail they could be the reason for a loss.
But what's the difference between an average NBA bench and a good one? And how much can a bench really do to help create a Championship winning team?
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Off the Bench NBA Scoring
For all the razzle-dazzle NBA leading scorers bring to a roster, there’s little that compares to a bench capable of filling it up on a nightly basis. Whilst it’s nice to rely on starters to score, having those backup producers is a necessity for a realistic chance of winning games.
Look at it this way, this campaign’s leading scorer, Stephen Curry, averaged 30.1ppg over the regular season. There were 26 benches that outscored him on a nightly basis.
That’s players like James Young, Robert Sacre and Austin Rivers collectively outscoring the best in the game today each and every night. To put it simply, a good scoring bench is arguably more important than the soon to be two-time NBA MVP.
However, whilst some teams rely on a collection of bench players to score, others have a go-to guy. The L.A. Clippers are one of the best examples, with Jamal Crawford possibly the best bench scorer ever to play in the league.
He’s the oldest winner of the Sixth Man of the Year award, an accolade he's now accrued three times over his career. Up there alongside Manu Ginobili, Kevin McHale and Detlef Schrempf, Crawford is undoubtedly one of the best ever to ‘ride the pine’ when the starting numbers are announced.
In spite of starting just under 40% of his 1100 NBA games, Crawford has averaged 15.5ppg over his career and has made a name for himself with dynamic ball handling and long-range shooting. He’s living proof that scoring doesn’t always need to come from the starters.
"I never envisioned myself being a sixth man," Crawford said, quoted by NBC Los Angeles. "I always started my whole life. Starting is the cool thing and everybody wants to do it.
"I've never made an All-Star Game, but I've always had my peers and coaches respect around the league.
“Hopefully it is in a positive nature and hopefully this is one of those things for the kids that are coming up that are nine or ten years old to say, 'Hey, I don't have to start. I can still have an impact on the bench.' Hopefully, this can inspire a new generation of players."
Breaking up the Play
Whilst scoring is obviously the attractive part of the game, credit is rarely given to players who bring an extra level of defence to proceedings when they see minutes.
Getting defensive stops, diving for loose balls, bringing in rebounds – it’s not pretty work. But it’s what’s needed to win games consistently. There’s no better interpretation of this kind of player than last year’s Finals MVP, Andre Iguodala.
Despite being known as a starter during his time with the Philadelphia 76ers, Iggy was asked to buy into Steve Kerr’s plan when he became head coach of Golden State. It was a brave, but eventually effective ploy.
Letting him offer an extra bout of defensive intensity and all-around ability off the bench, Iguodala fast became one of the most influential bench players in the league. He helped guide the Warriors to the NBA Championship last season and is doing the same in this year’s playoffs.
One man who knows this all too well is Kerr himself.
“We’re so different when we have Andre. If you don’t watch the game, if you just look at the box score, you just say, ‘Ho-hum.’ But Andre does everything for us.” Kerr claimed, via SFGate.com.
“He’s an anchor on defence, and he settles us down on offence. He’s a brilliant player. He’s just so smart, and he makes a dramatic difference when he’s out on the floor.”
Over the past two seasons, Iggy has started just one solitary game. Over those two years, the Warriors have lost only 24 total games. Is that a coincidence? Unlikely…
“Obviously, we’re way better when Dre is out there. He has a huge impact on both ends of the floor.” Draymond Green stated. “Defensively, he can guard so many positions, and he’s always in the passing lanes — disrupting everything.”
You’ll struggle to find a single player from that Warriors locker room who won’t talk Iguodala up, even though like Crawford, he avoids the starting line-up.
The Hype Guys
“It takes a strong type of individual to not play but still have that type of enthusiasm, he does what he can to contribute to the team, and it’s appreciated.”
Those words aren’t about a player coming back from injury; they’re about a player who was racking up plenty of ‘DNP – Coaches Decisions’. Speaking to the NY Daily News, that was Jarrett Jack’s take on a rookie Kent Bazemore.
It’s safe to say that if you’re in the NBA, you’re a pretty good basketball player. But when you first join the league it can chew you up and spit you out, leaving raw talents like Bazemore riding the bench.
But instead of sitting there contently cashing paychecks, Bazemore continued to help his team by simply being ‘the hype guy’, earning himself critical acclaim from across the league in doing so.
Whenever his team would take the court, hit a three or get a monster block, he wasn’t there sitting down and nodding along. Instead, he was launching himself out of his chair in full warm-up gear pulling poses and bringing his dance moves to the bench, getting his teammates and the crowd into it.
“My way of showing love is to just have passion. That’s where all the jumping up and down comes from, my passion for the game of basketball.” Bazemore said, looking back on his time with Golden State.
“It’s definitely spontaneous. I can’t even remember the first pose — the three fingers in the air — I can’t even tell you when I did it, where I did it or how it came to me. It’s just something I started doing and people ran with it.”
In fact, his performances drew enough attention to get NBA 2K interested, with the video game producers using motion capture on Bazemore to put his celebrations into the game.
“Our goal is to make the NBA 2K14 experience as close to real life as possible, and Bazemore brings unique moves both on and off the court that serve to amplify the experience for players,” claimed NBA 2K Producer, Rob Jones when capturing Bazemore’s antics for the 2014 version of the game.
So, During his two seasons with the Warriors, he might never have averaged more than 2.3ppg, but you can rest assured he counted for a heck of a lot of that energy in the Oracle Arena.
Who says you need to be seeing regular minutes to influence a game from the bench?
So, whilst those first five players might be the ones getting the plaudits when you check the box score or catch those latest NBA highlights, spare a thought for those backing them up. Whether they’re adding a scoring punch, halting the opposition offence, or simply hyping up their team – they’re there for a reason.
And they say basketball is a five-man sport?