Let’s face it — in the NBA, it’s more important to have a good starting lineup than it is to have a good bench. The starters get most of the minutes and clearly have more impact on the team’s success.
But what happens when members of that starting five inevitably get injured? What happens when the regulars get tired, as they do every game?
That’s when the importance of depth comes into play. Every great team needs plenty of talent coming off its bench to successfully get through 82 regular-season games and a four-round playoff run.
Below is my prediction for which five NBA teams will have the best benches in 2015-16. The ranking takes into account both depth of the benches as well as the overall talent playing on them.
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
Projected starting lineup: Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Andrew Wiggins, Kevin Garnett, Karl-Anthony Towns
Key reserves: Andre Miller, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Tayshaun Prince, Anthony Bennett, Nemanja Bjelica, Gorgui Dieng, Nikola Pekovic
Don’t laugh. The Timberwolves had the worst record in the NBA and didn’t have a good bench last season, but they’ll be way, way deeper in 2015-16. I have three reasons to believe this:
1. They were the most injured team in the league BY FAR last season, per mangameslost.com. That plays a huge role in how deep a team appears. One assumes they’ll have at least somewhat better luck in 2015-16.
2. They added some pieces in the offseason. Miller and Prince are stabilizing veteran presences who can mentor the younger players and provide heady play on the court. The Serbian Bjelica is the reigning Euroleague MVP who, at 27 years old, is finally making his way to the United States. He had a heck of a run at Eurobasket this summer, outplaying Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic handily in the Serbia-Spain matchup and prompting some eyebrow-raising takes.
Text from NBA scout at Serbia-Spain: "(Bjelica) flat-out stud. Better than Mirotic. Knows how to play. Has a feel one can't teach." #twolves
— Darren Wolfson (@DWolfsonKSTP) September 5, 2015
3. The biggest pieces on the bench are on the upswing. LaVine, Muhammad, Bennett and Dieng (plus Tyus Jones and Adreian Payne) are all 25 years old or younger and are quickly improving. Bennett, a former No. 1 overall pick who’s struggled to meet expectations so far, has looked like a totally new man this summer playing for Canada in the Pan-American Games and the FIBA Americas tournament.
Praise keeps pouring in for Anthony Bennett w/Team Canada. Of course gonna have to do it against nba talent, but beats alternative
— Jon Krawczynski (@APkrawczynski) September 7, 2015
Am I crazy to think this team, if somewhat healthy, has the overall talent to make a run for a Western Conference playoff spot?
Nevermind. Don’t answer that.
4. San Antonio Spurs
Projected starting lineup: Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan
Key reserves: Patty Mills, Ray McCallum, Manu Ginobili, Kyle Anderson, Boris Diaw, David West, Matt Bonner
For once, the Spurs bench has more questions than answers.
There’s little doubt this year’s reserves will be at least good, but how good? Can McCallum adequately replace Cory Joseph? Is Ginobili going to decline some more next year? Is Anderson ready to play significant minutes? Can West or Diaw play center? Overall, is there enough defense (and especially rim protection) in the second unit?
In fact, I had tons of trouble actually deciding who to put on that “key reserves” list. Super-athletic Jonathon Simmons showed plenty of game in Summer League. Boban Marjanovic–all 7’3″ of him–isn’t mobile and doesn’t play defense well, but he’s huge and skilled. Both have a chance to crack San Antonio’s rotation.
Heck, even training-camp invite Jimmer Fredette could end up as a key bench member if he plays well in the next month or two.
Either way, Gregg Popovich always has his system to rely on, and it should make San Antonio’s bench one of the better units in the league, even if it isn’t quite as good as it has been in the past.
3. Boston Celtics
Projected starting lineup: Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, Jared Sullinger
Key reserves: Isaiah Thomas, James Young, R.J. Hunter, Evan Turner, Jonas Jerebko, Perry Jones, David Lee, Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller
In the spirit of full disclosure, I really don’t have any idea what Brad Stevens is going to do with his starting lineup. This Celtics have so many rotation possibilities, it’s kind of overwhelming to think about.
What I do know is this team is insanely deep.
The Celtics don’t have any star players anywhere on their roster, but they have about five or six guys sitting on their projected bench who would be decent NBA starters.
Isaiah Thomas is the reserves’ best player. He killed it as Boston’s sixth man after a midseason trade, but he’s 5’9″ and gets slaughtered on defense by opposing guards. Lee is similarly offensive-minded while Turner, Olynyk and Zeller are also all solid players who have their weaknesses.
Outside of those five bench guys, Young and Jones are probably the most intriguing potential contributors. Young just turned 20 and has a ways to go before reaching his potential, which could be something special. Same with Jones, although he’s nearly four years older.
If either of those two can put it together in 2015-16, Boston’s already rich bench will only get richer.
2. Golden State Warriors
Projected starting lineup: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Andrew Bogut
Key reserves: Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, Andre Iguodala, Jason Thompson, Marreese Speights, James Michael McAdoo, Festus Ezeli
The Warriors bench isn’t as deep as some other benches, but it is still very good and has amazing chemistry, solidified by an NBA Finals run in the spring.
Iguodala might be the best all-around bench player in the league. He was essentially the first sixth man in history to win Finals MVP, playing stellar defense on LeBron James and scoring and passing well, also.
Livingston and Barbosa are vets with high basketball IQs who had key moments throughout last season.
The one player I’m most excited for, however, is backup center Festus Ezeli. He missed all of the 2013-14 season recovering from a knee injury, but the 25-year-old looked excellent in limited minutes during the 2014-15 campaign. He’s strong, pretty athletic for someone of his 265-pound frame and positions himself well on both ends of the floor.
Thompson steps in for the departed David Lee and McAdoo should be a bit more of a factor this year.
1. Houston Rockets
Projected starting lineup: Ty Lawson/Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Dwight Howard
Key reserves: Patrick Beverley/Ty Lawson, Jason Terry, Marcus Thornton, Corey Brewer, K.J. McDaniels, Donatas Motiejunas, Clint Capela
As good as the Warriors reserves are, I think the Rockets are deeper and will have more aggregate talent coming off the bench.
There’s some wild-card potential at the point guard position. I don’t know whether Lawson or Beverley starts, because Lawson is obviously more talented, but Beverley’s defense and spot-up shooting abilities make him arguably the better fit next to James Harden. If Lawson ends up on the bench, he will make that second unit special.
But even if not, there’s still a ton of talent in reserve.
The 38-year-old Terry still has some daggers left in him. Thorton struggled with injuries last year, but is a bona fide scorer if he stays healthy.
Brewer and McDaniels will make their mark with athleticism and hustle, hassling opponents on defense and finishing in transition. If one of them falters or gets injured, rookie Sam Dekker can step in for either decently.
Motiejunas is a starting-level player, but he’s more effective with the ball in his hands, so I think he can be great as a primary or secondary offensive option off the bench. Rookie Montrezl Harrell can be a third power forward if some rebounding help is needed.
And, not to overstate things here, but Capela has the potential to become DeAndre Jordan at some point: an athletic pick-and-roll finishing monster who rebounds and protects the rim (complete with terrible free-throw shooting, unfortunately).
This Rockets squad goes at least two-deep at every position, and that’s why Houston has the NBA’s best bench heading into 2014-15.
Honorable mentions: Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder