The Deep End of the Rotation: Assessing Playoff Benches

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
You know the sequence well: It's the start of the second quarter in a pivotal playoff game. We see repeated camera shots of the best players in the NBA, and they're ... resting on the bench. Fans know those players need their rest. But they also know the reserves are getting torched possession after possession.


March is mostly about playoff positioning. For coaches, though, it's also the time to figure out the bench. Which guys have the poise to maintain that first-quarter lead, and the spark to whittle down a deficit? Auditions for playoff bench contributors are being held on a nightly basis.

Here's a look at how the bench squads are shaping up for the Top eight in each conference (9 in the bottom-heavy East):


Los Angeles Lakers Los Angeles Lakers
Prior to Andrew Bynum's injury on January 31, the Lakers had the strongest bench in basketball, anchored by supersub Lamar Odom. Once Bynum went down, Odom moved into the starting lineup, leaving the Lakers' "Bench Mob" -- a collection of speedsters and athletes that includes point guard Jordan Farmar, wings Trevor Ariza and Sasha Vujacic, as well as big man Josh Powell. This group relies on quickness, rather than the Lakers' offensive system, to score points. When the Bench Mob can work in transition, they're effective. If they can't get out on the break, things bog down.

Last week, Phil Jackson swapped his small forwards, moving Trevor Ariza into the starting lineup and bringing Luke Walton off the bench. As a more system-oriented player, Walton can work with the other starter who remains on the floor (usually Gasol or Odom) to stabilize the offense, as demonstrated in the Lakers' victory against Houston last Wednesday.

Come the playoffs, expect Phil Jackson to continue this trend of restraining the Mob with more order.

San Antonio Spurs San Antonio Spurs
With reigning Sixth Man of the Year Manu Ginobili still on the shelf, and newly acquired big man Drew Gooden finding his sea legs as a Spur, Gregg Popovich has had to improvise. All season, the Spurs' head coach has used his reserves situationally, rather than employ a strict rotation.

When Popovich wants defense from his bench, he's got several options: Defensive stoppers Bruce Bowen and Ime Udoka offer plenty of help on the wing, while Kurt Thomas can throw his weight around in the post. Backup point guard George Hill has shown he can guard both guard positions, and Popovich tested the rookie last Thursday night by giving him a stint covering Kobe Bryant.

Health will ultimately dictate what the Spurs bench looks like and how effective it will be come the postseason. When Ginobili is at full strength, he makes the second unit hum, using high screens from Fabricio Oberto to orchestrate a well-executed drive-and-kick scheme. With a healthy Drew Gooden, Popovich could return Matt Bonner to the second unit with Ginobili, where his defense would be less of a liability. All of these variables, of course, hinge on the right ankle of Ginobili.

Houston Rockets Houston Rockets
For a team that lost 40% of its starting lineup a few weeks back, the Rockets haven't had much trouble figuring out their rotation on the fly. Houston doesn't feature any supersubs along the lines of Manu Ginobili or Lamar Odom, but they have one of the most underrated reserves in the league in forward Carl Landry, and an unheralded backup point guard in Kyle Lowry. Landry and Lowry are both undersized, gritty defenders at their positions, who understand their roles and limitations offensively.

Tracy McGrady's absence is most glaring at the wing where the first two subs off the bench are Von Wafer and Brent Barry. Both can spot up on the perimeter, but neither gives the Rockets much else, particularly on defense. Rick Adelman often keeps Ron Artest on the floor with the second unit to limit the Rockets' defensive exposure against more athletic teams, or inserts Chuck Hayes, who does a serviceable job guarding almost anyone on the floor.

The Rockets bench won't lose them many games, but by the same measure, don't expect any off-the-bench heroics from the second unit. Like Houston's starters, their most distinguishing characteristic is their functionality.

Utah Jazz Utah Jazz
The Jazz' rotation has come into focus now that Carlos Boozer is healthy. With Boozer back in the starting lineup, Paul Millsap instantly becomes the best backup big man in basketball. His playing time took a bit of a hit earlier in the month, but his production hasn't dropped off a lick. If the past week is any indication, Jerry Sloan feels comfortable divvying up the Jazz' 96 frontcourt minutes evenly among Boozer, Millsap, and starting center Mehmet Okur.

Utah's bench is a nice menagerie of role players. Kyle Korver is a deadly spot-up shooter. Brevin Knight is a dependable point guard for eight minutes a night. Matt Harpring is a grabby, irrepressible brute who will annoy the opposition. And Andrei Kirilenko is Andrei Kirilenko. Along with Millsap, this group has learned to perform those roles to perfection, as illustrated during the Jazz' recent win streak, which is why they're the NBA's best reserve unit by +/-.

New Orleans Hornets New Orleans Hornets
James Posey was supposed to solve the Hornets' depth problems this season, and he's been effective as a three-point and defensive specialist. But the cycle of injuries that has befallen the team has prevented the Hornets from establishing a consistent and productive bench. Rasual Butler wasn't supposed to start 55 games, and Sean Marks wasn't supposed to record more minutes than Mo Peterson.

Want an illustration of New Orleans' bench woes? Take Friday night's game in Milwaukee. To start the second quarter, Byron Scott inserted five reserves into the game -- Antonio Daniels, Devin Brown, James Posey, Ryan Bowen, and Hilton Armstrong. In a mere three-and-a-half minutes of action, a tie game spiraled into an eight-point Hornet deficit.

Ideally, a healthy Peterson and Peja Stojakovic will help matters considerably by shifting Rasual Butler and Julian Wright back to the second unit (or, alternatively, Peterson could provide reserve duty). Either way, the Hornets must find a way to give their starters a blow. In the words of Hornets247's Ryan Schwan, "a mediocre bench isn't going to cut it" in the postseason.

Portland Trail Blazers Portland Trail Blazers
Few teams have a second unit that h
as sculpted a more distinct personality than Portland's core bench players: The Spanish Armada of Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Roriguez, the unguardable freakish jump shot of Travis Outlaw, and -- when Greg Oden is healthy -- the militantly efficient Joel Przybilla. It isn't a stretch to suggest that Portland has as many as nine players on its roster that would start for most NBA teams.

This depth affords Nate McMillan not only the opportunity to rest his starters, but a great deal of flexibility. Both Outlaw and starter Nicolas Batum are effective small forwards, but in entirely different ways. The same is true at point guard, where starter Steve Blake's steadiness is complimented by the creativity of Sergio Rodriguez -- to say nothing of rookie Jerryd Bayless' skills as a combo guard. Both Przybilla and Oden are strong defensive presences, and if the Blazers need to spread the floor, Outlaw has the length to play the 4.

If the Blazers aren't still playing on Memorial Day, it won't be because there weren't enough tools in the shed.

Denver Nuggets

Denver Nuggets
Between a spat of injuries and inconsistent play from some of the rotation regulars, the Denver bench is in an unsettling state of flux. In George Karl's ideal universe, his bench consists of a combination of perimeter scorers (J.R. Smith and Linas Kleiza) and inside bangers (Renaldo Balkman and Chris Andersen) -- a group led by a grown-up reserve point guard in Anthony Carter. Kleiza has been erratic, and Carter not entirely healthy, but Smith, Balkman, and Andersen have been productive.

Reality has been far less generous to the Nuggets. With Kenyon Martin suffering from a sore back, Karl has tinkered with his starting lineup, giving starts to both Balkman and Johan Petro in the frontcourt over the past week. With Denver's offense sputtering, Karl consigned starter and defensive specialist Dahntay Jones and his microscopic 9.06 PER to DNP-CP-land last Wednesday against Oklahoma City, elevating Smith to a starting role.

Like San Antonio and New Orleans, the composition of Denver's bench depends greatly on the health and effectiveness of the team's starters. If Martin can get some rest in the next month and Jones doesn't kill them offensively, a second unit led by Smith's firepower should be able to give Karl some peace of mind.

Dallas Mavericks Dallas Mavericks
Similar to the Nuggets, Dallas' second unit is led by a prolific scoring guard, Jason Terry. Rick Carlisle normally starts big defensive guard, Antoine Wright, but Terry is his finisher.

Unfortunately for Dallas, Josh Howard's left ankle has complicated the rotation, leaving Carlisle to juggle his reserve wings in and out of the starting lineup. Devean George got the call at small forward, but he suffered a knee injury Wednesday night and will be out indefinitely. Carlise then went on to Plan C -- starting speedy 6' 0" backup point guard Jose Juan Barea alongside Jason Kidd on the Mavs' recent road trip, shifting Wright over to the 3.

If you don't like what Carlisle is doing with his frontcourt reserves ... just wait a day. Brandon Bass has averaged close to 20 minutes/game for most of the season, and he and Barea have real chemistry running the high screen-and-roll [see Christmas night vs. Portland]. James Singleton will log major minutes one night, but record a DNP-CD the next. Ryan Hollins, who came over in the DeSagana Diop deal, threatens to break the rotation, and had a nice effort against Phoenix last week.

The wild card for the Mavs' bench remains injured swingman Jerry Stackhouse. He rejoined the team last week and even took part in Friday's shootaround, but the timetable for his return is still uncertain. Once he comes back -- provided he's sharp -- the Mavs bench will look a whole lot stronger headed into what promises to be a tough first-round series.


Boston Celtics Boston Celtics
Aside from the Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo scares, nothing has given Celtics fans more heartburn than the state of their bench. Boston was active at the deadline, picking up Stephon Marbury and Mikki Moore to fortify their thin corps of reserves.

With Moore aboard, and the emergence of Leon Powe and Glen Davis as reliable -- if smallish -- options up front, things are looking up for the Celtics, particularly if Brian Scalabrine is able to come back. Figure Garnett and Kendrick Perkins are good for 70-80 of Boston's 96 minutes in the frontcourt, so this group should suffice so long as Garnett is healthy.

Where the Celtics are potentially vulnerable is in the backcourt and on the wings. Even though Tony Allen flirted with spontaneous combustion on a nightly basis, he was the only capable perimeter defender off the bench. Powe and Davis might give it a go, but anytime the opponents' best 3 is on the court, the situation will probably demand Paul Pierce's presence.

Will Marbury and Eddie House be enough to spell Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen in the backcourt? Most likely, but an injury to either starter would spell disaster for the Celtics. Boston fans are notorious worriers, but if the starting five are at full strength, the 50 or so minutes of bench minutes should be spoken for.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers
Last week, the Cavs completed an ugly 3-0 west coast road swing, struggling to beat the Clippers and Kings, and looking out of sorts against Phoenix. The good news is that Sasha Pavlovic showed some vitality for the first time since injuring his ankle on February 9 -- crucial for a team with depth issues in the backcourt. Daniel Gibson, who's shooting a paltry .379 from the field, is the nominal backup at point guard -- though LeBron James and even Pavlovic have higher assist rates. Wally Szczerbiak has given the Cavs 21 quality minutes per game at the wing, though he'll probably see a little less time in the postseason if West and Pavlovic are 100 percent.

With the addition of Joe Smith, the frontcourt is a lot more reassuring for Cleveland. Even with Ben Wallace out, the Cavs have a strong three-man rotation of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, and Smith. J.J. Hickson was a key reserve during Ilgauskas'-- then Wallace's -- absence but has seen his playing time curtailed since Smith joined the squad.

LeBron James has averaged 44.5 minutes per game in 46 career postseason games. Assuming he requires only a four-minute breather, the Cavs' second unit should have enough capable personnel to keep the floor spread, the interior covered, and every game close.

Orlando MagicOrlando Magic
The Magic's six-through-nine might not include a wily veteran like Kurt Thomas, Robert Horry, or P.J. Brown that usually populate the bench of championship teams, but that doesn't mean Orlando's reserves aren't primed for the postseason. It's a fairly efficient group
and, comparatively, a healthy one.

Up front, Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis play heavy minutes, which means Stan Van Gundy needs only limited action from a big body off the bench. Tony Battie is the logical candidate to log most of that time in the postseason, but Marcin Gortat continues to impress, and would come in very handy, particularly on nights when Howard finds himself in foul trouble.

With Rafer Alston fitting seamlessly into the starting lineup, Anthony Johnson is back to playing between 15-20 serviceable minutes at the point. The only variables remain at shooting guard, where Van Gundy has yet to settle on a starter, auditioning both Courtney Lee and Mickael Pietrus in the role over the past week. Neither is perfect, but both are likely to be part of the postseason rotation at the wing. Whether there are meaningful minutes leftover for J.J. Redick is uncertain.

Atlanta Hawks Atlanta Hawks
It might seem counter-intuitive since the Hawks don't have any big-name guys on the bench, but Atlanta's reserves have been among the most effective in basketball this season, averaging 110.9 points per 100 possessions. Unfortunately, Marvin Williams is out indefinitely, and his absence will stretch the Hawks thin at the worst possible time.

Maurice Evans has moved into the starting lineup, which leaves the Hawks extremely thin on the wings. Flip Murray, who used to spell Mike Bibby, will now see more time off the ball, with Acie Law IV picking up some of the spare minutes at the point. That leaves Mario West as the Hawks' only other wing player, apart from Thomas Gardner, an undrafted second-year player who has tallied only 88 minutes as a pro.

The reserve frontcourt for Atlanta is more solid. Zaza Pachulia gives the Hawks strong rebounding, adequate defense, and a whole lot of fouls. Solomon Jones hits 63.5% of his shots from the field, but isn't dependable for any lengthy stretch.

Though they're positioned for home-court in the first round of the playoffs, the Hawks were one team that could ill-afford to lose a major contributor. Evans can fill in as a passable starter, but Mike Woodson might develop agita trying to compete in the postseason with a reserve corps of Murray, Law, West, and Pachulia.

Miami Heat Miami Heat
The Heat has a negative point differential for the season, and the team's reserves account for that deficit. Head coach Eric Spoelstra has an extremely fluid rotation. In Miami's past four games, Spoelstra has used the same starting lineup -- but has give bench minutes to seven different players.

Cook and rookie Michael Beasley have emerged as the clear #6 and #7 guys in the rotation. Cook can shoot the lights out, guard both wing positions, and his ball-handling has improved. Beasley usually checks in for O'Neal midway through the first and third quarters, and will occasionally finish games. After that, it's a bit of a muddle. Yakhouba Diawara gives Spoelstra another defender at the wing, but that's the extent of his game right now. James Jones has never found his shot after being sidelined for the first ten weeks of the season with a hand injury.

Backup point guard has been a revolving door for Miami. The Heat have used Marcus Banks (traded to Toronto in the Shawn Marion-Jermaine O'Neal deal), Chris Quinn, shooting guard Daequan Cook and now Luther Head, who was signed on March 4. The former Rocket saw his first action Saturday in Miami's triple overtime win over Utah, playing 21 minutes, while Quinn remained on the pine. In the post, veteran Jamaal Magloire and Joel Anthony will compete for playing time, though neither has emerged as the preferred option.

Indications are that Spoelstra's depth chart in a first-round playoff series will likely be dictated by matchups rather than habit, but it's worth tracking the box scores to see who's getting the lion's share of the bench minutes in the final four weeks of the regular season.

Detroit PistonsDetroit Pistons
One issue preoccupies any discussion of the Pistons' bench -- what happens when Allen Iverson returns. The assumption is that Michael Curry will bring Iverson off the bench. The head coach even suggested recently that Iverson will pick up Will Bynum's minutes as the Pistons' backup point guard. Between Iverson, Rodney Stuckey, and Rip Hamilton, the Pistons' 96 backcourt minutes will be accounted for, with little time left over for Bynum

Antonio McDyess, Detroit's longtime incumbent reserve, has been slotted into the starting lineup. For the time being, Jason Maxiell has emerged as Curry's preferred big off the bench. Maxiell has been picking up starts in Rasheed Wallace's absence, and has seen his minutes gradually increase. Curry will also look to Kwame Brown and Amir Johnson, though more sporadically. Walter Herrmann is the wild card. Since the All-Star break, Herrmann has been tallying double-digit minutes more games than not, mostly at the small forward position, where he spreads the floor for the second unit.

The Pistons have traditionally been a strong bench team. If Iverson can embrace the role as Energy Guy Off the Bench, Maxiell can continue to shoot over 60% from the field, as he has for the calendar year, and Herrmann can spell Tayshaun Prince with serviceable minutes at the 3, that tradition should continue.

Philadelphia 76ersPhiladelphia 76ers
Sixers' head coach Tony DiLeo seems to have settled on his nine-man rotation. It's not a flashy group, especially in contrast to the athletes in Philly's starting lineup, but each reserve has a clearly defined role, and the unit plays solid defense.

Gritty defensive specialist Royal Ivey has emerged as DiLeo's backup point guard. Since New Years, Ivey has consistently logged about 15 minutes a game. Alongside him is Lou Williams, who picks up heavy minutes at the wing, finishing games for the Sixers at shooting guard ahead of Willie Green.

The Sixers' second unit features a nice complementary pair of frontcourt players -- rookie Marreese Speights, who has shined as a post scorer, and veteran/menace Reggie Evans, who can't score, but does the dirty work as well as anyone. Neither is a pure center, and if the situation calls for one, DiLeo can go to Theo Ratliff.

In his half-season as Sixers' coach, DiLeo has proven himself to be a creature of habit -- substitution flow charts for Sixers' games tend to be uniform. There's nothing to indicate that will change come playoff time.

Milwaukee Bucks Milwaukee Bucks
The Bogut and Redd-less Bucks got a big home win on Sunday against the Celtics, and did it with big minutes from their reserves. Scott Skiles has decided to go with a defensive-minded starting lineup (see Mbah a Moute, Luc Richard and Elson, Francisco), which means some of his better offensive players come off the bench.

Ramon Sessions has emerged as the starter -- but not always the finisher -- at point, and he's the only true guard in the starting lineup. This leaves Skiles with Luke Ridnour, Charlie Bell, and Keith Bogans in his corps of reserve guards. The last two games, Skiles has opted to go very small in the fourth quarter, keeping all three of these guys on the floor together along with starters Richard Jefferson and Charlie Villanueva up front.

With this new small-ball alignment, Rookie Joe Alexander has seen double-digit minutes only once in the past six weeks. The reserve bigs are also seeing less playing time. Skiles will go to Mailk Allen and Dan Gadzuric, but often favors slotting the defensively versatile Mbah a Moute alongside Villanueva in the front court.

Milwaukee counts heavily on its reserves. If they can find the right mix of guards and not get killed by their lack of depth in the frontcourt, they might miraculously sneak into the postseason, though it's a long shot.

Chicago BullsChicago Bulls
After a flurry of roster turnover and a couple of notable injuries, the Bulls have settled into a tight eight-man rotation (seven when Tim Thomas is a hamstring casualty).

In the backcourt, Derrick Rose, Ben Gordon, and Kirk Hinrich provide Vinny Del Negro with a lot of flexibility. Both Rose and Hinrich are both steady at the point, and both can defend both guard positions. Gordon usually finishes games at the 2, but Del Negro will occasionally opt for Hinrich for key minutes in the fourth -- we saw this Friday night in the Bulls' close loss in Philadelphia. John Salmons is logging heavy minutes as the only true small forward in the rotation -- though Del Negro will occasionally use all three guards together when Salmons gets his few minutes of rest.

Up front, Del Negro has boiled it down to Brad Miller and Tim Thomas. The Aaron Gray experiment is kaput, except in garbage time -- even when Tim Thomas is sidelined. In the Bulls' double-overtime loss to Miami last Monday, Del Negro used only seven players, opting to go with Miller as the only big sub.

The Bulls top seven are a durable bunch. So long as they avert key injuries, that should be enough, even though a first-round exit -- provided they quality for the postseason -- is almost certain.