Having a strong starting lineup simply isn’t enough in the NBA. Teams like the Indiana Pacers and Portland Trail Blazers prove that, today, a front five with great chemistry and well-defined roles can only get you so far. Both teams fell out of last year’s postseason on the heels of bad scoring margins every time they had to rest their best men.
Not every squad has this problem. The Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Pelicans all bring men off the bench who are every bit as valuable to their culture as many of the players technically ahead of them in depth chart.
Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
Also filed under “would start in almost any other circumstance.” Warriors coach Steve Kerr has opted to make the versatile veteran a bench man simply so he can boost the confidence of third-year forward Harrison Barnes, who has started ahead of Iggy this year. Barnes is a fragile, developing prospect who struggled mightily in 2013-14 after a brilliant rookie season. Iguodala is one the game’s consummate professionals — his acceptance of a role as a reserve proves it.
He’s a former gold-medal winner with Team USA in the 2012 Beijing Olympics, and the game’s foremost analysts see one of basketball’s very best players when Andre takes the floor. He won’t usually fill up the box score, as his strengths lie in perfecting team strings on defense and offense both, and in wearing down the opponent with his relentless, intelligent hustle.
Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls
Taj Gibson, the Chicago Bulls’ lengthy, beefy big man who originally hails from Brooklyn, was one of the best paint defenders in the NBA last year, and his offense saw a big spike, too, as he found more touch with his jumper and backdown game.
In tandem with Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and rookie Nikola Mirotic, Gibson makes Chicago’s front court an entity of extraordinary talent. And when the Bulls inevitably run up against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in their quest for a championship, don’t be surprised if you see Gibson closing tight games and often acting as his contending team’s central star.
Isaiah Thomas, Phoenix Suns
Hardcore NBA fans shook their heads at the Sacramento Kings all summer. Letting the swift, diminutive point guard go for nothing was one of the more puzzling moves of the offseason. The 5’9” Washington product has overshadowed the work of similar former Huskie Nate Robinson. More than just an occasional microwave man and folk hero, Thomas is simply one of the better scorers in the league.
His career 44 percent field goal percentage is exemplary for an undersized perimeter player, and now that he’s in a smarter, faster Phoenix offense, you can expect that number to rise. If the Suns can break through into the prickly Western Conference playoffs this year — after a heartbreaking finish in 2013-14 that saw the team miss the big dance after winning 50 games — it’ll have a lot to do with their adding one of basketball’s elite reserves.
Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers
If, for whatever reason, you can’t remember Crawford’s birth name, just call him “Heat Check.”
When Jamal gets his shot going, there’s arguably no one in the league who’s a scarier sight for defenses, and no spot on the court that doesn’t look like a layup for the 15-year veteran. His possession of obscure statistical crowns like “most four-point plays in league history” shows us how unconscious he can become from beyond the arc:
Last year’s recipient of the Sixth Man of the Year award, Crawford has had a journeyman career that has seen him play for a whopping six teams. But nowhere has he looked more at home than in Lob City.
Ryan Anderson, New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans’ starting front line of Anthony Davis and Omer Asik has led them to the third-best rebounding rate in the league. Both big men are absolute horses on the boards, wearing down the enemy at an impressive rate. And when the Pelicans bring the deep-shooting Anderson off the bench for a new look, Western Conference enemies simply won’t know what to do with New Orleans.
At 6’10” and 240 pounds, Anderson comes in an overwhelmingly sized package in terms of shooters. His ability to stretch the floor was paramount to the Orlando Magic’s offense when he was there with the post-oriented Dwight Howard, and now Anderson is re-establishing that chemistry with Davis, the heir to Howard’s throne as the game’s best big.
— John Wilmes