Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Nuggets, Lakers feature best benches in the Playoffs

Andrew D. Bernstein

Conventional wisdom states most teams will shorten their rotations going into the Playoffs. There are good reasons for this. During the regular season, when teams have back-to-backs and four games in five nights, having as many healthy guys as possible is paramount.

In the Playoffs, there is at least one day between every game, sometimes two and occasionally three. Players get more rest. Also, a coach is more apt to use only his best seven or eight players in the postseason. It's better for those players to get into a rhythm. Rare is the team that goes nine-deep in the postseason.

Still, having two or three bench players that can spell the stars for a solid 20 minutes a game is a must. For every Larry Bird, there's a Scott Wedman. For every Magic Johnson, there's a Bob McAdoo. For every Michael Jordan, there's a John Paxson or Steve Kerr.

Here are the eight best benches in the Playoffs:

1. Denver Nuggets

It's hard not to love J.R. Smith when his 3-pointers are falling. It's also hard not to love Chris Andersen's comeback story. Together, they help comprise one of the league's best benches. Save for the Mavericks, no team's bench averages more combined points (33.9), assists (8.0) and rebounds (16.3) per game than the Nuggets. (The Mavericks have a 58.9 combined points, assists and rebounds off the bench; the Nuggets are at 58.2.) Denver's bench leads the league in assists and rebounds per game.

Key stat: 2.46 -- Andersen's average blocks per game, second behind All-Star Dwight Howard.

2. L.A. Lakers

With Andrew Bynum's return to the starting lineup, the Lakers have moved Lamar Odom -- who started 32 games in Bynum's absence -- back to the bench. Having the versatile, 6-foot-10 Odom, who has started 605 of his 665 career games, come off the pine is one of the reasons the Lakers bench is great. Reasons Nos. 2 and 3 are Trevor Ariza and Shannon Brown, two underrated mid-season acquisitions by L.A. in each of the last two seasons. With Odom, Ariza and Brown (or Jordan Farmar or Luke Walton), the Lakers have quality in the post, on the wing and everywhere else.

Key stat: 4.0 -- Number of steals per game averaged by the Lakers' subs, most in the NBA.

3. Dallas Mavericks

Guard Jason Terry is the leading candidate for the Sixth Man award. Guard Jose Barea can be instant offense. Together they constitute the best bench backcourt in the postseason. Terry averaged 19.6 per game this season, by far the best of any reserve. Forward Brandon Bass gives the Mavs some bulk and boards.

Key stat: 110 -- Bench points per 100 possessions for the Mavs, third-best in the league.

4. Utah Jazz

Whenever you have Paul Millsap and Andrei Kirilenko coming off the bench, that's a good bench. Millsap received experience with the first team this season, starting 38 games for the injured Carlos Boozer. Now, he's Boozer's backup. Kirilenko, who isn't the stats sheet stuffer and defender of a few years ago, is still good and averages 11.6 points per game.

Key stat: +487 -- Plus-minus for the Jazz bench, second-best in the NBA this season

5. Portland Trail Blazers

Portland has a lot of firepower from the bench. Travis Outlaw and Rudy Fernandez have 10 starts between them; combined they average 23.2 points per game. The Trail Blazers' reserves averaged 35.3 points per game. Only the Mavericks' 37.9 was better.

Key stat: 9.1 -- Average 3-point attempts per game by Portland reserves, tops in the league.

6. Chicago Bulls

In Kirk Hinrich and Brad Miller, Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro can bring two former starters off the bench. Hinrich can run the point for the second unit and is a pest on defense. Miller might not have the offensive game he once did, but he adds bulk and can still corral the caroms with the best of them. Tyrus Thomas provides youthful energy and athleticism.

Key stat: 2.8 -- Steals per game averaged by Chicago reserves, fourth best in the NBA.

7. Boston Celtics

The defending champions don't play their reserves much (only three benches in this postseason play fewer minutes than Boston), but the Celtics' bench players make the most of their time. With a +522 plus/minus, no bench was more productive in the NBA. Eddie House can be instant offense, Leon Powe adds bulk and gritty postseason experience and Tony Allen and Mikki Moore give the Celtics good energy. And they're physical.

Key stat: 10.1 -- Average fouls per game by Boston's reserves, most of any team in the postseason.

8. Cleveland Cavaliers

Considering many of the teams ahead of them have set the bar pretty high, the Cavs' bench doesn't wow you with athleticism or an explosive sixth man. What they do, and do well, is maintain. The Cavs' starters get a big lead and the Cavs' bench, more often than not, holds it. Joe Smith, signed as a free agent in late February, and Ben Wallace give the Cavs experience and rebounding.

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