By Ray Bala #55
When you’re looking to win enough games to get to the playoffs, it’s almost never enough to just have a great starting five. There isn’t a formula that doesn’t require a team looking for that elusive NBA championship to have contributions from players coming off the bench. Point of fact is that just about all championship teams have very good reserve players that can step in and provide a seamless cohesion and function as any member of the primary unit. These players may not be perfect, or even be able to replicate their starter counterpart, but they fit perfectly in the larger team picture making them invaluable to their squads. They often times can be the difference between just missing out and getting to the promised land. With the All-Star break just around the corner and the season just past the halfway mark on the schedule we take a look at six players that make coming off the bench an important part of their team’s success or future success. Our only criteria is that the player had to start less than half of their team’s games and we came up with a pretty impressive list of guys that could be starters for many teams.
Lou Williams, Lakers
Williams looks like he’s singlehandedly trying to carry the scoring void that Kobe left. With a young core that the current sub-.500 Lakers are looking to rebuild around going forward, Lou Will is the temporary glue for right now. Sweet Lou was never a volume shooter but he’s hitting some career shooting numbers this year. Despite coming off the bench, he is the team’s leading scorer (18.2 PPG) while taking just under 13 shoots per game while shooting .379 percent from three. All are career highs by the way. And the best part is that he’s doing all of this in just over 24 minutes per game. Williams was always a scorer but running in head coach Walton’s system this year may have breathed some new life into his career and could mean a second Sixth Man of the Year (Williams won the award in 2014-15 in his lone season in Toronto) nod also.
Eric Gordon, Rockets
On most teams in the League, Gordon would be the focus of the offense. Instead, he is arguably the League’s best scorer coming off of the bench for a Rockets squad looking to catch top stop in the Southwest Division. Playing the same position as potential NBA MVP James Harden forces Gordon into that reserve role but he seems to be comfortable right where he is. He’s second on the team in scoring at 17.4 points per game while playing over 30 minutes per contest which are easily what lots of teams would want from their starting SGs. He also leads the team in three point attempts and makes which says something of your team’s confidence in your shot. Playing back-up guitar to Harden definitely gives Gordon a lot of freedom to get his shots and when you’re playing this well what’s there to complain about, especially after the last few seasons that Gordon has spent battling injuries and missing games.
Wilson Chandler, Nuggets
After missing all of last season with a hip injury, Chandler is having a rebirth of his career of sorts this season in Denver and he’s been doing it mostly coming off the bench. Playing behind Danilo Gallinari he’s having arguably his best season as a pro averaging 15.9 points, 6.8 rebounds (a career high so far), 1.9 assists in 30.4 minutes. He’s given the Nuggets a solid option on both ends of the floor and an instant spark whenever he enters a game as well as vet savvy. Chandler is perfectly suited to play in the Denver running game and he’s just about the perfect bench complement to teammate Kenneth Faried’s interior oriented game. Chandler’s role looks pretty solidified and he seems very comfortable in it but with the rash of injuries and the lack of size in the frontcourt for the Nuggets Chandler’s production could mean he sees himself more in the starting lineup.
Jamal Crawford, Clippers
Crawford may not be as young as he used to be (he’ll be 37 next month) but he’s still every bit as spry and his well-documented ballhandling keeps him elusive. Despite not having been a regular starter since 2008-09 season he’s been putting up starter-like numbers ever since. This year may be a down one with him only averaging 11.9 points but the three-time Sixth Man of the Year (2010, ’14 and ’16) has the ability to be a one-man scoring run whenever he’s hits the floor. His shooting percentages were never spectacular (a career high of .476 field goal percentage as a second year player in Chicago on eight attempts is Crawford’s highwater mark) but his knack for getting a bucket when he needed too is still uncanny. Add to that his length on defense plus the ability to handle the ball and initiate offense is added value off the pine. He knows how to play the reserve role well and with this season’s rash of injuries to the Clippers, including Chris Paul missing extended time due to injury, having a veteran like Crawford coming off the bench is a ready sigh of relief for the Clippers.
Jordan Clarkson, Lakers
It was pretty hard to imagine third-year guard Clarkson wouldn’t be starting for the Lakers at the beginning of this season. After all, Kobe’s retirement left a gaping hole of a scoring two-guard and Clarkson has shown he can get to the basket and score the ball. Last season he started every game he was in but head coach Luke Walton has him coming off the bench and it makes him, along with Lou Williams, part of the best bench backcourt in the NBA. Clarkson could easily be a starter on a few teams in the League but as part of the rebuilding Lakeshow, he’s brings the size to play some wings on defense and can pinch-hit as a point guard if needed. Though consistency could the biggest gripe with his game (he hasn’t shot very well when he’s under double-digit scoring), he’s also been able to explode, as several 20-point-plus games have shown. He may have taken a slight dip in some of his overall stats from the previous season but he’s tied for third on the team in scoring (13.8 PPG), leads in steals (66) and he fits perfectly in Walton’s system.
Zach Randolph, Memphis
Randolph had been a fixture in the starting lineup for just about every team he’s played for in his career up until this season and it seems to suit him and the Grizzlies just fine. This former All-NBA Team selection may have seen a slight dip in his minutes this season (a whole five-plus at the midway mark of the season) but he’s every bit as effective despite having missed some time due to personal reasons earlier in the season. Randolph has had some ups and downs this season on the floor but he’s still managed to post 13 double-doubles so far and is leading the team in rebounding (8.3 RPG) while playing fewer minutes than only starters Marc Gasol and JaMychal Green. Z-Bo has always been a reliable scorer and if he continues on his pace of 14.2 per game until the end of the season he could move into the top 75 of the all-time scoring list. Having a guy that is a potential double-double is a luxury that most teams would love to have and it makes him invaluable to the Grizz’s playoff hopes.