In the NBA Playoffs, superstars such as Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and LeBron James dominate the headlines. But as we know, a team’s success in the postseason often hinges on the play of the less acknowledged players on the bench.
From players such as Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson and Kevin McHale to Robert Horry and Toni Kukoc, bench play has been imperative in the playoffs throughout the NBA’s existence. In this year’s playoffs, it won’t be any different.
Let’s take a look at eight non-starters in the Western Conference who will be significant to their teams’ playoff success.
8. Houston Rockets: Josh Smith
Josh Smith is one of the biggest enigmas in the NBA. The once high-flying, shot-blocking wonder has been relegated to the bench in his second stint in Houston. There are times when Smith can look like one of the best forwards in the NBA, while other times he can also look like a player who does not belong in the NBA.
With Smith, you never know what you are going to get, but when he is playing within his limitations, he can be a very effective player. He has the ability to guard multiple positions as well score inside and outside. Against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, Smith’s versatility is needed due to the Dubs’ multiple lineups. It’s almost certain that the Warriors will win in four games, but if the Houston Rockets do steal one game, J-Smoove may have a lot to do with it.
Games 1 & 2 stats: 8.0 ppg, 66.7 % FG, 66.7% 3P
7. Memphis Grizzlies: Lance Stephenson
Since being traded to Memphis, it appears that Lance Stephenson has found an NBA home. In the role of the de facto backup point guard, Stephenson’s play has resembled his game from his days as a member of the Indiana Pacers.
The “eighth grader” edged out Tony Allen as the most important bench player due to his ability to score the ball. With the Grizzlies playing against the Spurs, points are hard to come by so it’s vital for Stephenson to provide some extra scoring and playmaking for the Grizz. The Grizzlies usually play the Spurs tough, but with the shorthanded roster they have, they need all the help they can get to make it an interesting series.
Game 1 stats: 14 points, 55 % FG, 50% 3P, 63% EFG
(Well, as long as this doesn’t happen again.)
6. Dallas Mavericks: Justin Anderson
With Raymond Felton in the starting lineup due to an injury to J.J. Barea, the role of the most important bench player goes to the rookie Justin Anderson. Anderson may be the most inexperienced on his team, but he has to grow up in a hurry. He has to assume the role of trying to keep Kevin Durant from having a scoring frenzy. Guarding KD on the bright playoff lights is an unnerving task, but it’s needed if the Mavs want to last longer than four games.
On the offensive end, not much is expected of Anderson, but if he does contribute, it’s an added bonus for coach Rick Carlisle and the Dallas Mavericks.
Games 1 & 2 stats: Defensive Rating 102.0 per 100 possessions, 12.6 rebounds per 100 possessions, Defense Plus/Minus +5.2.
5. Portland Trail Blazers: Allen Crabbe
The Allen Crabbe experience has been a fun ride this season. The second-year pro out of Cal has played well off the bench to compliment the great backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. He gives the Trail Blazers a big guard who can score from all areas of the floor, but in the series against the Los Angeles Clippers, Crabbe’s defense has to be his calling card.
He has the luxury of chasing J.J. Redick around screens and also hoping that Jamal Crawford doesn’t put him on a highlight reel. It may be easier said than done, but the Blazers need Crabbe to step up on both ends of the floor in order to keep the Clippers’ shooting guard tandem at bay. It’s obvious that L.A. is the more talented team, but if the Blazers want to make things interesting, Crabbe has to be on his “A” game to give Portland a fighting chance.
Game 1: 6 points, 50% 3P, Offensive Rating 114.0 per 100 possessions, and Defensive Rating 123.0 per 100 possessions
4. Los Angeles Clippers: Jeff Green
It’s easy to go with Jamal Crawford, but it’s certain what you are going to get from Crawford, the now three-time and newly crowned Sixth Man of the Year. On the other hand, the nightly riddle of Jeff Green makes him an intriguing selection. I hate watching Jeff Green play, because he is so damn talented. There are times where he can score 28 points and look like one of the best players in the NBA, but when the excitement is there, he follows up with a four-point and four-foul performance. I may be in the minority, but Green is a top 20 talent in my mind that has something that’s never quite clicked with him.
The Clippers have everything minus a formidable small forward. Let’s see: Paul Pierce is old and gimpy, Luc Mbah a Moute can’t score six points if you lock him in a gym by himself, Wesley Johnson is meh — and so that leaves the Clippers with Green. When he’s rolling, the Clippers are close to unbeatable, but for those who’ve had to deal with the frustration of watching Green, it’s not a frequent occurrence. The Clippers don’t need Green to play at an All-Star level, but they need him to utilize his scoring abilities as well as his ability to play defense.
Game 1: 3.0 points, 25% FG, Defensive Rating Per 100 possessions 111.0
3. Oklahoma City Thunder: Dion Waiters
Once upon a time, Dion Waiters drew comparisons to Dwyane Wade as he was in the early stages in his NBA career. While those comparisons are long gone, Waiters has shown flashes of being a capable shooting guard in the NBA.
The position has been a revolving door in Oklahoma City since the departure of James Harden. With Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant dominating the ball, it’s important they have someone to kick it out to when they are being swarmed by opposing defenders. While Waiters is not known for being a shooter, he is a shot-maker. His role for the Thunder is vital to the team’s success, and at times he has sputtered in his role. While the Thunder is primed to make a run at winning the West, it needs Waiters to play in the confines of the system on both sides of the ball.
Games 1 & 2: 6.5 ppg, 23% FG, 20% 3P
2. San Antonio Spurs: Boris Diaw
Boris Diaw’s metabolism may be as slow as AOL dial-up, but he can still play basketball with the best of them. While he’s built like Madea, that hasn’t stopped him from being one of the most dominant bench players in the NBA. Whether it’s hitting a key three-pointer, rebounding, taking a charge or threading the needle between defenders, Diaw does all of the above for the San Antonio Spurs and more.
His skill set and basketball IQ allow the Spurs to play a diverse style of basketball. Diaw has a penchant for making things look easy and an uncanny ability to outwit his opponents in the smallest of ways.
Game 1: 4.0 points, 13.1 ast per 100 possessions, 113.0 offensive rating per 100 possessions
1. Golden State Warriors: Andre Iguodala
The 2015 NBA Finals MVP channeled his inner Scottie Pippen in the Finals last year as a starter, but he’s made his mark the past two seasons by coming off the bench. The Warriors’ sixth man may be one of the team’s most indispensable players due to what he brings to the table.
He is best known for guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter player, but if you explore the depths of Iggy, he offers so much more. His playmaking skills and high basketball IQ allow the Warriors to play the best offense in the Association. The Warriors’ “death lineup” with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Iggy-Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green is the best five-man lineup per 100 possessions on offense and defense. With Iggy, it seems like the bigger the moment, the bigger he plays — at least since heading to the Bay Area. He’s is an example of a selfless player who does whatever his team needs. If the Warriors keep up their historic play, No.9 will have a lot to do with it.
Games 1 & 2: 10.0 ppg, 5.0 apg, 50% FG, 55% 3P
Columbus, Ohio born. Ron is a first-ballot healthy hairline hall of famer. He spent the summer of ‘08 eating calamari pasta because of OJ Da Juiceman. He also loves to write about sports while listening to Sada Baby. Follow him on Twitter @Ron_Hamp