The Whiteboard: Power ranking the NBA’s best second-units

Mitchell Leff-USA TODAY Sports
Mitchell Leff-USA TODAY Sports /

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To really succeed a team needs to have multiple lineups it can rely on and depth has perhaps never been more important than this season, with the Omicron variant necessitating the creation of hardship contracts and sending a slew of players into the health and safety protocols.

To get a sense of just how (effectively) deep each team is, I decided to rank the best in the league by their performance with no starters on the floor. For the purposes of this exercise, I only looked at teams that used lineups with zero starters for at least five percent of their available possessions. In this case, the starters a designated on a per-game basis. Many thanks to for providing the data to then hone in on which teams’ second-units had been most effective.

Which NBA second-units have been the most effective?

5. Philadelphia 76ers — plus-3.3 points per 100 possessions

Joel Embiid has been the driving force for the 76ers this season but Philadelphia’s starting lineups have never been overwhelming and they’ve often built advantages when they’ve gone to their bench. Andre Drummond is a capable back-up who can anchor the defense and crash the glass. Furkan Korkmaz and Georges Niang provide shooting on the wings and Shake Milton is a capable shot-creator, shooter and defender who has had experience in the starting lineup. When that foursome has been paired with Matisse Thybulle (who has only started 20 of his 35 games this season), they’ve outscored opponents by an average 18.6 points per 100 possessions in 67 minutes, the third-most minutes of any five-man unit used by the 76ers this year.

4. Phoenix Suns — plus-11.8 points per 100 possessions

Cameron Payne was one of the most effective back-up point guards in the league last season and even though his shooting percentages have dropped precipitously this year, the Suns have been able to rely on their depth in a way many teams can’t. JaVale McGee has been fantastic protecting the rima and providing spacing and Cam Johnson and Landry Shamet are two of the most reliable off-ball shooters in the league. That group has played 33 minutes with Elfrid Payton this season, outscoring opponents by an average of 21.7 points per 100 possessions. Swap Abdel Nader in for Payton and the margin drops to a still-robust plus-12.7 per 100 possessions across 32 minutes.

3. Houston Rockets — plus-12.9 points per 100 possessions

The Houston Rockets’ rotations have been unbelievably messy this season as they navigate injuries and COVID protocols and try to assess what they have on their youthful roster — seven different players aged-21-or-younger have logged time for the team this year. Accordingly, they’ve logged 16 different starting lineups in 49 games this year. No particular five-man second-units stand out specifically but several players, including Kenyon Martin Jr. and Alperen Sengun have, had strong seasons off the bench and should give the team good potential for mixing and matching as the add talent and continue their rebuild.

2. San Antonio Spurs — plus-15.0 points per 100 possessions

Devin Vassell and Lonnie Walker have been the most consistent pieces off the Spurs’ bench this season and the key components of several five-man bench units that have performed extremely well. The departure of Bryn Forbes (traded to Denver) and the likely impending trade of Thaddeus Young means they may not all be available later in the season but the Spurs are building versatile depth that should pay off down the road.

1. New York Knicks — plus-16.7 points per 100 possessions

The Knicks have had the league’s best second-unit this season, by far. But it’s not exactly a good thing. While their five-man bench units have been steamrolling teams, their starting lineups have been outscored by an average of 11.4 points per 100 possessions, one of the worst marks in the league. Tom Thibodeau, as he is wont to do, has relied heavily on those catastrophic starting lineups — they’ve played 34 percent of New York’s total possessions, the third-highest percentage in the league. Even with Derrick Rose out, the Knicks have seen fantastic numbers from lineups like Taj Gibson – Alec Burks – Obi Toppin – Quentin Grimes – Immanuel Quickley (plus-12.9 per 100 in 63 minutes) or Gibson – Burks – Toppin – Quickley – McBride (plus-50.0 per 100 in 22 minutes). The fact that Thibodeau hasn’t been more aggressive in adjusting his lineups to create balance and offset the underperforming starters should be a strong indictment of his coaching this season.

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