Return of the Bench Mob?

Jeff Skibiski —  July 24, 2010

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With a roster as top-heavy as the Lakers, it’s easy to knock the bench for not performing at the same level as the starters. Biases aside though, it goes without saying that the Lakers’ bench struggled at times last season, with Lamar Odom serving as the only reliable force on a team that won an NBA title almost in spite of its sub-par reserve corps. This offseason has brought swift, if not expected change to the forum blue and gold’s roster though, as Mitch Kupchak has masterfully found a way to fill six open roster spots with proven NBA players, while also drafting two promising second-round picks, who both stand a good chance of making the team. Darius posted a great write-up yesterday about the additions of Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff—two players who, along with Steve Blake, Odom, Sasha Vujacic and the possible return of Shannon Brown, should go a long way toward re-creating the bench mob that propelled the team to an unexpected title run in 2007-08. More importantly, they will allow veterans like Kobe, Artest and Fisher to play less minutes, while also providing insurance against injury. Even though some of the pieces are still moving, we take a look at just how deep is this year’s team is compared to other potential contenders around the league.

Barring any major surprise moves, Boston essentially brings back the same bench that helped them pull away from the Lakers in Game 4 of the Finals last season, minus defensive ace Tony Allen. They swapped out the underperforming Rasheed Wallace for another perennial underperformer in Jermaine O’Neal, though the latter’s more consistent production at this stage of his career should represent an upgrade for the C’s. Boston also re-signed Nate Robinson, who played in the post-season for the first time last year with mixed results. Their overall depth chart took a hit though when starting center Kendrick Perkins underwent surgery nearly two weeks ago that will likely keep him out until next January or February. O’Neal and Glen Davis will certainly help fill that void, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Boston picks up another piece before training camp starts.

The constantly evolving Miami Heat roster has rounded into shape quite nicely for Pat Riley, with the organization successfully luring several former veteran difference-makers to play alongside the Superfriends. Depending on whether or not head coach Erik Spoelstra chooses to start the newly re-signed Carlos Arroyo at the point, the team’s bench will likely consist of NBA journeyman Jamaal Magloire, Udonis Haslem, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, James Jones, Mario Chalmers and Juwan Howard. Mike Miller will fit in there somewhere, but again, that depends on what type of lineup the Heat ultimately decide to use. In any case, the team has flanked Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh with savvy veteran leaders who only improve Miami’s status as an instant contender.

The Orlando Magic have operated with arguably the league’s best bench unit for a few years running now and will once again bring back a strong second unit in 2010-11. While the Lakers poached Barnes from Dwight Howard and Co., Orlando added some scoring punch with the additions of Chris Duhon to back up Jameer Nelson and Quentin Richardson as another outside shooting threat. Combined with the newly re-signed J.J. Redick, Martin Gortat and Brandon Bass, the Magic boast an explosive, albeit defensively underwhelming bench.

Fresh off of a six-game series against the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, the Phoenix Suns will bring back a decidedly different roster next season after the departure of Amar’e Stoudemire, the trade for Hedo Turkoglu and free agent signings of Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick. The moves made by Phoenix after losing Stoudemire have fallen under the radar this off-season, but their roster is still loaded with versatility and adept shooting, not to mention Steve Nash. Phoenix could go with a number of different lineups, but assuming that Nash, Jason Richardson, Grant Hill and Robin Lopez all remain starters, that results in a possible bench of Childress, Channing Frye, Warrick, Goran Dragic and Jared Dudley, with one of those players being used to fill the void at starting power forward. Phoenix will miss Leandro Barbosa, who was shipped to Toronto in the trade for Turkoglu, but they have re-tooled in a hurry and will undoubtedly prove to be a matchup nightmare for many teams.

The Mavericks weren’t able to entice Cleveland into a sign-and-trade deal for LeBron, but they have re-tinkered their roster a bit around Dirk Nowitzki by trading for Tyson Chandler and re-signing Brendan Haywood. Super-sub Jason Terry and the under-used Jose Juan Barea form a potent bench for Dallas that will keep them in contention once again next season. Those pesky Oklahoma City Thunder bring back virtually the same bench that took the Lakers to six games in the First Round last season, led by Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Nick Collison and Eric Maynor. The Thunder traded two first round picks to New Orleans for outside shooting specialist Morris Peterson and promising rookie Cole Aldrich, who will provide much-needed size for Oklahoma City’s undersized front line. San Antonio also improved its front line when Brazilian big man Tiago Splitter, selected by the Spurs in the first round of the 2007 NBA Draft, finally agreed to sign with the team to back up an aging Tim Duncan. The same can’t be said for Denver, who wasn’t able to land the free agent big-man they so desperately needed to sign with their mid-level exception, leading them to sign another one-way player in Al Harrington.

One of the primary reasons the Lakers teams were so successful at the beginning of the decade was the front office’s careful management of the roster around Kobe and Shaq. Flash forward 10 years and the front office continues to support Bryant, Gasol, Bynum, Artest and Odom with key role players off the bench. Moreover, these are players in Blake, Barnes and Ratliff who are hungry for an NBA championship and will surely keep the team’s title aspirations moving along in the same way Artest did last season. Sometimes, a small tweak in personnel here and there is all that is needed when molding NBA benches, but I would venture to say that the Lakers have gone a step beyond that by not only directly addressing their greatest need—point guard—but also signing players like Barnes who will potentially play a huge role defensively against other title contenders’ top threats. Further, Blake, Barnes and Ratliff will add much-needed consistency off the pine—something that Jordan Farmar, Josh Powell, D.J. Mbenga and Luke Walton were never able to provide. The end result is a versatile, complete team that is well-prepared to defend its crown.

Jeff Skibiski