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LM Otero/Associated Press
It’s easy to get blinded by the Golden State Warriors’ historic star power and forget just how overloaded their second unit really is.
The bench mob is a unique force all its own. It has outscored opponents by 8.5 points per 100 possessions in 2017-18, a net efficiency rating that would check in at third overall.
There are other strong support staffs around the league, but no one boasts a bench quite like this:
- Andre Iguodala, SF
- Shaun Livingston, PG
- Patrick McCaw, SG
- Nick Young, SG
- David West, C
- Kevon Looney, PF/C
- JaVale McGee, C
- Jordan Bell, C
- Omri Casspi, SF/PF
The talent pool is deep enough to beg the question: Are Golden State’s second-teamers better than other teams’ firsts? There are reasons to believe that if the answer isn’t an outright yes, it’s at least close enough to warrant further investigation.
So, we put the Association’s bottom-feeders under the microscope and identified five clubs with starting units that would struggle against the Warriors’ understudies. Our hypothetical showdowns feature Golden State’s reserves against other clubs’ starters, so only players who have opened games (or would if healthy) were considered.
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At least the Atlanta Hawks were considerate enough to give their fans the benefit of foresight. After completing their self-destruction this summer, they obliterated any false hopes of competing for anything other than the draft lottery.
That’s made their 2-9 start—saddled by their longest losing streak since 2014—much easier to stomach for a fanbase that had celebrated 10 consecutive playoff berths.
“It’s to be expected,” Kent Bazemore said, per Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “… It’s part of being a young team. You’ve got to roll with the punches and continue to grow.”
In our theoretical matchup, Golden State’s second unit would unload teaching tools packaged as haymakers.
Atlanta’s anemic play begins with its first five. The starting lineup from opening night—Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, Ersan Ilyasova and Dewayne Dedmon—has been outscored by 9.9 points per 100 possessions (last season’s lowest net rating was minus-7.2). Swap out Ilyasova for Mike Muscala (which injuries have), and the number plunges to minus-28.9 (the statistical equivalence to gross incompetence).
The Hawks are built to follow Schroder’s lead, but the Dubs bench could put stone walls in his path like Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala and Patrick McCaw. If Atlanta is forced to turn elsewhere for scoring, it might as well wave the white flag. The Hawks don’t have an ignitable force on par with Nick Young, and Golden State’s defense is too cerebral to lose track of Atlanta’s spot-up shooters and off-ball cutters.
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Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press
If the Chicago Bulls get nothing else right this season, at least they appear to have uncovered a foundational piece in rookie Lauri Markkanen. And to think, it only took one power forward to punch out another for the Bulls to clear a path for their prized prospect.
With Bobby Portis (the puncher) and Nikola Mirotic (the punchee) out of the early equation, Markkanen fast-tracked from No. 7 pick in June to opening-night starter in July. The scoring 7-footer hasn’t slowed up since, making multiple triples in every contest and double-doubling twice. He’s clearing 16 points and nine rebounds a night, marks only two rookies have averaged in the 2000s (Karl-Anthony Towns and Blake Griffin).
But the Bulls would need a lot more than Markkanen to hang with the Warriors’ bench brigade, and Chicago isn’t built to win a numbers game with anyone.
“The issue for the Bulls’ braintrust is that aside from Lauri Markkanen…much of the rest of the roster looks like it is comprised of G-League players,” ESPN.com’s Nick Friedell wrote.
Outside of Markkanen, it’s hard to say if any Bulls starters would get bench minutes in Oakland. Robin Lopez is the safest bet, but David West has bested him in per-36-minute points (21.1 to 16.4), rebounds (7.6 to 7.2), assists (2.8 to 2.6), blocks (4.7 to 1.4) and field-goal percentage (66.7 to 48.1). And that’s before factoring in the similarly scorching starts by JaVale McGee and Jordan Bell.
Jerian Grant and Justin Holiday both hold sub-35 field-goal percentages. David Nwaba is a wing with restricted-area offensive range (73 percent of his career attempts have come within three feet of the basket). He’s also down two to four weeks with a sprained ankle, which means Denzel Valentine and his career 35.8 field-goal percentage will join the first group.
The perimeter is so strongly stacked toward the defending champs it would shatter any advantage Markkanen might have in the frontcourt—and that’s assuming he could create one. Zach LaVine’s eventual return would narrow the gap, but unless he comes back better than before, he can’t launch Chicago ahead.
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After 11 games and six starting lineups, the Dallas Mavericks are still searching.
“From a standpoint of lineups, I’m constantly looking at it,” Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said, per Mavs Moneyball’s Doyle Rader. “I don’t like changing the starting lineup every other night or every night. It’s hard on the players. But we’re struggling with this lineup.”
Carlisle was referring to the Dennis Smith Jr.-Wesley Matthews-Harrison Barnes-Dirk Nowitzki-Nerlens Noel quintet, which has four starts on the season and a minus-16.7 net rating. The Mavs tried sitting Noel and starting Salah Mejri last game and were outscored by seven points in the seven minutes those five played together.
If the puzzle pieces are flawed, it doesn’t matter how they’re arranged.
That’s the case in Dallas, where Nowitzki and Smith are both showing their respective ages (and shooting below 40 percent), while Barnes and Matthews appear outstretched by their current roles. Playing Yogi Ferrell, J.J. Barea or Devin Harris means sacrificing size. Play Dorian Finney-Smith, and you’re losing spacing.
Dallas could badly use Seth Curry, who’s on the mend from a stress reaction in his left tibia. But he’s an undersized scoring guard, and Golden State makes life tough on that player type.
Every option has a weakness, and no one exploits those better than the Warriors. Who’s stopping Livingston’s post-ups? Who’s throwing ice water on a scorching Swaggy P? What happens when Golden State starts outmuscling or outsmarting Noel or running circles around Nowitzki and Mejri?
Carlisle is a master strategist, but he needs players who can execute his plans. The Mavs don’t have enough to build a starting five capable of overpowering the Warriors’ second unit.
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Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
In Devin Booker’s final game before his 21st birthday, he tallied 34 points on 11 field goals (four threes), six rebounds and six assists. In his first game as a 21-year-old, he went for 32 points on 11 field goals (five triples), seven boards and four dimes.
As young as he is, he’s still the most combustible scorer on any of the five teams listed. With a 70-point outburst under his belt and improving shooting rates from all three levels, he’s the type of offensive force who, on his best night, could sink the Warriors’ second-teamers by himself.
But he’d also have a paper-thin margin for error in this hypothetical tilt, since his supporting cast is as shallow as the Suns’ minus-8.0 net rating suggests. And while Golden State reaps the full rewards of continuity, Phoenix is trying to catch up to its constantly reshuffling deck.
“I feel like I’ve played on three different teams,” Booker told CBS Sports’ James Herbert. “Every year, I have a new team in here.”
Booker doesn’t have Eric Bledsoe, who was marooned after a morose tweet. Instead, the point guard reins are with Mike James, a 27-year-old rookie and 37.1 percent shooter. T.J. Warren occupies the other wing, where he has popped off for 40 points once and failed to crack double digits four times. Tyson Chandler mans the middle as an out-of-place aging vet, while Marquese Chriss is backtracking as a sophomore.
Outside of Booker, the threat level is minimal. And Golden State has top-shelf stoppers to throw at him and a couple of fiery snipers of its own.
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Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
It feels like forever ago that the basketball cognoscenti was cautiously applauding the Sacramento Kings’ offseason. Eight losses in nine games—half by double digits—can have that effect. Ditto posting the Association’s worst net rating (a grotesque minus-13.9).
Their youngsters look like youngsters, save for rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic (who, at 25 years old, probably shouldn’t wear that label). Willie Cauley-Stein might be plateauing (save for a fun uptick in distributing), while Buddy Hield heads the wrong way. Justin Jackson has been steady, but not special. De’Aaron Fox and Skal Labissiere are both wildly intriguing and in dire need of more seasoning.
Most of that could have been expected. The imported veterans looking shot, however, could not.
“Opponents have outscored them by a gargantuan 24 points per 100 possessions with both Zach Randolph and George Hill on the floor, per NBA.com—the fourth-worst such mark among the 250 duos who have logged the most minutes,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe noted.
Hill is once again hurting himself with a lack of aggressiveness (tied for fifth on the team in shots). Randolph, who’s only shot worse once in his career, looks outdated.
No matter how the Kings’ starters are constructed, they aren’t ready for the Warriors’ supporting cast. They don’t have anyone averaging 13 points per game, so Golden State can just overwhelm with offense. Defensively, the Warriors can bait Randolph into post-ups, keep an eye on Bogdanovic and challenge the others to play one-on-one. The substitute Warriors are winning most of those battles and quite possibly the game by a wide margin.
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.