In San Antonio’s 112-83 win over the Dallas Mavericks this week, the team’s original Big 3 — Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan — combined to score 11 points on 3-for-16 shooting. For most teams, this would be debilitating; for San Antonio, whose bench is a conga line of latent and veteran talent, well-fitting pieces, and a 7-foot-3 Serbian, it wasn’t all that out of the ordinary. The Spurs got 66 points from their bench, and smothered the hapless Mavericks; Parker and Duncan sat the entire fourth quarter.
Earlier this month, San Antonio throttled the Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz in consecutive games, both by a score of 123-98. In those dominant efforts, San Antonio’s nitro-boosted reserves amassed 126 points, or 51 percent of the team’s total.
“I think we’ve always had deep teams,” Ginobili told ESPN.com after the Utah game. “We’ve been very lucky, and the front office has done a great job of course of bringing in talent and guys that want to win championships. Not many teams can do that.”
Gregg Popovich’s outfit is making a cartoonish mockery of the NBA this season, having passed the Golden State Warriors on Tim Bontemps’ power rankings in recent weeks. The Spurs just pieced together the most efficient season since net rating was first tracked (plus-20.4 in December), had the second largest point differential (plus-568) in NBA history halfway through the season, and are 36-6, winners of their last 11.
A sizable portion of that success is due to what the team’s bench pieces have accomplished this season.
San Antonio’s reserves have noticed slightly fewer minutes per contest (19.9) compared to a season ago (20.8). However, while the minutes have diminished, the production has never been higher: San Antonio’s 58.1 true shooting percentage by the reserves leads every team by at least 2.9 percent and their bench’s net rating is first by a mile.
It’s likely that San Antonio’s bench net rating will dip as the season inches closer to the playoffs — although it certainly hasn’t in recent weeks — but should it miraculously hold steady, according to NBA.com’s statistics, it would finish as the league’s top bench net rating in at least the last 19 years.
Among the other four teams that finished in the top five in the metric since the 1996-97 season, each qualified for the postseason, one (Chicago Bulls, 1996-97) won a championship, and all but one qualified for the conference finals.
Specifically, the most noticeable progression this season for San Antonio’s bench has been its defensive prowess. Popovich’s bench holds opponents to 92.5 points per 100 possessions, the lowest mark in the league by 4.8 points.
Despite logging the fifth-most minutes per contest of any team, San Antonio’s reserves account for the seventh-fewest fouls, instead opting to band together like gel and suffocate opponents into confounding offensive possessions. While Popovich’s starters are resting, and opponents theoretically have their most optimal opportunity to earn back points (San Antonio is plus-14.3 this season when its starters are on the floor), the team’s bench simply isn’t allowing them to do so.
Last season, for context, San Antonio’s bench allowed 100 points per 100 possessions, and finished outside the top 18 in opponent field goal percentage (44.4) and three-point percentage (34.4). Those defensive lapses led to the Spurs finishing third in bench net rating (plus-5.2) during the regular season. In the playoffs, they plummeted to sixth: San Antonio was unable to take advantage of the Los Angeles Clippers’ dearth of a second unit, and lost in the first round. In Game 7 of the series, Popovich got 28 points from his reserves, 12.8 points fewer than his bench averages this season.
A seemingly endless bench has been a hallmark of San Antonio’s championship teams; the Spurs’ bench has finished no lower than third in playoff net rating the last five seasons in which they won championships. None of this is to say that San Antonio is contemplating who it’s going to put out on the floor to start games when it inevitably makes a postseason run in April: The five-man unit of Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge has logged 453 minutes together this season, the fourth-most of any lineup. However, Popovich is seeing historic production from his reserves this season, who are pacing San Antonio to the top of the rankings.