If you are a fan of the Golden State Warriors, you know a prominent theme to this early season has been the struggling bench. At one point, it was so bad Mark Jackson called the bench effort, “embarrassing”. With injuries beginning to pile up, the bench has been stretched even thinner, possibly creating an even bigger crutch for this team.
Bench strength is an interesting dynamic when thinking about building an NBA squad. The league salary cap limits an organization to spending around $59 million dollars on a roster. So within that budget, a GM must fit players into a puzzle carefully mixing cohesion and quality. With only 14 players on a squad, the margin of error is extremely small.
How a GM spends money on bench players is critical in building and sustaining success as a franchise. There are two directions an organization can go when deciding how to build a team, with respect to the bench:
- Focus the majority of the salary cap on the starting five and use the remaining money to fill in the bench.
- Have a decent starting five and spend an elevated amount of money on a few marquee players coming off the bench.
The Warriors have built this year’s team using the first method above. Stephen Curry, David Lee, Andre Iguodala, and Andrew Bogut are all signed for at least three more seasons. Barnes and Thompson are still on their rookie contracts, but it is expected that Bob Myers will attempt to extend both of them in the near future. So, there are six players that will take up the majority of the team’s salary cap. To fill in the bench, Myers must show creativity by finding players that are good enough to play for this team that are also cheap.
Using this method helps establish consistent success as a franchise. Bench players will come and go, but having a consistent, quality starting lineup for multiple years piles up wins for an organization. One of the worst mistakes a GM can make is spending starter money on a bench player. To illustrate this point, I will be focusing on the plus-minus (+/-) metric for a team’s starting lineup and bench.
Plus-Minus is a measurement of individual player’s overall impact on a game, but it can be used on a team level as well. For example, take a look at the 2012/13 Brooklyn Nets +/- for the overall team, starters, and bench.
Brooklyn Nets, +/- Overall: 1.8, +/- Starters: 2.4, +/- Bench: -0.6, Winning%: 0.598
You’ll notice that adding the starters and bench plus-minus scores yields the overall plus-minus score. Having an overall score of 1.8 demonstrates total team success, but only looking at this score doesn’t paint a clear picture of the level of contribution between the starters and the bench. It is simply assumed, if the overall +/- score is high, then the team, most likely, experienced success that season. In a perfect world, all teams would love for the starters and bench to have high +/-, but that is not the way the league works. Each team, based on the salary cap, will have strengths and weaknesses and it’s up to the organization to decide where the strengths and weaknesses will lie.
Let’s take a look at the overall +/- formula:
Brooklyn Nets +/- = Starters (2.4) + Bench (-0.6) = 1.8
Now, instead of addition, I’ll reverse the sign:
Brooklyn Nets +/- = Starters (2.4) – Bench (-0.6) = 3.0
The above value of 3.0 is a metric to understand the discrepancy between the starters and bench, in terms of plus-minus. If the value is high, then the team is built around it’s strong starting five. If the value is low, the team has a more balanced build. The lower score implies that less focus has been made on having a concrete starting five and more money has been spent on the bench.
Simply by reversing the equation sign, a metric is created that will try and help answer a question about building a team. How should an NBA GM divide their salary cap between the starters and bench?
The table below shows the new and old +/- metrics for each team during the 2012/13 season:
If a team’s new +/- score is higher than the old score, then the team was more reliant upon its starting lineup. For example, the Warriors’ new score is 1.3 and the old score is 0.9. This implies that the Warriors were slightly more reliant upon their starters during the season.
Below is a graph of the new +/- score for each team. The x-axis is the team’s winning percentage from the 2012/13 season and the y-axis is the new +/- score calculated:
Based on the graph, there is a positive relationship between being more reliant on starters and winning percentage. The majority of teams near the bottom of the league in winning percentage also show a new +/- score that is close to, or below, zero. Inversely, teams with the highest reliance on starters show an elevated winning percentage.
Using this metric, teams built with more salary devotion to starters correlated with a higher winning percentage, during the 2012/13 season, than teams with more balance. This should be encouraging to a Golden State fan because this year’s team is heavily reliant on the starting lineup to contribute to the team’s success.
It’s still early, but below is a graph of the new +/- metric for the 2013/14 season:
In the early season, the trend is positive, but is not as drastic as the previous season. A lack of games to sample is a reason that the spread is wider. As the season continues, the outlying points should settle more towards the trending pattern. The Warriors are highlighted in red on the graph. Only the Pacers show a higher new +/- than the Warriors.
According to the trend, a new +/- score of 8 should have the Warriors near the top of the league in winning percentage. The fact that it’s still early presents a lot of outside noise that would cause higher variability in the graph. Injuries and schedule difficulty are two reasons why the Warriors may have a lower winning percentage than their new +/- would indicate. Even with the low win percentage, this trend is encouraging because this team is being built the right way.
There are three steps that every team makes in turning themselves into a championship contender and each step takes a season to complete.
- Current players take leaps and help team make a surprise playoff run.
- Organization builds on past season’s successes and lock up core players.
- Fill in the missing bench pieces to build a cohesive, championship caliber squad.
Based on the data for this season, the Warriors are in the second phase of the three-step plan towards a championship. The Warriors of this year are the Pacers of last season. The 2012/13 Pacers starters logged a ton a ton of quality minutes together without a lot of help from the bench. The missing pieces limited them in their Miami series; but every Pacer fan loved that the young core of the team was coming back. With that established peace of mind, the Pacers organization was able to pluck helpful pieces to fill in the bench and one season later they look like the best team in the NBA.
The track record of Myers and Jerry West indicate they can find quality talent. Also, the Jazz/Iguodala trade established Myers’ craftiness to find hidden opportunities in a hampered salary cap market. I know everyone wants the Warriors to win the championship this year, but they are, most likely, one year away.
All data is through 12/04/2013 and provided by NBA.com