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Wise End Of Bench Moves

With the dog days of summer firmly upon us, most NBA franchises are essentially finished building their teams for the 12-13 season. If free agency is a game of musical chairs, this is the part where everyone still standing starts to get really nervous.

There are many more NBA-caliber players than available roster spots, so the difference between playing in the NBA and an European league often comes down not to talent but opportunity. And when filling out the end of their roster, general managers often prioritize NBA experience, but too often that means acquiring a player on the downside of their career at the expense of one whose best days are still ahead of them.

Two years ago, after using all of their salary cap room on their three superstars, the Miami Heat rounded out their bench with Mike Bibby, Jamaal Magloire, Erick Dampier, Eddie House, Juwan Howard and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. That would have been an excellent group in 2001, but they were more names than viable players in 2011, an aging and infirm bench that Erik Spoelstra couldn’t depend on in the playoffs.

As the continued presence of Howard indicated, Miami didn’t totally abandon end of the bench veteran leadership in 2012. However, they made a conscious effort to get younger and more athletic by replacing House and Dampier with Terrel Harris and Dexter Pittman, two players who spent most of 2011 in the D-League. And instead of signing another aging center, they rolled the dice on Eddy Curry, a former lottery pick who had never reached his potential and battled weight issues.

Harris, Pittman and Curry didn’t have much of an impact on the Heat’s title run, but Miami was still better off for having them. Curry was a gamble that doesn’t look like it will work out, Harris showed the potential to be a defensive specialist and may still be brought back after a strong showing in the Summer League, and Pittman could help Miami as a 24-year-old reserve big man in 2013. That’s more value than anything Miami got from giving Magloire or Dampier one more year to add to their NBA pension.

At this point in the summer, aside from the notable exception of Leandro Barbosa, those are the types of choices GM’s have: older players trying to hang on or younger players trying to break in. There’s usually a reason a young player with talent isn’t on a roster by the middle of August, but in comparison to the other options available, taking a chance on a guy who knows he is running out of them isn’t necessarily a bad idea.

One such player is Terrence Williams, a 2009 lottery pick who was plagued by whispers about his maturity coming out of Louisville, one of the main reasons he has played for three teams in three seasons. He is a shooting guard who can’t shoot (29% from beyond the arc in Sacramento), but that didn’t stop fellow free agents Josh Howard (24%) Marquise Daniels (0%) or Josh Childress (16%) from carving out long NBA careers.

The difference is, while the three veterans have already made names for themselves, Williams is a far better option for a team like the Atlanta Hawks that still needs athleticism and playmaking ability from the wing positions. Per-36 minutes, the 6’6 220 swingman 15.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists on 46% shooting in 24 games for the Kings in 2012.

There’s a similar pattern at nearly every position on the floor. Teams in need of a 3-and-D role player on the wings could pick up nine-year veteran Mickael Pietrus or 2011 second-round pick DeAndre Liggins, an athletic 6’6 wing who never got a chance in Orlando but put up good long-range shooting numbers (39% as a junior) at Kentucky. They can choose between Darko Milicic or Hassan Whiteside at center, Kenyon Martin or Craig Brackins at power forward, Derek Fisher or Sundiata Gaines at point guard.

Of course, the positive effect a respected veteran like Fisher can have in the locker room won’t be accounted for in any on-court statistic. The problem is, as Sam Presti found out in last year’s postseason, a coach might actually play Fisher out of respect for his experience regardless of his production (or lack of it). In a situation like that, rather than wasting a roster spot, a team can always bring Fisher in to be an assistant coach like Sam Cassell in Washington or Tyronn Lue in Boston.

In the short-term, as Miami’s experience in 2012 shows, end of bench tinkering won’t necessarily have much of an impact. On the other hand, in 2006 and 2007, the Dallas Mavericks kept an undrafted “6’0” scoring PG on their roster in the hopes that his speed and ball-handling ability would one day make him an effective NBA player. Four years later, Rick Carlisle changed the dynamic of the NBA Finals when he inserted JJ Barea into the starting lineup.

Even though Barea isn’t likely to match the careers of the older players on Miami’s bench that year, none had an answer for his athleticism and penetrating ability in 2011. All other things being equal, a 25-year-old can become more knowledgeable a lot easier than a 35-year-old can become quicker and faster.

With interest in basketball expanding rapidly throughout the world, there’s never been more competition for the 450 possible roster spots in the NBA. Each one, and the guaranteed contract that comes with it, is a valuable resource, one that far too many teams overlook by going with the comfort of a known commodity over the gamble of an unknown.

 

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