Despite Tom Thibodeau’s infamous propensity to play starters long minutes, he has always had an affinity for a strong bench.
While the 2011 Bulls will be remembered for Derrick Rose’s MVP season, Thibodeau was able to win his first Coach of the Year award partly off the strong play of their bench, lovingly known as the “Bench Mob,” consisting of Knicks’ legends Ronnie Brewer, Kurt Thomas and Taj Gibson, along with C.J. Watson, Ömer Aşik and future All-Star Kyle Korver. The bench’s play was so strong that the Bulls were just 2.8 points per 100 possessions better with Rose on the court, the lowest of any MVP ever. Not that Rose wasn’t impactful — that was still the second-best mark of any rotation player on the team, and the Bulls won his minutes by 8.8 points per 100 possessions. The bench just kept up his MVP-level of play.
Despite the status of the Knicks’ Brian Scalabrine/John Lucas role in Theo Pinson being up in the air, they have a chance to recreate the Bench Mob’s greatness this upcoming season [Editor’s note: Pinson signed a training camp deal today with Boston]. They already started to last season: the unit of Rose, Gibson, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks and Obi Toppin sported a ludicrous 19.5 net rating, eighth-best of any lineup with over 100 minutes played.
Similar to that Bulls squad, very few Knicks were not a positive last year — essentially the entire rotation had a positive on-court net rating besides the now-departed Elfrid Payton; the polarizing, now-departed Frank Ntilikina; the forgotten, good-as-departed Kevin Knox; and, in a somewhat small sample size, Mitchell Robinson.
Despite the success of the bench last season, there is potential for it to take off even further this season as there is room for growth. Quickley and Toppin, despite being older for second-year players. should continue developing as they did last season, as many second-year players tend to. New additions Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker will be upgrades in the starting lineup, but could also be lethal when sharing minutes with bench units, though Thibodeau does unconventionally prefer platoon swaps.
Nerlens Noel, who anchored the Knicks’ elite defense as a starter for much of the year, should serve as an even more dangerous backup with Robinson returning from injury. Despite his extreme offensive woes, Noel was third the league in blocks per game, first in defensive box plus-minus and also in the top 15 in steal percentage, impressive numbers for any center, let alone one who now be coming off the bench.
There will also be a great deal of continuity within the team and bench that escapes most franchises from year-to-year, an underrated advantage in an NBA where second-year players like Killian Hayes can be the most-tenured players on their teams. It may be understated how impressive the bench is. Derrick Rose goes without saying, having essentially turned the team from a .500 team to a 56-win pace after being acquired, thanks to his elite penetration leading to 20 points and five assists per 36 minutes. He is surrounded by two other efficient scorers in Quickley and Burks, who averaged 21 and 18 per 36, respectively, and a remarkable 3.4 and 2.9 threes on better than 40% from deep per 36. Despite likely (warranted) criticisms of tunnel vision at times, each also averaged more than three assists and under two turnovers per 36, very respectable numbers for guards coming off the bench. Any of those three guards would be great to have as the lead guard off the bench on a playoff team. Only 16 bench players averaged as many points and assists per 36 as Burks, and two of them were Rose and Quickley, who ranked 6th and 10th in points per 36 off the bench.
Perhaps most excitingly, this was nowhere near a perfect unit last year despite their highly impactful play. While Rose was an immediate presence, he struggled with his efficiency at first, averaging 12 points and 4 assists on 42/36/85 shooting splits (50% TS%) over his first 18 games with the team, before a remarkable 18 points and five assists on 55/47/92 shooting splits (63% TS%) in the last 17 en route to a 14-3 record. It’s worth noting that Rose’s prominence came in the absence of Burks, who played in just seven of those games. According to NBAwowy, in the 413 minutes he shared with Rose, Burks averaged 16.1 points per 100 possessions on an abysmal 52% TS%; Rose averaged 26.7 per 100 on a similarly poor 52.4 TS%. The numbers went up when one played without the other: Burks averaged a terrific 29.1 per 100 on a scorching 58% TS% in 841 minutes while and Rose put up 28.8 per 100 on 60% TS% in 524 mins.
Quickley was pushed to the side a bit as well after the Rose trade, especially a stretch in which he scored double digits just seven times and 20 points zero times, though he was still very effective and his efficiency was roughly the same. When Rose is on the floor, despite an initial push to share ball-handling duties, Quickley and Burks are generally put off to the side as standstill shooters unless Rose doesn’t have it on that night.
There are worse things to have than two elite shooters with the threat of great isolation scoring off the bench to accentuate Rose. There were few if any better bench units in the league. It’s exciting to think about the horizons they can reach if they are able to play off each other even more effectively with another year of chemistry.
Another piece of low-hanging fruit is how Toppin is used. Despite being hailed as an elite inside scorer and post player out of college, he was rarely used down low despite shooting 63% on two point shots and a sizzling 70% at the rim. Despite Rose making a push to get him more involved, the explosive Toppin still only averaged 0.4 pick and roll possessions a game. Toppin also rarely saw his position change, with 99% of his minutes coming at power forward. Testing him at small-ball seems like an obvious thing to experiment with in the modern NBA, yet strangely he saw just 39 minutes alongside Randle all season despite a +8.1 net rating in those minutes. Even without an improvement bump, Toppin should be solid. He went from nearly unplayable at the start of last season to one of their most steady presences in the rotation come playoff time. If that trust allows Toppin to simply be used in different ways, he could become even more impactful.
Thibodeau being willing to switch it up and adapt could be instrumental in the bench becoming even more deadly. It will be interesting to see how Thibodeau, who was rigid in his rotations at times last year, especially in-game, integrates both the young and the old. Quentin Grimes and Miles McBride could be capable of giving the Knicks energy off the bench, while Gibson, who sported a timeless +7.3 net rating, can provide a steady presence on nights Robinson and Noel are in foul trouble or ineffective.
The Knicks bench is in a terrific position, even if little changes from last year. There is reason for optimism that it can get even better and another exciting Bench Mob awaits.