The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors are an all-time great team — you know this, everyone knows this. But as impressive as they are, the Dubs have been outplayed by a couple of NBA units so far this season: the San Antonio Spurs’ starters — and the San Antonio Spurs’ bench.
At least, that’s the conclusion you reach if you average together the Box Plus/Minus (BPM) ratings for everybody outside the team’s five most frequent starters1 — in essence, projecting what would happen if the team’s bench played the entire game. For most teams, the idea of stretching their bench’s output over 48 minutes would be revolting. Surely, the Thunder want no part of Dion Waiters and Kyle Singler replacing Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. But in this, as in many things, the Spurs are unique.
Every other team’s reserves rate as below-average relative to the entire league. The Warriors’ bench, for instance, ranks third with an aggregate BPM of -1.6. But the Spurs’ non-starters have an eye-popping cumulative BPM of +11.5. If we convert that number into its Elo-rating equivalent,2 the Spurs’ bench would come in at 1760 — enough talent to net between 64 and 65 wins over an 82-game season.
In other words, if the Spurs’ bench were to break off and form its own team, it would be either the second-best team in the NBA — trailing only the Spurs’ starters in terms of per-possession production this season — or the third-best, if you take a page from our Elo rating system’s book and give Golden State credit for its longer track record of greatness. Either way, the Spurs have a ridiculous advantage over the rest of the league.
Here’s a look at all of the league’s benches according to this method:
Of course, practically speaking, San Antonio devotes only 45 percent of its total minutes to reserves (just a shade over the league average of 44 percent). So if its bench were to secede and form a new squad, it would either need to increase its players’ minutes per game or find other players to fill the remaining 55 percent of available playing time.
But this new team would still be pretty formidable if we assume the Spurs’ current bench players could slide into starters’ minutes (55 percent of the new team’s total) at their existing level of production — and BPM is adjusted for a player’s minutes per game, so the increased difficulty of facing more opposing starters is already accounted for (to some degree) in each player’s numbers — while filling their bench with typical NBA reserves (averaging to a -1.5 BPM per player). The resulting squad would have a 1585 Elo, which would put them in a de facto dead heat with Toronto for sixth place in the league. As a real-world counterfactual, some of the details don’t work out exactly right, like Manu Ginóbili’s famously limited minutes. But as a broad abstraction of just how much of a whooping Manu, Boris Diaw, David West and the rest of the Spurs’ bench have been putting on the league, it does the job.
And that’s if San Antonio’s bench had to manage life on its own. When paired with the Spurs’ starters, they make for an unstoppable combination that might be the best in basketball.
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