As we've written multiple times, 2012 is the Year of the Sixth Man in the NBA. More and more teams are bringing one of their top players off the bench in an attempt to change the energy of a game. But benches aren't just one-deep. There are many players that make an impact on the game without starting, and teams are relying on these players more during the condensed lockout schedule than ever before.
In the final edition of our three-part series on NBA Backyard Treasures, we'll count down the five best benches in the league.
When you employ arguably the two best bench scorers in the league -- James Harden and Jason Terry -- you at least deserve a token mention. Oklahoma City and Dallas don't have quite as many legitimate players on their second units as the teams above them, but neither really needs to when they have those guys to use.
Last year's "Bench Mob" has been broken up a bit due to injuries, but when the Bulls are fully healthy, this is still an elite group. Led by second-year forward Taj Gibson, the Bulls' bench simply outworks you, shutting off all your driving lanes and pounding the offensive glass. Each player has a purpose, too. Gibson stops the pick-and-roll and hits mid-range jumpers. Kyle Korver works your shooting guard through a zillion screens and hits threes. Omer Asik protects the rim. Surprising guard John Lucas III provides perimeter scoring, and if he returns, Rip Hamilton can give much-needed leadership. The results might not be as visible as they were last year, but once the Bulls' starters stay healthy, the "Bench Mob" will show off its value again.
3. Utah Jazz
This may seem like a curveball pick to some, but how many teams can afford to bring two recent top-five picks off its bench? Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter would be thrown into the fire on any other team, but because Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are too productive to bench or trade, Favors and Kanter can develop with training wheels. Throw in two more recent lottery picks (Gordon Hayward -- before Josh Howard's injury -- and Alec Burks), along with the underrated C.J. Miles, and Utah has a second unit that can match almost anyone's in the Western Conference.
The rich got richer with the re-signing of forward Wilson Chandler, who had been exiled to China after the NBA lockout. With Chandler now in the fold, Denver is almost too deep for its own good. Twelve players can make a legitimate case for being a part of the rotation, and that is bound to leave someone disappointed. Consider: following Wednesday's loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Nuggets fans were upset that newcomer JaVale McGee and fellow promising center Timofey Mozgov didn't play. Mind you, this was a game where two key rotation players -- Danilo Gallinari and Andre Miller -- suffered injuries. How George Karl handles his embarrassment of riches off the bench will be interesting.
The vaunted "Night Shift" took a bit of a hit recently when second-year guard Evan Turner replaced slumping Jodie Meeks in the starting lineup, but this is still a loaded crew. The 76ers bring their top perimeter scorer (Lou Williams) and best interior scorer and defender (Thaddeus Young) off the bench to change games, and they've helped lift the 76ers to first place in the Atlantic Division.
Williams' game is reminiscent of former Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry, but there are plenty of subtle differences. Whereas Terry has a bread and butter play -- the mid-range pull-up jumper going right -- Williams is adept at going both left and right to get his shot off. He leads Philadelphia in points, shot attempts and PER, and he's third in assists. If it weren't for Harden, he'd be the league's best reserve.
Young, meanwhile, is the kind of player one must watch to appreciate. In another era, he would have been caught between forward positions and forever doomed to a disappointing career. In this era, though, he can play power forward, using his lanky frame to get shots off on bigger players and shut down any pick and roll. His per-game averages are fine, but they underscore his value to the 76ers. By bringing him off the bench, Philadelphia can switch from a power game to a speed game in a way no other team can.
Williams and Young would start on any other team in the league. On the 76ers, they are channeled into their roles and unleashed to change games.