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The myth of depth in the NBA

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Depth is often cited among the Magic’s biggest assets, but how does a scoring bench impact a team’s record?

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA may be the most star-driven league in all of sports. Most Valuable Player awards often translate to titles, as the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons are the last championship roster to not feature a league MVP.

For an Orlando Magic team with playoff expectations this could be a bit of a problem, as the last time the team fielded even an All-Star was Dwight Howard in 2012.

Their solution has been depth – a constantly rotating mass of players that feature relatively equal talent levels, but completely diverse skill sets.

The scoring leader so far in this ever-changing rotation has been Evan Fournier. Fournier's 17.4 per game is a career-best, but still 47th in the league. That means that four teams have three scorers higher than the French swingman.

So how have teams with good benches fared in the star-centric NBA? The results have been a mixed bag. Below is a list of the top-five scoring benches every year since 1996-97, the year that the league began tracking such data. The number in parentheses is the team’s finish in their conference.

Bench Scoring (Conference Finish)

Year 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th
Year 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th
1996-97 Clippers (8) Suns (7) Mavs (11) Spurs (13) Bulls (1)
1997-98 Jazz (1) Suns (4) Pacers (3) Nuggets (14) Clippers (13)
1998-99 (Strike) Pacers (2) Blazers (3) Raptors (10) Clippers (13) Warriors (10)
1999-00 Magic (9) Rockets (11) Wizards (13) Kings (8) Pacers (1)
2000-01 Clippers (12) Suns (6) Cavs (11) Sonics (10) Jazz (4)
2001-02 Pistons (2) Jazz (8) Nuggets (12) Magic (8) Clippers (13)
2002-03 Pistons (1) Bucks (7) Nuggets (14) Jazz (7) Bulls (12)
2003-04 Grizz (6) Bucks (6) Sonics (12) Jazz (9) Wizards (13)
2004-05 Bulls (4) Jazz (14) Celtics (3) Sonics (3) Wolves (9)
2005-06 Knicks (15) Bulls (7) Blazers (15) Hawks (14) Bobcats (13)
2006-07 Spurs (3) Raptors (3) Grizzlies (15) Blazers (12) Magic (8)
2007-08 Bulls (11) Sonics (15) Raptors (6) Spurs (3) Blazers (10)
2008-09 Mavs (6) Blazers (4) Nuggets (2) Knicks (14) Warriors (10)
2009-10 Spurs (7) Bucks (6) Rockets (9) Mavs (2) Pacers (10)
2010-11 Mavs (3) Suns (10) 76ers (7) Pistons (11) Nuggets (5)
12/1/2011 (Strike) Spurs (1) Nuggets (6) Mavs (7) 76ers (8) Suns (10)
2012-13 Mavs (10) Nuggets (3) Knicks (2) Clippers (4) Spurs (2)
2013-14 Spurs (1) Lakers (14) Suns (9) Nets (5) Nuggets (11)
2014-15 Celtics (7) Spurs (5) Pacers (9) Lakers (14) Raptors (4)
2015-16 Pelicans (12) Nuggets (10) Spurs (2) Grizz (7) Clippers (4)

The end result is far from conclusive, but it seems that a strong bench doesn’t guarantee success. In fact, the lack of a go-to guy led many of those “balanced” teams to miss the playoffs altogether.

There are exceptions, but those are often spurred by a designated sixth man on a playoff-caliber team. Pieces like Ben Gordon on the 2004-05 Bulls, J.R. Smith on the 2012-2013 Knicks, and the ever-present Manu Ginobili tend to skew these numbers with their unique situations.

There is good news for the Magic, however. A star may be a prerequisite for a championship, but it’s certainly not needed for a playoff berth. Evan Fournier’s 17.4 points per game is right in line with the leading scorers on multiple playoff teams from years past.

Chart number two shows the lowest leading scorer from a team that made the postseason. This figure is adjusted to exclude all teams that were below .500 because of the depth of the East this year. There will be no 36-win team in the playoffs this season, as the 44-38 Detroit Pistons barely made the cut as the eighth seed in 2016.

Lowest Leading Scorer on a Playoff Team

Year Lowest leading scorer Team PPG Team Record
Year Lowest leading scorer Team PPG Team Record
1996-97 Kenny Anderson Blazers 17.5 49-33
1997-98 Rex Chapman Suns 15.9 56-26
1998-99 (Strike) Isaiah Rider Blazers 13.9 35-15
1999-00 Rasheed Wallace Blazers 16.4 59-23
2000-01 Shawn Marion Suns 17.3 51-31
2001-02 Kenyon Martin NJ Nets 14.9 52-30
2002-03 Rasheed Wallace Blazers 18.1 50-32
2003-04 Eddie Jones Heat 17.3 42-40
2004-05 Eddy Curry Bulls 16.1 47-35
2005-06 Ben Gordon Bulls 16.9 41-41
2006-07 Richard Hamilton Pistons 19.8 53-29
2007-08 Richard Hamilton Pistons 17.3 59-23
2008-09 Andre Iguodala 76ers 18.8 41-41
2009-10 Tim Duncan Spurs 17.9 50-32
2010-11 Elton Brand 76ers 15 41-41
12/1/2011 (Strike) Lou Williams 76ers 14.9 35-31
2012-13 Luol Deng Bulls 16.5 45-37
2013-14 Tony Parker Spurs 16.7 62-20
2014-15 Kawhi Leonard Spurs 16.5 55-27
2015-16 Marc Gasol Grizzlies 16.6 42-40

The conclusion of this data is that a balanced team can make the playoffs, but it is typically a team that finds balance within its starting unit. In the absence of a reliable sixth man, the Magic’s defensive focus is especially important without a true elite scorer to lean on.

For Magic fans, hope can be found in chart number two. With enough defensive personnel buoy the team’s scoring droughts, Evan Fournier’s 17.4 points per game are right at home among scorers that lead their teams to the postseason.