These players proved during the 2015-2016 season that they are high level players, and that despite their small role as a bench player, they were better than a handful of starters in the NBA. While their departure from the bench would hurt many of these teams’ bench, they would help the teams they join more in the starting line-up.
Enes Kanter was unbelievable this season on the offensive end of the court. His averages of 12.7 points per game and 8.1 rebounds would already be decent for a starter, but he averaged those in 21.0 minutes per game off the bench! Kanter also shot 57.6% from the field, 47.6% from three, had a PER of 24.0, and he had an offensive rating of 123. His 8.1 win shares were 5th among centers in the NBA behind DeAndre Jordan (11.5,) Hassan Whiteside (10.3,) Al Horford (9.4,) and Karl Towns (8.3.)
That is very good company to be in, and it means that Kanter contributed more his team’s success than all-stars like Andre Drummond (7.4,) Anthony Davis (7.2,) and DeMarcus Cousins (5.7) as well as many other players. Kanter’s play has stepped up in the playoffs too. His offensive rating is now at a ridiculously high 138 points per 100 possessions, and his PER is at 30.9.
Kanter is still something of a work in progress defensively though, Oklahoma City was able to hide him on that end of the court by playing him alongside great defensive big men like Nick Collison, Steven Adams, and Serge Ibaka. Kanter also makes a starter’s salary after signing a four year / 70 million dollar contract last season, the Thunder cannot afford to keep him for long.
A team like the Indiana Pacers would be perfect for Kanter to start on. Their offense (25th in NBA) is a huge flaw of theirs, but they have great defensive coaching from Frank Vogel, and they have the 3rd best defense in the NBA. A starting line-up of George Hill, Monta Ellis, Paul George, Myles Turner, and Enes Kanter is dangerous. Kanter really completes the line-up, even if Ian Mahinmi had a great season. Trading Rodney Stuckey, Lavoy Allen, and Jordan Hill for Kanter is a fair trade for Kanter, and the Pacers still have Ty Lawson, Mahinmi, C.J. Miles, and Solomon Hill to bring off their bench.
Festus Ezeli was a big part of Golden State’s championship effort last season, and he is an even bigger part of their championship aspirations this season. Ezeli averaged 7.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game this season, and per 36 minutes it was 15.0 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks. Ezeli’s offensive and defensive ratings of 113 and 1oo the last two seasons are both terrific. Ezeli is also above average in PER (17.7 in 2015-2016,) and win share rate (.171 per 48 minutes.)
Perhaps the most noteworthy part about Ezeli, is that even as good a team as the Warriors are, they are even better with Ezeli on the court. The Warriors outscore their oponents by 14.2 points per 100 possessions with Ezeli on the court, and that was 3.9 points better than the Warriors without Ezeli.
While the Warriors would love to keep Ezeli, there is just no way they can afford to keep him. The team is already 25.5 million dollars above the salary cap, and they are 10.9 million dollars above the luxary tax line. That is with Harrison Barnes and Ezeli on expiring rookie deals, and Mareese Speights on a bargain 3.82 million dollar one year deal. Barnes wants more than the Warriors 4 year / 64 million dollar deal they offered him, and Ezeli should fetch, at the very least, 8 million dollars per year. With Andrew Bogut under contract for the next two years, the Warriors can’t afford to keep him.
Ezeli would be a clear good fit on two teams: the Dallas Mavericks and the New Orleans Pelicans. Dallas had good play from Zaza Pachulia (6.0 win shares, .145 per 48 minutes) at the center position this season, but Pachulia is 31, an unrestricted free agent, and not capable of being effective for much more than his 26.4 minutes per game. Other centers on the Mavericks are Salah Mejri, an unproven project, Javale McGee, nothing more than a name associated with foolishness, and Dwight Powell, who is playing more power forward than center. Dallas needs a big player like Ezeli, a 6’11” 255 pound giant. A starting line-up of Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews, Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki, and Ezeli is still the offensive powerhouse it was in 2016, but it has a defensive anchor and rim protector in Ezeli now.
On New Orleans, the Pelicans face a similar situation. Their centers have been very dismal. Omer Asik (4.0 points and 6.1 rebounds per game,) Alexis Ajinca (6.0 points and 4.6 rebounds per game,) and Kendrick Perkins (2.5 points and 3.5 rebounds per game) were all irrelevant last year. Ajinca (107 defensive rating,) Asik (108,) and Perkins (109) all proved unable to anchor a defense as well. Ezeli brings a fresh face to a team in desperate need of new players, and a front court of Anthony Davis and Ezeli is elite defensively. For a team that finished 27th defensively, that’s huge. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson‘s contracts are off the books this offseason, so the money to bring Ezeli is there. A starting line-up of Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, the Pelicans’ lottery pick, Davis, and Ezeli is a good line-up if healthy. If that’s the case, then all New Orleans needs is a bench and they could return to the playoffs.
Allen Crabbe took a major step forward this season. After playing sparingly the previous two seasons, Crabbe stepped up to become Portland’s third best player in scoring average (10.3,) and their best three point shooter besides C.J. McCollum at 39.3%.
Crabbe’s shooting has proved to be crucial to the success of Portland. With Aminu in the starting line-up, the Blazers got Aminu’s defensive grit, but offensively there was simply no space for Damian Lillard and McCollum to operate. Crabbe’s floor spacing created whole new opportunities for the backcourt in the Clippers series, and it is why Portland needs to go with Crabbe’s shooting going forward. Crabbe’s offensive rating of 121 proves just this, even if his 111 defensive rating could use some work.
Crabbe also shot 45.9% from the general field as well, an indication of his versatility offensively. Aminu only shot 41.6% from the field.
If Crabbe can display some more defensive effort to make up for his short 6’6″ frame at the small forward position, then there is no reason Crabbe can’t be the floor spacer that helps Portland get to the next level. A starting line-up of Lillard, McCollum, Crabbe, Ed Davis, and Mason Plumlee is legitimate. This core group beat the Clippers this year, and can be great in the future.
Ed Davis has been one of the best bench players in the league for some time now, and his play with the Portland Trailblazers only backs up that statement. Davis was able to put up great analytic numbers on a bad 2015 Lakers team with offensive and defensive ratings of 124 and 107, 6.3 win shares, and a 20.0 PER. On this Western Conference Semi-finalist Portland team, Davis had offensive ratings of 128 and 104, 6.7 win shares, and .192 win shares per 48 minutes. That win share rate was good for 14th in the league. Davis also finished 16th in defensive box plus/minus, and 4th in offensive rebound percentage.
Most notably, Davis kept his excellent play up in the playoffs against very good teams like the Clippers and Warriors. Davis is still getting win shares at a good rate (.141 per 48 minutes,) and his ratings of 118 offensively and 106 defensively against the likes of DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin, Andrew Bogut, and Draymond Green. Davis is very good at getting his teams into their sets, and he also hits the offensive glass at an elite level.
Ed Davis doesn’t have to go anywhere to start. The Trailblazers would be very good with a Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Davis, Mason Plumlee starting line-up. They also have Gerald Henderson, Noah Vonleh, and Al-Farouq Aminu to come in and play the small ball and space the floor if need be.
Even though Davis doesn’t have the sexiest box score stats, the fact that Lillard and McCollum do, and even Plumlee to an extent, means that they don’t need him to. Davis was a lottery pick in 2012, and a highly recruited player out of high school. The talent and impact are there for Davis even if his role currently isn’t.
T.J. Warren played for a very forgettable Phoenix Suns team last season, but Warren took advantage of the opportunity to shine. He averaged 11.0 points in just 22.8 minutes per game. Warren did this while shooting 50.1% from the field, and 40.0% from deep. Warren showed that he could score at a high and efficient rate, and he was able to get win shares at a decent rate (.101 per 48 minutes) despite playing for a team that simply didn’t win games.
Warren also averaged 15.5 points per game as a starter, still shooting 50% from the field in those games. He also averaged a great 23.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game against the defending champion Golden State Warriors. The N.C. State product is for real.
It will be hard to start Warren over Brandon Knight, Eric Bledsoe, or Devin Booker next season, but Warren, a respectable 6’8″ and 230 pounds, could very well start at the power forward. If the starting small forward comes down to Warren and P.J. Tucker, the job has to go to Warren. Tucker simply provides too little at the offensive end of the court.
A starting line-up of Knight, Bledsoe, Booker, Warren, and Tyson Chandler is legitimate. They weren’t healthy in 2015-2016, but a clean slate this season could see this team end up in the playoffs. Especially if their high lottery pick pans out.