For much of the 2014-2015 season, the bench was a strength for the Atlanta Hawks. More casual observers "slept" on the group for a number of reasons, led by the fact that many members of the unit were not big names, but as a general rule, the non-starters were quite effective in helping to lead Mike Budenholzer's club to 60 wins and the number one seed.
However, the bench has taken a great deal of heat since the playoffs began. Some of that can be tied, directly or indirectly, to the incident in New York that left Thabo Sefolosha on the outside looking in with regard to playoff availability. Skeptics to this notion would point to Sefolosha's raw numbers and ignore his overall impact, while simultaneously avoiding the conversation that thrust various players (namely Kent Bazemore) into larger roles than previously forecast. On the flip side, Sefolosha's defensive acumen and veteran presence are sorely missed, helping to explain some of the issues facing the reserves in the playoffs.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Hawks will face a team in the Cleveland Cavaliers that has bench issues of their own. The absence of Kevin Love, who is out for the season with injury, has forced Cavs head coach David Blatt to experiment with many different lineups, but essentially, Cleveland has morphed into an 8-man team for the playoffs. On the surface, that isn't overly terrifying, but when the 8th man is James Jones in a hybrid power forward role, things go south quickly.
The "6th man" role for both clubs is clearly defined. Atlanta will utilize point guard Dennis Schröder for more minutes than any other reserve, while the Cavs will lean heavily on JR Smith as something of a de facto member of the starting lineup. In fact, Smith is averaging 27.9 minutes per game in the playoffs, and if Cavs fans had their way, they would almost assume go to battle with only six players. While Schröder and Smith will almost never clash in a direct way, the "winner" of that match-up over the body of a seven-game series will have a leg up in the overall scheme of things.
Deeper into the bench is where both head coaches will simply be searching for any kind of positive impact. As referenced above, the Cavs have almost exclusively utilized eight players in the playoffs, with Matthew Dellavedova and James Jones joining the starting five of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov. Jones is woefully overmatched for a playoff role, but with Love on the shelf, Blatt almost has no choice, and it is a safe bet to assume that Budenholzer and his staff will be aiming to exploit Jones defensively whenever he is on the floor.
On the Atlanta side, Kent Bazemore and Pero Antic are sure to see time throughout the series, and Budenholzer has leaned toward Mike Muscala over Mike Scott as the "9th man" of sorts. It must be noted that this can change at any moment, as the staff has been open about trusting Scott throughout the season, and Muscala's minutes have been yanked around on a number of occasions, even in the midst of strong play on the interior.
In 213 minutes during the playoffs, the starting five of the Atlanta Hawks posts a +16.3 net rating. Given how close both series were throughout, you can imagine how the numbers change when any member of the bench takes the floor alongside a handful of starters. Simply put, the Hawks must get improved production (and steady production from Schröder individually) in order to take down Cleveland toward a bid in the NBA Finals, and getting some shots to drop for Bazemore (21.1% 3-PT in playoffs) and Antic would be comforting as well.
The big names, ranging from LeBron James to Al Horford and Jeff Teague, will get the great majority of the headlines in this series, and rightly so. However, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the respective benches play a major role, and with an ear to the ground toward Cleveland, neither fan base is exceedingly comfortable with their group of reserves.
Hold on to your hats.