Dear Sports Fan,
What are bench points in basketball? Sounds like they earn points for quietly sitting on the bench?
Bench scoring is a statistic that expresses the number of points scored in a basketball game by players who did not start the game. As with any statistic, the questions we want to answer to understand it are: how is it calculated, what is it meant to express, how well does it express it, and what can we learn about the sport, in this case basketball, from the statistics existence.
In basketball, as in other sports, when the game starts, only some of the players on each team are on the court. Others sit on the bench at the start of the game, prepared to play, but not playing yet. These players may be called substitutes or bench players. During the course of the game, they may play or they may not — it’s entirely up to the coach who makes his decision based on an understanding of his players’ strengths and how the game is going. Any points these substitute or bench players score will be added together to create the cumulative statistic of bench points.
Bench points is meant to express the relative strength of a team’s substitutes. This is an important thing to try to measure, even in basketball where the strength of individual players is so influential to the game’s outcome. Unfortunately bench scoring only does a moderately good job of expressing this. Part of the problem is that pure scoring is not as important as scoring more than the other team. A team’s bench may score 40 points but if they allow 60 points while they are doing it, that’s not very good. Another troubling element is that the statistic doesn’t necessarily compare apples to apples. There are no rules about how much a coach needs to play his starters or his substitutes. For some teams, the starters might play virtually the whole game. On other teams, the substitutes may play close to half the game. Comparing the bench points between a team whose starters play the whole time and a team whose starters only play a little more than half is patently unfair. Although it may seem ideal to have the best five players start each game, on some teams that is not possible or not desired. A team may have two very good players who play identical positions. Bringing one of those players off the bench might be better than trying to play two incompatible players. Some teams may tactically prefer to have their third best scoring option play as a substitute so that there’s never a time when all three of their best scorers are resting simultaneously. That’s the case with the current Boston Celtics who bring two of their best offensive players, Isaiah Thomas and Kelly Olynyk of the bench.
The existence of the bench points statistic gives us a glimpse into one of the most important debates in basketball. Is winning in basketball about having the best player or the best team? For proponents of the best player approach, bench points would be an almost meaningless statistic. Who cares which team’s sixth through tenth best players score more than the others, these folks might think, what matters is whether my top dog is better than yours. People who believe that basketball games are inevitably decided by which group of players plays better together might point to bench points as a helpful way of expressing which team is deeper and more playing more collectively.
Keep watching and questioning,