The question posed to NBA coaches, scouts and player personnel executives caused most of them to pause rather than give an immediate answer: Is it more conducive for a team to have one of the dominant duos in the league or quality depth with key role players?
The initial response from them was similar: "Man, that's a good question."
The Lakers have the best duo in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the experts acknowledged. But those interviewed on the condition of anonymity were not convinced those two - or the talented pair the Clippers have in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George or the Houston Rockets have in James Harden and Russell Westbrook - were most important to success over the course of a game, and especially a long and laborious playoff series.
"That's a good question, because you can make an argument both ways," said an Eastern Conference head coach. "You basically lean on your duo night in and night out. But the only time you can run into a bit of a problem with a duo is if one of them gets hurt. If one of them gets hurt, is that other guy and is the rest of your team able to push on, win at a high level? That's the big question about the duo.
"With depth, you can almost lose a key player, but because you do have depth, you've got a better chance of sustaining (success). That puts you in a much better position of playing at a high level and sustaining at a high level if you have depth. But like I said, there are arguments both ways."
So as the NBA prepares to tip off the restart of its season on Thursday with the Lakers playing the Clippers and the Utah Jazz playing the New Orleans Pelicans at the Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla., each of the 22 teams in the playoff hunt will look to see which of their role players will fill a void that's sure to arise.
"Depth is crucial," a Western Conference assistant coach said. "Sometimes one of your big guns ain't doing well, so other guys tend to rise to the occasion, and a lot of the times it's unexpected. Coach is always teaching, 'You got to be prepared.' You can say it, but you don't know who is going to step up - and sometimes the players don't know who is going to step up. But they do. I just think it's crucial to have role players."
Over the course of an 82-game season, health becomes a factor, and having a deep team is important.
One West scout noted how the Clippers are known to have the best bench in the league and have been able to maintain a high level of play when Leonard or George didn't play. The scout mentioned how the Lakers have really good role players to complement their stars.
"But if one of the two top guys from the Clippers goes down for a while and one of the Lakers top guys go down, which team would you count on to be able to survive that the most? The Clippers, right?" the scout said. "Now, LeBron and AD are probably ranked higher as a duo over Kawhi and Paul, but the Clippers seem to have better depth and role players to handle a situation if one of the top guys gets dinged up."
The Clippers have two of the very best reserves in the NBA in three-time sixth man of the year Lou Williams, who is second in the league in scoring off the bench (18.65 points per game), and sub extraordinaire Montrezl Harrell, who is third in scoring off the bench (18.62).
The Clippers' bench leads the league in scoring (51.5) and assists (20.8), is second in plus-minus rating (2.50), third in assists (10.1) and fourth in field-goal percentage (46.8%).
"Lou and Montrezl, that's the reason why," the West scout said, chuckling. "I mean, you got two guys coming off the bench that can give you 30 (points). Not 20, but 30, and not many teams can say that. And the next thing about the Clippers is that they have so much versatility."
Even with guard Avery Bradley opting not to play because of health concerns for his son and point guard Rajon Rondo out six to eight weeks recovering from surgery on a broken right thumb, the Lakers are considered to have solid role players and reserves.
Their bench is ranked 11th in the league in shooting (46.0%), eighth in rebounds (17.8), ninth in assists (9.0) and third in plus-minus rating (2.4).
"With Bron and with AD, you've got two of the top players in the league," the East coach said. "So having those two, you've got a two-headed snake there. You bring in some solid role players, you are going to put yourself in a great position as far as winning it all, and I think that's what the Lakers have done with the pieces they brought in. They've got solid role pieces that complement both LeBron and AD."
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