The Microwaves


The Microwaves:

The Detroit Pistons of the late 80’s and early 90’s were successful primarily based on their defense and toughness of Bill Lambeer and Rick Mahorn as well as the leadership provided by Isaiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. However, they did have to find scoring in an era where the run and gun style was in vogue.  One often overlooked aspect of those teams was their spark-plug off the bench: Vinnie Johnson. Nicknamed “The Microwave” for how quickly he could heat up after coming into the game, Johnson was never shy about shooting, averaging 18 points and 16 shots per 36 minutes for his career. Like any other prolific bench scorer, he occasionally drove his coaches crazy, but he also carried the team offensively when the rest of the lineup couldn’t get it going. He provided them with consistent offense throughout his career, but his finest moment came in Game 5  of the 1990 finals when he hit the series clinching shot with .7 seconds left and cemented his Detroit legacy for all time.

Dating back to the 1950’s era Celtics, nearly every title winner has a microwave type of guy on their roster. Bill Simmons refers to them as “Irrational Confidence Guys”. They have no reason to believe that they’re superstars, but in their own mind, they’re equal with the best players in the league and assert themselves on offense accordingly.  Oddly enough, the Warriors don’t have any guys like this since the entire Golden State system is based on the players all having a permanent green light; with the understanding that too many bad shots will get you benched, but aside from the them, the rest of the contenders have at least one Microwave on the roster. (Author’s note- JR Smith is the ultimate Microwave, but he’s a starter now, so he doesn’t qualify.)

Linsane in the membrane

San Antonio is similar to the late 80’s Pistons with a team based on defense, consistency and mental toughness.

They also have a mildly chubby gunner coming off the bench in Patty Mills. Despite a rocky start in San Antonio in which Greg Popovich explained Mills’ lack of playing time by saying “He was a little fat ass”, Mills has worked his way into the rotation and has partnered with Manu Ginobili to anchor the Spurs’ bench unit. Neither player is shy about putting up shots, and like Johnson did, they sometimes drive their coach crazy. Also like Johnson, they hit big shots and can carry the offense when things get bogged down. What seperates guys like Manu and Patty from the rest of the gunners in the Playoffs is the ability to maintain a constant balance between staying within the system and knowing when they need to turn off their conscience and start gunning. It helps that they have a swiss army knife like Boris Diaw to help hold things together. He’s able to blend with mercurial scorers like Mills and Ginobili while helping to keep the ball from sticking in any one spot for too long. Being a bench guy in San Antonio means you have know your role and stick with it: the best guys at this become Spurs legends. The ones who don’t find that balance end up on lottery teams in the Eastern Conference.

One of the keys to being an effective bench scorer is your belief that you’re the best player on the floor, even if all evidence points to the contrary.

That’s why we call it “irrational confidence”. Dion Waiters has been publicly derided, chastised by fellow players, traded and relegated to a bench role since coming out of Syracuse, yet still views himself as a top NBA player. He hasn’t voiced those thoughts since his trade to Oklahoma City, but his numbers and playing style say more than any interview ever could. Even though he plays with two ball dominant stars in Westbrook and Durant, Waiters continues to jack up shots at a high level, shooting 11 times per 36 minutes despite shooting under 40 percent for the season. This shows some sign of progress, but that progress is only in relation to his previous seasons (21.5 field goal attempts per 36 minutes).  While Waiters is a liability most of the time, he is also a key to the success of the Thunder in the playoffs. This season, Waiters scored 3.5 points more per game while shooting 12% better in wins than in losses. On a team that is starving for shooting off the bench, that increase is critical. There’s a definite drop off from the top-tier to teams like the Thunder, but if Waiters can play like the star he thinks he is, even just for a month, this team suddenly jumps up to another level.

It seems like a lifetime ago that we were introduced to a little known point guard from Harvard named Jeremy Lin.

After being undrafted out of college, Lin bounced around the world for a year and half, signing first with the Warriors, then playing for the Reno Bighorns of the NBA D-League, spending time with the Dongguan Leopards in China and then back to the D-League with the Erie BayHawks before finally getting a legitimate chance with the New York Knicks in 2011. Signed as a 4th string point guard, Lin only got a chance thanks to injuries to Baron Davis and Iman Shumpert and the desperation of then coach Mike Dantoni. The rest is history: Lin dropped 25 points, 5 boards and 7 assists in his first start and kicked off Linsanity; a run of 26 games that saw him average 18.5 points and 7.6 assists per game before shutting down with a torn MCL. After the season, Lin signed a 3 year deal with the Rockets, where he turned into a serviceable NBA guard before being traded to a wholly dysfunctional Lakers team in 2014. After a tumultuous tenure in Los Angeles, Lin signed this last offseason with the Charlotte Hornets. Lin is still a flawed player who struggles with his jumper and turns the ball over, but he sure can fill it up. The Hornets have gone all in with their resigning of Kemba Walker, so it’s left to Lin to provide bench depth and scoring to a punchless reserve unit. So far he’s been up to the task, helping to boost a bench unit that was 16th in the league and got outscored by 2 points a game while losing 49 of 82 bench match-ups in 2015. This year, the bench has outscored opposing units by 3.5 points per game and has won 45 bench match-ups. There are other factors beyond the influence of Lin, but impossible to overstate the impact the bench improvement has had in the Hornet’s 14 win improvement this season. It may be sad for some people to see Lin as “just another guy” in the NBA, but I’m thrilled to death to see him making a real career as a real NBA player, and my favorite Microwave in this years postseason.


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