NBA championships are often won, or lost on the strength of a team’s bench. When the Lakers won the 2009 and 2010 titles, they did it with a supporting cast that was somewhat unique. Reverently called “The Bench Mob”, the young group consisted of: Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown, Luke Walton, Sasha Vujicic, Josh Powell, DJ Mbenga and – technically – Lamar Odom. A unit whose play at one point Phil Jackson once admit, “makes me want to throw up sometimes”. For better or worse, these were the guys who helped him reach the Finals three years straight, winning the last two. Farmar re-signed last month (Vujicic to follow?) for his second stint as a Laker, and brought with him the warm and fuzzy memories of the Bench Mob. His mob mates? Almost all gone. Within three years of their last title in 2010, four of the supporting cast members were earning a living overseas playing basketball. Farmar, Vujicic, Powell, and Mbenga. All voluntarily. All in the midst of their physical primes. No other NBA champion in modern history has had a majority of its second-unit players out of the League within three years, for non-injury, or retirement reasons.
The Lockout Effect
When the League locked its players out to start the 2011 season, most of them resorted to playing professionally for stretches in Europe, Asia, and wherever else basketball players were still being paid. Still, most that had NBA jobs before the lockout and did their stint overseas eventually returned to the NBA. It’s well known that overseas hoop is no joke. It’s also just as known, that it usually serves as a last resort for over-the-hill NBA players who are American-born, and do not have roots across oceans (Tracy McGrady and Stephon Marbury both have, and may continue to star in Chinese Leagues well into their mid-30’s).
Farmar was 25 years old when he played in the NBA last. He has called Turkey home for the last two seasons.
Vuijcic was 27 when he last dribbled a ball signed by David Stern. Vuijcic has played the last two seasons alongside Farmar, for Turkish club Anadolu Efes.
Powell was 29 on his last ride in an NBA jersey. The same NBA that never drafted him in 2003. He actually started his career overseas before breaking through with the Mavericks at the start of the 05-06 season. He recently helped Greek powerhouse Olympiacos win the Euroleague Championship last season.
And Dj Mbenga? An agile 31 year old when he last played NBA ball, has been playing in the Philippines the last year-and-a-half. He’s seven feet tall, a commodity in today’s NBA, yet he finds himself out of the League.
These players are all NBA champions.
Put Me In, Coach
During their back-to-back title years, the Lakers bench was average to below average statistically in both defensive, and offensive rankings. They had their highs and lows, but once fully gelled and in a groove, they more than held their own. While Odom started most games on the bench, he helped finish just as many games on the court. He played the fourth most minutes on the team per game in both of those title seasons, and the next season saw him earn the 2011 Sixth Man of the Year Award.
Apart from Odom and Walton, the Bench Mob’s other elder statesman, the Lakers had a relatively wet-behind-the-ears bench to lean on. The second-unit’s main function was to increase the tempo of the game as the Lakers featured two lumbering seven-footers and an old point guard in their starting lineup. Not exactly the image of quickness in an increasingly faster paced NBA. Naturally part of all of their games, Farmar, Brown, Vuijcic, and Powell provided the purple-and-gold a much needed change-of-pace while beginning to discover their individual roles on the bench.
Farmar the quick footed point-guard, setting up the Lakers’ complex Triangle offense while harassing opposing guards on defense with his energy.
Brown the high-flyer, punishing rims and dropping jaws from Staples to the Garden. He became more of an asset when his jumper fell with consistency, and ended up finishing games for the Lakers.
Vujicic, the emotional and trigger-happy shooting-specialist, who’s a complete embodiment of every European-athlete stereotype, ever. The guy you love if he’s on your side, but would annoy the snot out of you if against him. Phil Jackson used to refer to him as an ‘11 o’clock player’ meaning he shot well in practices, but not in games with the bright-lights on. He eventually learned how to do it on the big stage, to the tune of championship clinching free throws with seconds left in Game Seven of the 2010 Finals.
There was Powell, the relentless rebounder and face-up big man who hasn’t seen a shot he doesn’t like. And why not? He had range up to 20 feet, and wasn’t shy about showing it.
And finally there was Mbenga, the seven foot backup center who is more known for having a black-belt in Judo, than he is for his rebounding and jump-hooks. He was also the world’s best spokesperson, and almost once murdered Chris Mihm (Notice NO ONE holding back Mihm).
Zen, and the Art of Winning Championships
The Lakers were special in retrospect, in that a majority of the Bench Mob was out of the NBA within three years. These were guys who were depended upon to execute Phil Jackson’s complex offense and hold on to Kobe Bryant’s hard earned leads. From former High School All-Americans, to undrafted journeymen, to a Slovenian ‘Machine’, they were hoopin’ characters that will live forever in the passages of NBA history.
Currently, Odom is allegedly in-and-out of drug rehab. Brown is entering his 10th NBA season, his third with the Suns. Vujicic is currently in Turkey. Powell spent the summer auditioning for NBA teams to no avail. Mbenga is still under contract in the Philippines. And Farmar left money on the table in Turkey, to come resurrect his role in his native LA.
Perhaps this is why the ‘Zen Master’ is exactly that, a master. The Triangle is also an equal-opportunity philosophy, predicated on fundamentals and selflessness. For Jackson detractors, one can’t exactly say he “rolled-the-balls-out” on the Bench Mob, and just sat back. The success of the Bench Mob was a result of his ability to maximize a guy’s talent, something that, you know, a good coach is supposed to do. That him and Kobe won with guys who pretty much were told they couldn’t cut it in the NBA within three years of raising a banner, makes the 2008-2010 Lakers teams unique in history. That, and also this.