Superstars, Minutes, and the NBA rotation

To play is to risk injury. A superstar is a team's most valuable asset. By playing superstars more minutes, teams exposes their most valuable assets to more risk than their less valuable assets One is tempted to shroud them in bubble wrap and shelve them till April. Or at least, restrict them to 25-30 minutes.

But, by and large, this is not what the league does. Lebron James has never averaged less than 37.5 minutes per game. In his 10 full seasons, he's averaged more than 40 minutes 4 times. Starting in 98/99, Kobe Bryant began to play significant minutes. In 10/11 he played 33.9 minutes per game. In the 14 other years, he never averaged less than 36.1, and was above 40 minutes 5 years. Tracy McGrady achieved superstar status when he went to Orlando in 00/01. He averaged 40.1 minutes that year. For the next 5 years his minutes stayed in the upper 30s to low 40s, till injuries began to take their toll.

5 games into the new season, James Harden is averaging 38.2 minutes. This is the 6th most minutes for an NBA player so far this season. Carmelo Anthony is leading the league at 42 minutes per game, and Josh Smith, Damian Lillard, Greg Monroe, and Bradley Beal, are all averaging more minutes than Harden. Chandler Parsons is averaging 37.2. Last year he averaged 36.3. Dwight is way down at 33.6.

In the 12/13 season, Luol Deng led the league with 38.7 minutes, and James Harden was again in 6th, with 38.3 minutes, behind Kobe, Lillard, Durant, and Nic Batum. Steph Curry, Lebron James, Lemarcus Aldridge, Paul George, Jrue Holiday and Monte Ellis were all less than one minute below Harden's average.

These players are all among the best, or at least most important, players on their teams. James Harden is playing considerable minutes. 6th in the league last year, 6th so far this year. But the number of minutes he is playing is not UNUSUAL for a player of his caliber. This minutes distribution is normal. Whether it is wise is a different question.
There are exceptions to the rule that Superstars play massive minutes. Chris Paul averaged just 33.4 minutes per game last year. Dwight Howard has only had one season in which he averaged more than 38 minutes. Usually, he's been more around 36 minutes. Tim Duncan was in the upper 30s to low 40s early in his career, but he hasn't averaged more than 34.8 minutes since 04/05.

Largely, the best players get the most minutes. Lots of minutes. 37 to 38 appears typical. It makes sense. To oversimplify, as players get tired, the quality of their minutes declines. Eventually, a lesser, but fresher, player is more useful. For a typical starter, perhaps it takes 32 minutes for his backup to be more useful than he is. But a superstar is useful longer, because he has further to fall. So he plays more minutes.

An older superstar, or a larger superstar, may get tired more quickly. If the backup is himself starting quality, he more quickly becomes a better option than the tired superstar. But the biggest reason for playing a Superstar less than superstar minutes is what's mentioned at the top. Injury. The ultimate goal of every front office and coaching staff, is to deliver, to the playoffs, with decent seeding, a team capable of winning the Championship. And if your best players aren't at their best, the team probably can't do that, no matter how much talent has been assembled.

So how much is too much? We've already seen that while 38 minutes is on the high side, it isn't extreme. Presumably, the great mass of NBA coaches aren't overplaying their best players. And yet, going back to last year, James Harden seemed to wear down as the season went on. Playing 38.3 minutes per game, his efficiency started to suffer in March. He was dealing with nagging injuries that impacted his explosiveness. He posted good numbers in the playoffs, but to me still didn't appear to be at his best.

According to James Harden, over the off season, "I’ve worked on a lot of conditioning, just different types of training to where I can play and be active for 40-plus minutes a game if that’s what my team needs from me. I’ve just tried to stay active. I think that’s one of the biggest things I want from my game is to be able to stay strong and ready to go at all times."

So then, one of Harden's off season goals was to up his fitness to where he'd be able to play even heavier minutes without being worn down. I'm not sure I like the sound of that. More fitness is good, but I'd like to see Harden's minutes come down a bit from last year, norms aside.

But there are reasons to play superstars these major minutes. Let's go through a few.

"I'm a superstar. Superstars play major minutes. I wanna play major minutes. Honestly, I'd like to play 48 minutes, like Wilt. But coach won't let me. And now Stephen A. Smith is saying I'm soft. Come on coach, at least 40 minutes tonight."

"We need every win. Whether it's a fight to make the playoffs, or a fight for seeding, one or two games can make the difference. We need our best players on the court to get those wins. And honestly, we don't know how good we are yet. Till we've proven that we're playing for April, we need to play for now."

"We're struggling to understand how we need to play and execute the system. So we're giving the core guys as much court time as possible to figure out."

"Overtime, baby."

The coach is short sighted in this respect, so determined to get every individual win that he sometimes sacrifices the big picture. "Hey, I watched that TMAC 13 in 30 thing on youtube. Game isn't over till the buzzer sounds." CoughThibsCough.

"We need some wins to start the year off right." Or, "we need some wins to get through this rough patch." Or, "We need some wins to get some rhythm." Or...

"They have two days off before the next game. They're young. We're winning this game."

"Losing to the Hornicans is just not okay. Their mascot gave my daughter nightmares."

"They're division rivals. This is an important game."

"He's been struggling. Giving him a few extra minutes, hopefully he'll get his groove going."

"What are you even talking about? This is what superstars do."

Some of these reasons may be bad reasons. Some might be good or bad depending on the situation. Maybe you're playing someone more minutes to help him get into his groove, but the reason he can't get into it is because he's exhausted, and subliminally, he's pacing himself.

Let's remember that the Heat, a team that plays for the playoffs more than any other, except maybe the Spurs, played Lebron James 37.9 minutes per game last year, and is playing him 37.6 minutes per game so far this year.

Have a stat sheet.

With that, let's talk about rotations. A large rotation does not mean that players won't play major minutes. A short rotation does not mean that they will play major minutes. There are 240 minutes available a game, minus a a bit for garbage time. But let's ignore garbage time.

With an 8 man rotation, you can play 7 guys 32 minutes and 1 guy 16 minutes. 7 players receive starting level minutes, but no one is played superstar minutes. A short, dense rotation where no one is played to exhaustion.

At the same time, you can play a given guy obscene minutes even with a 10 man rotation. Play one guy 40 minutes, and there are still 200 minutes left to distribute between 9 other guys. Maybe a couple players are averaging 10 minutes. It's a "large" rotation, but you're playing your superstar into the ground.

So then, the size of the rotation does not describe the number of minutes the best players on the team get. You can argue that Harden and Parsons should be playing fewer minutes. You can argue we should have a larger rotation. But to argue one is not to argue another. These issues are largely separate.

The advantage to a shorter rotation is obvious. You're only playing your best players. Presumably, this equates to more wins. Things have been clouded a bit by Bev's injury, but it appears that the Rockets are planning on a 3 guard rotation with Bev, Lin and Harden, but they're also spending some time with Harden at SF. Against Portland the Rockets closed with Beverly, Lin, Harden, Parsons, and Dwight. I expect this to be a common lineup late in games. Parsons and Harden play 35 minutes +, Dwight plays 33 minutes +, Lin and Bev get about 30 minutes each, Asik, Casspi and Garcia get a little over 20. Parsons, and Harden could clearly have their minutes reduced by playing others a little bit more.

Let's talk about Casspi for a moment. At the moment, we're talking about him as if he's a SF being played out of position at PF, but wait a moment.

According to Casspi "It's my first two, three weeks playing power forward, and I'm loving every second of it. I'm still adjusting defensively. We have so many good help-side defenders like Dwight and Omer. They're going to help me. It makes things a lot easier."

According to assistant coach Kelvin Sampson, "When he plays the 4, he shows what he can do. When he plays the 3, he shows what he can’t do." Through the minuscule sample size of 94 minutes, he's averaging a solid 8.8 rebounds per 36 minutes. (He's also been scoring very efficiently, 10.5 points per game on 60% TS.)

If a player is better as a PF than as a SF, doesn't that make him a PF? Arguably, Morey found a decent stretch four at a low low price because he'd been under performing, because he'd been playing out of position. He's at least a tweener.

But there are clear advantages to the larger rotation. A player who only gets to play 10 minutes may play with extremely high energy. If you have young players (as we do) it helps them to develop. If these young players do well, they gain trade value. And if there's an injury, it's probably much easier on chemistry to expand the minutes of someone who was already playing than to give significant minutes to someone who was riding the pine.

It may be that we will see larger rotations as the year goes on. Before the season McHale said he planned on a 9 or 10 man rotation. Perhaps Casspi's performance put the kabosh on that plan. Or perhaps we're just waiting a little while. It would hardly be the first time McHale made lineup moves on the basis of establishing chemistry. Does no one remember last year when everyone was clamoring for Lin and Harden's minutes to be as separated as possible, but for the first few month he kept them joined at the hip, to force them to learn to play together? That paid dividends as the year progressed.

Or maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part, since I like McHale, and I would like to see the young guys get some burn.

In any case remember four things.

First, while the numbers of minutes Harden and Parsons are getting are high, they are not exceptionally high.

Second, while the size of the rotation and the number of minutes the best players get are probably not independent, they are hardly equivalent.

Third, this is just the 1st five games, and what we have seen so far is not necessarily what we will continue to see. The coaching staff has reasons for the things they do, they have a plan, they might not be good reasons, and the plan may be extremely nebulous, but I guarantee that these things exist.

And 4th

Bob Marley - Don't worry be Happy (via sk8r123sk8r)

No cursing in title. No pirated material, such as links to online game streams. Do not cut/paste entire sections of content from other websites. Thanks.

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