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The Mike D’Antoni playoff rotation: 7 players or less

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A history lesson: Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns teams rarely went past seven men in the playoffs.

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Two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

This past summer, in anticipation of Mike D’Antoni taking the reins of the Houston Rockets, I read the Jack McCallum book Seven Seconds or Less. It chronicles the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns’ 2005-2006 trip to the Western Conference Finals from day numero uno.

The book’s name is understandably derived from the high octane D’Antoni-Steve Nash offense. The well-known premise of the “score all the points” Suns was to jack up a shot in the first seven seconds of the shot clock to increase the number of possessions in a game and the pace of play.

D’Antoni’s point-scoring bonanza worked. An unsuspecting league watched as the Suns produced two 60-win seasons and two trips to the Western Conference Finals.

As the threes and MVP awards started raining in the desert, D’Antoni commonly leaned on the players he trusted and contracted his player rotation, especially in the playoffs. Think Donald Trump eyeing the budget for PBS or public schools or international relations or anything that isn’t him and his family traveling for the weekend... OK I’ll stop.

The historic record of D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns tells a fun story in the playoffs. The rule is Seven Players or Less in a playoff rotation. This has serious meaning for the upcoming Rockets playoff run.

Rockets Playoff Rotation

There’s just not enough playoff minutes for the Rockets bench. The Clint Capela/Nene combo, Eric Gordon and Lou Williams are all locks to be “rotation players” in the playoffs for the Rockets, but there’s not much past that for Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell.

We here at The Dream Shake traded some emails and decreed a “rotation player” constitutes a hoop ball person who is on the court for 12 minutes a game, or 25% of the total game.

By this metric, the Rockets have a 10-man regular season rotation (in order of minutes per game): James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverley, Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Williams, Capela, Dekker, Harrell and Nene. That surprises me.

Corey Brewer questionably passed this threshold before the arrival of Williams, so it’s been 10 men most of the year if you swap the two.

Over the year, Dekker clocks in at 19.4 minutes per over 64 games, and Harrell notches 18.4 minutes per in 49 games. Clearly bonafide regular season rotation players, even with the understanding Harrell has done fill-in duty during Capela and Nene injuries.

Predicting their minutes and the Rockets’ playoff rotation requires a look back at how the globetrotting West Virginian-Italian (I just wanted to say that) head coach keep his rotation to a minimum in past playoff series.

2005 Playoffs

2004-2005 Phoenix Suns Playoff Rotation

Player Playoff MPG Playoff PPG Playoff Games Regular MPG Reg-Play Dif
Player Playoff MPG Playoff PPG Playoff Games Regular MPG Reg-Play Dif
Marion 42.3 17.6 15 38.8 3.5
Nash 40.7 23.9 15 34.3 6.4
Stoudemire 40.1 29.9 15 36.1 4
J Johnson 39.4 18.8 9 39.5 -0.1
Q. Richardson 37.6 11.9 15 35.9 1.7
Jim Jackson 31.6 11 15 24.9 6.7
Steven Hunter 14.2 4 15 13.8 0.4
Barbosa 9.7 2.5 12 17.3 -7.6
W. McCarty 6.9 0.8 8 12.6 -5.7
2004 - 2005 Suns Playoff Rotations Max Croes — The Dream Shake

If we define a rotation player as playing 12 minutes a game, then D’Antoni went through three playoff matchups with a seven-man rotation, which was reduced to just six men in the Western Conference. Joe Johnson memorably broke his face, which meant the Suns went through the Western Conference Finals with a six-man rotation, as Jim Jackson filled most of the minutes.

The regular season minutes to playoff minutes differential “Reg-Play Dif” shows that Leandro Barbosa and Walter McCarty both lost enough minutes to pull them from the rotation. The only other player to touch the court for the Suns, was Bo Outlaw, for two minutes. Sorry, Maciej Lampe.

This was the second-most talented team D’Antoni had, but the potential and real talent that manifested itself on the court wasn’t enough to put more than six men on the court.

2006 Playoffs

2005-2006 Phoenix Suns Playoff Rotation

Player Playoff MPG Playoff PPG Playoff Games Regular MPG Reg-Play Dif
Player Playoff MPG Playoff PPG Playoff Games Regular MPG Reg-Play Dif
Marion 42.5 20.4 20 40.3 2.2
Nash 39.9 20.4 20 35.4 4.5
Diaw 39.8 18.7 20 35.5 4.3
Bell 39.6 13.6 17 37.5 2.1
Tim Thomas 31.8 15.1 20 24.4 7.4
Barbosa 31.6 14.2 20 27.9 3.7
James Jones 17.7 4.3 20 23.6 -5.9
House 9.3 3.1 14 17.5 -8.2
Max Croes -- The Dream Shake

Eddie House played 81 regular season games and found his court time slashed by 8 minutes, bringing D’Antoni down to a seven-man rotation.

This season is notable as D’Antoni was without an injured Stoudemire and Kurt Thomas, his two preferred bigs. The predicament created a big, happy, French Boris Diaw coming-out party. It also proves the coach would rather go small and keep running than play a big man just for the sake of traditional norms or convention. Diaw-Marion-Tim Thomas performed as the bigs for this team while the physically larger contingent of Pat Burke, Brian Grant and Nikoloz Tskitishvili stayed glued to the bench.

These decisions have ramifications for Dekker and especially Harrell. Just because D’Antoni has players that fit the power forward position/role doesn’t mean he’s going to go with them. While pushing the pace and sticking to a trusted core, it’s more likely the two Rocket reserves see significant minute reductions as D’Antoni pushes the pace.

Between Harden, Beverley, Williams and Gordon, D’Antoni could cover all the game’s minutes between the point guard, shooting guard and small forward positions. And that’s without even mentioning Trevor Ariza’s name.

2007 Playoffs

2006-2007 Phoenix Suns Playoff Rotation

Player Playoff MPG Playoff PPG Playoff Games Regular MPG Reg-Play Dif
Player Playoff MPG Playoff PPG Playoff Games Regular MPG Reg-Play Dif
Marion 41.4 16.9 11 37.6 3.8
Bell 39.8 10.2 11 37.4 2.4
Nash 37.5 18.9 11 35.3 2.2
Stoudemire 34.3 25.3 10 32.8 1.5
Barbosa 31.7 15.8 11 32.7 -1
Diaw 23.5 6.6 10 31.1 -7.6
Kurt Thomas 19.3 7.5 11 18 1.3
James Jones 15.5 5 11 18.1 -2.6
Max Croes — The Dream Shake

After ripping off 61 wins, the Suns went down to a firm eight-man rotation in the 2007 playoffs. Four unlisted players combined for 26 total minutes of play in 11 playoff games, including nine minutes in one game from Jalen Rose.

This squad was decidedly more versatile than the current Rockets. This allowed the Suns to rely on fewer players while leaning on Marion and Diaw to each play three positions a game.

Houston doesn’t have this luxury, but this chart illustrates even versatility didn’t maintain Boris Diaw’s playing time. In the playoffs, D’Antoni pushed hard on Stoudemire and Marion while cutting the Frenchman’s playing time by 7.6 minutes a contest.

The reality is throttling the minutes of Harden, Beverley and Ariza will most likely drive Dekker from the court.

2008 Playoffs

2007-2008 Phoenix Suns Playoff Rotation

Player Playoff MPG Playoff PPG Playoff Games Regular MPG Reg-Play Dif
Player Playoff MPG Playoff PPG Playoff Games Regular MPG Reg-Play Dif
Bell 43 13.6 5 35.3 7.7
Stoudemire 40.8 23.2 5 33.9 6.9
Nash 36.6 16.2 5 34.3 2.3
Diaw 35.6 14.6 5 28.1 7.5
Shaq 30 15.2 5 28.7 1.3
Barbosa 28.6 10.4 5 29.5 -0.9
G. Hill 22.7 3.7 3 31.7 -9
Giricek 16 3.4 5 20.1 -4.1
Max Croes -- The Dream Shake

A Gordon Giricek sighting. If you remember the scrappy Croat and have $200, why not drop it on a game-used jersey of his?

This was the least talented playoff team D’Antoni oversaw in Phoenix. A reality which evidenced itself with a quick, first-round playoff exit. You can’t take much from these tables as D’Antoni didn’t have any other bodies worth putting on the court: Brian Skinner, DJ Strawberry, Sean Marks and Eric Piatkowski to be exact.

D’Antoni was forced to go down to only seven men when Grant Hill missed two contests and likely wouldn’t have let Giricek touch the court if he could avoid it.

Coach D’Antoni Going Forward

The Suns years were clearly D’Antoni’s best. He made the playoffs once with the New York Knicks and once with the Los Angeles Lakers. Neither team was built in the mold of these Suns teams or had the feel of a true mad scientist experiment.

Comparing either the Dwight Howard Lakers or the Anthony-Stoudemire Knicks to the Seven Seconds or Less Suns or the James Harden Rockets would be a mistake. Each team made a first-round playoff exit while sporting very uncharacteristic 11-man playoff rotations. If D’Antoni adopted any practices from the demoralizing experiences it’s likely to trust his past instincts.

The current Rockets team is built for D’Antoni to push the pace, and it’s likely he drops the Rockets rotation down to eight men when the playoffs start. He only needs seven players or less after all.