Doc Rivers and George Karl excel at in-game adjustments.
NBA coaches prefer to have their systems in place and lineups set early in the season. However, several contenders need to make crucial rotation adjustments in preparation for the playoffs.
There are many reasons why a team's chemistry may change and a coach's plan must be altered. Injuries play a major role in the development of a team. A coach must compensate for the loss of a player and adjust his rotation once that guy returns.
Changes in expectations or a player's performance may cause a coach to revise his substitution patterns. One individual may fade after a hot start, while another improves as the season progresses. Young players may not develop as fast as expected.
It may take several months for a coach to determine which two, three or five-man units play well together. That process is complicated by injuries and midseason trades or free-agent signings.
Ultimately, a coach is limited by his personnel. Deeper teams possess the flexibility to utilize different lineups, whereas other squads are confined to a specific style of play.
Kevin Garnett's ankle injury has decimated the Celtics defense.
It has been an injury-riddled season for the Boston Celtics. All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo tore his ACL in January. Three weeks later, his backup, Leandro Barbosa, suffered the same fate, and starting power forward Jared Sullinger underwent season-ending back surgery in February.
The Celtics absorbed the blows, winning their first seven games without Rondo. However, the recent loss of their defensive anchor, Kevin Garnett, is more than Doc Rivers' team can handle.
Garnett missed Boston's last three games with what the team is calling "ankle inflammation." According to Chris Forsberg of ESPNBoston.com, general manager Danny Ainge said that Garnett will rest the next two weeks in order to be healthy for the playoffs.
Rivers has started 6'9'' Jeff Green alongside Brandon Bass in KG's absence, leaving the Celtics woefully undersized. Boston lost its first two games without Garnett to the Memphis Grizzlies and New York Knicks before eking out a win over the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Knicks got to the rim with ease in their 100-85 victory over the Celtics on March 26 and grabbed 15 offensive rebounds. That was not an aberration. Boston's defensive efficiency (99.8) balloons to 106.6 when Green and Bass are on the floor together, and the team's defensive rebound rate drops from 73.3 to 70.9 (via NBA.com).
Rivers is left with no options. Chris Wilcox, another ineffective rebounder and defender, is his first big man off the bench, followed by journeymen D.J. White and Shavlik Randolph. Even if KG returns, Boston will struggle to protect the rim when he is not in the game.
Rivers cannot change his personnel, so he is trying to use his small lineup to his advantage by speeding up the game. It is a difficult transition for a team accustomed to a slow pace.
There is no timetable for the return of Derrick Rose or Richard Hamilton.
Derrick Rose has missed the entire season after tearing his ACL in the playoffs last spring. According to ESPNChicago.com, the 2010-11 MVP has been medically cleared to play, but there is still no timetable for his return. Richard Hamilton, who has been sidelined since February 26 with a sore back, also does not have a set return date.
Each player could miss the remainder of the season. If one or both of them return, Coach Tom Thibodeau will have to cut certain players' minutes.
Rose would immediately be inserted into the starting lineup upon his return, but that may not be the case for Hamilton. Coach Thidodeau likes a shooting guard who can spread the floor, creating space for Rose and the Bulls' big men. Kyle Korver filled that role down the stretch over the past few seasons.
Marco Belinelli has played well as the starter in Hamilton's absence. He is shooting a higher percentage (37) than Hamilton (30) from beyond the arc, and while neither player is known for his defense, Belinelli is likely more mobile than a 35-year-old Hamilton coming off of a back injury.
If Rose returns, Kirk Hinrich will lose his spot in the starting lineup and could fall out of the rotation altogether in the playoffs. Nate Robinson has provided the Bulls with a spark off the bench. He is a more efficient shooter than Hinrich from the field (43 percent to 37 percent) and behind the arc (39 to 37), and has the ability to break down a defense.
Second-year man Jimmy Butler has taken advantage of greater playing time this season as well and is currently subbing for the temporarily injured Belinelli. He is a better defender than Robinson and Hinrich, and has the length and quickness to cover shooting guards. If Rip returns, he will be in the mix for minutes at the 2 as well.
Danilo Gallinari has had the ball in his hands in crunch time.
The Denver Nuggets have compiled one of the top five records in the league without an All-Star. They rely on their depth and the versatility of players like Danilo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala and Wilson Chandler to provide the various skills that most elite teams derive from superstars.
Coach Karl uses the same starting five, but varies his lineup during games depending on what skills he needs in a particular situation. That flexibility requires him to make more critical in-game rotation decisions than most coaches.
If Denver is playing a big, physical team, tireless rebounder Kenneth Faried will likely be on the floor down the stretch. Karl can also go small, using a two-point-guard lineup of Ty Lawson and Andre Miller with Iguodala and Gallinari or Chandler at the forwards.
The Nuggets' flexibility carries over into clutch situations. Most teams rely on a superstar to take big shots. Karl decides on a game-to-game, or even play-to-play, basis who to go to down the stretch. Consequently, Denver's late-game plays are less predictable than most teams.
Iguodala and Gallinari are often the focal point of such plays. Karl usually incorporates several screens and plenty of movement in order to prevent the defense from locking in on a specific player and sending help defense. On other occasions, Karl turns to speedy point guard Ty Lawson to create off the dribble.
Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard need to figure out how to play together.
Days after Pau Gasol's return to the Los Angeles Lakers lineup, another starter went down. According to Sam Amick of USA Today, Metta World Peace will undergo surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee and is expected to miss at least six weeks.
World Peace's injury is a major blow for the Lakers on both ends of the floor. No longer an elite defender, he was still the most consistent perimeter stopper on a Lakers team that can't keep opposing guards out of the paint. His team-high 5.6 three-point attempts per game was also crucial to the Lakers' spacing.
Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake, Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark will vie for World Peace's minutes, with Coach D'Antoni mixing and matching based on matchups. Kobe Bryant moved to small forward and Meeks started at shooting guard for the Lakers' first game without World Peace against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
World Peace's injury places greater pressure on D'Antoni to figure out how to use Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard together effectively. According to NBA.com, L.A.'s offensive efficiency (105.3) drops when the two big men are on the court at the same time (102.5).
Howard and Gasol should be overpowering teams down low. Instead, D'Antoni had Pau spotting up at the three-point line early in the season, before demoting the Spaniard to the bench. Gasol is an excellent passer for a big man and should be able to excel in the high post, with Howard on the low block.
The Knicks move the ball well when Kidd and Felton share the backcourt.
Mike Woodson has been trying to put together a lineup to regain the chemistry that catapulted the New York Knicks to an 18-5 start. The process has been complicated by injuries, especially to the frontcourt.
Amar'e Stoudemire is out until at least the second round of the playoffs after undergoing knee surgery. Carmelo Anthony recently had his knee drained. Tyson Chandler is dealing with a bulging disc in his neck. Rasheed Wallace and Kurt Thomas both suffered stress fractures, and Marcus Camby has been battling plantar fasciitis all season.
The recently acquired Kenyon Martin has helped solidify the frontcourt. He and Camby should be able to spell Melo and Chandler at the 4 and 5, and Raymond Felton is set as the starting point guard.
The 2 and 3 spots are Woodson's biggest concerns. J.R. Smith is averaging 17.4 points per game, though the coach likes to bring him off the bench.
Over the past few months, Woodson has started Jason Kidd, Pablo Prigioni, Ronnie Brewer (who has since been traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder), Chris Copeland, Iman Shumpert and James White at shooting guard or small forward. He has also experimented with a bigger lineup, playing Anthony at the 3.
One constant is that the Knicks have moved the ball most effectively when they have had two point guards in the game. They won their last six games with Pablo Prigioni sharing backcourt duties with Raymond Felton.
Look for the two-point-guard lineup to continue, with the possibility of Kidd replacing Prigioni come playoff time. Shumpert is likely to hold down the starting 3 spot, though the Knicks could go with a bigger lineup of Melo at the 3 and K-Mart at the 4 against a physical team like Chicago or Indiana in the postseason.