SAN ANTONIO — On the surface, this hardly seemed a move worthy of Pop and circumstance.
Gregg Popovich's decision to put the Red Rocket/Red Mamba in the San Antonio Spurs' starting lineup for Game 5 of the 2014 Western Conference Finals didn't figure to put the Oklahoma City Thunder on red alert. After all, the man with that moniker, Matt Bonner, had started only 97 games in either the regular season or postseason since entering the NBA in 2004, and just 16 in the past five years. Bonner was a specialist, the purest of shooters, but lacking the speed or power to contribute much in other areas, long before he turned 34.
But Popovich saw the need for space, and he viewed Bonner as the person to provide it.
One of his former players, Avery Johnson, viewed it as a stroke of genius.
"[Tiago] Splitter and [Tim] Duncan playing together wasn't effective against [Serge] Ibaka and [Kendrick] Perkins, especially because Ibaka was such a great shot-blocker," said Johnson, who coached the Dallas Mavericks and New Jersey Nets before becoming an ESPN analyst. "Pop had to change it up to get him out of the lane, because Splitter couldn't make Ibaka pay the price on defense. So he had to counteract that by going smaller, try to pull Ibaka away from the basket a little more. And that was a season series-saving strategy maneuver."
That declaration, of course, is open to interpretation, considering that Bonner played just 31 minutes in his two starts, and made just 2-of-10 shots, while the other Spurs combined for 75 field goals. But, as the Miami Heat prepare for the 2014 NBA Finals, the bold stroke has certainly given them a bit more to consider.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Coach Pop did anything," Dwyane Wade said this week. "He could try anything, and do anything, and I wouldn't be surprised at all."
But here's the thing, at least when it comes to lineup construction:
You could say that about a lot of coaches recently.
This postseason alone, we've seen lineup tweaks, for reasons other than injury, from the Nets' Jason Kidd (Alan Anderson for Shaun Livingston in the last two games of the first round before going back to Livingston against the Heat); from the Thunder's Scott Brooks (shuffling Thabo Sefolosha from starter to the end of the bench, to get more of Reggie Jackson's playmaking); from the Warriors' since-fired Mark Jackson (Draymond Green for Jermaine O'Neal); and from the Heat's Spoelstra (with Rashard Lewis, Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier taking turns at "power" forward).
"I think there's a different mentality now," Battier said. "It used to be you rode with the girl you brought to the dance, be she a belle, be she a beast. You took your chances. There's a little more manipulation of the situations nowadays."
When did nowadays start?
That remains an open question, depending on which box scores you search and which experts you ask.
That's because it didn't necessarily start in every organization and for every coach at the same time, and not every organization or coach has proceeded the same way with every type of caliber of team.
During the Heat's 2006 season, Pat Riley primarily used James Posey as his starting small forward during the regular season. Prior to the playoffs, though, he switched to Antoine Walker for more offensive punch, and he stuck with Walker in all of the Heat's 23 postseason games. He used a second lineup only once, when Walker slid to power forward and Posey started as power forward because Udonis Haslem was suspended.
Meanwhile, his West opponent was more of a wild card.
Avery Johnson coached those Dallas Mavericks, and his philosophy with that team was generally governed by one goal.
"I had to figure out how to protect Dirk Nowitzki," Johnson said. "I needed Dirk's scoring, and we just had to figure out how to protect him on the defensive end, find the right matchups for him."
But he had other concerns as the West playoffs progressed. In the second round against his former team (San Antonio), Johnson needed someone to contain Tony Parker. So he played a second point guard, Devin Harris, after Harris had started only four games in the regular season.
"I'm really glad we did that one," Johnson said. "Devin had an outstanding series."
Then, in the Western Conference Finals against the electric Phoenix Suns, Johnson went back to the much bigger Adrian Griffin to counter the Suns' switching defense; he felt that Griffin could present a post-up option against point guard Steve Nash, resulting in a basket or drawing a double-team.
The Mavericks advanced again, and Johnson started Griffin for the first three games of the NBA Finals against Riley's Heat before switching back to Harris for "more scoring, more speed. We needed to find a way to force [Dwyane] Wade to play more defense." Nothing worked well enough, as Wade averaged 34.7 points and the Heat won the series in six games.
That didn't stop Johnson the next season, though. After the Mavericks went 67-15 during the '06-07 regular season, while typically starting a traditional center, Johnson started an extra small forward (Devean George) in the playoffs to match the quickness of the No. 8-seeded Warriors, coached by mad lineup scientist Don Nelson. Golden State won the opener on the Mavericks' floor and, though Johnson went back to starting either Erick Dampier or DeSagana Diop at center during the final five games, the tone was set. The Warriors stunned the Mavericks in six.
"The strength and weakness is the same," Battier said of lineup switching. "You're just as likely to fall on your keister as you are to come across something."
Some coaches still abide by that philosophy.
Take Frank Vogel, whose Indiana Pacers just fell to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. He stuck with the same starting five, even when it was apparent that some members of it weren't connecting with each other.
"I just believe in the structure of our roles," Vogel said. "I believe our starters are our starters. Our bench players have their roles as bench players. My belief in our starting five is stronger than anything. So while a lot of coaches like to change their lineups and whatnot, I think there's strength in familiarity, there's strength in continuity and there's strength in not changing. I think there's change in rotational stability. You always want to be flexible, you always want to look at all your options, but I believe in that rotational stability."
In that sense, Vogel considers himself "kind of an old-school thinker. I love those times in the NBA. I look at those days a lot, and study what it was like back then."
And there's no question that some of the greatest teams were known for that stability.
Consider the powers that met in the 1985 NBA Finals, one (the Lakers) coached by Riley, and the other (the Celtics) led by current Pacers president Larry Bird. The Celtics and Lakers combined to play 40 playoff games that year, and only once (when Scott Wedman filled in for an injured Bird) did either team deviate from its regular starting five. The following year, the Lakers started the same group in all 14 games before losing in the conference finals to Houston; the Celtics started the same quintet in all 18 games, as they won a championship.
Consider the Bulls' 1990s dynasty, as taken in two parts. Chicago used one starting group (Bill Cartwright, Horace Grant, Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan and John Paxson) for all 39 of its playoff games in 1991 and '92. In '93, it replaced Paxson with B.J. Armstrong, and that lineup started all 19 games. The Bulls used six different starters in each of the postseasons from '96 through '98, and that was only because Phil Jackson found value in flipping the volatile Dennis Rodman from starter to reserve and back again.
Consider the best of Popovich's Spurs, prior to the past two postseasons. In the championship seasons of '99, '03, '05 and '07, he never used more than six starters in a single postseason; in '99, he used just five, and in '03, Danny Ferry stepped in once for an injured David Robinson. In '05 and '07, four positions were set and he split the starting duties at the fifth (between Manu Ginobili and Brent Barry in '05 and between Fabricio Oberto and Francisco Elson in '07).
But even crusty old coaches can change with the times.
For three games in the 2013 NBA Finals, Popovich and the Heat's Erik Spoelstra stuck with the same conventional starting fives. But, in Game 4, Spoelstra—who had waited two games too long to adjust to Rick Carlisle's insertion of jitterbug J.J. Barea into the 2011 NBA Finals—struck first against Popovich.
Spoelstra replaced hustle forward Udonis Haslem with long-range bomber Mike Miller. And while Miller missed his only shot attempt in 21 minutes, Popovich's odd and insulting counter of the 7-foot Splitter on Dwyane Wade energized the latter early. Wade scored 32 points to tie the series at two games each. Spoelstra stayed with Miller for the next three games, while Popovich promoted Manu Ginobili—in part to match up, but also to get Ginobili going. At least in Game 5, the move worked; Ginobili had, by far, his best outing of the series.
Still, the Heat won in seven.
For the rematch, each team appears to have a core four (Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers for Miami; Parker, Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green for San Antonio).
And each coach will take the fifth before revealing who will complete the group.
Popovich certainly won't say; when asked last June about in-series adjustments, he snapped at this reporter: "I don't mean to be trite, but your question deserves my triteness."
Yet, to crib from a favorite Spoelstra quote, expect everything to be "on the table."
The reasons why variability rules the moment are many, comprising a starting five of modern NBA developments.
"The postseason is as much about matchups and momentum as anything," Turner Sports analyst Greg Anthony said. "And also, you're trying to find lineups that allow you to attack the opponent's weakness. There's a lot more involved with that, no doubt about it. There's more specialization in basketball now. There's more data involved now, in terms of tendencies."
"Yeah, I think that's part of it," Battier said.
"I think coaches also want to say, you know what, I'll win this series with my adjustments," Battier said. "There's some ego involved. It's more coaches and GMs trying to put their stamp (on a series). I brought this guy in just for this purpose, for this series, and it paid off. I'm a brilliant GM. Brilliant!"
But George Karl, the longtime NBA coach turned ESPN analyst, contends that sometimes the situation calls for a more proactive posture.
"It's the same thing as a player," Karl said. "You want to feel like you're being aggressive, and when you're reacting, and your team kind of can feel that you're reacting, it's difficult for them to feel aggressive. I think coaches want to be aggressive."
Over the course of his coaching career, Karl had two types of teams—ones that didn't require postseason tweaking, and ones that did. In the Nuggets' '09 run to the Western Conference Finals, Karl started the same lineup in all 16 games. During the '13 postseason, he used seven starters in the first round, as Denver was eliminated by Golden State.
"We started Kostas [Koufos] the whole season long, because he deserved it," Karl said. "But then in the playoffs, we basically got in a situation where he wasn't the best option, so we just changed it."
It didn't help that power forward Kenneth Faried started the postseason with an ankle injury, or that the Warriors went small without David Lee. Still, it was a surprise to see Evan Fournier, who had started four games during the entire regular season, start the first four of the playoffs before not playing at all in the final two.
"Sometimes players are taken totally and completely out of the rotation," Karl said. "But most of the time you're just changing a starter from getting 20 or 25 minutes, you're changing his position from where he's playing from. Very seldom do you take a guy out of the starting lineup and bench him. You're just rotating the game differently, getting to matchups, or getting an offensive player in the game rather than a defensive player."
For Karl, speed matters.
"I think more and more teams are getting more creative and versatile in reacting to the situation at hand," Karl said. "Instead of waiting for a loss, you make the move before that. You may see that the best way probably to do it is to have the same roster and try to stay with the same rhythm that you had in the regular season. But in the same sense, I think sometimes you play one way, and you're kind of given another personality, and in reacting to that, I think it's smart to do it as quickly as possible."
Not just from a crowd, but from the army of reporters and pundits dissecting every decision on every medium.
"The biggest adjustment is the mental approach after a loss, and the mental approach after a win," said ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who last coached in 2007. "And the second biggest one is who you start and who you rotate. It used to be that teams just rolled [lineups] out and didn't really do a lot different. And now, this is different."
Now, there's been an explosion of conventional, digital and social media.
"You can't really get concerned about the noise," Van Gundy said. "It's hard, because the noise comes to you. And people tell you about the noise, even if you are trying to insulate. And it does take a certain amount of arrogance to believe in yourself and what you're seeing, and not react, versus doing something you're not quite sold on, just to please people."
Van Gundy maintains that, often, "there's nothing wrong" with sticking to the original plan.
"There's a lot of good that comes out of that," he said. "Sometimes, you can make a bad decision by changing, too... Sometimes, stability is the answer. And yet, you're always judged on the result. So some of those changes we saw [in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals] worked out well for Oklahoma City. It's easier to make those changes coming off losses. Then there's more general acceptance that you need to do something different. It almost takes as much courage to stay the course."
4. The Stretch 4
This is Johnson's theory, which is fitting, because he coached arguably the greatest stretch 4 (Nowitzki) the game has seen, and the one that caused so many teams to try to develop carbon copies.
"When [the other team] has a stretch 4, who is basically a small forward playing power forward that can shoot (jumpers), and you do not have a power forward that can make them pay the price on the offensive end, then you have to go smaller to match up with them," Johnson said. "In the past, if you had Tim Duncan and David Robinson playing together, you didn't have to change your lineup."
And, as noted earlier, Popovich rarely did when he had them.
"There was no reason for us to ever change because we didn't have matchup problems," said Johnson, who started with the twin towers on the '99 champions. "Our lineup could go against any type of lineup, match up with any type of lineup."
Johnson believes the same would have held true today.
"If Ibaka was matched up against the younger Tim Duncan or the younger David Robinson, they'd punish him on the defensive end, even if he was a great shot-blocker," Johnson said. "That would be null and void, because they are so good inside. The evolution of the stretch 4, when you don't have a 4 and 5 man that are great offensive players [to go against one], [calls for you] to sacrifice one of them by going small to match up with the opposing team."
Which is what Popovich did by substituting Bonner for Splitter.
5. Wider Talent Distribution
There are 30 teams now, and that means that even the best ones have holes somewhere.
"Typically, you never really saw [that many changes]," ESPN analyst Jon Barry said. "You have your team through 82 games and that's your team, you kind of roll with it. I guess maybe the talent level is not quite the same."
Not even the rosters of the two teams in the Finals.
"I don't think they've been settled on a lineup all year," Barry said of the Heat. "So that's a little different story with them. They haven't had a concrete five. They're not set."
Neither, it appears, are the Spurs.
It's a simpler decision to remove someone like Splitter or Danny Green, or a late-career Lewis or Battier, than it would have been for K.C. Jones to remove Danny Ainge, the fifth of the Celtics' five starters in the 1980s. Jones certainly wasn't removing any of the other four—Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Larry Bird or Dennis Johnson. At least, not after McHale graduated from an early-career sixth-man role.
"Those guys were all Hall of Famers," Anthony said. "Kind of hard not to play the Hall of Famers."
Minus that level of talent, most teams have and are still looking for an edge any way they can find one, said Anthony, who played for six teams from '91 to '02.
"We've seen more of it than maybe we tend to remember," Anthony said. "We did it a lot. Not only would you do it game to game, you do it from series to series, in terms of guys who had success against certain styles. Sometimes you'll give a guy an opportunity because you're playing a hunch. And if it goes well, you'll ride it until the other team makes an adjustment. The postseason really is a chess match... The only focus is tonight, and this series. And then when you get to the next one, you start figuring out the lineups that give you the best chance to win."
Even after his own mixed results, Johnson sees the value of tinkering, under the appropriate conditions.
"I think it all depends on the mental toughness of your team," Johnson said. "Sometimes players are always looking for excuses: 'I don't know my role.' As coaches, we all want to minimize the gray area. But it depends on the mental makeup of the team and how much the team trusts the coach, and how much stability the coach has."
No two coaches have more stability right now than Popovich and Spoelstra. They have won six rings in total, and they are the longest tenured men in their positions in the league, with the full support of their franchises.
And that should allow for plenty of lineup instability in this series.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.
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