Everybody Plays: How Expanded Rotations Could Change the NBA Forever

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Everybody Plays: How Expanded Rotations Could Change the NBA Forever
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

In the aftermath of the San Antonio Spurs’ five-game Finals dismantling of the Miami Heat, Gregg Popovich and Company found themselves awash in admiration and affirmation for how beautifully they interpreted the game of basketball.

But it’s who the Spurs played that could prove the harbinger for an even bigger NBA revolution.

According to Fortune.com’s Jake Turtel, the 2013-14 Spurs registered the fourth-highest raw bench production in NBA history, helping the franchise capture its fifth championship in 16 years.

The correlation, while not traditionally airtight, has become a tried-and-true trend of late, with HoopsStats.com showing the Spurs as one of seven NBA champions in the last decade to boast a top-10 scoring bench.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Of course, one could argue the sheer makeup of the Spurs made such regimentation all the more necessary, what with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker all being 30 or older.

That’s not to say there won’t be hardheaded holdouts. The Chicago Bulls’ Tom Thibodeau, for example, is renowned (some would say infamous) for his almost cavalier rotational philosophy.

Still, given enough time and early converts, there’s bound to emerge data—borne out by SportVU and other similarly cutting-edge technologies—all but proving the soundness of the Spurs' philosophy.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Those seeking a cautionary tale (albeit somewhat anecdotal) need look no further than LeBron James, that bastion of basketball invincibility. The league’s No. 8 minutes-logger, James pulled up lame with cramps after the AT&T Center’s air conditioning went on the fritz in Game 1 of the Finals.

An isolated incident not worthy of cherry-picking? Perhaps. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to completely dismiss James’ plight—rare as it is for the planet’s best player—as mere meaningless coincidence.

The slight silver lining: As Bleacher Report’s Jared Zwerling points out in his excellent synopsis from 2013 on why today’s NBA stars have already begun to log fewer minutes, such a reduction is also an inevitable byproduct of the league’s ever-evolving collective bargaining agreement:

For starters, a key number behind the downward trend came from the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement in the summer of 2005. The size of the regular-season roster increased from 12 to 15 players, with 12 active for every game. Then in August 2006, the NBA Board of Governors put that number into effect for the postseason.

With those adjustments, coaches started expanding their rotations and spreading out minutes. From 2005-06—the first season of the roster changes—to 2008-09, the number of players who were above 40 minutes per game went from nine to six to three to zero. And in the past four seasons, only two guys total averaged 40 or more minutes (Monta Ellis twice for the Golden State Warriors and Gerald Wallace once for the Charlotte Bobcats).

Lest you think Popovich’s peerless program is all about reducing the wear and tear to his aging stars, however, a June interview with NBA.com’s Jeff Caplan helped shed light on the deeper strategy at play for the Spurs skipper:

It also does develop the bench, give them some confidence to play. And hopefully in the end when playoff time comes, sometimes it’s a role player that steps up in a certain game and has a heck of a night and helps you.

As Caplan points out, there weren't many numbers that didn't bear out San Antonio's superior bench play: The Spurs bench finished tops in the NBA in regular-season scoring (44.5 PPG), field-goal percentage (47.8) and assists (10.9). And they were second in both rebounds (16.8) and three-point percentage (39.1).

No doubt some of the apprehension over reducing certain players’ minutes—and stars' in particular—concerns the very real fact that, in this game, more production means better pay.

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

But as the league trends more and more toward efficiency-based analytics (as opposed to the per-game stats that dominated the discourse for decades), one’s value will inevitably begin to be seen more and more as a qualitative rather than a purely quantitative question.

Here again, San Antonio has shown itself to be miles ahead of the curve. Here's what Popovich told the San Antonio Express-News’ Jeff McDonald (subscription required):

We’ve never had any numerical or positioning goals, ever. Not one time. We’ve never talked about it one time the entire time I’ve been here. The only thing we’ve talked about is trying to be the best team we can be come playoff time. That’s what we harp on, period.

Few are naive enough to believe the quest for rings guides all NBA players all the time. If that were the case, it would be commonplace to see veteran stars taking the league minimum to join a team like the Spurs.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Regardless, if the case can be made, statistically as well as philosophically, that a slight reduction in playing time would mean both less risk for injury and a better chance at a championship (to say nothing of better individual efficiency), the buy-in would be instantaneous and effusive.

However, as Zwerling aptly notes, the possibility exists that improvements in medical science, diet and training regimens could yield the opposite effect—stars playing more minutes—as it did with Erik Spoelstra's Miami Heat.

Still, there’s a difference between the game’s top minutes-getters adhering to a more conservative playing-time approach and San Antonio’s all-encompassing methodology.

For the Spurs, sitting Duncan, Parker and Ginobili isn’t about reducing their wear and tear (although that’s a big part of the equation) so much as it is incubating the entire team—from starter to water-fetcher—within a system that itself demands top-to-bottom repetition.

Perhaps no study better underscores San Antonio's status as a statistical-philosophical outlier better than the one conducted by FiveThirtyEight's Benjamin Morris, who looked at usage-rate disparity within specific teams during the 2013-14 season to gauge how "unselfish" they really were:

On the other hand, spreading the ball around isn’t easy, and it’s not the normal path to victory in the NBA. The most top-heavy team (and the top line on the chart) is the Oklahoma City Thunder, who had the second-best record in basketball and did better against this Spurs team than Miami did. The most evenly distributed team overall was the Brooklyn Nets, who did make the playoffs but lost in five games to the Heat.

The Spurs won a lot more than we would expect for a team as balanced as they are. The 15 teams with the largest gaps between their top player and their eighth player (by possessions used per game) won 57.5 percent of their games, while the 15 with the smallest gaps won 42.5 percent (the Spurs were second-lowest).

Reading Morris' take, it’s worth wondering whether a traditionally isolation-heavy team like, say, the New York Knicks, would benefit as much from a more democratic allocation of playing time. When your entire postseason strategy revolves—as it has for the Knicks the last three seasons—around one player’s singular talents, your rotational range of motion is certain to be far, far narrower.

And this is why the Spurs offer us a basketball template revolutionary in both form and function, where the dispersion of playing time and style of play are inextricably linked.

By developing an offensive system predicated on ball movement and communication, familiarity with one’s teammates is of the utmost importance. Of course, the talent level doesn't hurt, either.

Part of what makes the NBA so enjoyable is the diversity of talent and tactics, methodology and managerial perspectives. To suggest every team ought to adopt verbatim "the Spurs way" isn’t only unrealistic, but it would also make for a less compelling league.

All the same, San Antonio’s emphasis on expanded rotations certainly seems like a stratagem worth considering—if not outright adopting.

But if there’s one thing we’ve learned about copying and pasting the Spurs' peerless basketball code, it's that even with all those banners and bona fides to back them up, you probably won't.

And that's just fine by them.

 

Some cited stats are subscription only. All stats courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

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