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Thoughts on Starters, Rotations and Playing Time

I've noticed a common theme appearing in many posts this preseason. With all the changes in the roster in the past few months there's a feel of uncertainty and excitement surrounding starters and playing time. I've read many posts that articulately argue for Player X or Y's inclusion in the starting lineup, or that player Z will get n Minutes Per Game. We are all forgetting one very important thing in all of this: Jerry.

Jerry doesn't listen to anyone but Jerry. OK, maybe Phil, but nobody else. We all should know by now that Jerry doesn't let player ego, public histrionics, detailed quantitative analysis of player minutes or the desires of Internet-savvy Jazz fans stand in the way of HIS Jazz team playing HIS way, dammit. Read on for my thoughts on the 2010-11 Jazz lineups and rotations from a 'X's and O's' perspective.

There are 2 key points that we all need to be kept in mind when thinking about lineups, rotations or MPG:

  • Don't think in terms of players getting exactly n minutes. Jerry doesn't. Coaches don't.
  • It's always nice to think of a coach sitting down and opening a spreadsheet and working out how to spread the minutes out amongst the players. It's true that there's exactly 240 minutes to go around during a game, 48 minutes per position. However it's a bad habit to get into thinking that coaches have an assistant tracking everyone's minutes and letting him know that a player needs to be subbed NOW. Coaching, just like playing, works by feel, and the number of minutes a player gets is a variable, not a constant. If a player is playing well or poorly a good coach will adjust his playing time to suit. If there's a mismatch or a specific assignment, either for or against a particular player, that will alter minutes too. And don't forget that players use MPG as a personal benchmark so coaches can use reduced time as punishment (hello Fes!) We all know Jerry, and we all know that it's his way or the highway. Players will see minutes increase if they put in the work as a reward, because of opportunity (injury/trades) or if their skillset is specifically required. So when thinking about who is going to spell Deron for those 7.4 statistically perfect minutes that he will be sitting off every game... don't. Think about who will spell DWill, but avoid thinking of it in exact minute terms.

     

  • Lineups can and do change, they aren't fixed in stone.
  • Lineups change for 2 main reasons: to create opportunities or stop the other team. Coach Sloan used 16 starting lineups during the 09-10 season. Why? Because of injuries, specific lineups for matchups, players rotating through Jerry's Doghouse and Jerry being cantankerous. Compare that to how he was during the Finals runs of S2M - he had 3 lineups in 96-97. During that time we had 2 of the best players at their positions in the League, and the lineup was settled due to a good run with injuries, and it showed in our results. (Note I'm not making a definitive argument for a settled lineup equalling team success, I'll need a number cruncher like Amar to do that for me.) Another thing to remember: just because 5 players start doesn't mean the same 5 have to finish the game. 

The above 2 points always need to be thought of as 2 intertwined components of a coaching strategy. Player minutes will vary with lineup changes, injury, their opponent and which part of the season we are in. Bearing all that in mind then, how do I see Jerry using the players this season?

When thinking about the lineups and rotations we need to think in terms of BMR and AMR: Before Memo's Return and After Memo's Return. I'm also not thinking 'starters' and 'second unit' because Jerry doesn't do 'platoon' subs and keep the lineups the same, he rotates players through the lineup as the individual game situation decrees it - think of those situations where Sap and AK, or CJ and AK are out there with 3 bench guys, instead of 5 bench players being out there at the same time and 5 starters being subbed in. I'm thinking Starters and Rotation players instead of a distinct second unit, which are:

Before Memo's Return:

STARTERS:

C - Jefferson

PF - Milsap

SF - Kirilenko

SG - Bell/Miles

PG - Wiliams

 

ROATATION: 

Bell/Miles 2/3 6th man. If all the reserves are in look for Raja/CJ to be the main play option (the player in the Flex who makes the pass/move that defines which way they take the set.)

Hayward 2/3 - Not massive minutes to start as he adjusts to life as an NBA Rook.

Evans 3/4 - same as for Gordo. 

Price/Watson 1 - entirely depends on the matchup/opponent who gets the minutes. 

Fesenko/Elson 5/4.

 

Not many surprises here. I see Jerry sticking with Sap at the 4 and Al at the 5. There's some thought among the pundits and fans that Sap may 'have trouble' adjusting to playing with Al. People feel that Sap may think that he should get more shots now that Boozer is gone, and that if the offence goes through Al he may get upset. There's a few things that go against that: Sap's a team player and wants to win, our offence will still see Sap get shots (especially if his man doubles Al) and Al isn't Boozer. Remember that the Flex works for the whole team, and while we will run plays that use Big Al's strengths, Sap will still get his looks, even more than last year if Al keeps on playing like he did in the preseason.

At this stage it looks like Raja has the starting nod over CJ going forward, with Jerry using CJ as a 6th man/designated scorer if the rotation players are all in at the same time. I know that some people are a little surprised at this, however remember what I said before: nothing is set in concrete. Remember that Raja is 34 (which is 85 in NBA Years) and has a dodgy shoulder, so CJ may get the nod for some games/situations because he's 12 years old (again, in NBA Years) with Raja playing the 6th Man role to 'rest.' This also depends which CJ shows up, either the Mature CJ that we have seen in 2010, or if Young CJ appears and shoots 1-15 on 14 bad shots.

Where we are thin is the rotation through the 4/5 spots, so during the first few months expect to see 'Mad Dog' Elson and the reborn Fes have increased minutes and Evans getting more minutes at the 4 than at the 3, even though he weighs barely enough for a Point Guard in the modern NBA, let alone a PF. Evans' athleticism will stand him in good stead, however, creating mismatches with second unit scrubs league wide and hopefully leading to more lobs from RP.

The logjam is at the 2/3: CJ, Raja, Hayward and AK all looking for minutes, with Evans possibly putting some time in on the wings. We've already seen Raja get the starting nod, which leaves Mature CJ with the 6th man role, so they will be spelled by Hayward (who has shown he's very capable of playing the 2 and the 3) with AK sliding to the 4 if needed (when/if Paul is on the bench and if the opposition have an athletic 4 in.)

After Memo's Return:

Once Memo is back and healthy this team will have a wrinkle that it hasn't had for a long time: 7 players who can legitimately claim a starting spot. Bearing in mind that nobody can read Jerry's mind here's how I see the pieces falling into place:

STARTERS:

C - Jefferson

PF - Milsap

SF - Kirilenko

SG - Bell/Miles

PG - Wiliams


ROATATION: 

Okur: 6th Man. Deep minutes at 5/4 with him shooting many a 'long 2' to draw his defender away from doubling Al.

Bell/Miles: 2/3 '6th Man Part 2'

Hayward: 2/3 - Time could increase for him as he adjusts to the NBA, once he is over the Rookie Hump.

Evans: 3/4 - as with Gordo his time could go up as he adjusts to the L.

Price/Watson: 1 - who gets time still depends more on matchups/Jerry

Fesenko/Elson 5/4, but less minutes. If Fes imporves during the season and keeps working hard he *should* get the lion's share of minutes. Elson gives us a reserve veteran with a streak of nasty IF Fes ends up back in Jerry's Doghouse. 

(CAVEAT: 13 players named. 1 will be IR, but I'm reluctant to name who it is until March 2011. It will be a real ding-dong battle for that 12th spot.)

 

If that doesn't make your mouth water then you can't remember some of the lineups we have had in recent memory. Sometimes we have struggled to have 4 players good enough to start on the team, now we will have a minimum of 7! What does that mean for our boys once Money's back drilling those long 2's?

 

  • A more even spread of minutes among the players. Which means everyone should be fresher come Playoffs.
  • The opportunity for Jerry to not only have more players at his disposal to react to opponents, but he can also put his own lineups out there to confound opposing coaches (more on this later)
  • More competition for time means the players 'knuckling down' and taking their jobs seriously to maximise their chances of getting those minutes. Yeah, Jerry's gonna HATE that. 
  • (Touch wood they won't, but) if any injuries do happen we have more cover than before. The preseason has shown that we have a good amount of depth, and our 'second unit' has played very well against other Western Conference second units (which is what happens during pre-season)
  • With at least 2 legitimate scorers in the Rotation players this means that other teams need to adjust their matchups to us for a change: they won't be able to put a full second-string side out there, because a lineup of RP-Gordo-CJ-AK-Fes will tear up most second units (hell, they would give some first units the fits too.)

So, with Memo back we have a lot more options for Jerry to utilise. We can go big, small, fast, D-minded, half-court, fast-break... for the first time in a long time we can give opposition teams fits with our offence while not giving anything up at the other end. How? 2 reasons: - the Flex offence that ALL the team run (as opposed to other teams who have sets that are only for the starters, or 'Isolation' plays for specific players) and - we now have a great blend of size, length, natural defensive ability and 'Sloans' (players who love to play hard-nosed aggressive D.) We can match the defensive requirements for an opposition with the components we have on the bench without losing anything offensively, because the Flex offence doesn't just rely on 1 scorer, 1 passer or 1 option. All the players on the floor have roles to play in the Flex (passing, screening, moving off the ball) and as they react to the defence and work the Flex accordingly to get good shots while making all 5 defenders work. Nobody gets a rest at the other end against us. 
How's this going to work in the Real World? Well, let's take our perennial stumbling block in the Playoffs, the Lakers, and see how Jerry could change the lineup against them:
Potential Anti-Lakers Lineup:

C - Jefferson

PF - Okur

SF - Kirilenko

SG - Bell

PG - Wiliams

 

That's a BIG team. With Memo in at the '4' he'd be lining up defensively against Bynum, with Big Al taking (and destroying, if preseason form is an indicator) Gasol. AK defends Artest, who he can gamble off to attempt blocks and jump into passing lanes. Raja elbo... er... defends Kobe, and DWill takes Fish. However, the exciting part for me is that we have Sap and CJ coming off the bench, so we could see lineups like 

 

C - Okur

PF - Milsap

SF - Kirilenko

SG - Miles

PG - Wiliams

As the Starters get rest but we still have 5 players on the floor who play at the level of a 'starter.' As other players are rotated out this lineup could appear:

 

C - Fesenko

PF - Jefferson

SF - Miles

SG - Hayward

PG - Price

or

 

C - Elson

PF - Milsap

SF - Miles

SG - Hayward

PG - Price

 

We are still resting starters, but we have a strong lineup out there with at least 2 of the Super Seven on the court at one time. This is just thinking purely in terms of rotations that allow the starters to rest, without adding in the wrinkles of 'creating mismatches' or 'reacting to the opposition lineups' that also effects how coaches rotate players. Jerry will react to the Lakers rotations as well as use his own moves, which means there could be other wrinkles in the plan to come.

 

So, what does this all mean? I can hear you all thinking 'here's another long-winded off-season speculation post, thank goodness that the season starts in a few hours so we can worry about what we can see! They looked really good in the Preseason games that were televised!'

And you're right. 

What I'm asking of you all is that when you are watching the games starting today and you find yourself saying "why is Jerry doing that?" try to think like a Coach, not a fan. It's amazing how many times you then think "Ahhhhhhh THAT'S why."

 

 

All comments are the opinion of the commenter and not necessarily that of SLC Dunk or SB Nation.

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