It's not who starts, but who finishes that matters.
We hear this a lot. And amid the freak out over the OT loss to the Bucks, it's been pointed out: All of the C4 played 30+ minutes. Earl, Foye, and Marv (who were utterly useless) played defacto backup minutes.
So what's the big deal?
Well, I am not a subscriber to the "It's not who starts, but who finishes" theory. I think the decision regarding who starts is one of the more important things a coach can do. And while there is a lot more to making an effective lineup than throwing the best players out together at tipoff, I believe an effective team begins with its starting lineup.
This is, perhaps, the biggest issue of all. To reach it's highest potential a team needs its best players to both play as many minutes as possible and be highly effective in those minutes. When a player starts, he can play 16-20 minutes in a half without ever playing more than 8-10 minutes straight. Even a 40 minutes of playing time gets broken into 10 minute shifts with 6-15 minute rests between each shift. This keeps the players rested and capable of being as productive as possible.
We can look straight at Gordon Hayward to see how this happens. Last year he played 39 minutes per game during the final 20-ish games. He was a machine. He was effective the entire games. He played out of his mind. And he started. Last week he was the best player on the court against Boston, and then fizzled when he reached about 33 minutes of playing time. He came off the bench. The difference is playing in 10-minute shifts vs. 17-minute shifts. It matters.
This is a reason why Gregg Popovich inserts Ginobili into the starting lineup when he feels like he needs more minutes from him. Starting a player is the most effective way to both maximize his playing time and maximize effectiveness in that playing time.
2. The opponent
Every team has different rotation patterns. But there are two points in the game that you can pretty much count on who you face: the ending of the game and the beginning of the first and third quarters.
Unless it's a blowout, every coach will play what he believes is his best lineup to finish a game. That's a given. That's why the "it's who finishes that matters" cliche comes up a lot.
But we're talking about starters here. Although many teams bring one or two good players off the bench, the starting lineup has more great players than any other lineup. Why? See the first issue: rest and shifts. Keeping them in the starting lineup enables the coach to play them as much as possible and keep them as effective as possible. And even when a good player comes off the bench, it's never the best.
Aside from the finishing lineup, the starting lineup has the greatest concentration of highly effective players than any other lineup.
Well, for most teams anyway.
And this principle, the quality of the opposing lineup, is what kills the Jazz. We are running out a dreadful lineup against team's best lineups. Every minute of poor play by our starters is exacerbated by the high quality of the opponents. It maximizes the effect of their terrible play. You could not hand pick a situation in which Earl's, Jamaal's, Randy's, and Marv's weaknesses hurt the team more.
We can see this effect just by looking at the Bucks game; specifically the third quarter. The Bucks turned a 4-point deficit into a 10-point lead. This happened because the Trifecta of Doom wen 0-6 for no points while their direct counterparts scored 26 points, shooting 11-14 from the field.
And this is happening game after game after game. The first quarter has been the worst, but the third quarter is becoming a regular disaster as well.
3. You can't count on comebacks
The 2010-11 season taught me several things. It taught me to distrust a team whose record far exceeds its point differential. It taught me that a newly acquired player is probably going to be the same guy he was on the former team.
And it taught me that you can't depend on comebacks to save you. Even if you have a few in a row, eventually they dry up. And this is why the starting lineup is so important. Without a good one, you require a comeback (sometimes multiple comebacks) every single game.
And the reasons are simple when you look at the issue honestly.
This year the Thunder have the best point differential in the NBA at +9.6. This means that, on average, they outscore opponents by nearly 10 points over a 48-minute game. Now some games are better, some are worse. And sometimes they're even outscored. But on average, they are +9.6 points.
Now let's look at the Jazz. Our main bench is Hayward, Favors, Burks, DeMarre, and Kanter. Looking at their minutes since Dec. 1 (when Burks finally started playing regularly and Hayward was solidly coming off the bench) they average 20.5 minutes per game.
So let's say the starting lineup gets down by 5 points in the first quarter pretty much every game, and it's the bench's job to bring the team back. Our bench has 20.5 minutes to bring them back from that deficit. When you calculate what kind of per-48 minute production the bench has to produce to overcome this, you get a terrifying answer: +11.7 points per 48 minutes.
In other words, the bench has to be significantly better than the Thunder in order to reliably overcome crappy starts. This gets worse if the starting lineup craps itself again in the third quarter (as is happening more and more). Now we're looking at maybe +20 points per 48 minutes from the bench.
These numbers are absurd. No lineup, no matter how talented, can produce the kind of point differential necessary to reliably overcome terrible play by a starting lineup.
You can mix and mash the numbers a hundred ways. You can talk about more than just the bench and bring in production from the good starters later in the game. But no matter how you look at it, the basic problem is the same.
In order to overcome regular early deficits, the team must suddenly perform better than the best team in the league for the rest of the game. And that's just to break even. We're not even talking about winning yet. We're just looking at getting back to a tie score.
No, relying on comebacks is fool's gold.
* * *
So no ... I don't believe in the "it's who ends the game that matters" philosophy. I believe that choosing the starting lineup well is crucial to a team's success. And while there are dozens of other factors, to me nothing trumps this basic principle of success:
A team must get its most highly effective lineup on the floor as much as possible to maximize the team's chances of winning.
And the only way to do this is to choose a highly effective starting lineup.