The Importance of Shortened NBA Playoff Rotations

During the NBA regular season, bench depth is a vital way to make sure that starters are fresh for the playoffs. Whether it’s pounding weak teams into dust so teams can use their end-of-the-bench guys in garbage time or simply having a second unit that can play 15 or 20 minutes a game and hold a lead, using every one of the 13 guys at a team’s disposal pays dividends in the spring (or, if there’s a plague around, the early fall.)

Case in point, the Los Angeles Lakers. During their five-game series win over the Denver Nuggets, eight players played a total of 100 minutes or more, Markieff Morris played 68 minutes as the ninth man, and JaVale McGee played just 38 minutes even though he started three of the games.

This was not terribly unusual for McGee, though; he started all 68 games he played during the regular season but only actually played 16.6 minutes per game, as Dwight Howard (18.9 MPG) and Anthony Davis (40 percent of his minutes at the center position, or approximately 13.8 minutes) nicely account for the rest of the minutes in an NBA game at the center position (the total is 49.3, but close enough to 48 considering rest days, strategies against different lineups, overtime, and just plain rounding errors.)

McGee’s reduced minutes in the playoffs make sense. The Nuggets posed a unique challenge at the center position in the person of Nikola Jokic, who played 167 of the 240 minutes in the series, and their use of a smaller lineup throughout the five games. Not for nothing did Davis lead the Lakers in minutes at 190 (38 per game); the Lakers needed his athleticism defensively to keep from blowing a 3-1 lead the way Denver’s other two opponents in the playoffs did.

The Nuggets, incidentally, masterfully shortened their rotation; only seven players averaged 20 minutes or more a game, while Jamal Murray stepped up and played 41 minutes per game in the series.

Murray, in fact, shot 51.8 percent from the field and scored 25 points per game in the series, the 22-year-old announcing himself to the league as a future star not to be slept upon, not unlike the way Carmelo Anthony, in his age-22 season in 2007, put up 26.8 a game on 48 percent shooting in the Nuggets’ 5-game loss to the eventual champion Spurs.

Moving over to the Eastern Conference Finals through five games (as this goes to press, Miami leads 3-2), the Heat and Celtics are doing an even better job of shortening the bench when it matters most than the Lakers and Nuggets did in their series.

Only six Celtics—the starters plus Gordon Hayward—are averaging 20 minutes or more a game. Brad Wanamaker, who averaged 19.3 minutes during the regular season, is down to 15.2 in the postseason; nobody else is averaging even eight minutes a game.

On Miami’s side, they’ve got their starters, plus sixth man Tyler Herro (he of the monster 37-point game in Game 4), at over a hundred minutes for the series, but below that, Andre Iguodala is averaging 15.2 minutes a contest and nobody else has even played in all five games, garbage time and DNP-CD a real thing in these playoffs.

But it’s worth bearing in mind that in order to have players fresh enough to actually do this in the postseason, you need to “load manage” during the regular season…

…and there goes the peanut gallery. “Load management! Why do players need to take time off? They didn’t in the old days and those guys…”

Let me finish. The reason that didn’t happen in the old days was because in the old days, a couple of things were true.

One, the depth of talent wasn’t nearly as great as it is today; the ’86 Celtics stand out precisely because their sixth man was Bill Walton, a guy so good when he was healthy—and he was healthy in ’86—that he’s in the Hall of Fame despite having played under 500 career regular-season games.

Along the same lines, Scott Wedman was a two-time All-Star and Jerry Sichting hit 57 percent of his shots as a point guard backing up Dennis Johnson. That Celtics team had five Hall of Famers (Johnson, Walton, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, and Larry Bird), two guys who’d been All-Stars (Danny Ainge and Wedman), and a guy who didn’t shoot much but was a deadeye when he did shoot the ball.

Boston went eight deep and was so good that a freaking Hall of Famer came off the bench because the guys ahead of him were even better that year.

Likewise, the Lakers of a year before had Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the starting lineup, 8-time All-Defensive Team member Michael Cooper, Hall of Famer Jamaal Wilkes (who was in his decline in ’85 but had been pivotal to the Lakers earlier in the decade), Byron Scott scoring 16 a game—he would peak at 21.7 in his best year in ’88, and Hall of Famer and seven-time All-Star Bob McAdoo coming off the bench.

That’s five Hall of Famers on the roster that year plus one of the most underrated defensive players of all time (Cooper) and a guy who was never an All-Star but always talked about as a solid NBA starter in Scott.

And oh by the way, the Lakers and/or Celtics were in every NBA Finals in the 1980s, Boston’s titles in ’81 and ’86 coming in the only two years Magic and friends missed out on the ultimate stage (against Houston both years.)

Of course the whole league played their guys until they passed out. The only two teams with any bench depth at all faced each other in the Finals three times in four years and between them won eight out of ten titles in the decade.

Let’s swing this back to the present now that we’ve got the “back in MY day” argument out of the way, shall we?

Load management is critical in the modern game; if you can get a high playoff seed by resting guys during the regular season so they’re fresh in the playoffs, you do it. Every time.

The biggest counter-argument? Try Mike D’Antoni and his Houston Rockets.

D’Antoni is infamous for running his guys into the ground in the old style. James Harden led the league in minutes in 2016, and Harden and P.J. Tucker ranked third and seventh in total minutes played in 2020, while Harden and Russell Westbrook were second and sixth in minutes per game.

The only other teams with guys ranked at the top of the list were teams that were fighting for their playoff lives and didn’t have the luxury of being able to rest guys—Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were first and third in minutes per game and McCollum played the most total minutes of anyone in the league, while Devin Booker similarly carried the weight all year for Phoenix.

Not for nothing did the Rockets look gassed in the playoffs, the same way they always seemed to run out of steam in a long series deep in the playoffs (27 straight missed 3-pointers in Game 7 in 2018, anyone?)

But even worse than D’Antoni is Nick Nurse in Toronto.

The Raptors overachieved in 2020 in part because they ran their starters like trying to run the Boston Marathon with a thoroughbred used to running a mile and a quarter in Kentucky.

Kyle Lowry was fourth in minutes per game. Fred VanVleet ranked eighth. Pascal Siakam, 11th.

And the Raptors ran out of juice in Game 7 of the second round, falling to Boston, a team whose top minutes-per-game guy during the regular season, Jayson Tatum, ranked 26th overall.

The moral of the story is simple.

If you have a good team, and if you can rest guys during the regular season without substantially impacting your chances of making the playoffs (Portland and Phoenix get a pass; Houston and Toronto don’t), then you can shorten the bench in the postseason, allowing your stars to play big minutes when the game matters most and look fresh at the end.

That’s the stuff championships are made of in 2020, and it’s why the league’s final four this year, even with a five-month break due to a pandemic, are the way they are.