Short Bench vs Long Bench: That is the Question
Back in the 1960s star NBA players played as much as 48 minutes a game. One season Wilt Chamberlin played 48.5 minutes per game with overtimes. They did this in Converse All Stars, at a higher pace of play, with no modern travel, training, diet, or medicine. Even as late as 1973 Wilt was playing 43.2 minutes a game at 36 years old as a 300-pound player. He played in every game that season and rarely missed games during the majority of his career. While some players are genetic freaks, this was common across the NBA.
I acknowledge today’s NBA is different with the three-pointer and the space it has to be guarded. I think the defensive intensity today overall is greater than at any other point. Overall I think resting players help does preserve them and keep them healthy. When the game is on the line in the playoffs rotations are cut across the board. That’s what they save them for, to be able to play 45 minutes for the key playoff games, and is a clear indication to me where the value is. It’s having your best players on the court.
In the NBA resting and minutes management makes sense with 82 games + the playoffs, a 24 second shot clock and 48-minute games sometimes played in back-to-backs. The key players are mostly in their late 20s or early 30’s and these are individual assets with 10’s of millions invested and owed to them longterm.
In college however you are talking about 18 to 22-year-olds typically, that play a game that has 30% fewer possessions than the NBA with a 40-minute clock, and 30-second shot clock. They do it about 35 times a season spaced over roughly 5 months. Almost the same time frame the regular season in the NBA is played. Many weeks in college there are only 2 games in conference season as well.
I don’t think playing a player 35 minutes a game in college under those circumstances and at that age is burning the candle. These players would be in the gym playing regardless and building their skills as they need to, to improve. They do it in AAU all summer in High school and before. Now they get paid with NIL and there is little loyalty with nearly 40% of college basketball players entering the portal each off season. It makes sense for a coach to max the talent at hand now more than ever.
My formative years were spent watching a lot of Duke and North Carolina in the early 1990s when they were winning 3 straight titles. Duke went to 4 straight Final Fours and won 2 National Titles with Christian Laettner. His senior season at Duke is regarded as one of the greatest college basketball teams ever They went 34-2 and completed the repeated at the National Champion and a wire-to-wire #1 ranking.
As you can see despite winning by an average of 16 points per game, Coach K played each starter 30+ minutes per game. Tight rotations were a staple of his program over the years. Even his last championship team in 2015 only played about 6 players
Coach K and Fouls
This is a coach that had McDonald’s All-Americans on the bench most years but chose to play tight rotations typically. I think that’s the biggest factor that sets Coach K apart from other coaches at the highest level. I recall once he was asked about what made him different, and he said it was that he let his players play through fouls. That’s part of how his starters played so many minutes.
How many times do you see a player get taken out of the game in the first half after picking up 2 quick fouls. Most coaches take them out completely the rest of the half, and then if they pick up one early in the 2nd half they sit until about 10 minutes. Many times coaches try to save them, and they go home with a foul or 2 in their pocket. They don’t even get the chance to use them, and the coach does the very think they are afraid of lose their player for most of the game. The only difference is they did it to themselves and not the refs.
When they got 2 fouls in the first half for instance Coach K said he didn’t take them out like most other coaches. He allowed them to play and learn how to play with 2 fouls. To me, that seems so basic and smart. If you take them out that is a just a self-fulfilling punishment. Exactly what you are afraid of happening you do by benching them, and get less minutes than you otherwise would have.
The only difference if they do foul out is you don’t have them for the final portion of the game. That’s the worst case. What they fail to realize is that first half minutes count just as much as the last 5 minutes. Having your best player like Grant Hill for example an extra 5 or 10 minutes is a bigger advantage.
This is something that isn’t credited enough. Players that play a lot together develop more chemistry. Running out a 10-man rotation makes little sense to me, especially if you aren’t playing at the highest pace in the nation and pressing every possession. You are sacrificing this team chemistry and familiarity players develop playing together. No matter how fresh the players may be, it’s an inferior player and in some cases, you are trading a 9th or 10th man for your #1. Also from the Milsap Doctrine that studied backups, we know that players who are allowed to play longer more established roles played better. They aren’t looking over their shoulder worried about making a mistake and aren’t coming off the bench cold.
One example that stands out for me from my formative years was the 1994 UNC team. In 1993 UNC was 34-4 and won the national title. They returned their All-American Eric Montross and the only significant loss was George Lynch. They replaced Lynch with Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, and Jeff McGinnis. That team went 28-7 and was upset in the 2nd round.
Watching that season it felt like they had too many good players and were trying to keep them all happy. Nine players played 15-plus minutes, and when you try to make everyone happy, no one really is it seemed in this case. The following season interestingly UNC would lose 4 seniors from the 1994 teams, and essentially play with the other 5 guys and a walk on getting 15 minutes per game as the 6th man. They went 28-6 and to the Final Four
It’s a contrast I’ll never forget that team seemed to have much more chemistry even if it was at the price of sacrificed talent and depth. It felt like they liked to play with each other. You never want to be in a position where you have to play a walk-on as your 6th man or one injury away from disaster, but it just goes to show how valuable chemistry is and playing your best players minutes like they did that season. It maxed the talent rather than dilute it.
While I was learning about the game in the 1990’s another team that challenged some of my own perceptions about the best way to play was the 1995-1996 Kentucky team that won the National Championship. Much in the same way Coach K playing tight rotations was a hallmark, for Rick Pitino going 10 deep was the way he approached it. This team was the epitome of it.
As you can see the top minute per game player played 27 minutes a game. You can play and win this way if you have the talent. That Kentucky team had 9 NBA players for example, but to me, this has always been a less conducive way to have success and maximize your potential.
You can win with any style or philosophy if the players are good enough. It just makes it more difficult as you need more talent though. Most years you will not have a roster with 9 NBA players on it. Even the 9th man is worse than the star, even if he’s a future NBA player too. That’s a trade-off for an inferior player. What is the value in playing Wayne Turner or Allen Edwards 10 minutes that Tony Delk could have played instead? Kentucky was just good enough regardless to sacrifice chemistry and more minutes of their stars because they were that loaded.
Arkansas 40 minutes of hell is another example. They were a pressing team in this model as well. They won the 1994 National Championship playing these rotations.
What is interesting though is when they were tested in the National Title games and the tournament both Kentucky and Arkansas cut their rotations. They were both playing their top guys 30+ minutes with some playing 35 to 37 minutes. When it came to cut-the-$hit time they knew the best way to play. That’s obvious.
My thought is why don’t you play like this the entire season and crush teams? You know what is your best lineup and that’s what you play in the high-leverage moments and games. Playing 10 deep is a model you can win with, but one that is less than the sum of it’s parts typically. I can hear the stupid counterarguments that players couldn’t hold up physically but they played 34 games that season over 5 months, and these were 20-year-olds. Playing 5 to 10 more minutes twice a week is nothing.
Not much has changed in the last 30 years with rotations. Some coaches have nice tight ones and others still have an extended bench and keep their top guys minutes low. Look at the last two National Champions…
If you have a player like Donavon Clingan coming off the bench that’s how you can get away with playing your best player 26 minutes I suppose. It’s always been mind-numbing to me to see players you know are great on the bench though or those superstars underutilized. Zach Edey playing 19 minutes a game was a travesty with the highest PER in college basketball history.
That season his per-possession stats were identical to what he produced last year on his way to the national player of the year and one of the most dominant seasons in college basketball history. The sport was robbed of what he was already at that point. Most players today aren’t going to stick around and play roles like that behind guys in some cases they know they are better than. Not with free transfer and NIL.
In the NIL era, it makes even more sense to invest heavily in 5 players. I have heard of some examples of coaches having the NIL money distributed up and down the roster. I assume this is to try to keep everyone happy, like with the minutes, but this makes no sense from a competitive standpoint. If anything coaches should be investing most of their budget into the top 3 players and playing them 35 minutes a game.
The stars are what drive the winning. Your three highest usage players are the core, with some complementary role players around them with whom they can build chemistry. That’s the ideal model to me. In the NIL/ free transfer era I don’t see how trying to build a team that goes 9 or 10 teams makes as much sense as one that plays 7. You will probably never keep them happy anyway.
Coach K didn’t worry about that or keeping the locker room happy with tactics like playing players’ minutes at the expense of success. He managed the locker room himself and if he had a player transfer because he didn’t like his role like Billy McCaffery (who would become an All-American), he replaced them. For my money, his approach to the game was always right on rotations. Driven by things like playing through fouls riding your stars as much as possible and playing your starters 30+ allowed for building that chemistry.
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