The NBA: Where Amazing ... Scheduling Happens, Part 3

This is the third of a three-part series that examines the differences between this season and past seasons, the empirical impact of the compressed NBA schedule, and finally examining which teams understand the schedule and what their adjustments have been.

In the second part of this series we looked at the effects of rest and lack of rest on teams in a traditional season and then looked at how it's affected the Nuggets this season. We showed that games can be deceptive this season and you can't truly get an idea of how good or bad the Nuggets are just by looking at the outcome. We also showed that in limited sample sizes, the difference in the Nuggets performance is 10 points per 100 possessions better when playing with rest in contrast to playing on a back-to-back. This post will examine how teams are dealing with the lack of rest.

A good rule of thumb when trying to figure out how to deal with situations or figure out what optimal strategy should be is to look at the smartest teams in the league. In the NFL always ask what would Bill Belichick and the Patriots do? In the NBA, look at the smart organizations that also have good coaches: first and foremost the Spurs, then the Mavericks, and Rockets. When watching the teams mentioned above, it's obvious that they're all trying to manage the schedule in one way or another and one or more of the following tactics are being employed:

1. Win Probability Based Adjustment - Adjustment of lineups and minutes played based on likelihood of winning. Most teams will bench their starters in the 4th quarter of blowouts. The smart teams do the opposite and sit players out in the 4th quarter of games when the probability of winning the game is low.

2. Strategic Tanking - Strategic tanking is about picking games on the schedule that are tough to win and purposely benching most or all of your stars, conceding the game.

3. Resting Star Players - Exactly what it sounds like. Giving your star players a night or more of rest. This differs from strategic tanking in that the team isn't giving up on the game and may only be resting one player.

4. Management of Total Minutes - Limiting how many minutes your key players are playing.

Win Probability Based Adjustment

On February 29th, The Rockets were on the 2nd night of a Back-to-Back playing at Utah, a place that's traditionally tough to play. They were down by double digits in the 4th quarter and decide to leave Luis Scola, Samuel Dalembert, Chandler Parsons, and Kevin Martin on the bench. At around the 6:50 mark, they took out Kyle Lowry and went with their bench for the rest of the game. Houston understood that their team was on a back-to-back playing without much energy. They also understood that the chances of winning the game were relatively low and made the strategic decision to rest their starters and empty the bench. In contrast, on the same night, the Lakers were playing at home against the Timberwolves, up 20, Mike Brown brought back a concussed Kobe Bryant at the 6:00 mark.

A lot of teams are mismanaging minutes when they're way ahead in the 4th quarter. Miami is a team that likes to play their stars in the 4th quarter of blowouts. For example, up by 20 in the 4th quarter on the 2nd night of a back-to-back-to-back, Miami played LeBron in the 4th quarter and didn't sub out Bosh until around the 4:30 mark of the 4th quarter.

The smarter teams understand what their chances of winning a game are, understand that all wins and losses count the same in the standings, and are taking a strategic long-term view and resting their players whenever possible.

Strategic Tanking

"Everybody rests players at some point in this schedule...I can't run our guys into the ground and when it's time for them to rest based on the schedule and the time they've been playing then that's what's got to happen if you're going to put some money in the bank for later. And every team is going to do that at some point in the season - tonight was our night." - Gregg Popovich

On February 21st, the Spurs were on the 2nd night of a back-to-back playing at Portland, another tough place to play. Their next game was on the road against a depleted Western Conference foe, our Nuggets, with an injury depleted roster coming off their own back-to-back. With Tiago Splitter and Manu Ginobli injured, Popovich decided to rest both Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. He understood that his team, despite an 11 game winning streak, would be an underdog at the Blazers and decided to give his team a better shot of winning against the Nuggets. The Nuggets were the beneficiaries of the opposite scenario when Phoenix decided to rest Nash on February 14th.

Pop is rarely wrong, but in this case, he did make an inaccurate statement. Pop incorrectly assumed that every team in the league is as astute as the Spurs. The opposite is true: most teams in the league aren't strategically resting players. Even smart coaches like Tom Thibodeau and Stan Van Gundy aren't blatantly picking games to rest players. The Nuggets sure haven't given any non-injured, key players games off.

Resting Star Players

The defending champion Mavericks have taken the concept a step further and rested their star players for stretches of games. For example, on January 23rd, the Mavericks announced that Dirk Nowitzki would take the next 4 games to rest, rehab and condition. They've done the same with Lamar Odom this season and they did the same last year with Jason Kidd before the playoffs.

Portland, another traditionally smart team, doesn't even play Marcus Camby in the 4th quarter of a lot of back-to-backs. For example, on January 14th, in a close game against the Rockets on the 2nd of a back-to-back, Portland didn't even play Camby in the 4th quarter. In fact, they've held Camby out of a lot of 4th quarters. Boston has implemented the resting star players strategy for years. In the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons, before the playoffs, they've either taken their time bringing players back from injury or rested the big 3 while adding new wrinkles in practice for the playoffs.

Contrast this to the January 31st game the Nuggets played earlier in the season against the Grizzlies where Karl played a tired Andre Miller and Al Harrington, who haven't been rested all year, from the middle of the 4th quarter through the overtime period. Not only have our veteran players not been rested, but Karl compounds the problem by playing them more minutes in individual games. This has happened multiple times this season where both players were obviously tired.

Management of Total Minutes

Remember how we said that the Spurs are always on the right side of the bell curve? Well they're pretty much the only team we've seen that actively manages player minutes not only on a per-game or per-season basis, but also throughout a player's career. The Spurs understand two things that most teams don't. The first is that efficiency is the name of the game, not totals. If their players and the majority of their possessions are more efficient than other teams they'll win games. Second, they understand that their core players, their very efficient players signed to long-term contracts, are their key assets and must be managed accordingly.

We've prepared the chart below to illustrate how various playoff teams are managing player minutes. The chart shows the top 5 players, by average minutes per game played and is sorted by lowest average minutes. Notice how the smartest teams in the league, led by the Spurs, show up at the top of the chart. The numbers are per game, which suggests that not only are the smart teams taking games off, but they're carefully managing how many minutes their players are playing. Gregg Popovich and RC Buford manage their minute distribution very carefully. There is no doubt that this is a data-driven decision and something the Spurs front office has studied. In this lockout-shortened season, they've reduced their minute distribution even further than previous season norms.

We first noticed this in the 2009-2010 season where all of San Antonio's top minute getters were playing right around 30-31 minutes. The Spurs' 2009-2010 minute distribution: Tim Duncan 31.3 mpg, Richard Jefferson 31.1 mpg, Tony Parker 30.9 mpg, George Hill 30.2 mpg, Manu Ginobli 28.7 mpg. It's important to note that San Antonio was the only team doing this and every other team we looked at played their star players 35-38 mpg. It's also interesting to note that we can't find a single team, even amongst smarter teams, that manage their minute distribution this carefully.

We mentioned that the Spurs are so advanced that they've been managing minute distribution throughout Tim Duncan's career. Take a look at Tim Duncan's minutes / game and look how they've changed as he's aged.

















































Notice that he plays around 40 minutes/game until he hits age 27, at which point the Spurs reduce his minutes by around 3 minutes/game. They adjust it down again at age 28 to around 34 minutes/game where they keep it relatively steady until he hits the next big drop at age 32. From age 32 on, they start further reducing his minutes in a steady fashion. Pay close attention to what's happening as this isn't a coincidence, folks! A few years ago Matt and I did a study of how player eFG% changes as a player ages. We basically took every single NBA player, looked at their career average and then looked at how much better or worse they shot, by age, compared to their career peaks. The y-axis is difference in peak eFG% and the x-axis is age.

If you look at a player age curve and you look at what the Spurs have done with Duncan, you see that they've reduced his minutes, according to the age curve in order to keep his efficiency numbers up! Most NBA players improve until the age of 26, at which point most have hit their peak efficiency. After the age of 26, there's a slight drop in efficiency until the age of 32 where there's a huge drop in efficiency. Efficiency continues to drop steadily until the age of 36, at which point players generally fall off a cliff. Recall that the Spurs started dropping Duncan's minutes after the age of 26 and then again started to reduce minutes at the age of 32, steadily reducing them each subsequent year. If you've ever wondered why the Spurs are good year after year it's because this is really advanced stuff, they've understood it a long time, at least 10 years, and they've been practicing it. They're so far ahead of the curve and the typical intelligence level of a typical front office it's not even fair.

For those of you wondering, the age curve is also why the Nuggets killed the trade with the Knicks. We traded assets that compared very similarly efficiency wise. However, if you take a closer look at the assets we gave up and the assets we got back from an age curve perspective, you realize that we robbed the Knicks. Chauncey Billups is on the very far right of the age curve and will continue his decline. Carmelo is past the age of 26, isn't likely to get better, and has started his decline. In return, we got a young Danilo Gallinari, who should improve up until the age of 26, a young Wilson Chandler who should also continue to improve, a solid starter in Raymond Felton, and a huge haul of draft picks.

That wraps up our 3 part series on scheduling and management of the schedule. We hope we've done a reasonable job of showing how important proper management of player assets, specifically through minute distribution and rest, is to the success of a basketball team. It's even more important in this lockout-shortened season and come playoff time, should pay dividends for the teams who have been proactive throughout the season. The Nuggets aren't currently doing any obvious form of schedule or minute management, but it would behoove them to make sure our veteran players are well rested for the playoffs as the smarter teams we will face not only understand the importance of it, but also practice it.

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