The 2013-14 San Antonio Spurs were a team in literally every sense of the word. They were the first team in NBA history to not have a single player average over 30 minutes per game, they led the league in assists and they played a steady nine-man rotation all the way to the NBA Finals, which is almost unheard of.
Chris Webber said on an episode of Open Court: “The best teams always have the best role players,” and while that’s not always true, it sure feels like some rotation players will always have a huge impact.
Just think about the Finals over the past few years. Jason Terry kept the 2011 NBA champion Dallas Mavericks alive in Game 6 against the Miami Heat in the first half, finishing with 27 points on 11-of-16 shooting while Dirk Nowitzki struggled to get going. It allowed the Mavs to keep it close at the halfway mark and pull away when Dirk finally exploded in the fourth quarter.
For the Heat in their consecutive title runs, it was Mike Miller, “the one shoe assassin“, somehow getting healthy and making seven three-pointers to put the Oklahoma City Thunder away. After a horrible series, Shane Battier hit six threes to clinch Game 7. And of course there was the Game 6 shot by Ray Allen.
But the best example is the entire Spurs bench in the 2014 NBA Finals.
There are just guys who impact the game when it matters the most. It’s not an accident that Robert Horry was the one at the end of the crucial lucky bounce (why wasn’t he rebounding the ball?!?!).
The difference between winning and losing in the NBA often comes down to making just one more play than your opponent. And often it’s not the stars that are responsible for them.
Being clutch isn’t about the big shots for the Spurs, but the continuous precision and effort every player shows in executing Gregg Popovich’s schemes. When you get the ball you do something. Immediately. Whether it be drive, pass or shoot, there’s a beautiful rhythm and geometry to everything the Spurs do on the offense.
Pop trusts his guys and they trust him. It doesn’t matter if you only play five minutes because in those five minutes, you’ll execute your heart out and do whatever you can to help the team when you are on the floor.
The actual rotation numbers are incredible. Did you know that Marco Belinelli played the fourth most minutes per game out of all the Spurs this season?
*CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE. 2013-14 SPURS ROTATION VS. AVERAGE CHAMPIONSHIP ROTATION SINCE 1996 DURING REGULAR SEASON.
No other team since 1996 came even close to playing like the Spurs. Patty Mills was the “ninth man” on the Spurs, and his minutes average was up 40 percent from the expected.
On the other side of the curve, Tony Parker played 22 percent less than the average minute leader.
The difference of 10.5 minutes between Parker and Mills compared to the 24-minute difference between the usual No. 1 and No.9 rotation player is a 56 percent decrease!
No one plays like this. Ever. Not just championship caliber teams; The average team minutes distribution graph is pretty close to a normal championship rotation.
Impact on the League
It’s easy to say that if other teams had the kind of depth the Spurs had they could rest their stars the same way; While the Heat took great care of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James was put through a nightmare-ish season, having to cover for Wade and carry the burden on both ends of the floor night after night. Somehow the Heat felt like they couldn’t help LeBron at all, and while I can’t say definitively that it impacted the Finals, it sure didn’t help.
After some injuries to Kawhi Leonard, Parker, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter, the Spurs went on a crazy 26-4 run at the end of the season to clinch the No. 1 seed. It literally looks like you’re better off just taking a break for a couple months in the middle of the season and then getting ready for a playoff push if you’re an elite team. Thanks to that month or two break for each of these Spurs, they looked really healthy and fresh all the way to the Finals.
The era of guys playing over 40 minutes per game should be over. The truth is we have too many games today. With how fast, strong and athletic players are today, playing 3000 minutes (amounts to over 36 per game while playing all 82) a season without rest is not a viable option anymore.
Of course, holding the fort is difficult, even if the Spurs system makes it look easy. The Indiana Pacers were horrible when their starting lineup rested, the Heat basically collapse without either Bosh or James, and the Mavs turn into a below .500 team when Dirk sits (compared to the .600 mark they hit this year).
It’s just hard to be good without your best players on the floor, or more accurately, it’s hard not to totally collapse when that happens.
The league always tends to take on the personality of the champion, whether it be an increase of small ball or valuing nuances in offensive and defensive rebounding. Other teams are always trying to emulate the best.
For example, would Roy Hibbert have collapsed so completely if he had been played more conservatively? He’s 7’2″ and it’s already a burden for him to get up and down the court, and if he slows down even 1/7 from full speed, his effectiveness decreases exponentially.
It’ll be interesting to see how player rotation shapes up league wide next season. To me it’s obvious that players need more rest.