In an era in which it seems like analytics and smart coaching have solved so many fundamental questions about basketball, how to stagger minutes among a team’s best players has remained one of the rare points of debate.
Scott Brooks took heat over sitting Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook together for years in Oklahoma City, and still hears it today when he rests his two star guards — Bradley Beal and John Wall — at the same time. Doc Rivers angered some fans by using full five-man bench mobs instead of giving Chris Paul and Blake Griffin long stretches to run things as the undisputed alpha dog.
A lot of team executives — even those who pushed their own coaches toward more severe staggering — insisted the issue was more complex. Some players have a hard time shifting away from ingrained playing time patterns. Durant famously preferred playing the entire first quarter under both Brooks and Billy Donovan, and then sitting with Westbrook to start the second. Was the possibility of a marginal edge worth annoying a franchise player creeping toward free agency?
Teams are generally at their best when all of their best players are on the floor. For some teams with deep, well-constructed benches, it might make sense to rest stars at the same time — and maximize the number of minutes those stars play together.
Philadelphia has two legitimate stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The spatial fit between them isn’t as seamless as that of, say, Stephen Curry and Durant. Simmons can’t shoot, and the two often inhabit the same general area of the court. They play at different paces. Even so, Philly has outscored teams by a monstrous 16 points per 100 possessions when Simmons and Embiid share the floor.
And yet: Philly has taken minutes-staggering to perhaps the most extreme point the league has ever seen, at least among top-tier, two-star playoff teams. When they have both been healthy, the Sixers have kept at least one of Simmons and Embiid on the floor for almost 100 percent of non-garbage time minutes. Beyond that, the Sixers rarely play any meaningful minutes without at least two starters. There is no bench mob. There is barely even a bench cabal.
“It certainly wasn’t my idea,” Brett Brown, Philly’s coach, said with a laugh in his office during a chat with ESPN.com before Game 3 of Philadelphia’s series against the Celtics — a series which could end Wednesday in Boston.
Sam Hinkie is long gone now. (“He died for our sins,” as Process Truthers like to say.) All but one of the analytics staffers from the Hinkie era left with him. Their replacements don’t agree with everything Hinkie did, or all of his beliefs about the game. But part of Hinkie’s legacy — beyond Embiid, Simmons, Robert Covington (finally off the Hinkie Special four-year minimum contract!), and Game 4 hero T.J. McConnell — is an acceptance among the coaching staff that the front office and analytics team will have a deep influence on matters that were once the private purview of coaches. Brown is a curious sort who welcomes open debate and new information.
The Sixers’ analytics team, almost certainly the largest in the league, crafted a general player rotation template before the season and handed it to Brown. (The team’s owners also have seen it.) It called for mega-staggering and rapid-fire substitutions. Brown and Jim O’Brien, the assistant in charge of substitutions, can refer to that template during games as a reminder of when they should exchange one player for another.
The team understandably declined to share the full template with ESPN.com, but some of the rules are obvious. The Sixers have player pairings they like, and some they wish to avoid. They will chip away only so much at the combined 3-point shooting, wingspan, and rim protection abilities of the five players on the floor. And the bedrocks: two starters, at least one alpha dog. The setup also happens to deploy Embiid in shorter bursts, so that he doesn’t get too winded. (Embiid’s conditioning should be a major offseason project.)
The system is not a top-down dictatorship. Brown has the freedom to tweak the rotation, and that freedom expands in the playoffs. He started McConnell over Covington in Game 4, breaking up a starting five that outscored opponents by 21 points per 100 possessions in the regular season — perhaps the single best lineup in the entire league. (The new starting five with McConnell logged just 22 minutes together before Game 4.) Brown has benched Amir Johnson in favor of more super-shooting lineups with Ersan Ilyasova at center.
Brown and his staff review the template at halftime of each game, though one representative from the analytics department, Sergi Oliva, is present at those meetings. The fourth quarter of close games is Brown’s territory. No one from the front office is scurrying to the sidelines during games to discuss substitution patterns.
“I’m the recipient of some fantastic analytics,” Brown said. “There’s a template that we start with. It’s a lot of math, and then some gut feel. It is collaborative.” The coaches and front office work together to anticipate how a specific opponent will rotate its players, and might adjust Philly’s rotation to account for that, Brown said.
In the beginning, there was pushback from almost everyone. “Everybody was uncomfortable, really,” Brown says. “I understood. I was uncomfortable. You’d have a guy like Jerryd Bayless — he’d be playing really well, and then he has to come out after three minutes. It came with pain. It came with questioning.”
J.J. Redick agreed. “It has definitely been a source of,” and then Redick paused, grinning. “A source of some contention.”
Bayless hasn’t played since early February, but he chuckled at those early-season memories. “It’s definitely different,” he told ESPN.com. “It’s not a normal NBA rotation. Guys are rhythm players. To play for two minutes, and then go out for five — that’s tough.”
Brown wrestled with the question of deviating from the plan when a player scheduled to come out got rolling. “You worry: Is it too robotic?” he said. “You try to find a balance.”
Brown typically pulls Redick and Embiid together about five minutes into the first and third quarters, and brings them back — sometimes as a tandem, sometimes 30 seconds or so apart — about two minutes later. Redick admitted the quick on-and-off was hard for him, especially when he returned from a leg injury in late January. He was under a minutes restriction, and Brown started yanking him even earlier — sometimes four minutes into the game, sometimes even less.
“I called them my cardio sessions,” Redick said. “I was literally just running up and down the floor for three minutes, and then I’d come out. It was like, ‘I don’t feel I’m in rhythm right now.'” Redick went to Brown and Oliva separately and asked if they might be able to extend his stretches. He wasn’t asking for more minutes. He just wanted longer stints, even if that would mean one fewer overall shift.
“It was, ‘Let me look at the big chart and let’s figure out a way to make this thing work,'” Redick recalled. They did, and the higher-ups accommodated him — at least a little.
Simmons in some ways had the easiest adjustment; Brown tends to play him in long, eight- or nine-minute stints. Even so, tracking all the players shuffling in and out around him proved a mental challenge. “It was definitely hard,” Simmons told ESPN.com after Game 4. “I really had to get used to it, and then things change again in the playoffs.”
It will be interesting to see how the Sixers manage things next season — especially if they land another star via trade or free agency. They didn’t really get a chance to integrate Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft and another guy who needs the ball.
They seem pleased with the overall results. Philly won 52 games, snared the No. 3 seed, and won its first playoff series since 2012 — B.P. (Before Process). Philly struggled early this season in the minutes Simmons played without Embiid, but won those segments handily after Jan. 1. It was one of the most important factors behind their late-season surge.
There is no universal answer to the staggering question. Every team is different. Even so, most experts have long agreed that some staggering is generally better than none. The Sixers may stand as proof of that — and proof that teams might even dare to be more adventurous in minutes distribution.
Brown can guarantee this: He will spend much of the offseason, whenever it starts, thinking a lot about it. “I pay attention to that more than anything else I do,” Brown said.