Usually, the goal of a basketball game is to outscore your opponent. There are certain cases, however, where a second goal is also at play: buying time for your best players to get a much-needed rest on the bench during a playoff game.
Star players tend to play many more minutes per game during the playoffs. The games are more important, there are no games played on back-to-back nights, and there are fewer flights between games. In this year’s playoffs, the leaders in minutes per game, Paul George, Damian Lillard, and Nikola Jokic, have been playing 40 minutes per game. (Lillard and Jokic played 58 and 56 minutes in a quadruple overtime game). Lebron James’ career playoff minutes per game is 42, meanwhile. In Lebron’s 21 career playoff elimination games, he averages 45 minutes per game.
It would be ideal if, during those few minutes of game-time when these superstars are resting, their backup players would enter the game and consistently outscore their opponents. But that is not the only way a bench lineup might be effective. They could, perhaps, also be effective by simply slowing down the pace of the game, shooting late in the shot clock, grabbing offensive rebounds to reset the shot clock, or drawing fouls that stop the clock altogether.
Consider two hypothetical bench lineups. One is an above-average bench lineup which usually outscores its opponent, but occasionally gets outscored by its opponents by a lot. The other is a merely average bench lineup which outscores its opponent only fifty percent of the time, but, because it excels at slowing down the game, almost never gets outscored by its opponent by a lot.
On teams which have dominant starting lineups and superstars, the merely average lineup might actually be preferable to the above-average lineup, as it would almost never cough up a big lead created by its dominant starters. There is, moreover, the issue of $$: above-average players are in high demand, so they tend to cost a lot of money. Merely average players who excel only at slowing down the game are not in demand, and so might be purchased on the cheap.
Of course, this is not to say that teams should want their bench lineups to be merely average. But it does mean some teams might benefit from targeting certain skills and strategies for their benches: scoring late in the shot clock, offensive rebounding, drawing fouls, defending in such a way as to make opponents shoot later in the shot clock, and fouling well (for example, by fouling Ben Simmons in transition after your team’s attempt at offensive rebounding has failed, trying to take a charge but fouling instead).
This idea raises some interesting thought-experiment questions. For example:
-how much could you slow the pace of the game without sacrificing too much effectiveness? (The average possession length in the NBA this season ranged from OKC’s 12.9 seconds per possession to Cleveland’s 15.5 seconds per possession. In the playoffs, it has ranged from OKC’s 12.7 seconds to Denver’s 15.5).
-How high could you theoretically get your offensive rebounding percentage? (Denver had the highest offensive rebounding percentage this season, 30.8%. The highest in the playoffs has been Philadelphia, 31.2%).
-How much could you increase that without giving up too many transition opportunities? (The Clippers and Nuggets contested 70% of offensive rebounds in these playoffs; the Raptors only 46%).
-When and how often is it worthwhile to foul in transition to stop the clock? How often would fighting for offensive rebounds lead to a stopped-clock situation as a result of fouling, being fouled, a jump ball, or an out-of-bounds (with the refs looking at the replay to see who touched the ball last)?
Obviously, many of the skills that would allow a lineup to excel at slowing the pace of play would overlap with those that make basketball lineups good in general. But the overlap is far from a perfect one. By focusing not just on creating the best possible bench lineup, but also on creating the bench lineup most capable of wasting time, you might be able to free up roster spending in order to land the big fish superstars you need. All your bench has to do then is waste a handful or two of minutes, to let those superstars catch their breath.