When it comes to team depth, it seems like the average NBA fan is all too ready to dismiss the notion as pure folly. They seem to feel that it is entirely irrelevant. The most common example they bring up is that depth does not win championships. It seems to them that the combination of two to three strong players (I’ll use some examples that were put in front of me by someone else: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe and Pau Gasol) and a role player or two and you can pretty much guarantee a championship. Signed, sealed, delivered, it is yours. Frequently, those who hold this belief puff up their chests and issue a challenge to prove them wrong. Well, lucky for them. I am always good for a well natured challenge and giving them that example is exactly what this article intends to do. First, however, the issue of roster depth must be addressed appropriately.
The Los Angeles Lakers have won their second title in a row and head into the 2010-11 season as favorites once more. In each of those championship runs, the Lakers rotation was sliced to six players essentially. Bryant, Pau Gasol, Ron Artest (2009-10), Trevor Ariza (2008-09), Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum were the key cogs that turned the gears of this team. In each of the championship runs the Lakers were paced by Bryant and Gasol with Odom in 2009 and Artest in 2010 logging the third most minutes. Only in 2009, when Ariza played slightly fewer minutes than Odom, was there not a dramatic fall off in the number of minutes played between the “role player” and the rest of the team. Interestingly enough, Bynum was essentially the sixth man, in terms of minutes played, on each of those playoff teams. (Can we call him a bust yet? I will.) There you have it. This is the argument that everyone makes when it comes to roster depth. You do not need it. Look at what the Lakers have done recently and you can see their point. Ah, but not so fast.
This off season, Los Angeles (not the Clippers) was sitting high and Kobe Bryant was simply sitting to rest his knee, heal his finger, ice down his body, and take pain medication. Yeah, he is beat up. Despite the fact that the team had just won its second straight championship with virtually the same roster, Artest and Ariza being the only difference, the Lakers did not seem content to try it again without making changes. So what did they do? They went out and added depth to their roster. “GASP! No, say it is not so! How can we, the Lakers faithful, who have exclaimed from on high that roster depth is a pointless pursuit come to terms with the fact that our team feels differently. Woe is us for our eyes and ears have been deceived. Oh, Zen Master, what did we do wrong to deserve such a cruel fate?”
Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, and Theo Ratliff were brought in and are all blatant roster upgrades over the likes of Jordan Farmar and Didier Ilunga-Mbenga. (No offense to Mbenga, I love that guy. But Farmar should take complete offense.) The Lakers kept Shannon Brown around, signing him to a two-year deal his offseason but will likely see his playing time dip with all the new additions. So why, if a small rotation wins championships, did the Lakers reload their bench. Simply put, their bench was terrible over the past two seasons. Awful, truly awful. Phil Jackson knew it, why do you think he played his starters so much? Sure they are good, but they need to rest at times. The bench was a liability and hurt the Lakers as a whole.
Look at last year’s finals, it is the perfect example of why roster depth is important. The Boston Celtics were much deeper than the Lakers were and they used it to their advantage. (“But the Lakers won so any point you are trying to make is invalidated.”) The series would not have lasted seven games if it was not for Boston’s bench. Game four is a perfect example of why bench play is important to a team. Boston’s bench doubled the point production of the Lakers’ reserves as they were led by Glen Davis and Nate Robinson. Davis contributed nine points in the fourth quarter which helped to stem a Lakers surge and secure victory for the Celtics thereby tying the series at two games apiece. Yes, the Celtics lost the series eventually, mostly because Kendrick Perkins went down in game six with a torn PCL and MCL, but their bench played a key role in the series unlike the Lakers bench. Depth improves a team.
So where is my example of a team that won a championship with an extended rotation? “Ha, you haven’t found one, have you? I knew it. What a blowhard. This guy over here doesn’t know anything about basketball. I don’t even know why I take time to read this stupid blog anyway. Pssh, I’m gonna go read the latest Bill Simmons and John Hollinger articles. At least those guys know what they are taking about. Get ready for another Lakers’ three-peat. Lakers rule!” Well, now that most of you have probably stopped reading, I can get to the team that defies this notion that depth wins nothing.
As a Mavericks fan, I write what I am about to write only because it proves my point. If it were not for that I could never bring myself to do such a thing as this or even admit to having knowledge of it. During the playoffs in 2007, the San Antonio Spurs used not only their star power, but also their overwhelming depth to beat every team they faced on route to a sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA finals. Did they have a better starting five than the Cavaliers? Yes. With LeBron James worship reaching more demigod proportions everyday it would seem hard that a team could beat the chosen man-child. That being said, a better starting five will always have the advantage in the playoffs. Nonetheless, depth still helps.
Unlike the previous two Lakers championships, the Spurs in 2007 do not have a significant drop off in minutes or games played. Instead they have a steady, calculated decline with a complement of ten players receiving quite a bit of playing time. Jacque Vaughn played in all 20 of the Spurs playoff games totaling 208 minutes for an average of 10.4 minutes a game. Only Matt Bonner and Beno Udrih saw less playing time than Vaughn. Contrast that with last year’s Lakers, Jordan Farmar played in all 23 of their postseason games logging 301 minutes for an average of 13.1 minutes per game. Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Josh Powell, Adam Morrison, and Mbenga all saw less playing time than Farmar. Both of these players were their team’s respective back up point guards. The Spurs depth simply out classed each of their opponents, having only seen a six game series once, against Utah, on their way to the championship. Ten of the Spurs’ 12 players played in at least 18 games with eight playing in all 20. Eight of the Lakers’ players from last season appeared in all 23 of their playoff games; however, five of them only appeared in 16 or fewer of them.
Yes, rotations get shorter in the post season. It only makes since for a coach to play his best players more so that the team performs at a higher level when the stakes are greatest. This is a no brainer. Nor should Josh Powell be expected to play near as many minutes as Kobe Bryant. This is not what I am trying to say. What I am stating is that the Spurs team in 2007 breaks the argument that roster depth does not mean a thing in the playoffs. They proved that it does. Yes, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan logged the most minutes on the team but they were not forced to play 40 or more minutes a game because they had help coming off the bench who could maintain the same level of pressure on an opponent without any catastrophic decline in the team’s overall performance on the court.
Is the standard championship model based on the superstar, his sidekick, and a role player or two. For now it appears to be that way. This level of thinking is amateurish, though. The Spurs proved that in 2007. No, my example does not squash the two star player championship combination but it proves that an extended rotation is more valuable than it is generally believed. Ignoring the benefits of roster depth is to fail to grasp the entire point of a roster at all. Basketball is a team game no matter how much the media focuses on individual players. The Lakers are not about Kobe Bryant, they are about the triangle offense in which the team plays. There is absolutely every reason for a general manager to sign players who can come off the bench and replace starters while helping improve the quality of the team. This is why the Lakers signed Blake, Barnes, and Ratliff. (I think the Ratliff signing was in part because they expect Bynum to continue to underachieve and remain perennially injured.) It is why teams like Dallas signed Tyson Chandler. They do not want to see a performance dropoff when their starters leave the floor. A good second unit is a valuable thing to have, especially during the regular season when they can help you get wins to secure seeding in the playoffs.