The regular season is important. So, too, are those rare and extraordinary Game 7 situations when superstars have been known to play 45-plus minutes, leaving it all on the court in pursuit of the brass ring. But, I would argue, champions are primarily determined by what occurs in “ordinary” playoff games where the team follows a rotation that goes much less deep than in the regular season, but that limits everyone to a repeatable number of minutes, which is to say around 36 each for top players, with lower figures for those whose talents or stamina or durability force them to play less. In real life, substitutions are made based on matchups, when clock stoppages occur, game situations, injuries, fatigue, and a million other factors. My colleague Sean Kennedy recently did an excellent deep dive on the subject; if I’d known he was writing it I probably wouldn’t have done this piece, but after reading his I concluded there really wasn’t much overlap in the points Sean and I chose to make!
Anyway, as I say, Sean’s piece has great detail, if you haven’t read it yet, click over now and do so! But I am a simple man with a simple mind, and all I can keep in my head is what I call “BL76 format”: — four lineups of five players apiece, with each unit to play approximately 12 minutes. Our four key players are good for 36 each, indeed Harden typically plays more than that even in regular-season games, but rather than penciling him in for 39 or something we’ll just give him 36, along with Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and the better-every-day Tyrese Maxey. Let’s assume Matisse Thybulle and Danny Green are good for two shifts each; obviously either of them could play some additional minutes if the matchups are right, and we’ll address that below. 4x36 + 2x24 = 192 and of course there are 5x48 or 240 minutes to fill, so we need another 48 minutes. For sure situations will demand deviations from the simple four-groups approach and so some of the left-out individuals, like Paul Reed, will indeed see action. But, recognizing all those complications will change things, here’s what I’ve got:
Red Team [The Starters]
White Team [Let James Cook]
Willie Cauley-Stein (if he’s here beyond a 10-day deal)
Blue Team [Joel Stands Alone]
Gray Team [The Closers??]
I actually think there’s a pretty good chance Doc will give more like 24 minutes to the starting Red team, and that wouldn’t be crazy or anything. But to me the Gray team that replaces Matisse with Green in the starting lineup is alluring so I stuck with four units. Remember, this is oversimplified; we’re just trying to keep it manageable here so we can enjoy pondering this while waiting to board a train or something, rather than making it so detailed one has to stare at a spreadsheet to think it through!
If you weren’t excited about the acquisition of Harden, looking at these lineups should get you there! The Blue Team — i.e. the lineup we’ve been using all season to start except with Shake in Seth’s spot which in my humble opinion is not a downgrade as Seth’s defense is so bad, is the third-best of the four lineups. Let me say that again: a lineup approximately equal to the one that started and closed for us pre-break when we were just a couple games off the Eastern Conference pace is now our third-best of four 12-minute groups.
And what about the fourth unit, Team White? How do they compare to Doc’s much-despised All-Bench or bench-heavy lineups of the past? As I’ve noted before, none of the megastars who turned 32 over the past decade found that if healthy and motivated they were a lot worse than they were at 30. Not LeBron, not Jimmy Butler, not Kevin Durant, not CP3, not Steph Curry, none of them. I know it’s popular to assume that this will happen to Harden for some reason, and of course maybe it will. It’s funny, when people wrongly thought this would happen to Butler and Chris Paul, they said it was because they’d had a lot of injuries. Harden has been awesomely durable in his career, so people say it will happen to him because he’s played a lot of minutes, which of course he has since he’s so rarely hurt! Or they say it’ll happen to him because supposedly he’s fat; as a blind person I can’t see him but most fat guys don’t play 37 minutes of NBA hoops at a dominant level; is it possible he’s not as fat as people think, that he’s merely barrel-chested or something? Just asking?!
Anyway, I think he’s going to be tremendous, so I guess this is where my belief will be tested. I think that backup-heavy units of other teams, even strong teams, will have serious trouble keeping up against a unit where Harden is surrounded by three quick-trigger shooters and a rim-running WCS. If this unit is too problematic defensively we can play Matisse with them instead of Furkan and use him (Thybulle) offensively as a cutter. And if I’m wrong, if they just hold their own, well, that’s still great, as our other lineups compare favorably to pretty much everybody. But seriously, suppose Milwaukee throws out a backup-heavy lineup featuring their second-best player, Jrue Holiday, along with their backup center and PF, plus a starting wing and a backup wing (in other words, an apples-to-apples comparison for our White team). Even assuming all their injured players (Lopez, Connaughton, etc.) return to full health, that’s something like:
That group is similar to our White team except for the part where we have maybe the greatest offensive force in the history of basketball out there, and they don’t! Anyway, maybe I’m wrong about how good Harden will be,I guess we’ll find out after the break. My main point is, it’s fun to play with the lineup combinations! Please share your preferences and predictions in the comments.