Rockets vs the Calendar: Starters’ Minutes on Back to Backs

In January, the Houston Rockets slogged through six sets of back to back games, five of them in a row. After winning the first three games of that stretch, the Rockets embarked upon a notorious seven-game losing streak, only snapping it with a win over the Charlotte Bobcats. Now that the grueling stretch is over, and the Rockets seem to have found a way to win once more, one can look at the choices the Rockets made during that stretch to see how they adjusted. Just looking at minutes played, how did Rockets head coach Kevin McHale respond to or try to prevent possible fatigue on back to back games?

The Rockets have been working on nailing down their bench rotation all season, but the starting rotation seems to be locked down. With the exception of chaos at the power forward slot, the other four Houston starters seem to be locked in, barring injury. James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik will always see the tip off, and usually hear the final buzzer on the court. As starters, however, they’re typically subject to the most tiring minutes load, and therefore their legs are the first go during back to backs and game-heavy schedule stretches.

Resting starters can help prevent fatigue, but puts the team in a poor situation; in almost all cases, the starters start because they’re the best players. Some coaches, such as Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, sometimes rest their starters for games at a time, or throttle back minutes to curtail exhaustion. Others, like Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, put a huge amount of minutes load on the starters and trust them to shoulder it. The six sets of back to back games the Rockets played in January give a glimpse into McHale’s take on this balancing act, and how he responds to changing demands in his rotation.

So far this season, Harden averages 38.4 minutes per game. Lin averages 33.2 Parsons averages 26.2, and Asik plays the least of the four, at 29.6 minutes per game. If McHale saw fit to try to save his players’ legs to have more chances to win, while sacrificing individual games, the players’ minutes should decrease on the first night of back to backs, and perhaps sink on the second as well. Over 6 games at the start of back to back sets, Harden played 38.3 per game, Lin played 33.8, Parsons played 36.3 and Asik logged 26.2 per outing.

Apart from a slight dip for Asik (largely attributable to foul trouble), nothing happened. Perhaps the rotation changed on the second nights instead. This would trade production on the front for more bench production on the back night, when starters’ legs actually suffered more. For those six games, the averages were: Harden 39, Lin 38.2, Parsons 35.8, Asik 21.2. Asik once again picked up a large number of fouls in some of those games, but otherwise the only real change is an increase of minutes for Jeremy Lin.

“No change” is perhaps the most surprising shape for the data to take. This means that McHale and the Rockets’ coaching staff did not noticeably alter rotations in the midst of a stretch of ten games in fifteen days. Fatigue clearly played at least some role in the Rockets’ sluggish play, and it seems no coincidence that their shooting and scoring dipped substantially during that stretch. While that many games in that few days will accumulate exhaustion even with a more bench-heavy rotation, a move to conserve the starters’ energy would have been not only defensible, but expected.

The Rockets, however, put their heads down and powered through. The least likely explanation is simply that no one thought of resting the starters. Every NBA franchise has some of the most skilled and intelligent coaching and management staff in the world (Yes, even whatever team you’re thinking of). Rockets coaching made the conscious decision to be consistent with starters’ minutes, with the exception of the confusing power forward situation. Undoubtedly, this meant that the benefits of this consistency were judged to be a greater boon than the fatigue was a negative.

While there are many reasons this may be the case, a few seem especially likely. First is the caveat that schedule issues are a temporary problem, and rotation alterations simply didn’t seem necessary for a situation that lasted only two weeks. Players may not always look far ahead in the schedule, but coaches do, and they plan (or purposefully don’t plan) for everything. McHale is also known as a players’ coach, and a toughness coach. He was brought on board to grow with a team that was expected to go through changes, and this may simply be an expression of that. In keeping minutes consistent for the core players, coaching may have chosen to favor stability and growth and trust from the core over a chance to win a couple more games in a season which, quite frankly, doesn’t matter.

Coaches like Popovich have long ago established trust with his core players that he will give them exactly the minutes and spotlight they desire. McHale is still in the process of building that with eleven new players. He’s also in the process of convincing the Rockets to buy in to his philosophies. He’s not known as an X’s and O’s coach, instead developing talent, bodies and minds. It may be that allowing players to grind through fatigue and ugly play, he hoped to let the players by tempered by trying times.

Whatever the reason, McHale has shown time and again that once he’s made up his mind on a rotation, that rotation is nearly written in stone. A player taking over games or taking advantage of minutes opened by injury seem to impress, but outside factors, such as schedule or fatigue, matter little to his coaching philosophy. Over the course of the next few years, as the Rockets hope to ascend to the elite, his ideology will be put to the test, and the question may be answered. Was it worth it?

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The Daily Blast – January 28, 2013