≡ Menu

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?

View this discussion from the forum.

in essays

{ 0 comments… add one }

Login to leave a comment.
Total comments: 15
  • thejohnnygold says 1 YEAR ago

    feelingsupersonic, on 30 January 2013 - 06:04 AM said:


    @timetodie: Lin is fine, I am okay with him and his contract. I think Lin is a good role player that can explode from time to time and deserves to be in the rotation of top seven players for this Rockets team. Honestly, I think Lin is still young and needs time to develop. He could be anything from a solid starter to a top sixth man in the NBA. Ironically I think he could dominate second units like Harden did for OKC and once he is on he is hard to turn off.


    @johnnygold: Regardless of who is right or wrong that is some impressive homework you did. I would like to believe that here at Red94 it's not so much about who is right or who is wrong but rather can we find the information that leads us all to having better informed opinions about the Rockets. After all we are all Rockets fans here and probably some of the best. Thanks for the insight johnnygold.


    You are right. Didn't mean to come across that way...I was aiming for good-natured ribbing.

    rockets best fan, on 30 January 2013 - 06:30 AM said:


    thejohnnygold:
    impressive................I bet you use to do a hell of a book report didn't you :lol: however it does put that arguement to rest. as for complaining about harden and lin we must remember these are players being put in this position for the first time. their young and just beginning to scratch the surface of what they will become. no way around it they are going to make mistakes.


    I was a history major in college...which means yes.
  • datruth says 1 YEAR ago feelingsupersonic, i agree 3 wins is three wins. harden seem different last couple of games. This team seem different the last couple of games. They seemed prepared and honestly had a game plan from the start. regardless of who is playing we all support this team.
  • rockets best fan says 1 YEAR ago thejohnnygold:
    impressive................I bet you use to do a hell of a book report didn't you :lol: however it does put that arguement to rest. as for complaining about harden and lin we must remember these are players being put in this position for the first time. their young and just beginning to scratch the surface of what they will become. no way around it they are going to make mistakes.
  • feelingsupersonic says 1 YEAR ago @timetodie: Lin is fine, I am okay with him and his contract. I think Lin is a good role player that can explode from time to time and deserves to be in the rotation of top seven players for this Rockets team. Honestly, I think Lin is still young and needs time to develop. He could be anything from a solid starter to a top sixth man in the NBA. Ironically I think he could dominate second units like Harden did for OKC and once he is on he is hard to turn off.


    @johnnygold: Regardless of who is right or wrong that is some impressive homework you did. I would like to believe that here at Red94 it's not so much about who is right or who is wrong but rather can we find the information that leads us all to having better informed opinions about the Rockets. After all we are all Rockets fans here and probably some of the best. Thanks for the insight johnnygold.
  • thejohnnygold says 1 YEAR ago I've got time!

    4th quarter minutes for James Harden in reverse order from today for the month of January including Win/Loss:

    Utah - 0 W
    Nets - 5:54 W
    Hornets - 8:38 W
    Denver - 10:50 L
    Charlotte - 9:09 W
    Minnesota - 9:27 L
    Pacers - 11:01 L
    Mavs - 12:00 L
    Clippers - 7:24 L
    Sixers - 12:00 L
    Celtics - 10:44 L
    Hornets - 8:48 L
    Lakers - 8:04 W
    Cavs - 8:25 W
    Bucks - 6:25 W
    Hornets - 9:41 W

    That is a record of 8-8.
    In the wins, Harden has played 67:06/96:00 minutes available. Roughly 68%.
    In the losses, Harden has played 82:14/96:00 minutes available. Roughly 86%.

    In games decided by 11+ points (10 games) Harden played 76:57/120:00 minutes available. Roughly 63%.

    Barring mathematical error on my part, this pretty much means you are exactly wrong, timetodienow. Sorry.

    Looks like McHale is trying to win games when we are behind and protecting Harden in the others. Besides, there is nothing to chase statistics for besides all-star selections, contract incentives, or a new contract (unless you're Kobe). Since All-Star is done now we'll see if anything changes.

    *I recognize that the zero minute Utah game skews the averages a bit, but it is relevant so I used it.
  • timetodienow1234567 says 1 YEAR ago Agree to disagree then. (P.S. I loved that game.) What are your feelings about Lin? It seems like Lin has been getting more consistent minutes and is attacking again, rather than trying to play mistake free. It's better that way. Just like you live with Harden's constant turnovers, you just have to live with Lin's. They will watch film and make some minor adjustments to cut those down, but this team is at their best when Lin does what he does and gets open looks for Harden and keeps them from double-teaming him.
  • Chichos says 1 YEAR ago and remember no lead is safe

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-8FksMVAdU

    I know it wasn't technically a blow out come back. but i love that video.
  • Chichos says 1 YEAR ago I have no problem having him pad some stats. Stats are the currency of the NBA, so let him add a few extra numbers in the PPG column. Then we get to hear analysts bring his name up in all scoring conversations. But you also have to admit that Harden is the only one McHale completely trusts except maybe Parsons. Harden plays those minutes because McHale doesn't have confidence his bench can play consistently well every night.
  • feelingsupersonic says 1 YEAR ago Respectfully disagreeing timetodie, look I don't have time to look back and check all the games but even if Harden was in there are multiple reasons as to why Harden might have been kept in games late. You cannot just give an opinion, like that there is a concerted effort to pad Harden's statistics, and state that it is a fact. If anyone wants to say the Rockets are definitely engaged in something then back it up with facts and if you can't just say it is your opinion. Nothing wrong with having a strong opinion but that doesn't make it fact.
  • timetodienow1234567 says 1 YEAR ago We all know Harden is the key to our team. But prior to last night Harden had played most of fourth quarter blowouts. And he stayed in longer than the other starters and went out once he got 25 points. We need him healthy and chasing stats is not the way to go.
  • feelingsupersonic says 1 YEAR ago That's just ridiculous to say that there is a real effort by the coaching staff and Harden to pad his stats. Unbelievable, what some of y'all find to complain about. I guess that is why McHale played Harden so much late in the game against the Jazz.
  • timetodienow1234567 says 1 YEAR ago But even when they've won the game or they've lost the game, say up or down by 15+ with 2-3 minutes to go, Harden's most likely still in the game focusing on scoring. What does that do except pad stats?
  • thelinquisition says 1 YEAR ago Not sure, but I think above should read: "So far this season, ... Parson averages 36.2" instead of 26.2.

    Also, @ datruth, if by stats you mean points, then yeah, I'm guessing that's why McHale wants Harden playing. He's the only player who doesn't lose confidence even though he's shooting 30% through the first half of the game.
  • feelingsupersonic says 1 YEAR ago Thanks for the piece. I like that McHale pushes these young guys especially during that stretch. Harden, Parsons and Lin are young enough to bounce back unlike some older guys in this league. Also I don't mind less minutes for Asik as past history tells us you have to take care of your big guys (see Yao). Above all I am glad Harden gets a load of minutes. Whether we get another elite player or not there will be times in the future when Harden will have to carry this Rockets team and will them to win. I believe he might as well get to know that weight now.
  • datruth says 1 YEAR ago Man please stop telling stories. Mchale allows Harden to stay in a lot of blowout games to get stats. Then when he has a bad game someone says he tired. Look at the tapes of all games and tell me how many times Harden was the only starter on the floor when the game was out of hand. The opponent pulled their starters out and Mchale had Harden in to get stats.

Leave a Comment