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Subs: Eat Fresh

That was perhaps the lamest title ever.

I've been a bit under a blogging hole the last couple days (as I will be every Sunday and Monday), but rest assured, I've been thinking a lot about this upcoming season.  Namely, I've been thinking a lot about Eddie Jordan, and weighing his strengths and weaknesses.  

One of the major weaknesses we cite when criticizing Eddie Jordan is his "substitution patterns."  This is one of those buzz phrases that is vaguely defined, but still remains relatively unexplained.  What exactly does it mean to say that Eddie Jordan needs to improve his "substitution patterns?"

Fellow SB Nationer Dave at Blazers Edge has an interesting post up that attempts to define what the phrase means.  Mostly, he challenges the idea that coaches who struggle with their substitution patterns are ones who throw players out there without any rhyme or reason.  

I think part of what people mean by the phrase is that a player has to have some idea of his role on the team and at least a glimmer of hope that he will get a chance to fill it.  I agree with that.  But doesn't most of that defining process happen on the practice court and in the locker room rather than during the game?  Or put another way...a coach already has a pretty good idea that a player will fill a role before he puts him on the court.  It's not like he's throwing a whole team out there willy-nilly to see what sticks (which I think is part of the implication when someone complains about substitution patterns).

It's an interesting argument, although it probably gives head coaches a bit too much credit.  Not that any Joe Schmo could do their job, but do all coaches really take the time to find roles for everyone?  Why does a guy like Chauncey Billups suck on five teams before becoming an all-star with the Pistons?  I do feel that many coaches have a style and figure the only way to get players to play that style well is to randomly throw them out there.  

Still, I do agree that most coaches have a plan in place that we, the average fan, cannot see.  One of my favorite illustrations of this was reading Sam Smith's book The Jordan Rules a season with the 1990-91 Chicago Bulls (also known as their first championship team).  Smith detailed how Phil Jackson would deliberately leave reserves like B.J. Armstrong, Cliff Levingston, and others in at unnatural times, or with unnatural combination of players (e.g. Scottie Pippen and 4 reserves) in order to give them a chance to respond in all situations when the playoffs rolled around.  Such a strategy often cost the Bulls some games and probably infuriated the players and the team's fans.  The best example was when Jackson elected to play Armstrong the entire second half of a three-point loss to a Philadelphia team that was missing Charles Barkley, instead of playing John Paxson, the starter, for part of the time.  In the end, though, Jackson's quirky substitution patterns made them a better team.  

So does this save Eddie Jordan in any way?  More importantly, how would you define the best way to handle this group of subs?

Clearly, something was wrong with the supporting players on this squad last year.  They weren't very good to begin with, and once Arenas and Butler went down, they didn't exactly step up as a group.  Sure, Antonio Daniels and Etan Thomas were decent, but DeShawn Stevenson struggled severely, and Jarvis Hayes and Brendan Haywood were misused all season.  Darius Songaila was played out of position, Andray Blatche still only showed flashes, and Michael Ruffin somehow saw the court.  But how much of that should be on Eddie Jordan, and how much should be on the players?  

It's a question Dave wrestles with himself.

Most of the time when players are shuffling in and out it's because they're not succeeding.  But whose fault is that, the player's or the coach's?  I think it's easier for fans to blame the coach than the players but you don't tend to see your solid performers falling victim to the seemingly random shuffles that fans complain about.  Come to think of it, you don't usually hear the complaint applied on winning, obviously talented teams.  When the players make it easy for the coach to make decisions "substitution pattern" just isn't an issue.

Obviously, this is a chicken/egg phenomenon.  Players can't succeed unless they're put in the right spots, but the coach can't succeed unless the players fill the role he wants.  But I think that if there's one thing we can learn from The Jordan Rules it's that a coach's ability to get the most out of his personnel is directly reflected in his player rotation.  Phil Jackson may have lost games, but he knew exactly what roles he wanted his players to fill, and he knew exactly how to get them to fill those roles effectively.  What's so interesting to me is that, even if you saw Jackson lose games with an uncommon division of playing time, he never played guys out of position.  For example, if Phil Jackson was coaching this team, he would never try to play Jarvis Hayes at power forward or Darius Songaila at small forward.  That, more than anything, is something Eddie Jordan can improve with.

Perhaps I am giving too much weight to the coaching.  If Eddie were to try to throw this bench out into bad situations, for example, we might lose enough games to miss the playoffs.  But the personnel itself isn't changing, so Eddie has to deal with the hand he's got, and I guess the best way to simply (if vaguely) illustrate that point is to say that he needs to improve his "substitution patterns."