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How Deep Was My Bench?

Editor's Note, by Mike: Updated to include a look at the 06/07 Pistons and 07/08 Wizards.

Flip Saunders uses a short bench.  He uses an 8 man rotation.  How do we know that's true?  Flip said it.  Everyone says it.  Heck, I think I've said it.  But what do the box scores show?*

Let's take a look at Flip's handling of the 07-08 Pistons.  And we can make some comparison to the 07-08 Wizards.

Short answer?  I guess it depends on what you mean by "rotation."

Flip used only 8 or fewer players in exactly the same number of games as appears on Gilbert Arenas’s jersey.  That’s right, he never limited his bench to only three players.  Not once the entire season.

Ok, so how many times did he use 9 players?  Must be a lot of those, right?  Umm, no, that happened 8 times. 

To round things out, he used 10 players in 27 games, 11 players in 25 games, and 12 players—his entire bench—in 22 games.**  So, he used 10 or more players in 64 games.

The third guy off the bench averaged 15.5 minutes played.  The fourth guy off the bench averaged 11 minutes played.  That’s decent run for the 9th guy on the team.*** 

So, if the past is any guide, if we assume a top-8 of Arenas/Miller/Foye/Butler/Jamison/Haywood/McGee/Blatche (sorry DeShawn), then it isn’t the case that whoever emerges as a clear 9th, whether it is Young or Stevenson or someone else, won’t play.  They’ll still be looking at frequent double-digit minutes.  And being 10th doesn’t mean a guy will never see the light of day—he’ll still get his chances.

Let’s compare what we’ve seen of Flip’s last year as a head coach with how EJ handled the 07-08 Wiz in his last full season.

Players used






07-08 Pistons






06-07 Pistons






07-08 Wiz









07-08 Pistons

15.5 in 82

11.0 in 67

6.0 in 56

06-07 Pistons

14.5 in 82

10.5 in 75

7.9 in 50

07-08 Wiz

15.0 in 82

10.6 in 74

7.8 in 49

Important note:  The second table captures how many minutes per whoever was the 8th, 9th, or 10th guy in the game got in the games where the coach reached that far down on the bench and the number of games that average happened in.  For the 07-08 Pistons, I threw out the last 15 games for both the 9th and 10th guys to remove the "we’ve got this thing wrapped up" distortion.  (So, for example the # of games for the Pistons’ 10th player in the second table is less than the first, because I’m not counting the last 15 games for that purpose.  And, I didn’t use the 0 minutes in games where a coach didn’t get that far down the bench to bring down the average.  Obviously, if you look at all 82 games, the Wiz’s 9th and 10th mpg drop considerably, while the Pistons’ actually go up.)

So, when Eddie Jordan actually got to his 9th or 10th players, they played about as much as their Pistons’ counterparts.  He just didn’t get there as often.  And if you were one of the last two guys on the bench of the Wizards, you could pretty much forget about playing that particular game.  That just wasn’t true of the Pistons.

It is things like this that make it hard to remember that the "palace of good play" was apparently a Tapscott invention, because it pretty aptly described the situation in DC even before Tapscott was the interim coach.

Conclusion:  If he has more than 8 players he can use, he’ll play more than 8 players.  He can probably find a day-to-day use for 10 players even without any injuries.****  Maybe he does have an 8-man "rotation"—that can mean any number of things.  Perhaps 8 guys will know their schedule and anyone else is going to pick up scraps.  But there will be scraps to be had.

While I don’t disagree with Prada’s point that trading quantity for quality is a good idea (it almost always is in the NBA), I do think we need not worry about the 4th man in the backcourt shuffle disappearing and never being heard from again.  And, anyway, that’s all assuming everyone is healthy.  Which is not something we assume ‘round these parts.


Some random observations

  • The biggest games were usually the ones where only 9 guys played.  And, in those games, Flip essentially went to a full playoff-style rotation.  Against teams like the Celtics and the Spurs (especially the Spurs) the bench got short.  In addition to shortening the bench, the 8th and 9th guys both played sparingly.  Even so, there were big, closely played games with 10 guys all playing at least 8 or 10 minutes. 
  • Let it be known that I always tended toward BTH’s side of the whole BTH vs ET/EJ thing anyway, but man is it striking to come across the occasional sub-10 minute game from Haywood in the box scores.  Foul trouble?  Nope.  Ok, so he must not have been hitting the boards.  No, he had some of those in his limited minutes.  Whatever.  I think we can expect to see Haywood 25, maybe 30 minutes per this year, but I expect he will know pretty much exactly WHICH minutes those are going to be.
  • Those Pistons teams were blessed with amazing health, but looking at those #s as a Wizards fan it is just stunning.  In 07-08, the 5 main starters averaged 77 games started.  Rip started the fewest, playing "only" 72 games.


*  A note on the methodology:  I looked at each box score, and threw out player-games where the player either:  (1) played less than a minute; (2) played less than 3 minutes in a blowout; (3) played less than two minutes and either had a bagel or just did one of one thing (Mr. Oh-for-One-From-The-Field Pecherov, I’m looking in your general direction).

**  Of the 22 games with 12 players, 8 of them came during the last few weeks of the season. On the other hand, that still means that 14 times during the "competitive" part of the year Flip used his whole bench.

***  I threw out the last 15 games of their season for this calculation, because Flip was obviously resting his starters for the playoffs at that point and the 9th guy saw a huge increase of minutes, averaging about 17-per over that span.  I didn’t make an adjustment to the 8th guy, because those minutes didn’t change all that much.  Most likely, because the 8th guy was part of the playoff rotation, even if he didn’t need the rest, Flip wasn’t about to burn him out in that time.

**** I’m not necessarily concluding that Flip MUST go deep on his bench and that Eddie will always go short.  Maybe if Eddie had more "depth" he would have used it.  But, the numbers definitely refute the notion that Flip is a "short bench" coach.  If he has guys there I don’t see why he won’t use them.