Parsing the “Second Unit” (Or, How to Cut Pierce and Allen’s Minutes, Which Needs to Happen)
Posted by Zach Lowe on Oct 20, 2009
There has been a lot of talk this off-season about how good the C’s second unit looks. The second unit is better than it was last season. The second unit is pushing the starters in scrimmages.
But there is often no such thing as a true “second unit” in basketball. This isn’t hockey, with distinct five-man lines playing loads of minutes together. Even during those Bench Mob stints in the early 2nd and 4th quarters, most teams have a starter on the floor.
On last season’s Celtics, for instance, only three of the team’s 20 most commonly used line-ups consisted of five back-ups, according to 82games—and those units barely logged 100 minutes between them. This was a slight change from 2008, when the presence of James Posey gave Doc enough confidence to play a full Bench Mob (Posey-TA-House-Davis-Powe) for 91 minutes—the fifth largest minute total of any C’s unit.
But still: There is going to be a starter on the floor with the back-ups most of the time. And for the 2009 Celtics, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were the starters Doc trusted enough to play this role. Look at that list of common line-ups again. After the two primary starting line-ups (pre- and post-KG injury), we see the two most often used bench line-ups: Pierce-TA-House-Powe-Davis (#3 most common, 145 minutes played) and the same four players with Ray (#5 most common, 101 minutes played).
This makes sense—the bench mob, for the most part, lacked guys who could create their own shots or open up things for others. Doc had to lean on Pierce and Allen for that. As a result, Allen played 36.4 minutes per game, less than a minute below his career average, and Pierce logged 37.5 minutes per, his most since 2006 and exactly his career average.
Pierce and Allen are reaching the point in their careers at which such a heavy burden may become unsustainable. Pierce just turned 32 and Allen turned 34 over the summer. Doc can talk all he wants about how the best players need to play heavy minutes to maintain their rhythm, but these guys are reaching the point where 35 minutes per game might be too many.
Simply put: Not that many guys over 32 play that many minutes per game. Since 1999-2000, only 50 players 32 or older averaged 35 or more minutes per game in a season, according to a data dive I performed on Basketball Reference. That amounts to about 5 or 6 guys per season, but the sample size is actually smaller than that, since several players appear on this list multiple times. (Trivia: Karl Malone and Jason Kidd appear the most, four times each). Add it all up, and we’re talking about exactly 30 players in this age bracket who have crossed the 35-minutes-per-game threshold in a single season since 1999.
This obviously won’t be an issue with KG. Doc has played him about 31 minutes per game over the last two seasons, and that number may fall this year.
But can the team cut its reliance on Pierce and Allen? Some ideas for those stretches in the late 1st/early 2nd and late 3rd/early 4th quarters, after the jump.
Here are a few ways the team might be able to use its new depth to decrease the burden on Pierce and Allen:
* Use a five-man bench more
The C’s have four bench guys who clearly need to play the heaviest minutes among the back-ups: House, Big Baby, ‘Sheed and Daniels. That’s a very solid bench foundation. Daniels’ offensive creativity and ‘Sheed’s post game—which I think he’ll use more in this line-up than when he’s on the floor with the A-team—give this four-man group far more offensive power than their counterparts from last season.
But we’re still missing a player. There are three guys who could fill the missing spot on this Bench Mob unit: Brian Scalabrine, Tony Allen and the winner of the J.R. Giddens/Bill Walker battle. All of them bring major questions. Scalabrine would have to guard small forwards in this line-up. Can he do it? Tony Allen’s presence creates a smaller line-up, but certainly not one that is dangerously small by NBA standards. But we all know TA can be an offensive liability. Giddens and Walker are unproven, and neither is ready for this role in big games.
So it would appear Scal is the frontrunner here. We’ve seen Doc experiment with Scal guarding quicker guys during the pre-season; he spent some time guarding Demar Derozan on Sunday. Is he prepping Scal for this role?
*Rondo is ready to be the lone starter on the floor
We’ve seen Doc use a Rondo-Daniels-House group in the pre-season. That’s a fun small line-up, but it may be too small. Can Rondo, at 6’1”, guard twos? Of course, Rondo and House don’t have to be out on the court together in this theoretical Rondo and Four Bench Players line-up. Doc could run out Rondo-Daniels-TA-Sheed-Baby or Rondo-Daniels-Scal-Sheed-Baby. The lack of jump-shooters in a Rondo-Daniels back court is problematic, but if Rondo wants $10 million per season, he should be able to serve as the rudder for some sort of all-bench line-up a few minutes per game.
*Diversify the use of KG
KG has played almost exclusively with the starters since he arrived here, and that “almost” qualifier basically disappears when we look only at non-blowout situations. Of the 10 line-ups KG played with most often in 2008 and last season, all included Pierce or Allen and most featured both, according to 82games. (See here for the 2008 data and here for 2009).
But the presence of more talented back-ups could give Doc more flexibility in this regard. You’re telling me a KG-Sheed-House-Daniels-Scal/TA line-up couldn’t work for two minutes per game? Or KG-Baby-House-Daniels-Scal/TA? Shoot, let’s get really crazy and toss Rondo in there instead of House, since we’re already talking about Rondo spending a couple of minutes with the subs.
Look, these are just ideas, and they are small ones. We all know the top six players are going to log heavy minutes in big games and play most of the 1st and 4th quarters in contested games. I’m tinkering around the edges here—those stints in the late 1st/early 2nd and late 3rd/early 4th when coaches stretch out the rotation.
We’re talking about getting Pierce and Allen two or three more minutes of rest per game. That may not sound like much, but over the course of a season, two additional minutes of rest per game amounts to the equivalent of having played nearly four fewer 48-minute games. It matters. And the team has the depth to play around with these season—and we haven’t even mentioned Shelden Williams yet.