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Distributing the Spurs’ 240 minutes of playing time

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For a coach, minutes are the coin of the realm.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

For a basketball coach, minutes on the floor are the “coin of the realm”. Players want to play, and coaches want them to play. But minutes are in limited supply, especially when a lot of players have earned those minutes with their talent, effort, experience and/or potential.

When I was coaching college basketball, we used several different methods to dole out minutes. One year, we actually used a platoon system in which we subbed entire 5-man groups in and out. The starters generally played the first four minutes, the “second team” played the next four minutes, and so on. In a forty minute college game, this allowed the starters to play the first and last four minute segments of each half (plus one segment in the middle), for a total of 24 minutes, with the second team playing 16 minutes. This allowed everyone to get sufficient minutes, with the better players getting more and being on the court for the last four minutes. It also allowed the groups to practice together every day, which helped their cohesiveness. Of course, we did not use this system the several times when we had All-American, Player of the Year, or First Team All-Conference players.

Another year when I was coaching the junior varsity, in addition to being an assistant on the varsity, we had exactly ten players, all fairly equal. Each player became a 1 (point guard), 2, 3, 4 through 5 (post), and I had two for each position. I would instruct Point Guard number 2 to go in the game, and he would know he was replacing Point Guard number 1, no questions asked. I could adjust the amount each played depending on how the player was doing, the opponent and game situation. Another year, I did a similar thing with my three post players who filled the 4 and 5 positions. They were all good, and smart. They handled the substitutions themselves, playing about five minutes, sitting two-and-a-half, and subbing back in, rotating the three of them. One less thing for me to worry about.

My last several years, I wrote out a complete substitution pattern which we followed for the first 36 minutes of the 40 minute college game. Five rows listing who was playing each position during those 36 minutes. As opposed to adjusting on the fly, I knew from the written-out substitution pattern that I always had a good mix of players on the floor, with everyone getting sufficient rest at designated times during the game. As with the three rotating big guys, one less thing for a coach to worry about in the heat of the action.

This year’s Spurs face similar issues — though I don’t expect Gregg Popovich and his staff to do any of the things we did in college. The Spurs have a mix of players who have earned the right to play, but not enough minutes to go around. While the coaching staff wants to maximize the amount of time each individual player is on the court, they also know that it is a zero sum game — extra minutes to one player must be taken from another player’s time.

With reference back to the substitution spread-sheet described above, the row for the Spurs’ post man has 48 minutes. Those minutes have been divided between LaMarcus Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl. (Thankfully, the Spurs have moved on from playing the two of them together.) If LMA plays 30 minutes, Poeltl will play 18. Want to play Poeltl more? OK, that means LMA will play less — many Spurs fans would approve.

Once Pop spends those 48 minutes on the two-headed post position, he has 192 minutes (5 times 48 = 240. 240 minus 48 = 192) to dole out to the rest of the team. The rest of the team includes three veterans who have scored over 16,000 points in their career (Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan and LMA). Interestingly, there are twelve active players in the league with more than 16,000 points. The Spurs have three of them. You can also add in to the veteran mix the wonderful Patty Mills, who has apparently decided not to miss any shots this year.

DeRozan is still an excellent player, probably the Spurs’ best. If you give him 32 minutes a game, and give Gay and Mills 20 each, you have now spent 72 of the 192 non-post minutes on three players who may not be on the team after this season, plus another 30 or so on LMA. While they are not part of the future, all of these players improve this team’s chances of winning games during this season. And winning games remains a primary goal for the team, the players and the fans.

How should the Spurs distribute the remaining 120 minutes? At least 30 of those minutes must go the Dejounte Murray, right? Now you have 90 minutes left. We all want to see Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV on the floor 30 minutes each. Doing so leaves Pop with only 30 minutes of floor time left to spend. The Spurs need to find out what they have with their highly-regarded rookie Devin Vassell. Say he gets 20 minutes. That leaves only 10 minutes for everyone else (e.g. Trey Lyles, likely the best defender at the 4-spot), or to sneak some extra minutes to Murray, DeRozan, Gay, Mills, or anyone else playing well. For instance, in the last game against the Pelicans, Gay played 28 minutes, Mills 23. And remember that every “extra” minute to any particular player comes off another player’s ledger.

So while all team’s fans say they want Player X to get more minutes, I hope this analysis shows the difficulty of getting everyone enough floor time.

Let me add one more fact: This analysis does not include any minutes for Derrick White, who will be one of the team’s best three players when he returns from injury. Good luck with that.