Zen and the Art of Rotation Maintenance



James Johnson appears to have fallen out of the Grizzlies rotation for whatever reason.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • James Johnson appears to have fallen out of the Grizzlies' rotation for whatever reason.

When faced with a difficult situation that seems unlikely to change, sometimes the right thing to do is accept the present circumstances and move on. After a frustrating week or two of rotation-shortening (not to mention an unconscionable and incomprehensible amount of time played by Tayshaun Prince) and my own constant complaining about it, I've decided to accept a few things as given and move on:

  • The starting lineup is going to continue to be Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, Tayshaun Prince, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol.
  • Those five players are also going to start the second half, no matter how well they fared against their respective matchups in the first half, and when they start, they will play until at least the four minute mark of the third quarter, if not the whole quarter.
  • Tayshaun Prince will continue to play more than twenty minutes a game, and sometimes as many as thirty-five. There will never be any explanation for this, because Dave Joerger will not feel one is necessary.
  • This will continue into the playoffs—assuming the Grizzlies make them—and will persist until poor performance and/or threat of elimination forces a change, or it may continue until the Grizzlies are either eliminated from playoff contention or win the NBA title.
  • James Johnson will continue to rack up DNP-CD's for the rest of the season since Joerger has decided he needs to shorten the rotation, regardless of the depth of the roster. This will only change if/when the coach realizes he needs Johnson in certain situations, and then the change will not be permanent.

I feel like those things—whether I want to accept it or not—have been the meat of most of my complaints about Joerger so far in his rookie season as an NBA head coach. My main criticisms of Lionel Hollins were (1) his offensive system, from an X's and O's standpoint, wasn't good enough and (2) he made substitutions by "feel," but he didn't actually have a good feel for which lineups were good ones and when to employ them. So when Hollins was replaced by Joerger as the head coach, I certainly thought the Grizzlies were taking a risk in getting rid of a coach with such a track record of winning, but I thought that if the new coach was an improvement over Hollins in those two areas, eventually (and that's the key word—I knew it would have to be eventually because any coaching transition takes time to be fully realized) the Grizzlies would be better for it.

Sixty-whatever games into the season, I think we can pretty clearly judge Joerger's strengths and weaknesses in his first year of coaching. When you look at Joerger's season so far in light of my main two criticisms of Hollins, it's a mixed bag. Clearly the offense is better this year. Part of that is personnel, but the other part of that is the new offensive game plan that Joerger has implemented. The Grizzlies' offense is much more free-flowing this year, rather than running set plays every trip down the court. The addition of Lee and Miller (when they're on the court together and playing well) has dramatically improved floor spacing. Offensively, this Grizzlies team is light years ahead of last year's team.

The downside to that is that apparently Joerger is going to continue Hollins' substitution-by-feel method, and by "feel" I mean "playing the starters together for at least eight minutes in the third quarter no matter what happens, with total disregard for what's happening on the floor and/or scoreboard."

When the Grizzlies hired ESPN stats guru/writer/basketball brain John Hollinger as a VP of Basketball Ops, the hope was that Hollinger's hiring was an outwardly-visible sign of a front office intent on using statistical analysis and analytics as the basis (or at least as a basis) for making decisions about personnel and about how to use those personnel. That appears to be the case with personnel moves (see also Leuer, Jon and Calathes, Nick) but it doesn't appear to have been the case for lineup usage so far. If it were, changes would've been made by now.

Which is disappointing. The complaint for years has been that the Grizzlies didn't have their best players on the floor, whether it was Sam Young or Xavier Henry starting, or Dante Cunningham and Hamed Haddadi on the floor during the 4th quarter of a home game 7. The feeling among Grizzlies fans was that if somebody could just manage to convince the coach to put the best players on the floor together, the team would be unstoppable. I guess that's what's so frustrating about these situations—Tayshaun Prince playing too many minutes, arbitrary rotation-shortening instead of embracing the possibilities of Hubie-ball™, burying a guy like Johnson for no apparent reason—is that they don't have to happen like this, and it feels like maybe the Grizzlies are just so good they're winning in spite of it instead of because of it.

That frustration, the hope of a new coach bringing in a new mindset about how best to employ the players on the roster, has weighed down each and every game I've watched since the Grizzlies got Marc Gasol back in January. I've written about it, talked to radio shows and other Grizzlies writers about it, taken to the Twitter pulpit to preach about it—not because I feel like I have some sort of influence with which to exert a change, but just because I wanted so badly for this team to play to its considerable strengths at all times.

Frankly, I give up.

I'm just going to accept that the way things are is the way things are, and we'll see where the Grizzlies end up in the standings. Otherwise I'm going to be writing the same article over and over again Groundhog Day style from here until the end of the season, and that's not what anybody wants.

But I do hope, whenever the season is over and Griz management sits down with the coach to debrief the season, somebody says, "you know, you have to get better about which lineups you're using." I'd hate to get into another situation where every trade deadline turns into "take away the coach's toys so that he has to stop playing them" (which may or may not have been a small aspect of the Jerryd Bayless deal, Courtney Lee's outstanding contributions aside). It's an area where Joerger has clear room for improvement. He's a smart guy, and a very good basketball mind, and it's his first year on the job, so I'm not going to judge his overall worth as a coach based on this aspect of this season. But it's not what I wanted to see happen this season, and I know I'm not alone.

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