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Are the Pistons really playing fewer minutes?

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I received an interesting email from DBB reader Fadel:

I'm always hearing people (and even the Pistons themselves) saying how much rest the starters are getting because the bench is playing more. But is this actually true and does this really matter? I made a spreadsheet comparing the minutes the starters played in 2006-2007 and this year (2007-2008).

Last year everyone says fatigue was the reason why the Pistons struggled in the playoffs. However, even though the starters (except McDyess) are averaging fewer minutes per game, they will have logged more minutes at the end of the season. The only real difference shows with Tayshaun Prince, who will have played about 227 fewer minutes than last year.

Take a look at the numbers. I think this is interesting. (Note: I assumed each starter will finish the remainder of the season logging their current average minutes per game).

2007-08 Minutes

The reason for the discrepancy is so simple I hesitate to point it out: the starters are missing fewer games this year. Chauncey Billups missed 12 games last year while Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace each missed seven. So far this year, none of the starters have missed more than four. I'd expect the average minutes played to dip slightly between here and the end of the season (if for no other reason than to make up for the last few games where the starters traditionally sit out for most of the game), but perhaps not enough to make up for the difference.

Is Fadel onto something? Is all of this talk about fewer minutes just hype that won't have any real affect come playoff time? I honestly don't know. But I have a hunch that reducing the minutes per game is more beneficial than simply reducing the overall minutes, at least to the degree that we're looking at.

Why? Think of it like this: if you work a 40-hour work week by tallying eight hours a day for five days, you'll be frazzled come Friday evening but hardly asleep on your feet. But if you spend the first three days wasting time and then close out week with two 20-hour work days, you'll be a zombie by the weekend. Obviously I'm exaggerating to make a point, but I think there's something to that.

Also, let's not assume that all minutes are created equal. The Pistons are undeniably more efficient as a team this year (there are lots of ways to measure this, but I'm going to use 82games.com's quick and easy "points per 100 possessions" -- last year the Pistons averaged 109 on offense and gave up 103 on defense; this year, it's 112 and 103, respectively), which suggests there's a diminishing return to playing longer minutes per game. Billups has explained it by saying he feels fresher in late-game situations this year because he's able to sit for longer periods of time early, which makes sense.

If this is the case, the cumulative number of minutes may not be quite as important as the ability to get rest in the middle of a game ... which means perhaps the Pistons ought not follow the conventional "shorten the rotation for the playoffs" school of thought. Maybe it's the fact Detroit can go 10, 11, 12 deep on any given night that keeps the starters so fresh and the opposition on their heels. It's something to think about.

Let's face it, the Pistons are in an unusual situation where guys that can't even dress would probably crack the eight-man rotation of just about any other team in the league -- and it's not just me saying it. Here's Byron Scott ...

"[Jarvis Hayes] had 29 points, that was a real big surprise. He had a season high at halftime – a guy we didn't mention a whole lot," said Byron Scott. "We did talk about their bench as being a very good basketball team and that we had to come out and do a better job when their starters went out because we don't feel they have much of a let down.

... and here's Gregg Poppovich:

"To me, their bench is the most impressive in the league," Popovich said. "Those guys take pride in what they do when they step on the court. They’re very physical, very energetic."

And that's just me grabbing quotes from their last two opposing coaches -- were I to look for more, I'm sure it wouldn't be hard to find. Playing the starters for fewer minutes not only reduces the load over the course of an entire season but also provides more opportunities within an individual game for a highly energized and motivated reserve to come in and make a huge impact. (This isn't news: it's what was behind the mini fan-uproar when Flip Saunders didn't play Amir Johnson in Utah.) Jarvis and Maxiell had this impact on Sunday, Amir has done it in the past, and Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo have done it on occasion. Heck, providing short bursts of defensive energy in the playoffs is the only thing Lindsey Hunter is expected to contribute this year.

So does the fact that the starting lineup will actually play more minutes this season than last bother me? Not necessarily. Maybe I'll change my mind if the starters routinely log 40+ minutes a night in the playoffs, but if they can stick with something that resembles the current formula, fatigue shouldn't be a factor.