In-depth analysis: Why buy a bench, anyway?

We're a month into the season, and the We Rite Goode crew want to be responsible journalists actually blog about something, so we're revisiting a number of pressing questions, but answering them in total roundabout, WRG-style. First, we assessed why Kobe had yet to be traded.

Next up: Why haven't the Wizards filled out their roster?

In a slightly unorthodox move, the Wizards decided to start the season with only 13 players, rather than the conventional 15. Here's what happened next.
  1. Etan Thomas: Lost during training camp.
  2. Gilbert Arenas: Back, then probably lost for the year.
  3. Oleksiy Pecherov: Who?
As if by black magic, one Wizard after another has fallen, leaving the team with just 10 healthy players. But despite limited guard depth and newly available Mike Wilks a potential backup point, word comes from the Post's Ivan Carter: Washington won't sign anyone for now, seeking to stay under the luxury tax. This doesn't sit well with readers, who assume that failing to sign players to open roster slots signals some sort of white-flag waving. Asks one commenter, "how do you win by cutting corners?"

Yet as Pradamaster at Bullets Forever succinctly explains luxury tax issues, the Wizards may need more bodies but "it makes sense...[not] going over for a guy who will basically amount to being a 12th man." Since Washington's barely under the tax, signing a veteran to the minimum likely kicks in the dollar-for-dollar tax and forces the team to forfeit potential luxury-tax revenue.


Let's set aside salary math for a second, though, to explore the underlying assumption: Do the Wizards actually need more players? Most NBA teams only have eight or nine guys in the rotation, and with every 'Zard in action save Dominic McGuire, Washington's no exception. So if the team--as presently constituted--can still win games, what's the need to sign Wilks? Even more broadly, if teams know that such pick-ups tend to sit, why bother signing marginal players in the first place?

Reason #1--To protect against injuries: Perhaps the best argument for having quality backups, as demonstrated by the Wizards' Antonio Daniels. However, unless a team's starters and key subs tend to be injury-prone, it's fiscally irrational to invest too deeply beyond the 9th player in the rotation; end-of-the-bench talent is largely interchangeable from players available for the minimum or called up from the D-League. In fact, acquiring too much depth can hinder performance as much as help--especially if it comes at the expense of a more successful stars-and-supporting-cast strategy.

Take the late 1990s-early 2000s Portland Trailblazers, as several very good-but-not-great teams relied on too many very good-but-not-great players, creating playing time and chemistry concerns. For example, the 2001-2002 Trailblazers featured the league's second-highest payroll at $90+ million and seven regulars who posted PERs of 14.7 or better (with John Hollinger defining a 15.0 PER as "a pretty good player"); in contrast, the past two NBA champions--the 2007 Spurs and the 2006 Heat--each featured just four regulars at or above 14.7 PER. Although the Blazers overcame rotation problems and a slow start to win 49 games, the Lakers ultimately swept them in the first round.

How this applies to the Wizards: Some are lobbying to sign Wilks now in advance of any further guard injuries, with Daniels the team's only remaining point. However, while Wilks would be a slight upgrade over Roger Mason, the player with whom he'd compete for minutes and who's having an awful year, he's not significantly better than Mason, who already knows the system, nor any player the Wizards could call up from the D-League should Daniels actually get injured. Basically, there's no reason to make a mediocre move unless someone else goes down.

Moreover, the Wizards' lack of depth is somewhat ameliorated by the team's Princeton offense, which diminishes the point guard's role in favor of cutting and motion. From a decade-old Sports Illustrated:
"Today you always hear, 'What are you, a one or a two?'" says [former Princeton Coach Butch] van Breda Kolff, one meaning a point guard, two being a shooting guard. "The question should be, 'Can you play?'" Except for center, every Princeton part is interchangeable.
With DeShawn Stevenson and Nick Young as big guards who can initiate the Princeton attack, having another mediocre point guard matters less than waiting for the best available contributor to hit the market. If the team needs anything, it might be a big man who can control the ball at the high post; perhaps Pecherov fills that bill when he returns.

Reason #2--To provide quality substitutes: Fans already know that playoff-caliber teams need substitutes who, upon entering a game, either maintain the team's high level of play or provide a missing spark. However, less understood is that who's available to play is far, far more important than how many are ready to go. Beyond the three or four players in the rotation, a typical bench only is expected to offer extra fouls, a few specialists, and perhaps an X-factor to force adjustments. Even fewer qualifications are needed at the far end-of-the-bench; Jack McCallum's great book on the Phoenix Suns, :07 Seconds or Less, details their coaches' search for the "perfect 12th man"--a spirited player who accepted that he'd be a glorified spectator. As a result, teams can readily overcome the loss of a valued reserve, but losing a starter can create a concerning domino effect, as affected bench players move into new, unfamiliar roles.

How this applies to the Wizards: Without Arenas, Daniels became the starting point guard, and everyone on the bench moves up in the rotation (the 7th man becomes the 6th man, the 8th man becomes the 7th man, and so on). Without Etan Thomas, Brendan Haywood became center de facto and Andray Blatche the first big off the bench, moving the rest of the rotation forward again. Thomas's absence isn't ideal, but it's enabled Blatche's emergence; drawing less attention is how the three bench guards have improved since Gilbert's injury, as Daniels plays starter's minutes and rookie Nick Young becomes an offensive catalyst.

Unfortunately, Mason's contract is guaranteed, so while his performance remains less-than-stellar, he's not going anywhere. Still, Wilks sports a career PER of 10.2 so Wiz fans shouldn't rush to proclaim him the backcourt's savior.

Reason #3--To fill out a practice: At minimum, coaches expect to have enough players for five-on-five, in order to conduct walk-throughs and execute drills. Moreover, teams that have young, developing players can use practice time to hone non-regulars' skill sets, such as the Warriors bringing in DJ Mbenga to give Brandon Wright and Patrick O'Bryant a practice big man.

However, practices matter far less in the NBA than they do in college basketball. Barring injury or poor performance, NBA coaches frequently settle on their rotations early in the season; in college basketball, which has far fewer games to begin with, the frequent practices play a key role in establishing a team's identity. Moreover, a rapidly developing college player can start wowing during practice and earn minutes as the season goes along; in the NBA, a Jermaine O'Neal or Michael Redd often sit until they move teams or a spot opens up.

How this applies to the Wizards: It's true that with ten players, the Wizards can barely field a five-on-five practice. Yet until they can't, there's no reason to worry--if anything, it ensures that each player is more necessary during practice, fostering additional engagement--and the team already has a fairly veteran core with experience playing together. And to take an Allen Iverson approach, maybe less is more; not only does Eddie Jordan run an extremely light practice, it tends to cost the players who do show up.


Even if it makes rational sense, having such a lean roster is still a bit unsettling; this is a basketball team, not a factory floor. And although Blatche is playing at a much higher level, one injury to Caron Butler and the Wizards basically revert to the same Arenas-less team that collapsed at the end of last season. If you're a Wizards fan--believing in the team's goal to push ever-deeper into the playoffs--you can't help but envy how Dallas owner Mark Cuban's willingness to pay whatever price helped turn the equally woeful Mavericks into championship contenders.


Unless there's another injury, there's no compelling reason to add a player of Wilks' marginal value. And until last night's stinker versus the 76ers, the team was playing with chemistry and spark missing since March of last year; each guy on the active roster knows that he needs to be ready to go. So long as everyone stays healthy, this squad remains intriguing to watch--as any team that plays its starters during garbage time would be--and by having salary flexibility, the Wizards may even derive a competitive advantage out of their miserly ways.

Still, any favorable forecast for the team requires continued good health...and since the team's already lost Gilbert, Etan, and that big Oily guy, how much worse can it get? Let's hope the Curse of Le Boulez doesnt feel obligated to provide an answer.

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posted by Crucifictorious @ 06:52,


At December 2, 2007 at 6:06 PM, Anonymous Jones said...

Wilks sucks. Mason isn't better, but he looked pretty good last night.

At December 3, 2007 at 1:00 PM, Blogger Jarrett Carter said...

Quick! Someone get Robert Pack on the line, ASAP!

At December 6, 2007 at 7:16 PM, Anonymous UtesFan89 said...

If they want a biggie, we'll give them Flop for a quarter.


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