Commentary

PER Diem: March 18, 2009

Teams that will be stronger, or weaker, with fewer reserve minutes come playoff time

Originally Published: March 17, 2009
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

I've been leading the LeBron bandwagon over here for some time now, so I won't regale you with tales of how he had 43 points and 12 boards and made the game-winning shot Tuesday night, or how he had his 21st "chase-down" of the year by blocking Rafer Alston's breakaway layup try, or how the Cavs now have the league's best record and an inside track at getting playoff Game 7s on a court where they've lost once the entire season.

Instead, I'll focus on another element that Tuesday night's game showed us, which is how much tougher it will be to beat the Cavs in the playoffs when LeBron is playing a bigger chunk of the game's minutes. He went 43 last night, which is more than his season average of 37.9, but still short of the 46 to 48 he's routinely played in past playoff series. The Cavs were plus-5 with him on the court and won by four.

That's par for the course for Cleveland -- pretty much its entire advantage comes with the starters on the floor. This chart that our own Kevin Arnovitz linked to yesterday -- ironically, in a column on playoff benches -- shows that the Cavs' starters are plus-2,694 points on the season, while the subs are only plus-301 (these results are multiplied by five, by the way, to account for each player on the floor -- in total, Cleveland has outscored its opponents by 599 points this year, not 2,995).

Not only is Cleveland's starter plus-minus far and away the best in the league, but its plus-2,393-point disparity between starters and subs is greater than that of any other team.

And why is that important for the playoffs? Because in the postseason the bench tends to play fewer minutes and the starters play more. Which means, other things being equal, teams with stronger starting units will tend to punch above their regular-season weight, while teams that depend on their benches to outproduce opponents will see that strategy rendered less effective in the postseason.

That, in turn, implies that a few teams will be stronger than their regular-season marks indicate once they get to the playoffs, and a few others will be worse. So let's take a closer look at the suspects in each category, and how it may affect the postseason:

Stronger


1. Cleveland: The Cavs, obviously, are a much stronger team with King James on the court, something that's likely to be true for nearly every minute of the conference finals and Finals should they advance to those rounds.

Additionally, weak second-unit players like Sasha Pavlovic and Daniel Gibson will have far less opportunity to screw up the starters' handiwork, because both will likely be relegated to bit status.


2. Orlando: The Magic's starting five can hang with anybody -- in terms of season point differential, Orlando's starters are ahead of L.A.'s and in a statistical dead heat with Boston's.

That's no big surprise considering the frontcourt trio of Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu, and the paucity of quality backups behind them. The starting five and sixth man Mickael Pietrus all have strong plus/minus marks, but the likes of Anthony Johnson, Marcin Gortat, Tony Battie and J.J. Redick do not.


3. New Orleans: The Hornets' starters rank sixth in the league in plus/minus. The subs rank 18th. That is one of the largest disparities in the league, and anyone who has seen a Hornets game can verify why: Once Chris Paul checks out, this team struggles mightily at the offensive end.

Backup point guard and backup center have been glaring, season-long weaknesses, with Antonio Daniels, Sean Marks and Hilton Armstrong all having severely negative plus/minus marks. Fortunately for New Orleans, that trio is likely to see far less floor time in a playoff series, making the Hornets a real threat to advance from any position in the West's top seven.


4. Philadelphia: The Sixers are another team whose bench has done it few favors, despite decent production from Louis Williams and Marreese Speights. The Sixers' bench, in fact, has an even worse plus/minus than the Hornets', because Philly essentially goes into just-don't-blow-it mode when limited subs like Royal Ivey and Reggie Evans check in.


Weaker


1. Chicago: The Bulls and Knicks are the league's only teams to have a positive plus-minus with the subs and a negative one with the starters. Chicago's differential couldn't be more glaring -- the Bulls rank 22nd in plus/minus from starters, but fifth from the reserves.

The reason is obvious -- the Bulls have virtually no diminution in quality when the second unit comes in, because players such as Kirk Hinrich, Brad Miller and Tim Thomas are as good or nearly as good as the men they replace; their opponents, meanwhile, have much steeper drop-offs.

Alas, this advantage is of limited worth come playoff time when rotations tighten and starters see a far greater proportion of the minutes. So if for some reason you didn't already think the Bulls were first-round roadkill, this is another reason to dislike their chances.


2. Utah: The Jazz have the best plus-minus in the league with their subs on the floor, a fact that shouldn't surprise given that they bring talents like Paul Millsap and Andrei Kirilenko off the bench.

But the flip side is that their starters rank dead last among the nine Western playoff contenders in plus-minus, and those are the guys they're counting on to do the heavy lifting in the playoffs.

I've been pushing Utah as a playoff dark horse all season, but this is one piece of evidence that makes me seriously reconsider my position. If the Jazz are gaining most of their advantage from a matchup that will take place with far less frequency in the postseason, it stands to reason they're going to be less effective.


3. Atlanta: Yes, this one surprised me too. The Hawks aren't a terribly deep team, but they've played quite well with Flip Murray and Zaza Pachulia on the court against opponents' second units -- in fact, those two players have the best plus-minus marks on the team. For the season, the Hawks rank seventh in bench plus-minus at plus-196, a fact you probably could have gotten 20-1 odds against at the start of the season.

Murray and Pachulia should maintain fairly prominent roles in the playoffs, especially if Marvin Williams' back doesn't heal. But the problem is that they won't have opponents' backups to prey on for nearly as long. So Atlanta is another team that could punch below it's regular-season weight come playoff time.


4. San Antonio: This one comes with an asterisk, because much of San Antonio's edge in bench points has come from Manu Ginobili, and he's effectively a starter. However, it goes much deeper than that. Manu has been hurt so often that three other Spurs reserves (George Hill, Bruce Bowen and Kurt Thomas) have played more minutes, and San Antonio's plus-267 disparity between starters and subs is the smallest of any Western contender except the Jazz.

Of course, the Spurs will have a couple of positives to offset that if everything goes according to plan -- Manu's again-delayed return being most prominent, and a likely No. 2 seed also proving helpful. Nonetheless, a rematch against the Hornets, Rockets or Blazers -- all of whom have outscored the Spurs with their starters on the floor -- could prove problematic based on the data above.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.