The Knicks today kick off what the team and fans hope will be a deep march through the NBA playoffs. The Celtics, longtime Knicks rivals, visit Madison Square Garden for game 1 at 3 pm. And although the Knicks are the higher seeded team, they’d be wise to avoid some conventional wisdom as they take on their longtime nemesis.
The conventional wisdom that I speak of is the wisdom that says that you must shorten your roster for the playoffs. No, that doesn’t mean you don’t play your tall guys, it means that you play fewer players per game than you played during the regular season.
With few exceptions, I don’t like this idea. I’ve never heard any convincing rationale for the generality. If sixteen playoff teams play fewer players for the playoffs and one of those teams wins the title, did they win it because they played a shorter roster? I doubt it. I’d love to hear that argued at SSAC (Sloan Sports Analytics Conference) sometime.
Often, coaches go with conventional wisdom blindly. Baseball has a ton of conventions and sometimes little thought is given to what’s behind them. One of their conventions is that you can carry a poor hitting player if he’s your shortstop. It makes sense, since a great defensive shortstop is a key component to a solid infield and great defensive shortstops are hard to find. So you give a little leeway on the offensive side to get the defensive advantage.
But about 20 years ago, I remember a major league team whose shortstop was hitting well over .300. However, their second baseman, who was an incredible fielder, was only hitting around .200. So they sent the second baseman down to the minors. Why? Because you can carry a weak hitting shortstop but you can’t carry a weak hitting second baseman. Pretty foolish, in my book.
The result? They were eliminated from playoff contention because of errors made by the replacement second baseman, errors that were on plays that the original second baseman would have easily made. So much for blindly following conventional wisdom.
Back to the NBA – why am I against shortening the roster, in general, and against the Knicks shortening it, in particular? In general, you want all the players focused on the team winning each playoff game. If the coach played 9 players on a nightly basis during the regular season and they made the playoffs and then the coach decides to play just 7 players in the post-season, how do players 8 and 9 feel? My guess is that they don’t feel as good as they would if they were getting playoff minutes. Many players would handle it quietly, some wouldn’t. As a coach, why introduce the chance for controversy or upset when you don’t have to?
This doesn’t mean that the coach doesn’t have flexibility. If the 9th man on the team catches fire in a game and hits 9 of 10 from the floor, do you sit him down because he’s not a starter and it’s time for the starter to go back in? I don’t think so. You’d want to ride the hot hand and, I’d guess, even the starter who was supposed to go back in would want to stay out and let the sub keep scorching the nets.
And the Knicks? Well, they’ve dealt with a lot of injuries this season and really can’t afford to have many more of them if they plan on taking advantage of their #2 seeding in the Eastern Conference. A shorter roster means more minutes for the other players. Tired players get injured more easily. It’s vital that the players continue to play as they’re used to. That means playing X minutes, sitting Y minutes, and doing so at roughly the times in the game that their bodies are used to.
If the Knicks respect the Celtics and focus on the task at hand, they have a great chance to finally beat the Celtics in the playoffs. And if the Knicks play the kind of basketball that “bookended” the regular season, they’ll win. The Knicks played great ball at the start of the season and great ball at the end of it. The best thing they can do is to stick with what’s worked for them. And stick with who’s worked for them, as well.
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