Even in a month where the Memphis Grizzlies have gone 8-2 to date, there's always something Grizzlies fans can find to complain about. This time, it's the inconsistency and decision-making of Dave Joerger's rotations.
Sometimes, it's James Johnson not playing. Other times, it's Tayshaun Prince playing too much. Why does Kosta Koufos get so many of the minutes for back-up bigs when the Grizzlies have similarly talented players in Jon Leuer and Ed Davis? It's these points, and others, that breed frustration as an unstable and often unsatisfactory rotation lends itself to fans not knowing when or in what capacity they'll get to see Bloodsport or Jonny Badger from game to game. Also, let's get this out of the way now so I'm not complaining about it through the entire post: there's no way Tayshaun Prince should be seeing more than two times the playing time James Johnson gets.
The uncertainty of playing time isn't only a problem for fans, but for players and the team too. Johnson has a Player Efficiency Rating of 19.3 this season and Leuer's PER is 18.1. That's third-best on the Grizzlies after Conley's 19.8. Sure, PER is a flawed stat to some degree, but nobody's denying that Johnson and Leuer have been pretty damn good this season. For them, it must be frustrating to regularly flit between DNPs and 10-15 minute appearances. Maybe they've earned more playing time than that, but before playing time, they've got to be wondering if Joerger will give them a steady role in the rotation. This might come back and bite the team in the butt when these talented players elect to relocate in the offseason for a more defined standing in another team's hierarchy.
The job of a coach isn't to satisfy each player's demand for playing time, but to deploy his roster in the best combinations and minute allotments that maximizes performance, and ultimately, wins. A lot of the time, that means shortening your rotation and just playing your best players as much as possible over the course of a season. Unfortunately, it doesn't feel like Joerger is doing even that up to snuff right now. As the Memphis Flyer's Kevin Lipe said about Joerger's rotation and lineups, "it feels like maybe the Grizzlies are just so good they're winning in spite of it instead of because of it".
Lipe brings up a good point. Even with the bump in the road that was Marc Gasol's injury, this is a team better than its 40-27 record which is nearly a full 10% down from its win percentage last season (.597 this season, .683 last season). The Grizzlies upgraded after reaching the Western Conference Finals last season, strengthening their depth and eventually making a trade for Courtney Lee midway through this season that has been a complete success. Low-profile moves like signing James Johnson or trading for Nick Calathes have panned out remarkably well compared to the buzz those acquisitions initially created.
As much as we can say things like "the rest of the West upgraded just as much or more" and "they've had terrible luck with injuries", the Grizzlies should be above scrapping their way for the eighth or seventh seed. Even now when they're rolling, many of the games haven't been smooth sailing despite the Grizzlies' depth. For all of the talent decorating the roster, it feels like the Grizzlies haven't weathered some of the injuries inflicted to major players as well as they could've. Most recently, the Grizzlies were blown out by the Brooklyn Nets on March 5th when Joerger was tested by the one-game absence of Zach Randolph. In that game, they lost by nine points even after outscoring the Nets by 18 points in the fourth quarter.
I took Grizzlies games from March, and plugged the minutes of each player in each game into a spreadsheet. The numbers are a bit overwhelming to the eye, but the most important things to look for are the empty cells indicating DNPs. It's also worth noting the fluctuation of minutes, although blowout games like the Nets and Sixers games have influenced that to a degree. (Beno Udrih's minutes actually turns out to be a fine indicator of garbage time!) (click to enlarge)
Jon Leuer's minutes have been on the rise lately, without a DNP-CD in his last eight games. This has come at the expense of Ed Davis and James Johnson, both seeing DNPs at Joerger's whim. We've seen that same trend before occurring with Johnson bumping out Davis and Leuer, or even Davis pushing ahead of Johnson and Leuer once in a while. Elsewhere on the depth chart, we have Courtney Lee, Tayshaun Prince, Tony Allen and Mike Miller engaged in a timeshare that seems to ebb and flow randomly. Miller's minutes fluctuate the most, but Prince can see anywhere from 20 to 35 minutes a night and a sudden reversal from one end of that scale can be jarring.
You could make a bunch of notes out of that spreadsheet about individual players, but the main takeaway is that there's very little consistency in Dave Joerger's rotation. Take today's game against the Miami Heat. Who's going to play, and how much? Does Johnson get in the game? Will Koufos play 10 minutes or 20? Who knows?
It's fine to rely on your best players for big minutes and utilize role players as the situation demands. Joerger is doing that to some degree, constantly rolling out Z-Bo, Gasol and Conley for big minutes while specifically tasking James Johnson with 'giving Anthony Davis a different look defensively'.
But still, there's a sense of havoc to the Grizzlies' rotation with its unpredictable DNPs and playing time fluctuations. It's not easy for any coach to manage such a deep roster as this one, where you can make an argument for any of 12 players to have steady roles in the rotation. Of course, that's too many players for any rotation. The easy way out was to use some of those players as trade assets to upgrade or build for the future (i.e. package multiple players for a better player or trade for a draft pick).
Now, after the trade deadline has passed, it will require a very delicate balancing act of minutes. The front office, with forward-thinkers and analytical minds like John Hollinger among the ranks, might know the answer. Team-building goes beyond finding good players like Johnson and Leuer, and extends to a properly structured depth chart.
Right now, it doesn't feel like there's any structure at all for the Grizzlies under Joerger. A structured rotation might mean playing the very best only and cutting out the players left over from the rotation entirely, barring specific situations where a certain skill might come in handy. Players in the "good but not better" range will be relegated to regular DNPs, but that's a much more clear standing in the depth chart than simply "sometimes you play, sometimes you don't". Some players will see the short end of the stick, but structure is always beneficial so that players stand firm somewhere, anywhere, instead of constantly being shuffled around at a coach's whim.
Last season's Denver Nuggets were a team lacking a superstar, and instead George Karl built them around depth. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are markedly better than any player that Nuggets team had available to them, but the comparison from them to this season's Grizzlies runs strong enough. As SB Nation's Tom Ziller said about the Nuggets last season, "[resilience] can be found in building a starless but really solid rotation and having a coach who knows how to use it". The Grizzlies are halfway there, and can model themselves after Karl who used 9-10 of his players in a steady role out of a roster that ran 11-12 deep.
From structure, you have stability. Lineups can establish chemistry knowing they won't be rejiggered in a week, and again in the next. A healthy competition within the team happens, as players know they have to outwork the rest of the team to get ahead. Coaches can develop players with specific goals for them to earn minutes in mind. Finally, you have an established lineup that features the team's best players night in and night out, one which a coach can tinker with to find the best dynamic that correlates most with his team's success.
As far as problems go, this is a good one for a rookie head coach to deal with while leading a playoff-chasing team. With 15 games to go in the regular season, Joerger and the Grizzlies are the seventh seed in the Western Conference. They've won eight of their last ten games and are in peak form now when it matters most, after a tumultuous start to the season. This is the team none of the high seeds want to meet in the playoffs. Any problems facing such a team comes secondary to the fact that they're winning.
But come the playoffs, when one of the high seeds (hopefully) ends up meeting the Grizzlies, structure will be all the more important. Not only is the postseason a time when rotations get cut even shorter, but it's a time where mistakes are magnified and weaknesses are exploited. A lack of structure in the rotation will come back to bite the Grizzlies in the playoffs when bench players find themselves in uncomfortable lineups and situations with the year on the line.
Dave Joerger has fixed a lot of things already in this season that has quickly turned from lows to highs. If the Grizzlies want to continue their success and reach new heights, Joerger structuring his rotation and finding a stable, strong pecking order to run with is the next obstacle facing him and his roster. It's time to get on it, else the Grizzlies risk a first-round exit and losing James Johnson and friends to free agency.