The Diff is your weekly WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, I wrote about how Kyrie Irving might actually be over-rated. This week, I’m writing about typical NBA rotations.
The Cavs have had some strange players take the court over the three years of the Byron Scott era. I’ve shared this chart before many times that breaks down the minutes of those three seasons. It’s dreadful. You’ll see players like Samardo Samuels, Ryan Hollins, Manny Harris and Christian Eyenga with over 1,000 minutes! Alonzo Gee is the overall minutes leader! Anthony Parker and Ramon Sessions are in the top seven! That’s the biggest change for the 2013-14 season: The entire bench has been remodeled and fans will see a very, very new Cavs rotation.
Looking at the typical rotation breakdown in the NBA can provide a glimpse of what fans might see actually occur on the court these next six months. Loyal readers might remember that back before the MLB season, I shared some thoughts on how the Indians were “embracing the strikeout.” In that post, I also looked specifically at AL Central teams and their typical plate appearance breakdown. Now, I’m doing the same for minutes in the NBA.
The historic data
I’ve taken a look at every team’s roster over the past three full 82-game seasons. This means I’ve ignored the 66-game schedule from 2011-12 because it skews the data a bit too much. Here’s what I’ve found, on average, with the per-game numbers reflecting the team’s entire season:
Player #1: 2,799.3 (34.1/game) Player #2: 2,531.4 (30.9/game) Player #3: 2,331.7 (28.4/game) Player #4: 2,105.9 (25.7/game) Player #5: 1,864.8 (22.7/game) Player #6: 1,617.7 (19.7/game) Player #7: 1,404.0 (17.1/game) Player #8: 1,214.3 (14.8/game) Player #9: 978.6 (11.9/game) Player #10: 795.0 (9.7/game) Player #11: 643.6 (7.8/game) Player #12: 510.0 (6.2/game) Player #13: 370.9 (4.5/game) Player #14: 256.1 (3.1/game) Player #15: 168.4 (2.1/game) Player #16: 106.3 (1.3/game) Player #17: 63.6 (0.8/game) Players #18-plus: 61.4 (0.7/game)
In 2009-2010, the Cavaliers had four players with at least 2,000 minutes: LeBron James, Mo Williams, Anthony Parker and Anderson Varejao. The team’s rotation skewed toward the top-heavy side. Players #13-plus combined for only 557 minutes total on the season.
In 2010-2011, the Cavaliers had three players with at least 2,000 minutes: J.J. Hickson, Ramon Sessions and Anthony Parker. Hickson had just 2,256. A total of 19 players contributed that season, with players #15-17 (Luke Harangody, Jawad Williams, Baron Davis) all receiving at least 380 each.
In 2012-2013, the Cavaliers again had four players with at least 2,000 minutes: Tristan Thompson, Alonzo Gee, Kyrie Irving and Tyler Zeller. Again, there were 19 total players with players #8-17 all getting significant pull at different times of the year.
Looking at the overall trends in the NBA, heavy-minute players are trending down. This past season’s minutes leader was Portland rookie Damian Lillard at 3,167. That would have ranked fourth-best in the previous two full 82-game years.
San Antonio’s Danny Green and Washington’s Martell Webster led their respective teams in minutes with right around 2,200. They ranked 83rd and 84th in the NBA as a whole last season. This was part due to injuries and purposeful rest for veteran stars. But the trend is apparent: Players aren’t having as many heavy loads throughout the season.
The average player #1-3 averaged 2,594 minutes during the 2009-2010 season. That number dropped down to 2,517 this past year. While that’s only a change of about 75 minutes per three players, those minutes then went to other folks lower down on the rotation chart.
For the Cavaliers, the issue over the past few seasons has been injuries, much like Washington last year. If they are going to expect a return to the playoffs, it will be because their key contributors are able to stay on the court for 65-70 games or more.
The Cavs right now
Very, very few teams have actually ended up relying only upon the 12 active players they use on Opening Night. In fact, only one team in this three-year sample used exactly 12 players during the course of the entire season: the 2009-2010 Orlando Magic.
For the Cavs, that has been obvious over the past few seasons with the variety of injuries and trades. This year, the team hopes to use Andrew Bynum more frequently by the end of the season. If he’s inactive tonight, which remains unclear, my guess is that the other two inactive players will be Henry Sims and Carrick Felix.
That leaves a 12-man rotation of these players, with their minutes totals from last season.
Big Men: Tristan Thompson (2,564), Anderson Varejao (901), Anthony Bennett (rookie), Tyler Zeller (2,033) Swing Men: Earl Clark (1,363), Alonzo Gee (2,541), C.J. Miles (1,364) Guards: Kyrie Irving (2,048), Dion Waiters (1,756), Jarrett Jack (2,349), Sergey Karasev (rookie), Matthew Dellavedova (rookie)
The biggest factor here is that the Cavs brought in two legitimate rotation players in Earl Clark and Jarrett Jack, took a huge flyer on Andrew Bynum, and supplemented these moves with the addition of four rookies. Only seven players return from last season’s Cavs; no one else on the bench is returning.
Projecting the 2013-14 minutes
This topic has been illustrated on the WFNY pages for months already. Kirk gave it a great first go-around back in mid-July after the Clark and Bynum acquisitions. I then followed up on Kirk’s post with my own thoughts about the rotation a few weeks later.
Now, empowered by the usual NBA rotations and the recent league-wide trends, I’ll go at it again with a more thoughtful approach. Combining last season’s minutes and projected health, here’s my best guess at the minutes for the 2013-14 Cavs.
Player #1: Tristan Thompson, 2,500 mins, 78 games (32.1) Player #2: Kyrie Irving, 2,300 mins, 71 games (32.4) Player #3: Jarrett Jack, 2,100 mins, 76 games (27.6) Player #4: Dion Waiters, 2,000 mins, 68 games (29.4) Player #5: Anderson Varejao, 1,600 mins, 58 games (27.6) Player #6: Earl Clark, 1,550 mins, 72 games (21.5) Player #7: Anthony Bennett, 1,400 mins, 70 games (20.0) Player #8: Alonzo Gee, 1,320 mins, 78 games (16.9) Player #9: Tyler Zeller, 1,100 mins, 60 games (18.3) Player #10: Andrew Bynum, 900 mins, 36 games (25.0) Player #11: C.J. Miles, 800 mins, 47 games (17.0) Player #12: Sergey Karsev, 500 mins, 35 games (14.3) Others: 1,610 mins (19.6 mins/82 games)
Of course, trades usually do happen. New signings will appear out of nowhere. But knowing what we know about how the average NBA rotation shakes out, this is my impression of what we could see this season.
Again, it’s skewed down with Thompson and Irving leading the teams in minutes, yet still being lower than the usual NBA averages. I’d guess they’d both be handled carefully this season with a couple scratches here and there.
This compares pretty closely with previous averages and last season’s minutes. For their careers, Jack has averaged 27.9, Dion 28.8 and Irving 32.4. That takes up the vast majority of a game’s minutes at the guard positions. Miles, Gee or Karasev could slot in after that.
I’m hopeful of Andrew Bynum to participate for at least half the season. If not, then we’ll likely see a higher portfolio this year for Anthony Bennett or Tyler Zeller than we might just want. I’m also not too optimistic about Anderson Varejao overall, but hopeful he can be at his usual self for two-thirds of the season.
So what are your guesses about what will happen over the next six months? It’s a long ways away to project, but I was hopeful the historic numbers could be helpful to this end.
Jacob Rosen is a long-time contributor to WaitingForNextYear. He's also a writer online at SportsAnalyticsBlog and Nylon Calculus . An Akron native, Jacob is a current MBA student at the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. You can follow him on Twitter @WFNYJacob or e-mail him at udjrosen(at)gmail(dot)com.