Or why Alvin Gentry is much, much smarter than I am.
I played a lot of poker in college, and I saw my fair share of winnings. A friend of mine whose money I never minded taking once told me that pocket aces was his favorite hand. Fair enough: I, too, prefer the best starting hand in Texas Hold ‘Em.
That’s not why it was his favorite hand, though, he’d tell me. “The thing about pocket aces is you can make two flushes, and either one is the nuts!” What a goofball.
However, this perverted sense of poker prowess got me thinking about Alvin Gentry and the Suns’ rotation. While I won’t claim that Marcin Gortat and Robin Lopez are aces amongst NBA pivots, it seems Alvin Gentry’s logic in his rotation of the two big men follows from this same school of thought:
Starting Robin Lopez and bringing Marcin Gortat off of the bench gives Alvin Gentry “outs.” He’s maximizing his options and his possible game-winning scenarios. And furthermore, he’s doing the same thing with Vince Carter and Jared Dudley.
If I drank coffee, my morning would have gone a lot like this:
My Agent Kujan moment came while reading the Arizona Central’s report on Marcin Gortat’s increased scoring since he joined the team and browsing basketballvalue.com’s Team Unit page for the Suns. As I’ve written before, most of the Suns’ current rotations have not seen significant playing time on the court together, so it’s hard to draw reasonable conclusions from the +/- numbers. What we can see, especially by looking at different units’ in-depth details, is that Alvin Gentry knows exactly what he’s doing. Frankly, it makes so much sense that it instantly made me feel like a fool for advocating Gortat and Dudley replacing Lopez and Carter in the starting lineup.
Lopez is approaching 70 minutes played on the year with the rest of the Suns’ current starting lineup, and Gortat has played almost 50 minutes with his most common lineup. The +/- numbers are more or less irrelevant for such a small sample size, but what is interesting is the particulars of each big man’s lineup.
The first thing that jumps out is the absence of Vince Carter in favor of Jared Dudley in Lopez’ lineup, which is odd since Carter is starting over Dudley. If we look at the breakdown of these two units, we see that both tend to play against the opposing team’s starting unit, so without the switch of Dudley for Carter and knowledge of Alvin Gentry’s rotation, we might simply gloss over the differences.
Knowing what we do about Gentry and the Dudley/Carter substitution, however, the pattern becomes clear: Gentry is giving Lopez and Carter a chance to come out of the gate hot. More often than not, Carter starts out cold (see his 1 for 6 shooting nights in the recent pass) and does his best zombie impression, at which point Gentry brings Dudley in for a spark on both ends of the court and, frankly, better overall play. Lopez over the past several weeks, conversely, has gotten off to a solid start, as he did on Sunday night against the Hornets, stretching his minutes with the starting lineup in the first rotation.
Lopez’s bench production, on the other hand, is a variable. He’s not been used much off the bench since his rookie season (last year, Lopez had 31 starts to close out the season). How would he react to a benching? Might he go into a funk that drags his numbers down even further? Would he be able to come into the game cold and play well? His production as a starter, however, is more predictable, if not spectacular, as we have his track record in those situations.
What does this have to do with Gortat getting extended minutes? Well, in the past with Orlando, according to the Arizona Central report, Gortat never averaged more than 16 minutes per game in backing up Dwight Howard. Gortat was brought to the team to shore up the Suns’ rebounding and defense, but he was also a known commodity, particularly for his bench production. He was comfortable coming off the bench, if not thrilled by it, and would provide steady production while on the floor.
Gortat’s defensive impact on the Suns is crucial, particularly with Gentry making early substitutions of Carter for Dudley. When Carter does come back into the game, Gortat can at least defend the rim in an effort to counter Carter’s saloon door defense on the perimeter. If Gortat gets off to a slow start off the bench and Gentry needs some offense (or if Gortat picks up 2 quick fouls as he did in New Orleans), he rotates Lopez back into the game with the rest of the starters. However, when Gortat lights it up on the offensive end, like in the past three games (and really, for much of the Suns’ recent road trip), Gentry is free to go with the hot hand and keep Gortat in the game in a newly-formed “starting lineup.” He also allows himself to do the same with Carter and Dudley – another situation where one player’s contributions as a starter are a known quantity, as are another’s from the bench.
It’s ingenious work by Gentry, who’s turned the old adage of “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” into a tactical decision in his rotation. By keeping Lopez in a starter’s rhythm but playing Gortat a starter’s minutes (when warranted), Gentry gets the best of both worlds – and, one hopes, the best of production.