March 03, 2009
By now you've probably heard that the home scoring crew of the Atlanta Hawks is a bunch of big meanies who want to hurt the other team with their duplicitous ways.
You've likely read that they incorrectly credited a fourth foul to Delonte West late in the third quarter of Cleveland's win over Atlanta on Sunday, directly forcing poor widdle Cavs coach Mike Brown to remove Delonte in the midst of a close game. Because he had four fouls.
At the 2:41 mark of the third quarter.
This is what passes for conventional wisdom in the NBA, and I have news for you ... it's not all that wise.
You see it all the time, mainly with Larry Brown disciples (Mike Brown, by extension, is one), and it never seems to make any basketball sense.
Coaches lift players because of the threat of them getting in foul trouble. The point of avoiding foul trouble is to avoid having to remove your players from the game, so to avoid foul trouble these coaches (say it with me) remove their players from the game.
Delonte West, with four fouls and less than 15 minutes remaining in a 48 minute game, isn't even technically on pace for six fouls per 48 minutes (5.8ish, if you're nasty). But let's say he is. That's six fouls in 48 minutes. That's supposed to happen. That's OK. You can manage that better than, say, pulling him regardless of context with nearly three minutes left in the third solely because he has four fouls. West isn't the most extreme case, so we'll get back to that.
Larry Brown is the absolute worst at this. No matter the player, no matter the context, no matter the reason, he will pull a player in the first half who has two fouls, and refuse to play him for the rest of the half. This makes no sense, at all. Even if the player does pick up that dreaded third foul, this means ... what? That he's due for six fouls over the course of a game?
That, even if he continues at this rate, you could still lift him with six minutes to go in the fourth quarter after he picks up his fifth, only to plop him back in with two minutes to go for crunch time?
And I've got more news for you. Points in "crunch time" count just as much as points scored at the eight minute mark of the second quarter. Yes, you want your best on the floor for the final stretches of a close game, but you could be on the wrong end of a blowout in those final stretches if you've lifted a top player in the first half merely because he has two fouls.
Really, it all comes back to this simple tenet:
The point of shielding a player from foul trouble is to make sure you can keep him on the court.
And the way to shield a player from foul trouble is to ... take him off the court?
The solution to the problem is to impose aftereffects of the problem on yourself before the problem becomes a problem? Does that make any sense?
There's nothing wrong with giving hack-happy players a cool off period. Some don't come out of timeouts and quarter/halftime breaks with their heads on straight, they can't keep up, and a couple of quick fouls result.
And there's absolutely nothing wrong with making sure that Johnny Hotshot is going to be on the court for those final two or three minutes, so if you have to sit Hotshot after he picks up his fifth foul with six minutes to go, fine. It's only a three minute break, and you'll have him back for the end of a close one.
But Brown and his disciples don't give three minute breaks in that first half, when they pull a player with two fouls. It's the very definition of counterproductive. And at the end of the game, they have a guy who should be playing and contributing for 37 minutes playing 29 minutes, instead, and finishing with three or maybe four fouls. It hurts the team. But because it's LB and it seems safe and people have been doing it for years, it sticks.
Apologies for the lame and over-the-top analogy, especially a clichéd one like this, but placing leeches on patients once seemed safe, people did it for years, and they tended to stick. Doesn't mean it's correct. God, I'm annoying.
Mike Brown isn't as bad as Larry Brown in this instance, but he's close. There's a bit of context to add regarding West. Delonte had played 9:19 in that third quarter without a blow, and ended up playing all but 40 seconds of the fourth quarter. It was understandable to lift the guard, coming off a long stay on the shelf due to a broken wrist, for nearly four minutes of game time plus the five minute break between quarters.
Brown didn't point to this as the reason for West's benching, however. He told reporters that the reason he took West out was because Brown and the rest of the Sunday onlookers were informed that Delonte had four fouls. And, I'm sorry, that's no reason to lift someone for four minutes in a game with 15 minutes left in it. Odds are, he's going to pick up his fifth foul (he did; and we're dealing with the reality of the situation as it happened, not paying attention to the scorekeeper screwup) at some point in the fourth, and leave it at that.
If West picked up his fifth foul later in the third? Then, yeah, you sit him for four minutes of game time. But if he picks it up around the seven minute mark in the fourth quarter, as pace would dictate? Then you sit him for two, maybe three minutes, and bring the guy back. You don't lose him for four minutes. Not in a close game, when every second counts.
As I said, though, West's case is far from the worst example. In fact, it's quite passable in a number of regards (like Delonte's overall time spent on the court), Brown brought him back in quickly in the next quarter (though only after being told that West only had three fouls; who knows how long he would have sat him otherwise?), and we're not even getting into the fact that he had three fouls in real life.
I don't want to pick on Brown, because he's proven to be a fine all-around coach this season, and if he'd given any other reason for removing West in the midst of his complaint, I wouldn't have made a peep about this. But he did place the removal of West, playing with four fouls, solely on those four fouls.
But overall, pay attention to this stuff. And call these coaches on it. There's no reason to prepare for the eventual denial of playing time by, you know, denying playing time.