Coaching in the NBA has an infinite number of aspects.
From scheduling practice to maintaining travel routines to
managing numerous personality types throughout the staff and team
to drawing up defensive schemes, team-specific game plans and a
plethora of offensive sets, a lot goes into it.
On top of all that, there's also deciding on rotations that work
Rotations are an ideal. If everything goes right in this
game, this is how I want to sub and play this team. They are
trying to balance minutes and rest; it is just a plan. But plans
can change depending on each particular game, such as flow and the
magnitude of the deficit or lead at any certain point.
That brings us to the biggest rotation killer: Fouls.
Fouls present a conundrum for each and every coach. Do you sit
the player who's in "foul trouble" to protect him/her from picking
up another foul too soon? Or do you allow the player to remain on
the court and hope that he/she can defend without fouling to
preserve your set rotation?
The theory of protecting players is this: If I leave
this player in, he/she may foul out and be unavailable for the end
of the game when I need him/her most. Therefore, I will pull the
player out of the game to protect him/her from another foul, so
they are available down the stretch.
(On this episode of "Mythbusters" ...)
The theory is valid... until it's not.
Here are three scenarios where this strategy has bitten NBA
coaches in the behind, all of which have played out since the
beginning of 2022.
Case Study No.
LaMelo Ball vs. Memphis (2/12/22)
LaMelo Ball is easily the most important player for the
Charlotte Hornets on offense. His defensive shortcomings are
excused by his ability to lead a team on the other side of the
ball. Not having him in the game would most likely be a disaster
for Hornets head coach James Borrego.
Charlotte was getting run out of the gym against the Memphis
Grizzlies in this specific contest when Ball picked up his fourth
foul with 10:32 remaining in the third quarter. Memphis was up
78-45, and Borrego opted to leave LaMelo in the game.
The Hornets ended up cutting into that 33-point lead, bringing
the game within 24, when Ball picked up his fifth foul with 7:18
remaining in the third quarter. He remained in the game, hitting
two free throws, for another 23 seconds of game play. His team was
+11 since picking up his fourth foul.
The theory of protection would dictate that Ball should return
anywhere from four-to-six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
However, Coach Borrego decided to start Ball in the fourth quarter.
He played every minute, did not foul out and the Hornets were +25
since his fourth foul, cutting a 33-point deficit down to a
Granted the massive point differential probably made this an
easier decision, but the point remains. He played more than 12
minutes without fouling out, and his floor time was not in garbage
minutes, as his Hornets were fighting their way back.
Case Study No.
Pascal Siakam v. Brooklyn (3/1/22)
Pascal Siakam has been on an absolute tear during the second
half of the season for the Toronto Raptors. He is another player of
extreme value for his team, and arguably Toronto's best player
alongside Fred VanVleet. He is a two-way player who maintains a
positive defensive plus-minus despite a large usage rate north of
With his team down 89-81 at the 10:51 mark in the fourth
quarter, Siakam picked up his fifth foul; a pivotal decision was
coming for Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. Could Toronto survive a
six-minute stretch without one of their stars? Or was it time to
roll the dice and get as much out of Siakam as possible?
The Nets were in the middle of a 10-4 run, so Nurse determined
that having Siakam in the game right then was more important than
saving him for the final four minutes. After all, had the run
continued, the final four minutes would not have mattered, and
protecting Pascal would not be protecting the team.
With 2:40 remaining in the game, Siakam fouled out, but his team
had a four-point lead (100-96). In those eight minutes, Siakam
contributed 2 points, 2 rebounds and an assist — but more
importantly, his defense helped his team go on a 19-7 run. Although
he fouled out in clutch time, the decision to leave Siakam on the
floor had a direct impact to Toronto's eventual one-point victory
over the Nets.
Case Study No.
Jaren Jackson Jr. vs. Houston (3/6/22)
The NBA leader in stocks (steals and blocks) is Jaren Jackson
Jr., and he's currently the defensive anchor of the team with the
third-best record in the NBA. His presence on the back-end blocking
shots — as well as his ability to switch and guard on the perimeter
— has made him the most important defensive player for the
Jackson's season has truly been an outbreak defensively, as he
is well on his way to an All-Defensive Team honor; part of that has
been his ability to stay on the floor due to cutting down on fouls.
Yes, he is second in the NBA in total fouls, but his improvement
compared to his past seasons should scream how maddeningly
frustrating his defense was at the start of his young career.
He has blossomed. Jackson has described the timing of his block
attempt, which takes an insane hyperfocus, as the biggest factor in
his improvement. However, he is still prone to cluster-fouling at
times. When he fouls, he fouls in bunches.
In Sunday's game, JJJ picked up his second foul at the 10:21
mark in the second quarter with the Grizzlies up, 36-31. Just over
a minute later, he picked up his third foul and was subsequently
subbed out with Memphis still up five, 41-36.
Memphis played well against the lowly Houston Rockets the
remainder of the second quarter, taking a 10-point lead into the
locker room at halftime. When the Grizzlies returned to the floor,
Jackson was on the court for a brief two minutes before picking up
his fourth foul and being yanked out again.
When he was put back into the game with three-tenths of a second
remaining in the third, Memphis had surrendered its lead, trailing
92-90. He remained in the lineup upon the start of the fourth
quarter only to be pulled at the 9:39 mark, as Memphis was still
Jackson, carrying five fouls, never saw the floor again. The
Rockets would score 24 points in the final nine minutes of the
contest, including 14 in the paint.
The Grizzlies held the second-best record in the NBA heading
into this game, only to lose to the worst team in the Western
Conference. Defensively, they could not get a stop, and Jackson's
absence had a direct impact on that. Memphis head coach Taylor
Jenkins opted to protect JJJ from a sixth foul, so that when the
game mattered in the end, he could have him.
This result has deemed Coach Jenkins' decision quite the foolish
one. Sometimes, the game matters before the final four minutes.
Sometimes, you have to roll the dice and either let the player foul
out or hope the player defends without fouling. Either way, this
crucial decision within a game is one of the many chess moves that
a coach is responsible for.
In the end, I would argue that "protecting players" is a passive
chess move that often leads to defeat. Sure, JJJ could have picked
up his sixth foul within the next minute or two... or, he could
have remained on the floor as an impact player and altered the
course of the game.