Method to the Minute Madness?

December 27th, 2013 | by Dan Clayton
If ring-seeking Richard Jefferson is on his way out in July, why all the PT? Let's talk minutes. (Photo by Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images)

If ring-seeking Richard Jefferson is on his way out in July, why all the PT? Let’s talk minutes. (Photo by Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Already a lightning rod for criticism in the Jazz fan community, forward Richard Jefferson probably didn’t do himself many favors by announcing on Thursday that he plans on going “championship hunting” as a free agent next summer. Like DeMarre Carroll last season, Jefferson shared that he’s playing for 29 other teams — or at least the subset of those 29 who are contenders.

Fans probably took the declaration a little better from Carroll, who was on a minimum contract playing an off-the-bench role. Jefferson is fourth on the team in minutes (was 3rd until Wednesday), so his overt declaration that he’s gone in July sits differently. At the very least, it reignites a discussion on the reasoning behind doling out roles to players who aren’t part of the team’s future.

Should Jefferson be top four in minutes if he’s already plotting his departure? What about other likely-to-depart vets like Andris Biedrins? The minutes discussion will be part of the Jazz fan dialogue all year, so here are some thoughts about how and why coaches make minute allocation decisions.

The Zero-Sum Game of Minutes

The discussion about minutes wouldn’t be as heated if they were in infinite supply. But every minute that Jefferson or Biedrins plays is one minute less for the likes of Burks or fan favorite Rudy Gobert. And since we all have our personal favorites, our pet project young guys, you don’t have to look far to see this mad-lib filled in by angsty fans: “Why is _____ (veteran) playing over _____ (intriguing if somewhat raw young guy)?”

I have my guys, too, so I understand the sentiment. But I don’t think it’s as linear as the rhetoric (“So-and-so obviously has more potential than what’s-his-face, so there’s no reason to play what’s-his-face that much!”) suggests. To the contrary, I think there are a plethora of tempting reasons to play someone whose ceiling is lower but whose game you know.

  • A less talented player might be better at staying within schemes/systems. Right or wrong, most coaches will err on the side of the devil you know because it makes their job of orchestrating adjustments easier. Judging from Ty Corbin’s recent comments, I would guess this to be part of his motivation. He said after getting a healthy roster that it’s a relief to be able to make on-the-fly adjustments and have five guys understand and follow the instruction. That tells us a lot about the level of adherence to defensive & offensive structure the Jazz boss was getting earlier on in the season.
  • As an extension of that point, playing guys who do as asked (even with middling results) can be important in establishing discipline. Not that I think any of the young Jazz players are guilty of screwing up for lack of discipline. If anything, they commit sins of commission, like Gobert freestyling on defense in a way that actually represents a desire to do well and help the team. But allowing well-meaning departures from the game plan erodes trust in the overall culture, a cardinal sin according to one ex coach. “In coaching, you’re trying to create a style of play and a culture,” Stan Van Gundy has said. “Every time you make an exception, you’re breaking that down.”
  • While I think this is generally overplayed, there is some motivation to give a trade-bait type of guy minutes just to prove to the rest of the league that he can indeed still play basketball.
  • Much has been made of the keep-the-locker-room argument, so I won’t expound here.
  • Rewarding a mediocre vet with major minutes arguably does less to damage development than rewarding a mediocre young player. Handing a young guy major minutes after he has played poorly can be a bad way of teaching. I often get cross-examined, “well then why does Corbin reward the old guys even when they play poorly,” and my terse answer is that their development curve is less important at this stage. Reinforcing the bad habits of a player whose growth trajectory has maxed out and whose future with your team is limited has a lower developmental cost than reinforcing bad habits of someone you are trying to teach to play the right way for years to come.

I’m not saying any of those reasons are justification for playing someone who obviously doesn’t help the team improve or win, but those are some reasons why for many coaches — the Jazz’s included — certain vets get the benefit of the doubt.

Minutes & Development

Someday, someone is going to figure out how to quantitatively define the relationship between playing time and development. This is unfortunately not that piece.

But I do have strong opinions on the correlation, and they’re generally unpopular.

Core to many minutes squabbles is the idea that if players get PT, they’ll naturally get better. Minutes lead to development. Most of the scouts and development guys I’ve spoken to over the years have quite the opposite take: that growing is how you get minutes (not the other way around) that if a guy isn’t ready before his number is called, it doesn’t really do you any favors as far as establishing the right behaviors.

No, I’m not talking about Nabisco cookie brands, so relax. But several basketball people have told me that the NBA game moves so fast that it’s tough to glean much learning unless you’ve already mastered some of those skills to the point where they’re second nature.

One of my favorite tweeps to debate this topic with is @YuccaManHoops, a passionate, heady and respectful fan who happens to be a teacher, so he understands a lot about learning theory. He’s a great follow, even though we tend to disagree on this topic. His position is that for learning of any kind to take root, a new skill must be applied in authentic situations, and for him that means actual NBA game time is the only way to fully develop talent.

I agree with the notion that authentic reps are the best way to learn, but I think there is a graduating scale of authentic experiences, especially in the case of NBA basketball. To learn any given skill, a player has at his disposal individual sessions with a skills coach, the video room, team drills, scrimmage, then opportunities like summer league, preseason and even regular season garbage time. If they can’t master those skills in those settings, how will they able to master it on the fly in meaningful stretches of real NBA games?

I imagine that landing a plane on a flight simulator is nowhere near authentic. But if you got on a flight and overheard your captain saying, “I didn’t do too well on the simulator, but I think I can get the landing right today,” you’d grab your things and return to the gate. Same thing if your heart surgeon said, “I didn’t feel like wasting time working on cadavers in med school. I figure the best way to learn how to perform a quadruple bypass is just by doing it. Now lie on the table.” Yes, there are more authentic ways to hone a skill that simulations and cold corpses, but until someone is consistently succeeding in a practice scenario, they don’t have a lot of right to demand a more authentic situation.

Oddly enough, this philosophy – that growing as a player earns you minutes instead of minutes automatically leading to player growth – is a very Jerry Sloan-esque mindset. Yet even some of the staunchest Sloan disciples in Jazzland seem to ask for the default solution of more minutes for young guys, readiness level notwithstanding.

Plea for humanity

I’ll end with a reminder that these are actual people we’re talking about, and lately I’ve been discouraged by the de-humanizing way we sometimes talk about players and coaches who don’t do what we want them to do.

For example, Corbin doesn’t always do what I would do, either, but he’s certainly not the bumbling, in-over-his-head guy that some paint him as. We’re talking about a guy who has a college degree, to say nothing of a 16-year career as an NBA player followed by a coaching career where he was signaled out by Jazz legend Sloan to be the leader of the new generation. Disagreeing with him is fine, questioning whether he’s the coach of this franchise’s future is natural, but talking about him like he’s a moron says much more about the speaker than the subject.

Same for Jefferson. I personally would be fine if he played less and I don’t think I’d start talking publicly about free agency with 54 games left to go in the current season. But he’s not a bad guy. Same is true on the other end of the spectrum. When a young guy messes up, it doesn’t mean they’re talentless, incompetent or a lost cause; it means they have skills they haven’t fully developed yet. Remember that these guys are somebody’s son, somebody’s brother. They’re not characters in a Greek tragedy you can simplify down to ad hominem character attacks.

Even I need reminders of this sometimes, and I got one last week. I was interacting with Jazz fans as to some theories why Biedrins was getting minutes over promising rookie Gobert, and I expressed that Gobert doesn’t always make the right play within the team scheme. As the conversation wore on and all parties dug in their heels, I strained a little too hard at my point and exaggerated Gobert’s position on the system learning curve. I then set my phone down, and when I picked it up a while later I saw that Gobert had favorited my critical tweet. My stomach instantly sank at the thought that this athlete with whom I occasionally interact (and for whom I’m genuinely pulling) saw my comment and probably interpreted it as a slight. I deleted my harsher-than-intended post and send a direct tweet to Gobert letting him know how much I believe in his future and his growth as a player. It was a gut-check moment for me, and a good reminder that, while the NBA is played out for all of us to enjoy and analyze, these are not TV characters that are separated from our reality. They’re real dudes.

So, Jazz fans, let’s be passionate, let’s engage in conversation, let’s disagree, let’s analyze… but let’s do it in a way that is worthy of the kind of fans we are.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan has covered nearly every second of the post Stockton-to-Malone Jazz, first in print for Spain's Marca and Utah's Mundo Hispano before transitioning to TV and radio. In 2010, he became a radio analyst for the team's Spanish game broadcasts.
Dan Clayton

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10 Comments

  1. Dallan says:

    1st Bullet: Daryl Morey talked about this last year. He talked about how they may be young and may make mistakes but their talent over rides that. We are seeing a turn in a lot of NBA front offices towards the younger more analytic coach. Why? Because they don’t have this veteran biasis. They look at the numbers and go with what that says. They put their best players on the floor and go with it. To say most coaches do this would be inaccurate. 5 years ago you would be correct. But today not so much. That is why Ty won’t be part of the future with an analytical GM. Because after all “that’s just a numbers game.”

    2nd Bullet: you obviously don’t see the irony in this. Because this is the exact opposite of what Ty has done. You are right in the concept. This is exactly what a coach needs to do. Look at the Spurs. Tony Parker is treated no differently then Patty Mills. You screw up your going to hear about it. In fact if the starters are not cutting it he will put in a whole new five just to prove a point. Ty does not do this. We have seen certain players all veteran players continue to make mistakes and not play hard and still get their minutes every single game. So what did that teach the young guys? Nothing. It showed them that they were not treated equal. Do you think they like to sit and watch half of their NBA careers to by while Ty screws around with their minutes? You think they want to show loyalty to that? Why should they when none is shown to them.

    Bullet 3: We have heard multiple times the FO does not tell Ty who to play. So if that’s the case Ty is showcasing a guy to be traded? I doubt it.

    Bullet 4: you want to keep a locker room together? Then this goes back to point two I made. Treat everyone equal. What did Ty get by playing all those vets last year? He lost the locker room anyway. The veterans are always the ones saying things about him. Saying he can’t communicate. Saying they have no idea what he wants, and what their role is. It’s always the guys he stands up for the most that quickly about face on him. But then he rewards that….

    Bullet 5: The “earning minutes” argument.. Goes back to some parts of the arguments above I approached. When Josh Howard came back from injury Burks and Favors were both playing better then he was. In fact our best lineup was the big lineup. But yet the playoffs came and in came Howard pushing Burks and Favors to the bench. Why? The other guys were better. Our team was better. We in fact would not have made the playoffs if it were not for the injuries that forced Howard to the bench. But yet he still played him and then failed because of it. Last year Hayward was better then both Foye and Marvin. Burks after January was better then Foye and Marvin. Foye gave you one thing 3 point shooting. Some nights he was on some he was off. Burks at that point was shooting the three as well as Foye but yet gave more then Foye did. We missed the playoffs by playing the veterans the most. It failed we did not make the playoffs. That was after all Ty goal and the whole reason he played the vets right? To make the playoffs? Well he failed at his goal. This year his goals were set very publicly. Most of the jazz fans who pay attention know them. Defense: We are 30th and the defense has not gotten any better with your scapegoat getting less minutes. In fact the opposite has occurred. So if he is not getting his goals done but is playing his players doesn’t that mean he is failing? Or are more of those guys out there not listening like you insinuated Kanter was not doing? You know that speaks worse about Ty right? He has had this core group of guys in here for 3-4 years but yet they don’t know his system yet? Seems a little odd don’t you!? That falls into his development and discipline goals. Neither are obviously happening if his system is great. So he is failing at some of those things if it’s not his fault. Either way he is failing at some of his three goals that were given him…

    • Steve says:

      You bring up some good points. I have noticed how Popps handles his vets and get frustrated when I don’t see TC do the same thing (more so last year than this year), but the simple fact is that Popps has earned that right and respect, TC is still earning his. To compare TC’s coaching to Popps may not be fair.

      One other point that I want to make is that this season is not just about developing player but teaching guys like Hayward, Favors, Kantor, Burks and Burke how to win and deal with adversity in a game. We have seen Favors and Hayward hang their heads and check out when they don’t get a call or the other team makes a run. Jefferson and Williams have been a stabilizing force to show them how to play through some of those tough times. I’m not sure Jefferson deserves the time he is getting or not, but his experience is valuable to a team that is learning how to win in the NBA.

  2. Mike Wear says:

    Nice well written article that should be read by all Jazz fans.
    - Nothing wrong with RJ saying he wants to play on a championship team. He was traded here. He may have two years left as player? All my sources say he’s done a fine job a Jazz man. Once his contacts up he deserves to go where he wants.
    - The vets RJ and MWilliams bring stability and knowledge on how to win and close out games to a young team.
    - Earning playing minutes is a proven, winning practice that goes back as far as team sports and until Daryl Moreys Rockets win a
    championship should probably remain in effect.
    - Thanks for mentioning the callous comments from some fans with their obcessive comments about removing Corbin. They are not only hurtful to those directed but some are base less and reflect the lack of knowledge of the author. And they takers away the fun of being a Jazz fan.

    • Dallan says:

      Did Sloan win a championship? So we shouldn’t take anything he said about Corbin or playing time into account either…

      • Brian says:

        You apparently have no understanding at how hard it is to win a championship in the NBA or any other major sport. Except for a few anomalies, it takes major combination of greatness to rise to championship level, and a coach is only a part of that equation. Why do you think Phil Jackson has not taken anything that has been offered to him the last few years?

        And your above post made some good points, so called, but you missed THE point of the article, which was well written and articulated. TC would not have been my first choice and maybe still isn’t but there seems to be a foundation building here, and I for one would like to see how this group, including the coach, progress over the next couple of years.

        • Dallan says:

          I think you missed my point. I know how hard it is to win a championship. Mike stated we shouldn’t listen to what Morey says because he hasn’t won a championship. I wanted to show him how ridiculous that statement was by pointing out that Sloan never won a championship but we listen to things from him.

          How long are we going to give Corbin? He has had a lot of time to prove himself. As pointed out above has failed. I don’t know a job where you can fail for 4 years and not judge a person on that job..

  3. Clint Johnson says:

    Good thoughts, Dan, particularly the concluding point.

  4. Geoff says:

    I appreciate Jefferson’s honesty. Why should he lose fan support over that? It’s not like Boozer who milked injury and told a reporter he was going to get paid anyway and then lied about it when the reporter published it. Its also not like Kevin O’Connor who lies more than a politician and thinks his “no comment” shtick with the media is cute. The Jazz made a huge mistake giving Corbin that extra year on his contract and lost out on Hornacek. But Dennis Lindsey will hire his own guy this off season who will do things completely different than Corbin and all you Jazz media types will go on and on about how brilliant the Jazz front office is with no concept of how hypocritical you sound after all of your defense of Corbin and his inept coaching.

    • Dallan says:

      I don’t think he had fan support to begin with for the most part. I just don’t feel we should continue giving starting roles to people who have no future with the team

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