Say What?

Yesterday's talk about Nate triggered a subject/question that I've thought about for a long time.  In the context of talking about Nate's coaching style Lou9700 (who so far deserves a shout out because his comments have been pretty straightforward and thought-provoking) brought up a phrase that I hear quite a bit among fans in coaching discussions.  (Thanks Lou for the reminder!)  The phrase is two words, six syllables:

Substitution Pattern

I've got to tell you...though I understand each of those words individually I don't quite get what people mean when they put the two of them together in this context.  

I think part of what people mean by the phrase is that a player has to have some idea of his role on the team and at least a glimmer of hope that he will get a chance to fill it.  I agree with that.  But doesn't most of that defining process happen on the practice court and in the locker room rather than during the game?  Or put another way...a coach already has a pretty good idea that a player will fill a role before he puts him on the court.  It's not like he's throwing a whole team out there willy-nilly to see what sticks (which I think is part of the implication when someone complains about substitution patterns).  I don't think you get an NBA job without knowing what you want.  I don't think you keep an NBA job if you show up and say, "I'm just going to throw these guys out there and hope." If a coach has absolutely no roles defined for any of his players it's a huge failing but that's a problem that happens long before game time and the game-time decision of substituting.

In real life I'd guess that the opposite problem is more common: coaches who pigeon-hole their players and never give players a chance to get beyond the limited perceptions they have of them. The other side of the coin would be coaches that have such a rigid system that players are forced to conform no matter what their gifts. Either way this would seemingly lead to more restrictive and defined substitutions, not less. My guess is most times we hear from players, "I'm lost and I don't know my role" this is exactly what they mean. Usually their role is "Not good enough to play." That's how the coach has pegged them and he ain't moving.

That brings up another point. I don't know too many coaches who will pull players who really are having a positive effect on the game.  Most of the time when players are shuffling in and out it's because they're not succeeding.  But whose fault is that, the player's or the coach's?  I think it's easier for fans to blame the coach than the players but you don't tend to see your solid performers falling victim to the seemingly random shuffles that fans complain about.  Come to think of it, you don't usually hear the complaint applied on winning, obviously talented teams.  When the players make it easy for the coach to make decisions "substitution pattern" just isn't an issue.

Another point:  don't gameplans and needed skills change night to night based on the opponents?  Certainly you play a San Antonio differently than a Denver.  Maybe your starters remain the same but their minutes and roles could vary significantly.  This is doubly so for the bench.   I'm sure substitutions also change based on the ups and downs of the individual players.  If Player X has a couple of horrible practices because his home life is falling apart I'd bet he's going to see his court time reduced.  If Player Y is streaky and scores 15 one night and 4 the next on a regular basis can it really be argued that he's earned set minutes?  In some ways basketball is a simple game but it's not that simple at this level.  I'm not sure you can say most players are going to get six minutes off the bench in the second quarter every night and write it in stone.  We'd like a "pattern" that cut and dried but it just isn't possible on most teams.

Then, of course, you get the folks that say, "Player Z hit five of six shots out there! Why did you pull him???" I guess this would be too much of a substitution pattern? It gets filed under the same general complaint as the others though.

I think as much as anything I hear this complaint when people's favorite players aren't getting enough run.  The coach throws in the back-up crowd-pleaser for a few minutes because of injury or fatigue or to explore a matchup possibility or just to give the kid a little chance in garbage time.  It's not repeated the next game because none of those criteria are met again. Now all of a sudden the coach (again, not the player) is "erratic".

Put it all together and you come up with one conclusion: the coach isn't going to win this argument no matter what he does.

Maybe that's why though "substitution patterns" is probably the single most common fan criticism I hear of coaches in general I honestly can't recall ever hearing an NBA coach actually use the phrase to describe his work or a colleague's. I suppose someone will be able to dig a couple up from somewhere but I still think coaches don't mention it even a tenth as much as fans do.  I would bet that if there is such a thing as a "substitution pattern" it's far more complex than we're seeing or analyzing.  A whole lot of things look great on paper  (e.g. Brandon and a true point guard starting with Jarrett Jack as the combo guard [which is actually something I envision working] or Martell Webster getting more minutes).  But paper isn't real life and even the best advice seldom works out as simply and neatly as it sounds.

But tell me...am I missing the boat here?  What does the phrase "substitution pattern" mean to you?  What is it, what does it look like, and why is it important?  Are there teams and coaches out there who do it right for all to see?  Or to some extent is it just a way for us to complain about coaches that's fancy enough to make us sound smart but also nebulous enough that we never have to define it or get called on it?  Most importantly, if you're a proponent of good substitution patterns what would yours be for the Blazers this year?  (Or if you don't feel comfortable doing that, what would yours have been last year, especially if you don't think Nate got it right?)  I am willing to be convinced or converted but I'll need to see some decent arguments to overcome my inbred skepticism on this subject...

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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