Mario Chalmers. P.J. Tucker. Kevin Martin. Darren Collison. Mike Dunleavy. Brandon Bass. Kyle Singler.
These are just a few of the guys in the NBA who have played more minutes over the past two regular seasons than anyone on the San Antonio Spurs, per Basketball-Reference.
Rather than over-burden any one player, Gregg Popovich has preached — and practiced — a reliance on team play and roster-wide accountability to win games. The crotchety coach would be the first to tell you, nay, shame-lecture you that his team’s success hinges on the same players it has for the past decade: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. But his minute-management program has kept them all fresh enough to thrive for the games that really matter.
The result has been a squad in which no player — not a single one — is in the top 90 in regular season minutes over the past two regular seasons.
A team like the Pacers, on the other hand, has four players in the top 40, with their young star Paul George coming in fifth. The Trail Blazers asked even more: Four of its players finished in the top 30. (Damian Lillard is second). The Warriors have three players in the top 30, including Splash Brothers Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, who rank sixth and seventh, respectively.
The list goes on: the Grizzlies with three in the top 50, the Rockets with two in the top 15 (and that doesn’t include Dwight Howard, who is 33rd), and the Clippers with three in the top 75.
All the key players on the Spurs have much fewer regular-season miles on their odometers over the past two years.
Erik Spoelstra has done a good job ensuring his most at-risk player is well-rested as well. The Heat famously gave Dwyane Wade a ton of time off this season so that he could be healthy for another championship run, but even he — along with three other Miami players — finished in the top 100. (Wade was 99th).
There is a lot more than minutes that factor into getting to the Finals, but it is hard to look at all those high-minute players on teams currently fishing then look at the Spurs and not think it factors in.
Consider this: 38-year-old Ray Allen played more minutes this regular season than either Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green. Yes, injuries were a factor (Allen played in 73 games to 66 and 68, respectively, for Leonard and Green). It speaks to the the idea that one team — the one currently leading the series — counts on more players, however.
Because it’s not just the wear and tear.
It is how players like Matt Bonner and Patty Mills have been able to learn how to play in the system through a high volume of real, on-court reps. They have a history of success on the court, and they can draw confidence from that every time Pop throws them out there in a Finals game.
Fran Blinebury of NBA.com’s The Hangtime Blog expounded on the benefits of Popovich spreading out the minutes.
The Spurs are back [in the NBA Finals] because they are the deepest team in the league and credit for that goes to gathering the talent. But it also goes to Popovich’s steadfast adherence to his belief in conserving energy and playing time anywhere that he can. It could be November in a nationally televised game in Miami or March on a night when his team is getting blown out early in the third quarter.
“Pop has his rules, has his ways and he doesn’t change when it comes to our playing time,” Parker said.
“Sure, there are times during your career when everybody would like to stay on the court and keep on playing because you’re having a great game,” Manu Ginobili said. “But you can’t argue with the results. Since I have been on this team, we have won three championships and now we are in The Finals for the fifth time. Pop is doing something right.”
He’s got a team built around a 38-year-old Duncan, 36-year-old Ginobili and 32-year-old Parker able to stand eye-to-eye with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Heat because he has kept a tight leash on his stars’ minutes and given their supporting cast so many opportunities to thrive.
Nobody, least of all Pop, would want his team’s fate in these Finals to rely on a guy like Jeff Ayers or Cory Joseph.
But if he has to call their number, they at least have enough on-the-job training to perform. Ayers played 20 minutes 15 times during the regular season. Joseph did so 25 times.
Popovich has fostered an environment in which everyone on the team can — and is expected to — come in to contribute. All teams say that. “Next man up,” is usually a catch phrase though. Pop, on the other hand, handles his rotation with that mindset. It may come on a seemingly meaningless night in Milwaukee during the January doldrums of a too-long 82-game season, but the deep-reserve minutes he allocates are by design. And they matter.
They give Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker time to relax while their understudies find their way. It’s not the biggest reason, but it is part of Pop’s greatness and why his team has found its way to a 2-1 series lead in the NBA Finals for the second straight season.
And with all of the old guard getting plenty of rest in Game 3, the Spurs are even more ready to capitalize this time around.