For coaches of teams that are playing on after Wednesday night's regular-season finale, it's time to prune those rotations. Foundation players on surviving teams are about to see their court time increase, while those on the fringe of each club's substitution pattern will move to the end of the bench. With more days off between games, and the big prize dangling just a few weeks in the distance, the depth that allows coaches to navigate the long campaign becomes a lesser factor.
NBA coaches may rely on fewer players in the postseason, but in terms of how they distribute minutes, most of the increases are given to star players. Among players who got at least 30 minutes per game during last year's playoffs, the average increase over the regular season was four minutes. Three to six minutes is a typical increase for the players at the top of the pyramid, with the bigger upticks generally occurring because someone was injured. Beyond the big-minute guys, the average player didn't see his court time shift much in the postseason.
There's a subset of players, however, who earn more minutes in the playoffs not because they are foundation players, but because they play so well and prove to be such a matchup advantage that their coaches can't get them off the floor.
An example of this last season was Houston's Patrick Beverley, whose minutes per game increased from 17 during the season, to 33 during the Rockets' first-round series against Oklahoma City. Beverley's opportunity for big minutes came because of Jeremy Lin's injury, but he played so well, and Houston played so well with him on the floor, that Beverley's emergence as a starting guard persisted into this season. Beverley's 2012-13 regular-season numbers were excellent as a reserve, and Houston generally kicked tail with him on the court, so if we were paying attention it should have been no great surprise that the Rockets were able to lean on him so heavily.
Which similar players might surprise us this time around?
One way to look at this is to consider how much a player should play based on his regular-season efficiency. Through regression analysis over the past 37 seasons, we can observe that based on such a large sample, there's a relationship between measurable performance, as defined by individual winning percentage, and a player's average minutes per game. As a rule of thumb, for every 19.1 points of winning percentage, a player "deserves" a minute of average playing time, though in reality the distribution is not so linear.
Still, we can use the analysis as a guideline for finding underutilized players who might become playoff breakout performers. With the addition of real plus-minus (RPM) to our toolkit, we can add another layer to the topic. That is, if a player is efficient, and his team plays well with him on the floor, why isn't he playing more?
There are lots of possible reasons, of course. Stamina and a propensity for fouling are a couple of possible explanations, but the big one is basic: The player likely isn't as good as the guy ahead of him on the depth chart. Matchups can shake things up, though, so let's look at five guys who might deserve a wider berth now that the stakes are higher.
Gregg Popovich boosted the minutes of his front-line players to between 35 and 37 minutes per game for the postseason last season, and that doesn't include Manu Ginobili, whose minutes must be carefully managed. This season you'd expect a similar pattern, though it would not be surprising if Kawhi Leonard's minutes reach the upper-30s.