A former University of Pennsylvania basketball player, Stephen Danley, went to Greece in March, and caught a Euroleague game. You can read the article here. He was amazed at a couple of things: The crowd’s enthusiasm, and the reliance on a rotation. He basically says that the teams deliberately do not rely too much on their stars, and the coaches run very strict rotations. Even though the game Danley attended was essentially a playoff game, the teams did not play their stars extra minutes. For instance, Spanish star Fran Vasquez, a lottery pick of the Orlando Magic a few years ago, only played eleven second half minutes. He was also sitting inside of five minutes left in the game, despite being possibly the team’s best player.
Danley thought this to be baffling because the team isn’t getting the most out of its stars. No one player can take over the game. It is basically a waste of talent. But it also does another thing: it gets the most production out of the role players. He states,” But if players like Vasquez and Morris suffer from deep rotations and the lack of emphasis on stars, then the role players around them flourished.” He later says that even though now Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio had a shockingly bad performance, Barcelona was able to stay in the game because little known role player Jaka Lakovic had six assists and played great defense. The Greek side that Vasquez and Rubio were playing against, Panathinaikos BC, won because they had eight players score between eight and twelve points.
No, do you think any NBA team that you think could do that?
If there was any NBA team that is deep enough to play this way, it would have to be the 76ers. They also have several young players that need playing time to get better, and in a strict NBA rotation, guys like Nikola Vucevic may not play much or get better if they do not win the starting job.
Danley adds,” Certainly, on every team I’ve ever played with, most of the guys felt like they weren’t playing to their fullest potential. Sure, players always think they’re a little better than they are, but they’ve also been taught that it’s necessary to sacrifice some of what they can do in a team setting.
But what if that sacrifice is really just untapped potential? And what if European coaches have found a way to tap into it?”
This whole premise intrigues me because in order for the 76ers to ever get really good, something weird would have to happen. They aren’t going to get a star anytime soon, so that will not change their fortunes. And in the current NBA, it seems as though one star isn’t enough, unless you fit together perfectly like Dallas. Maybe that something weird is getting the most out of those marginal players. The untapped potential, if you will. Like Spencer Hawes being utilized perfectly, minimizing his weaknesses. Jodie Meeks being put in the perfect spot to just find his niche. All these guys playing above their presumed levels.
This would also help the 76ers to win by going so far against the grain, teams wouldn’t know how to play them. So many teams have multiple stars, that the role player is being forgotten about, thrown out the window. If you could figure out a way to maximize 10 role players that fit perfectly together, that would be fresher because of frequent subs, could that beat a team of a couple of stars? Danley says that that is already the case in one place: International Basketball.
“European teams have long been competing with more talented American ones in international competition, getting the most out of less talented teams. Of course, there are plenty of explanations for that: strong national programs, more cohesion, less of an emphasis on scorers. Maybe one more needs to be added. European teams have found a coaching strategy that gets the most out of marginal players.”
And he is right, you have to often wonder how the USA loses to Turkey of a much less basketball talented nation. Maybe that is the answer. I think that this may work in the NBA to an extent. But if it did, it would go beyond the 76ers. It would help competitive balance all across league. Stars wouldn’t be the only path to success. Maybe the Nuggets could beat the Heat, or the Howard-less Magic beat the Lakers. You probably think that this is all insane, and it might be. But before you just write it off because of conventional wisdom, think of all the other things we used to think of in the world that we thought were obvious facts. We were wrong on many things that are now so obviously false, we could be wrong on the fact that NBA teams need stars to win, and you need to maximize those stars. You never know. When you’re stuck in the mediocrity cycle like the Sixers are, it wouldn’t hurt to find out.