Is Kentucky Crazy? A Debate on Calipari’s New Lineup Strategy

John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats are trying a different approach this NCAA season, playing two entirely distinct lineups and subbing out all five players at once. Adam and I decided this would be a good topic for debate. Below is our email exchange arguing both sides of this interesting strategy.

 

FRANK: Well Adam, as soon as I saw the news of John Calipari’s plans to play two different sets of platoon subs this year, I knew we had to create a post on this. I know from conversations we’ve had in the past that this system isn’t something you support, but I love the move.

Here’s the number one reason I like it: it shows the players that he believes in all of them (or at least guys 1-10). Sure, he’ll name a group of starters and a group of reserves, but the system gives him a chance to show 10 guys that he thinks they deserve an important role on a championship-level team. And as he tries to develop players for the NBA, his ultimate goal, that’s an important mental confidence booth.

Obviously this is only a real option for a team as deep as Calipari’s where the bench players aren’t complete scrubs, and this team has many NBA-level prospects on the roster, but it’s not as if his team has won five straight titles or something. This is a move that could shake things up for the better… whaddya think?

ADAM: As you expected, I hate this idea. It’s something that Frank Vogel has been doing with my Pacers for a while, and it constantly interrupts momentum. Any kind of planned substitution pattern is going to result in benching guys who are in a groove at some point and platoon subs specifically have a way of grinding a team to a halt.

Even if you have 10 players who are starter quality (probably the case with Kentucky this year), I still think an eight- or nine-man rotation is superior. There’s just no good way to distribute minutes among two groups of five players. No matter how good your tenth-best player is, why would you want him to be getting minutes at the expense of a better player?

Better yet, look at the other, more talented end of the spectrum: every 10-man rotation will have a best and second-best player. Do those guys both play on the first team and the minutes distribution is 25-15 first team to second team? Then your two best players are only getting 25 minutes a game. What about the third best player? Does he lead the second unit, but only play 15 minutes a game?

If you play 1-5 on the first team and 6-10 on the third team (the Pacer method), then do you really want 15 minutes per game with the top player your sixth-best option? Watching this is maddening. It virtually guarantees your team will have one gigantic mismatch on defense, and who wants an offense with all the best options sitting out together?

I’m not sure how Coach Cal has it planned, but realistically, how could you maximize ten players’ minutes in a way that actually keeps the best talent on the floor for the most time?

FRANK:
I think the beauty of this is that we don’t need to inherently group the players as “starters” and “reserves” but rather as two different units that might have entirely different game plans. Let’s get creative with this – what if one group of five plays a little big bigger, controls the tempo and dominates the boards, while another group plays run ‘n gun offense with a focus on outside shooters. From there, you can read the opponent to determine which group plays more minutes on a given day, your fast-paced group or your big bangers group. So, I would argue that it’s not about getting your best individual player the most minutes, but getting the best group on any given day the most minutes.

Admiring the space on the wall where their future national championship banner will hang

ADAM: I think you can do the matchup game without resorting to wholesale lineup changes. For example, if the other team is small, you can still play an extra big at the 3, or if you want to run, you can play an extra wing at the 4. You can still put your optimal five-man lineup on the floor in a traditional 8- or 9-man rotation because it seems very unlikely that there will be absolutely no overlap between the best roster for one type of play versus another. I think the 10-man platoon approach actually minimizes your flexibility because you have have two pre-determined groups rather than one continually-optimized (accounting for position, skills, stamina) set of five.

On another note, what happens when one of your 10-man platoon players get injured or in foul trouble? Do you replace him with 11 to keep the lineups together or do you switch in a player from the other platoon. Something like that is bound to happen sooner or later and it’s just hard for me to think any team could possibly be THAT deep to have confidence giving significant (10+) minutes to the 11th best player.

FRANK: Here’s the beauty of it – early in the season, if someone gets hurt or in foul trouble… yes, you go to the 11th man or 12th man, depending on position. And maybe they play well enough to work their way into the rotation! With a bunch of freshmen, its hard to know what you’ve really got until they get playing time. Think about the way Marcus Lee played for them last year when given the opportunity in the Elite Eight. That guy sat on the bench nearly the whole year then finally broke out.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes with this strategy for most of the year, then narrows his rotation in the games leading up to the conference tourney and NCAA tourney, where maybe the #9 and #10 guys minutes are slowly eaten up by the #1 and #2 for most of the entire game. But they have too much talent to miss the NCAA tourney entirely, so they have some flexibility during the regular season, and I think this approach will help them figure out what they have.

ADAM: I’d say that if the plan is to play 10 guys all year and then narrow down to 8 or 9 and the end of the year, you might as well just go ahead and play 8 or 9 the whole year. It’s always good to get your fringe players minutes, but they’d be coming at the expense of more the meaningful, tournament roster players. I say go with how you think you’ll look at the end and make the best of that rotation throughout the year.

If it were another school where they needed to work freshman or transfers into an upperclass-heavy rotation, things might be different. If those 9th and 10th rotation players were putting in 5-10 minutes per game now to get to 10-20 next year and then work their way into a starting role the time would be valuable, but this is a Kentucky team that just reloads with high-impact freshman every year, so those fringe rotation minutes aren’t really as meaningful. I’d like to see Cal basically try to make his minutes distribution look like an NBA team with two or three elite guys (Cauley-Stein and Harrison are obvious candidates) going about 80% of a game and then the rest of the players just fitting in around that.

EDITOR’S NOTE: While this piece has been developed over email in the past several weeks, Kentucky has shown the strategy has been working well so far: the Wildcats are off to a 12-0 start and have won every game by double digits.

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