One-hundred and sixty-four minutes. Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle wants you to understand those 164 minutes are important. To the average person, that’s nearly three hours. In the NBA world, that’s approximately three-and-a-half games.
To Carlisle, it’s the accumulated difference for 82 games between the minutes he wanted to play guard Monta Ellis per game this season (about 34 minutes) and the minutes Ellis has played per game this season (a little more than 36 minutes per game). Ellis is in the top 10 in the NBA in minutes played this season.
“It’s one of my big failures this season, his minutes total,” Carlisle said of Ellis.
Playing time is a delicate balancing act that all NBA coaches must deal with.
The Mavs are hitting the final stretch of a season that sees them in a dogfight to claim one of the remaining playoff berths in the Western Conference. Carlisle wishes he had some of those minutes back.
“The last 10 games [of the season], I’d like to see his minutes come down, but I doubt that’s going to happen,” Carlisle said.
Carlisle said he told Ellis when the Mavs signed him as a free agent that he would work to keep his minutes down.
Carlisle scoffed when someone asked him if Ellis wanted his minutes trimmed. No player does. But it’s the coach’s job to manage those minutes and find a balance between getting the most out of a player and wearing him down.
He knows he’s fortunate that Ellis is a special player physically. “He’s one of those rare guys that can absorb big minutes, and he recovers well,” Carlisle said. “That helps.”
Playing time is a delicate balancing act that all NBA coaches must deal with in an 82-game season. Every coach handles it differently. One of the masters is San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, who seems to inherently know when to sit one, two or all three of his “Big Three” — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
The NBA once fined Pops for sitting all three for a road game in Miami. He hardly cares. His goal is to keep his players as fresh as possible for the postseason. The Spurs went to the NBA Finals last year and have won four titles since 1999.
But the Spurs have depth, thanks in part to their innate ability to draft and develop talent in a way that has no peer. That’s part of the reason Parker, Duncan and Ginobili average 30, 29 and 23 minutes, respectively, this season.
As important as managing minutes is, Carlisle admits he doesn’t have a statistician.
The Mavs have less depth, so Carlisle has found himself playing Ellis more than he wanted. Blame it on the fact that the Mavs are good but not great.
Unlike the Spurs, the Mavs are fighting for the chance to play in the postseason. The Spurs have already clinched a playoff berth.
“We’ll keep watching it,” Carlisle said. “But the truth of it is there are times when it is virtually impossible to get them out.”
Carlisle came closer to the mark with Dirk Nowitzki, whom he wanted to play about 32 minutes per game. Nowitzki is averaging about 32.4 minutes per game, and Carlisle said that the Mavs’ three overtime games on this huge eight-game homestand were probably responsible for the extra decimal.
As important as managing minutes is, Carlisle admits he doesn’t have a statistician keep track of them. That’s surprising considering team owner Mark Cuban is known for spending money on just about anything if he thinks it will make his team better. Instead, Carlisle gets a box score at each time out and manages the time by his own feel for how the game is going.
Of course, when you’re just trying to make the playoffs, minutes hardly matter this time of year. It’s the equivalent of a baseball manager emptying his bullpen to make the postseason and worrying about the consequences later.
Lately, both Ellis and Nowitzki have played games with minute totals well above their season averages. All the more reason, Carlisle surmises, to lament those 164 minutes lost.