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Kevin C Cox, Getty ImagesPeople have noticed that the starters are playing more minutes lately at the expense of players who formerly were contributing on the court.  When was the last time someone saw Jon Leuer in a game or Ed Davis for that matter before last night. Mike Miller only played 6 minutes against Cleveland. This isn’t a surprise to those who have been following Dave Joerger’s comments of late about shortening the rotation. However, it is something to discuss on a team as deep as the Grizzlies. Should the coach be shortening the rotation, maintaining a slow pace and tough defense or should Joerger try to open up the offense, use the depth during this time when teams are beaten up and tired in an attempt to jump over the teams keeping the Grizzlies out of the playoffs? The reason behind developing a deeper and more productive bench was to have the starters more rested for the playoffs. Clearly that was always assuming the Grizzlies would be in the playoffs. With the team in 9th place with three teams standing right above the Grizzlies, that is no longer a given. But that begs the question, has the desire to rest the big players already been enough? Assuming that the idea of the FO was to limit the number of minutes the starters played this season, hasn’t it been accomplished due to injury already? In other words, did the injuries replace the need for a deeper bench? The big three players that saw their performances decline in the playoffs last season were Conley, Gasol and Randolph. Randolph was double-teamed to death against San Antonio so an argument could be made I suppose that Z-Bo didn’t need any additional rest but I won’t do that for the sake of discussion.Zach Randolph averaged under former Head Coach LionelHollins 37.7 MPG, 36.3 MPG, 26.3 MPG (the injured MCL season), 34.3 MPG and this season is averaging 34.2 MPG. Last season in the playoffs Randolph averaged 33.7 MPG against the Clippers, 39.6 MPG against the Thunder and 38.5 MPG against the Spurs. A steady decline in minutes played every year is to be expected from a player exiting his prime and entering the normal end of his career. The extended minutes in the playoffs last season took a toll on Randolph’s effectiveness that couldn’t be overcome. The steady decline in minutes for Randolph is to be expected for a player passing his prime. However his per minute production this season isn’t that much lower than in previous seasons. In fact his numbers are very similar to last season when you consider the additional assist a game offsets the two fewer points he is scoring. Randolph isn’t playing as much but he is making his time on the court more productive. Darrell Arthur backed up Z-Bo last season. This season Ed Davis and Jon Leuer did most of the work while Gasol was out. Lately James Johnson has added speed and range as well as defensive intensity behind Randolph. It is highly unlikely Randolph will be called on to log as many minutes in the playoffs this season if the Grizzlies make it. Mike Conley looked particularly gassed at the end of the playoffs last season and his shooting reflected that. Conley averages 34.1 MPG this season down from the previous 3 seasons under Hollins (35.5, 35.1, 34.5 respectively). What’s more, Conley played 80 games last season. This season he won’t top 74 games meaning he is playing less per game and fewer games. In the games Conley played in February he averaged only 30.2 MPG as well. Calathes has shown potential to contribute off the bench but he isn’t exactly the player you want come the playoffs. That is why the Front Office didn’t wait for Beno Udrih to clear waivers before picking him up. Udrih is a veteran who can hit the long ball and play decent defense. He should enable Conley to get far more rest in the playoffs than he got last season. Conley’s play dropped off each series in the playoffs last year as his minutes increased bottoming out against the Spurs when he played 38.3 MPG shooting 38.3% from the field and a paltry 26.7% from the arc. It is hard to make a team stop doubling in the paint if their best perimeter shooter can’t hit open shots. Not only will Conley be more rested this season, he is no longer the team’s best threat from the perimeter. Marc Gasol averages 33 MPG this season. That is down from 35 and 36.5 MPG the previous two seasons. He also won’t play 60 games this season, a career low. Once again his minutes have declined and with the added effect of the missed games earlier in the season he should be far more rested entering the playoffs even with the recent increase to 33.4 MPG in February. This season the Grizzlies have a true backup center in Kosta Koufusto spell Gasol. Gasol won’t have to average nearly 40 minutes a game in the post-season which should allow him to be even more effective when he is on the court. Courtney Lee has averaged 35.4 MPG in February but that was when Allen was injured for a large part of the month. His minutes have declined since Tony returned to action. Allen has never been more than a half a game type of player also so that leaves plenty of time for Lee to be on the court. What’s more, Lee is younger and played sparingly early in the season for Boston. His conditioning is being tested for sure but it isn’t like he’s played 30+ minutes a night for 82 games. In the playoffs last season the big three’s minutes shot up significantly. Conley averaged 36.2 MPG against the Clippers, 41.2 against the Thunder and 38.0 against the Spurs. Gasol averaged 39.0 MPG against the Clippers, 41.8 MPG against the Thunder and 41.5 MPG against the Spurs. Randolph averaged 33.7 MPG against the Clippers, 39.6 against the Thunder and 38.5 against the Spurs. All three players saw significant drops in performance as the playoffs went deeper. If Joerger can maintain the current work load of these players he will have achieved a significant drop in minutes played for all three players and that should give them fresher legs for the playoffs. What’s more the bench development of JJ, Lee (Allen is the bench player of course but Lee was the addition), Miller, Udrih/Calathes and Koufus give every one more time to rest meaning that it is unlikely that they will log the type of minutes Hollins had them playing last season. Whether or not this turns out to be the case will have to wait to be determined. The Grizzlies aren’t even in playoff position yet.Joerger can revert to playing his big 8 or 9 players in the playoffs but rely on Conley, Gasol and Randolph to log the majority of minutes at their respective positions. Lee will likely maintain the majority of minutes at SG even with Allen back since TA can move to SF on occasion. This leaves the one major question facing the Grizzlies staff. What about Tayshaun Prince, Mike Miller and James Johnson? Tayshaun Prince is old. Not just old in years (34) but old in NBA games. Prince has averaged at least 30 minutes a game every season since his rookie year until this season. This season Prince is averaging only 26.4 MPG. Unfortunately his production has dropped faster than his minutes. Part of that can be explained by his pre-season illness taking a toll but with Mike Miller, James Johnson and Tony Allen all capable of filling in for Prince it is a wonder why he has played as much as he has. The answer could be in the final outcome. Maybe it is just a coincidence but the Grizzlies record has corresponded well to Prince playing extended minutes this season not fewer. Prince averaged 29.7 MPG in November when the team’s record was 8-8. His minutes dropped to 23.5 in December when the team went 5-9. His minutes rose in January to 27.9 and the team responded with a 12-3 mark. In February the  minutes declined to 24.3 per game and the record declined to 7-5. It may just be a coincidence but there is a correlation to the naked eye. The good news is if Prince needs rest there are talented players to rest him. If he needs to play more minutes for the team to win then he has had more rest than at any time since his rookie year and the virus that sapped his energy earlier in the season seems to have passed. So do the Grizzlies need to work on finding more minutes off the bench? Who knows? Only the final standings will show if the coach’s decisions now were proper or not. Fans have given Joerger patience after replacing a popular predecessor but failing to make it into the playoffs will not be well received for a group that expected the team to advance at least to the 2nd round. Criticism will be based on how the minutes are divided the rest of the season if the team ends up in the lottery this year.

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