A Half Baked Notion about the difference between the Regular Season and the Playoffs

The first post I ever wrote for the Wages of Win network was about my beloved Celtics and how people should not be surprised by their success against the Cavaliers (see here). One of the key points in the article was that minute allocation and inefficient use of resources by their coach Mike Brown was what led the Cavaliers on the road to perdition. After I wrote this I started to think on past situation where of teams that were successful in the regular season but dramatic failures in the playoff. This idea stayed in my head and gave birth to a Half-Baked Notion.

Is there something inherently different about the regular season and the playoffs in the NBA? Is there something that jumps out that dramatically changes the game? I believe that there is : Minute allocation & how wins produced are affected by that allocation. We continuously hear terms like playoff rotation & playoff minutes thrown around come playoff time. When we take a look at the data we’ll see that the pundits may just be right (stunning I know but even a broken clock is right once a day).

The Regular Season

First let’s look at the regular season data. I’m using all the data from every season since the merger. I will be ranking the players on each roster by minutes played and then allocation wins accordingly. The data looks like this :

A few interesting points from this table:

  • Your starting five account for 82% percent of your wins in the regular season.
  • Your second unit is important over the course of an 82 game regular season accounting for 18% of your wins
  • After that everybody else is statistically meaningless.

The Playoffs:

Now let’s look at the playoff data. Again, I’m using all the data from every season since the merger. I will be ranking the players on each roster by minutes played and then allocation wins accordingly. The data looks like this :

You can clearly see the obvious differences:

  • Your starting five account for 94% percent of your wins in the playoffs.
  • Only the first guy of your bench matters accounting for 5% of your wins
  • After that everybody else is statistically meaningless.

So what have we learned. A good deep team filled with average and above average players will get you in the playoffs but to get far in the playoffs you need your wins to be concentrated in your Top 6. So at the end of the day Pat Riley looks even more brilliant (and thus ends my streak of not talking about the Superfriends ).

Arturo Galletti Written by:


  1. July 26

    A question here might be if some teams are messing up when they have a good bench. If you have an above average bench (let’s say gets you 25% of your wins), then that bench would win you one of the needed series in the playoffs. On the other hand, a top heavy team that gets in (cough Boston) can get away with ditching their bench.

    I note my Denver team fell prey to this. They had Lawson, Balkman and Birdman on the bench but of course relied on the great Melo, Martin and Smith. Of course their explanation for playoff wins is coaching, mental toughness and experience. . . .

  2. Andres,
    It’s almost like coaching only really matters in the playoffs. So a bad coach doesn’t stop you from getting in the playoffs but can completely derail you once there.

  3. July 26


    Well a good point to make is the value of a win. In the regular season in theory a win is worth 1/55 of the requirement of a “Champion” season. In the playoffs it is worth 1/16. A coach has the ability to lose a team wins in both the regular season and playoffs. Oddly this does not appear to be the result of excellent play calling or making players better but as a result of minute allocation! Anyway in the playoffs any mistake a coach has had on minute allocation (Denver and Cleveland e.g) gets magnified big time. Whereas a coach with a good big 3 has a good shot of winning just by following conventional wisdom and playing the heck out of them.

  4. […] I should note that Arturo was scheduled to offer the review of the Phoenix Suns.  Arturo, though, seems to have his hands full offering brilliant posts like the following: A Half Baked Notion about the difference between the Regular Season and the Playoffs.  […]

  5. bduran
    July 26

    I would be interested in what these numbers looked like for only the top teams. It could be possible that Championship teams get more bench production than other playoff teams but that this gets averaged out.

    • This will probably be tomorrow’s post (I have an angle around championship teams vs other playoff teams)

  6. Alex
    July 26

    We also always hear about how coaches ‘shorten their bench’ in the playoffs, which is verified by your minute data showing that the top 6 players go from 70% of team minutes in the regular season to 81% in the playoffs. Since the top 6 players are presumably the better players on a team, it makes sense that they would generate more wins when they play more minutes in the playoffs. So presumably a “top heavy” team would win plenty of games in the regular season if they players don’t get tired/hurt, and a deep team would win in the playoffs if the coach didn’t shorten his bench.

    • Alex,
      Except that in the playoffs the marginal inefficiencies on your team (players 7-10) matter less so a good regular season team can become a great playoff team (see 2010 Celtics). The flip side is if you play the wrong guys as a coach you’re more likely to get wrecked because on average your opponent is making himself better in the playoffs (so if you don’t adjust your rotation for the playoffs you’ll get beaten by a lesser team or if your wins are too spread out.)

  7. Chicago Tim
    July 27

    Turning to my Chicago Bulls, as I usually do, this may validate their concern about McGrady’s or Shaq’s willingness to function as a bench player. Beyond the 6th man, the bench players must be willing to play reduced minutes during the season and few or no minutes during the playoffs, assuming the first six players stay healthy.

    Since the Bulls are unlikely to win a championship in the immediate future, their hope is that their young players blossom. Therefore if the team hopes to win a champion ship in the next five years, their young players must get playing time, although the hope is that they earn it.

    Kurt Thomas has demonstrated that he can still play very well when necessary (i.e., when Bogut was injured), but that he doesn’t need to play to be a positive influence. Perhap this is because Kurt Thomas was never a top scorer in the league, and always earned his keep doing dirty work without glory.

    Top scorers get more credit than they deserve, and perhaps have a harder time accepting a reduced role when they age. Note that although Grant Hill was once a top scorer in the league and has accepted a somewhat reduced role, he still plays starter minutes for the Suns.

    I would think that McGrady would also want 25-30 minutes a game, and I think the Bulls are looking for someone who will play 10-15 minutes a game during the regular season, and maybe 0-5 minutes a game during the playoffs.

  8. TBall
    July 27


    Might want to edit this bullet “Your starting five account for 94% percent of your wins in the regular season.”

    To this point, was the Celtics’ advantage in the playoffs that their most productive players were their starters or that some of the Cavs most productive players were not among the starters+1?

    Mike Brown’s rotation was screwy (technical term) in the series with the Celtics. Beyond sub-optimal use of Moon, Varejo, and Hickson, he failed to shorten the bench and it felt awkward. I would bet his top 6 players by minutes did not consume 81% of the minutes for the Cavs in that series.

    The varied minute allocation in the postseason makes sense. More rest between games, no back-to-backs, and more rest in-game with longer and more frequent TV timeouts. Players can go 38-40 minutes/game without the same concern for wearing down that exists in the regular season. If properly managed, the starters are superior to the bench and increasing starter minutes increases win expectation. Which is to say, I think the most successful teams in the playoffs maximize playing time of their best players and do not get deep into the bench.

  9. Alex
    July 27

    Arturo – I’m having a little trouble I’m hoping you can help me with. Let’s say I’m the 10th man on an average team; the team wins 41 games during the season. I earn 1% of the teams wins, which is .4 wins. I do this playing only 4% of the team’s 3936 minutes (assuming no overtime), which is 157 minutes. My WP48 should be (.4/157)*48 = .125, right? (or more like .121 without rounding). So the average 10th man on an average team is an above average player? Or have I missed a step? Shouldn’t many players at the bottom of the rotation be negative contributors?

  10. Alex
    July 27

    I noticed that I have the minutes wrong; teams have 19680 minutes in a season, so the average 10th man is about a 0 producer. It still seems a little odd that the 10th man manages to be so ‘good’.

  11. Arturo,

    Possible future post idea as a follow up to this. Do you want to do a post ranking the teams by their top 6 win producers? What would be the difference in rankings between rankings based on the whole team versus the top 6.

  12. TBall
    July 28


    On Cleveland, the players with the 10th and 11th most minutes were Jamario Moon and Antawn Jameson (the result of playing only part of the season for Cleveland). Kevin Martin was near league average and 10th in minutes for Sac and Houston (coincidence), again due to a partial season with each team. Bonner was league average and 10th in minutes for the Spurs. Humphreys was 11th in minutes for NJ with a .159 WP48. Biedrins was 10th in minutes for GS and exceeded .200 WP48. Camby was 10th for the Blazers. Most teams do not have players that good that get remanded to tenth in minutes played, but there are circumstances that place good players there.

    Heck, a starting 5 of Biedrins, Camby, Moon, Martin, and Nate Robinson (.090 and 10th in minutes for the Knicks) should get you to the postseason. Bring Ryan Anderson, Bonner, Eddie House, Brendan Haywood, and Vujacic off the bench and this team of tenths could host a first round playoff series.

  13. R
    September 1

    Useful comparison.

  14. […] the playoffs, a top-heavy team is best for winning the championship.  That idea came from the post here, which focuses on two tables.  The first is a table showing the percentage of minutes played by […]

  15. […] Arturo’s Half Baked Theory (which I will mention in every playoff write-up I do) essentially says your top six players in terms of minutes decide your playoff fate. The Thunder had an easy template to follow; they just played their top six players using the same scheme they used since the Perkin’s trade. We also notice they pushed the minutes Durant played (a strategy I wish Denver had followed with Lawson). With four of their top six playing very well — and regular season numbers suggesting Perkins and Westbrook can play better — the Thunder look in good shape. […]

  16. […] So how should this team do?  Let’s allocate some minutes according to Arturo’s regular season minute breakdown, assuming that the order is something like Bill’s suggested line-up.  The chart […]

  17. […] The Half Baked Notion was introduced by Arturo Galletti almost two years ago. It essentially says that, while depth matters to some extent in the NBA regular season, the starting lineup plus the first guy off the bench account for 99% of a team’s production in the playoffs. We haven’t specifically studied the college game to see if the notion remains, but it seems reasonable to assume it does. […]

  18. Peter
    May 13

    Actually, depending upon the clock — specifically, if it doesn’t show AM or PM, and is not a 24 hour clock — a broken clock can be right *twice* a day.

  19. […] Let’s start with the really hard bit: the minute projections. For that I combine data from rotoworld’s nba depth chart page, with data from ESPN and other sources together with my own research about minutes by spot on roster. […]

  20. October 30

    Is having a good bench less important in the playoffs than it is in the regular season?…

    This assumption is actually completely true Arturo Galletti put a lot of work into this subject [1] The easiest way to explain this is that the regular season is a marathon and the playoffs are a sprint. In the regular season, a deep bench allows you t…

  21. […] it will take.  This is extremely simple; it doesn’t take into account trades, injuries, the shortened bench, specific match-ups, or anything else.  All it has is a point difference (home minus away) and […]

  22. […] have to guess at what the playoff minute allocation will be for each team. The key idea here is the half baked notion.The Half baked notion is this: what wins in the regular season is not necessarily what gets you the […]

  23. […] Realistically, teams need star players to win, particularly in the playoffs when wins can be largely attributed to your top 5 players. However, in a competitive league where playoff seeding (and home-court advantage) can come down to […]

  24. […] produced by Mr. Arturo Galletti. A few years back, Arturo crunched the numbers and developed a chart delineating the average distribution of regular season wins among a given team. I opted to compare […]

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