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The 2023 Playoffs Are Showing Us Why Depth Matters

There’s a common assumption amongst fans that depth doesn’t matter as much in the NBA playoffs. Rotations shrink, the end-of-bench guys are depended on much less, and for the most, that can be true. But that doesn’t make depth any less important. Injuries happen. Players go through shooting slumps. Sometimes a team throws a wrench in your bread-n-butter, go-to plays and you need to mix it up. 

Throughout the early stages of these 2023 playoffs, we’ve seen how both the presence and absence of depth have impacted teams in the post-season. It’s easy to say that you need depth when guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Ja Morant, Kawhi Leonard, and Tyler Herro are getting hurt because you need players to be able to chip in and try to amount to their production.

But even beyond injuries, depth can equal versatility. It can give you more options. It allows you to bend but not break. To morph your style to match your opponents. To be like water.

For instance, the Knicks opted to sit their all-star forward Julius Randle in the 4th quarter of Game 4 and play Isaiah Hartenstein and Josh Hart instead. Randle had been struggling all night — he finished with 7 points on 3/10 shooting in 27 minutes — and was a non-factor. Instead, Hart and Hartenstein provided the extra punch the Knicks needed to keep a rallying Cavaliers team from pulling off the comeback — crashing the offensive glass, getting after it at the point of attack, and knocking down timely shots.

In a series that has been determined by who has won the possession battle, Hart’s feistiness on the boards, his tenaciousness as a defender, and the connectedness he provides on offense is exactly what this Knicks team has needed. Through 4 games in the series, Hart is averaging the 3rd most minutes per game on the roster, putting up nearly 14 points, 7 rebounds (2 of which are offensive), and nabbing nearly 2 steals per contest.

On the other side, the Cavaliers are aching for someone like Hart to come off their bench. The Knicks have eight players so far in this series who are averaging more than 20 minutes a night. The Cavs are more top-heavy, with 5 players averaging more than 30 minutes a night and Isaac Okoro, Cedi Osman, and Danny Green each averaging less than 20 minutes through 4 games. On top of that, the Cavs’ current wing rotation of Caris LeVert, Okoro, Osman, and Green leaves a lot to be desired. One of the main concerns going into the playoffs was who that 5th starter would be — and that remains a question as they face elimination on Tuesday. Okoro is a great defender but isn’t a good shooter or offensive player and the Knicks can sag off of him and not worry. Osman can shoot, and he can pose a threat offensively, but he can get hunted on defense. Green, god bless his soul, would have been perfect for this team if he was 5 years younger. That’s left LeVert to be their only hope — and so far, it’s been an inconsistent playoff series to tag onto an inconsistent regular season for him.

The Cavs are hamstrung by their inability to be versatile. They’re relying far too heavily on Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland to create everything and the Knicks have the exact point-of-attack recipe in Brunson, Hart, Immanuel Quickley, Quintin Grimes, and even Deuce McBride, that can, at the very least, make life difficult for the Cavs star-studded backcourt. It’s forced Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen to become initiators on offense more and the results… haven’t been great.

The Cavs have exhausted all of their options in this series. The Knicks? Well, if you want to go big, they can go big with a lineup of Mitchell Robinson and Randle, or even Hartenstein. Do you want to go small? They can play a more wing-centric lineup and play 3 guards with Quickley, Barrett, and Brunson because of Hart’s ability to play up a position.

Hart is proving to be one of the best trade-deadline acquisitions this season — and it’s because he completes the Knicks bench in the perfect way.

The absence and presence of depth is glaring in this matchup. The same can be said for the Clippers-Suns series.

Devin Booker has played 172 of a possible 192 minutes through the first 4 games of this series. Kevin Durant? 173. Chris Paul? 153. In fact, out of a possible 960 minutes (48 minutes x 5 starters x 4 games), the Suns’ starters have played 740 minutes. They have a serious depth issue. And if Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were healthy, it might have been a bigger problem. But it isn’t. And the Suns’ top-end talent of Durant, Booker, Ayton, and Paul has just been too formidable in the minutes they’ve played together in this series.

But, it will be an issue moving forward in the playoffs. It’s taxing for their starters to log such heavy minutes, being asked to carry such a heavy load and it will only become more difficult as they play better competition. It’s not just exhaustion but let’s go back to the whole, versatility equals depth, thing — while a lineup of Durant, Booker, Paul, Ayton, and one of Craig or Okogie has been great so far — what if they need to switch it up? Do the Suns have an ace up their sleeve? Admittedly, no, they don’t. They have to play for the rest of the playoffs with their cards facing up. Can it work? With that level of talent, absolutely. But it does hamstring them. And it could ultimately be their kryptonite.

As for the Clippers — they have depth by the boatload. They’ve had 10 players play more than 15 minutes a night through 4 games. Marcus Morris and Robert Covington didn’t even play until Leonard was ruled out for the games, although maybe that wasn’t for the best. Either way, the Clippers have been able to keep these games close and competitive, despite the absences of Leonard and George. Norm Powell, Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, Bones Hyland, and Terrence Mann have all taken the extra usage and filled in where they can.

Unfortunately, it just hasn’t been enough. The Clippers are out-matched and this current roster, without Leonard or George is facing an uphill battle against the Suns’ stars. The key is that depth needs to work in tandem with top-end talent. When one or both are missing, it becomes harder to plug holes.

These two series are the most glaring examples of why depth matters but every series has examples of it.

The Celtics, maybe one of the deepest teams in the league, have the ability to go small by starting Derrick White instead of Robert Williams — as they did in Game 4 against the Hawks. They have a guard rotation of White, Malcolm Brogdon and Marcus Smart that can all provide them with different elements at the guard position without them tangibly losing out on any other skillset.

The Lakers won game 1 in Memphis because of a shooting onslaught from Rui Hachimura. They’ve also been able to physically out-hustle and out-size the Grizzlies in the frontcourt because Memphis is missing bodies in Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke. Once again, the presence and absence of depth, respectively.

Duncan Robinson has returned to the Miami Heat rotation and has been a revelation, dropping 14 points in game 2, 20 points in game 3, and playing 30 minutes and knocking down three 3’s in game 4. Robinson has given Miami a huge boost from behind the arc and has helped tip the scales in the Heat’s favor.

Depth is versatility. It’s a Swiss army knife. Teams tend to shorten their rotations in the playoffs, and that much is evident, but when things go wrong, when teams need to find answers, and when nothing is working — having the ability to play your 8th or 9th or 10th guy off the bench becomes essential. And it’s crucial that those guys provide something different.

Whether it’s Hart and his unique ability as an undersized wing to crash the offensive glass. Or Robinson’s ability to stretch the floor for a Miami team that desperately needs shooting. Or the Lakers relying on Hachimura to knock down shots in a road playoff game.

The old adage goes that the NBA season is a war of attrition. Whoever stays the healthiest, whoever is the most battle-tested, will always rise from the ashes, victorious.

And in the modern NBA, where injuries are a factor in seemingly every single season, you need to be able to take the bumps along the road. You need to be malleable. You need to be able to adjust. And you can’t do that without a good bench.

Without depth.