For Chuck Daly of the Magic, the toughest part of any game day—besides choosing the right tie to complete his ensemble—is figuring out how best to use his bench. "Every NBA player wants to play 48 minutes, get 48 shots and make $48 million," Daly says. "The coach has to decide who plays and when."
Daly and his NBA coaching brethren spend half of each game shuttling players in and out of the lineup in search of the right combination. The most skilled among them—such as Daly, the Bulls' Phil Jackson, the Sonics' George Karl and the Jazz's Jerry Sloan—are veritable puppeteers, deftly working the strings to make sure their starters get the necessary rest while keeping the unit on the court functioning smoothly.
"A big part of making substitutions is to get your main guys a breather," Daly says. "But you also might be trying to get certain favorable matchups on the court, depending on the flow of the game. It's really a chess match."
Most coaches prefer to have a set rotation. Jazz guard John Stockton, for example, nearly always gets a rest with six minutes to go in the first quarter, regardless of the score. "That way, players know when they're going into the game, and everybody knows his role," Daly says. "On my championship teams in Detroit [in 1988-89 and '89-90], I'd use Vinnie Johnson, Dennis Rodman and John Salley off the bench the same way most every night. I'd use Rodman and Salley at the end of the game, when I needed stops, but then I'd have to make sure I had three shooters out there with them."
On lesser teams, or ones that have been depleted by injuries, coaches are forced to shorten the rotations. The Magic is missing injured starters Penny Hardaway and Darrell Armstrong, so Daly doesn't have enough pieces to compete in the chess game. "When you're desperate, you tend to play your best people more minutes," Daly says. "Let's face it, the ninth through 12th guys on your bench aren't going to get the job done on a consistent basis."
Foul trouble affects substitution patterns, forcing coaches to shuffle their lineups. There are also specific game-situation gambits—for instance, inserting a three-point shooter at the end of a quarter—and what Daly calls "shock value" moves. "That's when a coach puts a guy in out of the blue just to wake him up and let him know he's part of the team," he says. "So maybe he'll say to himself, Hey, I better start working a little more. I might get some minutes."
Although coaches have been wrestling for years with how to deploy their reserves, Daly notes one recent development that's made the job tougher. Because of increased advertising courtside, benches have been pushed down to the baseline. "The players now are so far away, sometimes I'm at the scorer's table, looking around, going, 'Where is that guy?' " Daly says with a grin. "Fortunately I've got a couple of assistants to help me keep track of them.