Foul Trouble

Despite Greg Oden’s obvious progress from last season on both ends of the court*, it still seems like Nate McMillan has him on a pretty short leash when it comes to foul trouble. Oden has only played 30 minutes in a game twice this season. 30 minutes is not that much. Hell, Shaq has played 30 minutes twice this season, and the big guy averaged 30 minutes a game last season as a 325-pound 36-year-old.  Granted, Joel Przybilla is a quality backup center, perhaps the best in the league. But with only three big guys that get any minutes (Aldridge, Gorilla, Oden), there’s no excuse for playing Oden just 24 minutes a game.

I think the conventional strategy of taking players out at certain points in the game with foul trouble is a bogus tactic that should not be employed as often as it is, especially by McMillan. Think about it. A coach takes a player out with foul trouble so that he can play later in the game. Ironically, now the player is not playing, but on the bench. The fear of hypothetical future fouls has just benched a budding talent to avoid benching him later. Joseph Heller is laughing wherever he is.

Sure, if you leave a good player in the game in the third quarter after picking up his fourth foul, he might go ahead and get his fifth three minutes later, and then his sixth another 5 minutes after that. But he got 8 quality minutes while he was warm, hopefully helping to put the team in position to win. Or maybe he doesn’t get those last couple fouls and plays two full stretches of seven minutes with a two-minute break. That sounds attractive, no? Then again you could take him out in the third—never knowing if he was going to pick up those two fouls or not—and then jerk him in and out of the game for the final stretch run. Basically my point is this: if you want to maximize a starter’s time on the court, taking him out for foul trouble is not the way to do that.

In the first five games of the season, Oden was subbed out 13 times directly following a personal foul. I was going to check the whole season’s play-by-plays, but I think I saw enough. More than twice a game he came out immediately after a foul. It’s not likely that every single one of these instances his foul situation lined up nicely with his lung capacity. In other words, he probably would have been physically fine to play longer in many of these cases.

Oden never fouled out once during that initial five-game stretch. In fact, he’s only fouled out once all season. So congratulations McMillan, you saved him from fouling out. Do you get extra wins at the end of the season for every game Oden doesn’t foul out of?

I think it sometimes makes sense to save a guy’s fouls for later. If Oden were to foul out in the second quarter, Big Joel** wouldn’t get any rest the whole second half without Coach McMillan having to go with some crazy lineups. But barring extreme circumstances, Oden should be in the game when he’s not dog tired, and he should be getting 30 minutes on the floor every night. I love the Vanilla Gorilla, but Oden’s hit a point now where his offense is significantly more valuable than Przybilla’s, and his defense may have caught up, too.

*Oden’s FG and FT percentages are up drastically, and his points, rebounds and blocked shot numbers are all up overall, as well as per minute.

**Note: Vanilla Gorilla = Przybilla = Big Joel. All the same person…

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