In game 5, Draymond Green bounced back from an awful start to the NBA Finals with 8 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists in the Warriors big win. He played 35 minutes, which is what he averaged in the first four games. Steve Kerr has done a great job managing Green, a key player on championship teams for the Warriors who had been playing awful for the Celtics.

Give Steve Kerr a ton of credit for how he has handled Draymond. He benched him late in Game 4 and still got some key plays out of him. And then he got his best game from him in Game 5.

I wrote this yesterday, before the start of game 5, on the challenge a coach faces when one of his best players isn’t playing well:

Draymond Green is shooting 23% from the field and has 6 baskets through 4 games in the NBA Finals. He is averaging 7 rebounds and 6 assists, but he has more fouls committed than points scored. He’s playing 35 minutes per game, only 2 minutes per game less than the other Golden State starters. He’s an average of -1.8 per game. Kevon Looney is shooting 72% from the field and averaging 7 points and 9 rebounds per game, playing just 22 minutes per game. Looney is a team best +9.0 over the 4 games.

Steve Kerr has a tough challenge in front of him. What do you do when one of your main dudes isn’t playing well? Kerr showed his hand a bit in game 4, benching Green for a few minutes in the 4th quarter before bringing him back late – where Green made 2 big plays to help them win the game. But Kerr showed his hand, at least in that he’s not afraid to mix it up and take Green out if he’s not playing well.

To me this is one of the hardest in-game decisions a head coach needs to make – do I go with the starter who has been a key guy all year even if he’s not playing well, or do I go to the bench with someone who might not be as good, but is playing better right now? There’s nothing that bothered me more than looking at a box score after a game that I lost, and seeing I gave a lot of minutes to one of my starters when he wasn’t playing well, especially when there was another guy playing well who didn’t get many minutes.

While this is an in-game decision, realistically it’s something you want to decide before the game starts. Chip Kelly says you should make your tough decisions “in air-conditioned rooms,” meaning you need to talk out the scenarios ahead of time and decide what you are going to do when the situation arises. When we had a starter who wasn’t playing well over a period of games, I’d make sure to tell my staff to get him out if he wasn’t playing well – I’d say “we can’t roll with X if he’s not playing well.” It would be part of our approach to the game.

The NBA Finals obviously provides a unique situation – I mean, it is a little wild to play the same team possibly 7 times a row over 2 weeks, isn’t it? This actually gives Kerr a lot more time to decide what to do with Draymond. After 3 games of Draymond struggling, he finally adjusted his rotation – albeit slightly – down the stretch in game 4. With the series tied at 2 he’s got a tough call still in front of him.

I’ve always felt that most coaches will go with the proven veteran in this situation, but a lot of that is self-serving. It’s more comfortable to stick with the starter, hoping he can turn it around. If you go with the starter and he struggles, the narrative is about the player and how he didn’t play well. If you make a change and do something different, and your team loses, the narrative becomes about the decision you made as a coach. I do think a lot of coaches are afraid to make a change due to self-preservation.

When a guy has proven himself and is clearly one of your best players – and he’s helped you win – you are certainly going to give him a little freedom to have a bad day. You aren’t just going to yank guys every time they struggle. But you do need the courage to do what is best for your team in that moment, and it requires a feel for the short-term mentality of your team.

I’m usually going to fall on the side of going with the guys who are playing the best, versus sticking with the starter when they aren’t playing well. I don’t think it’s an absolute, but I hate looking at the box score after a loss and seeing someone who played really well that only got 10-15 minutes of playing time. I think the value of playing a lot of guys and developing depth shows up in these situations. You just need the conviction to finish games with some different line-ups and make sure your guys are bought in to your approach.

Who to play late in games is never easy. In college, we don’t get 7-game series to evaluate our guys over two weeks. Usually it’s an in-the-moment decision. When all your top guys are playing well, you don’t have a lot of decisions to make. But when things don’t all go your way, and one of your guys is really struggling, what are you going to do? Do you go with the guy you’ve always counted on, or do you go with the hot hand? I’m going with the five guys who are playing the best to finish the game.

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