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Can Too Much Depth Be a Bad Thing?

Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports

Conventional wisdom tells us that depth in basketball is always good. It’s the key ingredient to winning. You can’t have just one or two superstars and expect to win championships. You need role players. Depth wins. Depth is always a good thing.

Or is it? Could there actually be instances where a flood of depth is problematic?

There are cases where this is possible. Let’s consider the current roster construction of the Chicago Bulls. They boast some serious depth at numerous positions. For veteran players like Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and even Taj Gibson, this a positive because their depth should limit their minutes and fatigue throughout the season.

But what about young players like Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott and Tony Snell? These youngsters are looking for court time to build confidence, but is this plausible with a roster full of capable players?

Mirotic will have to battle Gasol and Gibson at the power-forward slot. He’s likely to earn minutes, but he’s the type of player where you wonder how good he’d be if the Bulls just unleashed him. After all, during the month of March last year, Mirotic played 30.8 minutes per game due to frontcourt injuries, and he poured in 20.8 points per game and 7.6 rebounds per game during this month. There’s also evidence that the Bulls were very successful when he was on the floor.

Yet, due to a frontcourt logjam, Mirotic could get lost in the shuffle on some nights. This was often seen last year. On nights where his minutes were reduced, he didn’t look nearly as assertive or effective, which is natural when minutes fluctuate.

Similar concerns surround McDermott and Snell, especially McDermott. Dougie McBuckets is a scoring machine, but an offensive-minded player is really only going to find rhythm and productivity when given time. Will he see the hardwood much on a wing featuring Mike Dunleavy and Jimmy Butler, as well as a better defender in Snell?

There’s much to like about McDermott’s game. Similar to Mirotic, McDermott is the type of player who could become a dynamic scorer if he’s unleashed. It just appears, though, that the Bulls have too much depth to do that. This raises concerns that McDermott’s output will seesaw, as well his poise. The same can be said for Snell.

Now I know the Bulls’ depth is valuable if an injury arises. But the concerns in terms of player development are apparent. Depth is typically good, particularly with a roster laden with veterans. However, young players crave freedom. They don’t want to feel like the first sign of a blown defensive assignment or turnover leads to their removal.

In Chicago’s case, coach Fred Hoiberg should tap into their depth more than his predecessor Tom Thibodeau, but the reality of Chicago potentially having an overload of depth is still a worry. Even with a coach who should spread the minutes around more evenly, there are still a lot of players itching to get off the pine. It’ll be hard to find the proper balance that maximizes individual effectiveness. More importantly, team success could also be a struggle considering that a slew of players could possess insecurities due to an undefined role.

And this is a potential problem that isn’t limited to Chicago. Consider the Boston Celtics, who have all of these players in the frontcourt: David Lee, Amir Johnson, Jared Sullinger, Tyler Zeller, Kelly Olynyk and Perry Jones. A few of these players could provide depth on a championship-caliber team, but mixed together on a shaky Celtics squad, there are a bevy of concerns. Lee and Johnson are veterans who are hoping to prove they can still play, especially Lee. Sullinger, Zeller, Olynyk and Jones are all fairly young and trying to show they belong.

In the end, Boston will probably utilize a “committee” approach to its frontcourt, and this should lead to frustrations and lacking efficiency from multiple players. Truthfully, I didn’t see a point in them signing the merely serviceable Johnson when you already have the 23-year-old Sullinger, who’s flashed some potential. This seems to be a case where it’s assumed that depth is a good thing, but how is it here when you’re hindering Sullinger’s development by keeping him on the bench more? This is especially relevant when considering that Johnson is an average player who isn’t going to make Boston considerably better.

There are questions in Boston’s backcourt as well. Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley are the starters, but they also have four first-round picks who are 21 years old or younger. Marcus Smart, James Young, Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter all want to show their skills, but how can they consistently? Coach Brad Stevens has a major challenge to find niches for these youngsters, but the likelihood is that their development is inevitably inhibited because of each other.

The Orlando Magic have some similar issues with young talent in the backcourt and on the wing. The same can be said about the Denver Nuggets. The list could go on.

What’s clear is that depth, while frequently good, can at times have a negative effect. Confidence drops. Team chemistry suffers. And win totals can even start decreasing.

This begs the question, what does a healthy model for depth look like? I think there are two parts to this.

For one, there’s no denying that to win, you have to possess truly elite players. There’s no way around this. Teams don’t win on depth alone. It takes a transcendent player (think LeBron James) or multiple All-Stars (think Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) to win a championship. All-around depth is a factor, but sometimes it’s overstated. Just consider how far LeBron carried a banged-up Cavs team last season. The Cavs didn’t reach the Finals because of their depth. They did so because they had LeBron.

Secondly, there is a type of depth that creates the right chemistry. It’s usually a blend of youthful athleticism with veteran minds. The Warriors perfectly embodied this last season. They had their studs in Curry and Thompson, but they surrounded them perfectly with this mix of youth and wisdom. Youthful presences such as Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli brought needed athleticism and energy. They were integral factors in their defense and offensive versatility. But Golden State’s depth featured far more than these young bucks.

Andre Iguodala (age 31), Andrew Bogut (30), Shaun Livingston (29) and Leandro Barbosa (32) all played critical roles. The key element to these players is they’re solidified in their roles in the league, so they aren’t searching for confidence or trying to do too much. They understand what they bring to the table, and they provide it reliably when called upon.

Plus, they were all at stages in their career where winning a title was the ultimate goal. They were willing to sacrifice individual success for the sake of chasing a ring. This can’t always be said for young players who are trying to make a name for themselves. I mean, Iguodala gave up a starting spot at the beginning of the year, and Bogut was willing to not only give up his starting spot in the Finals, but also be relegated to not even playing at all because of matchups. This shows the uniqueness of having humble veterans on the roster.

I even have respect for what the Minnesota Timberwolves are doing. While the wins aren’t there yet, they’re embracing this philosophy of building around superstars and surrounding them with the right veterans. Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns will likely both be All-Stars in the near future, and they’ve brought in Kevin Garnett as a “mentor-like” figure. They also signed aging Andre Miller. The opportunity for Wiggins and Towns to rub shoulders with these old-timers, particularly Garnett, could prove invaluable over the long haul. It’s the right kind of depth.

The key is meshing the veterans with the youngsters in a sensible manner. Without the veterans, you might have athleticism, but you’ll likely lack chemistry and intellect (Example: the Sacramento Kings in recent years). Conversely, without the young weapons, you might have chemistry and grit, but you lack the young legs to keep pace (Example: Boston Celtics from 2011-13).

It’s rare for these two parts, superstar(s) and perfect depth, to come together. The Warriors and Spurs have done it in recent years, but it doesn’t seem that many teams are thinking this shrewdly. There are a plethora of teams stockpiling their roster with “talent” with little awareness of how it could impact chemistry, potentially creating “depth” that’s actually bad.

Returning to the Bulls, there are numerous concerns. For one, do they really have enough superstar capabilities in Derrick Rose and Butler? And secondly, are their veterans willing to sacrifice for the sake of the team, namely the development of their younger assets? If this happens, maybe Chicago molds into a legitimate contender, but there are reasons to be skeptical. Perhaps they have the wrong kind of depth and not enough superstar firepower.

This is likely the reality for a handful of teams. And in this case, it’s time for franchises to rethink how to construct a roster to enhance player development and overall morale. Some may need to trade some of their “depth” away. Others need to be more reluctant to throw money at average free agents.

What’s definitely evident is that more thought needs to be poured into the notion of depth and winning. They don’t always go together. Without the proper formula, too much depth can actually be a bad thing.

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