In this sentence - When the Houston Rockets signed Greek star Vassilis Spanoulis over the summer, they hoped he would be "a rotation player" - what does "a rotation player" mean?
Dear Rockets Fan,
A rotation player is a "reserve" or "substitute" who gets to play regularly in a game. He's not a "starter", but is nonetheless an important player. He plays significant "minutes". He's a key "bench player".
Let me explain all of those terms.
First, "rotation" refers to a team's substitution pattern (who replaces whom and when) in a game. Good and established teams usually develop a somewhat predictable pattern in which certain "bench players" (who begin a game on the bench, the long narrow stool along the sidelines of the court) replace certain "starters" (players who "start" a game on the court) at certain stages of a game.
An NBA team carries a maximum of 15 players, but only 12 are eligible to play in each game.
Since basketball is a five-a-side game, each team is allowed to field five players on court at any given time.
The five players who play at the start of each game are hence called "starters". They are the most important members of a team, in contrast to those who sit on the bench waiting for their turn to play - which opportunity, for some, may never come.
Teams usually have an 8- or 9-player rotation, meaning only the starters plus a few key substitutes get to play regularly. These substitutes are therefore "rotation players" - They are "in rotation". Along with starters, they play significant minutes, or playing time. An NBA game lasts 48 minutes. Players who play more of those minutes tend to be more important members of a team, for obvious reasons.
Starters usually get to play 30 minutes or more. Rotation players or key substitutes play about 20 minutes. Others who are said to be sitting at the farthest end of the bench get to play only a few minutes, if at all.
For example, Yao Ming is a starter. Dikembe Mutombo, who mostly substitutes for Yao during a game, is a key reserve and a rotation player. Spanoulis is not a rotation player yet. He's currently stuck on the bench. Spanoulis played 4 minutes in their 107-76 victory over the Mavericks on Sunday. He did not play in their 96-90 setback against the Hornets earlier this morning.
For the moment, Spanoulis is a bit-part player, in the same way some actors or actresses play small bit-part roles in a movie.
Which reminds me of the role Wang Zhizhi played during the last two years of his NBA career.
Unhappy to grow old on the bench, Wang returned home to rejoin his alma mater team of Ba Yi in the CBA. He has since locked up a place in the team's rotation. In fact, he is a fixture in the starting lineup.
For better or for worse, Wang's fortunes have changed.