Question 1: Is Thibs playing his starters too many minutes?
Andy: I don’t know.
I suppose it depends on what the team goals are. They are 16-12 right now [eds note: much of this post was drafted before Thursday night’s win over the Kings, so the numbers will sometimes be slightly off], and it isn’t exactly clear to me that alternative playing-time scenarios would’ve led to anything better than that. Still, some tweaks here and there seem like reasonable idea-criticisms. The leaders (as of this writing) are Jimmy Butler (37.4 minutes per game) and Andrew Wiggins (37.0). Both of those numbers are too high, in a vacuum, but the backup wings are just so bad. Shabazz Muhammad has been unexpectedly unplayable. Jamal Crawford takes and makes difficult shots, but his defense is a constant liability and his ball-stopping tendencies make a bad fit on a roster rife with “primary scorers.” The Wolves perform a full 15 points better per 100 possessions in scoring margin when Crawford sits on the bench, versus when he plays. With that in mind, and having seen so many instances where Thibs yells “JIMMY!” or “WIG!” to check in for Jamal when it seems like the right move, I have a hard time griping about the minutes situation at the wing. Ideally, they’d have more depth there. The rest of the starting five is where things get problematic, and that’s because that’s where they actually have depth that is going under-utilized. At point guard, Jeff Teague is playing 34.3 minutes versus the 17.1 played by Tyus Jones. Teague playing more than Jones is understandable, but each is playing well enough that Jones playing under 20 – on this team, right now – is not enough. Whether he cuts into Teague’s full slate or plays next to him here or there, Tyus should get more burn to help balance out the playing-time distribution. And likewise in the frontcourt, Gorgui Dieng is too good of an all-around bench player to only average 17.4 minutes per game. (That’s why he’s on a $64 Million Kahntract!) Towns is too central to everything the team is building to see much of a cut from his 35.4 minutes, but Taj Gibson – a great role player, but a ROLE PLAYER – should not be playing over 33 minutes per game, as he is right now. It would make sense to me if Dieng took 5 or 6 of Gibson’s minutes and maybe 1 or 2 of KAT’s. And this doesn’t even mention Nemanja Bjelica, who was playing great basketball in fewer minutes than he deserved, before his injury.
Dr. Lawyer IndianChief: The answer is a resounding “Yes,” but before I rev my engine on this, I just want to say that we’re not even doing this roundtable if Butler hits that last shot of regulation against the sixers (or Andrew Wiggins hits an open shot all game). That is, we’d be talking about Thibs rotations and minutes all season, sure, but if the Wolves would’ve won, the topic wouldn’t have reached DEFCON 5 levels brought on by national media/NBA twitter folks catching their thrice-yearly glimpse of the Wolves on ESPN and lazily attaching the MINUTES narrative to that god damn game, which by the way went to overtime (3 out of 5 starters played very reasonable minutes during regulation). If the Wolves win, we chuckle about minutes and move on. Also, don’t even get me started on how I think the MINUTES narrative Thibs received during his Chicago tenure was also mischaracterized (cough). But that’s where we are…sorry, where was I? Oh yeah, the answer is “Yes Thibs is playing his starters too many minutes.” And yes, this is a problem. However, the reasons for this are complex and multifaceted. The prime culprit is unfortunate roster construction, which I’ll get to in the next question, but there are several others that I think folks are underestimating. I’ll provide three additional ones here. REASON NUMBER 1 is the simple reality that the young guys can handle it. I’m talking about Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony, who oh by the way are playing FEWER minutes compared to last year. When coaches have young, borderline all-star players, you play them, especially when they are tremendously conditioned and have zero injury history (as is the case with Wigs and Towns). This isn’t just a Thibs thing. You know who else gets minutes on par with Wigs/Towns? Ben Simmons, Anthony Davis, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. And these guys are way more banged up! But because they’re relatively young, and outstanding, you play them. This is part of the reason the minutes narrative needs to be viewed on a player-by-player basis. REASON NUMBER 2 is injuries. I think because the Wolves haven’t had a high-profile injury a la Rudy Gobert, Paul Millsap, or Kawhi Leonard, we’ve felt like they have been pretty injury free. However, with just over a third of the season played, we are discounting the four games Jeff Teague missed (where KAT/Wigs/Taj’s minutes SKYROCKETED compared to normal) and even more significantly, the long-term losses of Nemanja Bjelica and Justin Patton. Bjelica/Patton being out make it particularly hard to spell KAT, Jimmy, and Taj, and that’s where the minutes have begun to pile up. REASON NUMBER 3, perhaps the most overlooked, is that most of the games the Wolves have played have been close! There have been very few blowouts either way going into the 4th quarter, which means, yeah, you gotta have your best players on the floor to finish the games. I realize that this is a bit of a chicken/egg scenario (are the games close because Thibs is overplaying his starters through the first 36 minutes?), but there is a case to be made that the Wolves’ bad bench (which I do believe deserves a longer leash) has been losing leads and forcing the Wolves into close games. Moreover, this speaks to the importance of distinguishing the simple take of THIBS IS OVERPLAYING STARTERS BECAUSE OF HIS IDEOLOGY vs. THIBS IS OVERPLAYING STARTERS BECAUSE OF SITUATIONAL FACTORS. I don’t think we have strong evidence either way on this one, and the answer, at very least is that both are true. And P.S., this is kind of REASON NUMBER 4–there is significant pressure on Thibs to win at all costs given the franchise’s playoff drought. One more reason why we can’t look at this stuff in a vacuum.
Lucas: In short, yes, but I think the situation is much more complex than what it’s given credit for. There are many factors that are causing Thibodeau to rely so heavily on his starters right now including, but not limited to, their performance (they’ve generally been really good!), the bench’s performance (they’ve generally been pretty bad!), and old habits/attitudes. It’s easy to sit back and demand that Thibs play his bench more (even I’m guilty of that), but I’m not sure that that would be in the best interest of the team with this iteration of the bench unit.
Bill: Everyone has made really good points. The only angle I’d add to all of this: due to his power within the organization (Head Coach plus President of Basketball Operations), and the security of his contract (he’s owed $24 million through 2021), there’s no one who can even provide meaningful resistance to his minutes-binges. We’re going to get into it further in response to the next question, but in my mind, it’s not merely a question of whether Thibs plays the starters too many minutes. The answer to that question is obviously, “Yes.” It’s December; no one should be in “playoff rotation mode” with 50+ games to go. The more vexing issue is that there’s no one who can possibly check him on it. The media can ask about it repeatedly until it boils over somehow, but that’s an annoyance, not meaningful pushback.
Question 2: If so, is this more the fault of Coach Thibs (he should change his rotations of the players he has) or Present of Basketball Operations (POBO) Thibs (his coaching hands are tied due to a shallow roster that he assembled)?
Andy: Both take some blame here, but I think it’s more of a Coach Thibs problem. Thibs is a lot of things. Three of them are demanding, controlling, and stubborn. These characteristics lead to some really good results – they did in Chicago, anyway: great defense, team-oriented basketball, and the eventual development of young players into good or great ones. But these same qualities bring problems as well, and we see that when Thibs demonstrates such a lack of patience with his bench, versus his starters. He just can’t help himself: Instead of allowing Tyus and Gorgui some leash to play through a mistake or two, he pulls the plug on the bench at the first sign of a problem. At the end of the game, that leads to too many starter minutes (and a demoralized second unit).
Dr. LIC: To simplify my response to this question, I’m going to imagine that the POBO is not Thibodeau, but another person altogether. Let’s call him “Tom Brunansky.” Brunansky did a solid “B/B+” job of constructing the roster in the offseason, but at the end of the day, he overpaid for Jeff Teague and guys like George Hill, Dante Cunningham, Tony Allen, and JJ Redick didn’t want to come here, at least not for the money available. This left Thibodeau with a subpar bench, which has only been further hampered by the smattering of injuries I noted above. Brunansky did try to salvage his offseason by a move we all applauded at the time, signing Bazz for cheap, but he has proved unplayable (Here, by the way, is where we should give Coach Thibs credit–we were all screaming about the deplorable advanced stats when Bazz is on the floor, and well, Thibs stopped putting him on the floor). So, Brunansky’s moves have left the coach with few options. Like, if Bjelly is out, what is he supposed to do? Play Tyus and Gorgui five minutes more per game? (Yes). Play Georges-Hunt in Bazz’s would-be minutes? (Yes). Still, that would minimally impact the overall the starters’ minutes, which brings me back to a broader point: What folks are really quibbling over is the difference between guys playing 34 minutes and 37 minutes. Not sure how big of a deal this is.
Lucas: I’d say it’s about 65% POBO Thibs’ fault and 35% coach Thibs’ fault. POBO Thibs’ hasn’t done coach Thibs a whole lot of favors with the bench unit he’s provided himself. Shabazz Muhammad has been worse than anybody, including himself, thought he would be (and giving him a player option for next season isn’t,,,,looking,,,,great). Cole Aldrich and Marcus Georges-Hunt, for whatever reason, can’t even convince Thibs to let them polish the court let alone play on it. Aaron Brooks has been an unmitigated disaster whenever he’s stepped foot on the hardwood. The only bench players that have provided adequate to good bench minutes are Bjelica (whose production is unsustainable and he can’t stay healthy), Jones, Dieng, and Crawford with the former two being fairly inconsistent. Basically, the four players that have shown the deserve to play have played. But at the same time all four players have largely been inconsistent for their careers/last few years. Is that because they haven’t played much in the NBA (Jones, Bjelica, Muhammad), haven’t played the bench role much before (Dieng), or are towards the end of their career (Crawford) or is it because that they’re nature as bench quality players? It’s tough to know right now. It would be nice if POBO Thibs could go out and get a guard/wing or wing/forward combo player to come off the bench and provide some consistent minutes (though, admittedly, that type of player would cost a lot in return assets). That being said, coach Thibs could do a much better job at staggering rotations or even just tossing the bench out their for 3-5 more minutes per game. Having Dieng, Jones, and Bjelica out there for 20-22 minutes per game wouldn’t plummet the team’s chances of winning. Keep Crawford at the minutes he’s at (if anything maybe decrease a little bit) and add one to two more quality bench players and the minutes issue would, in theory, largely be resolved.
Bill: To be honest, I have a hard time compartmentalizing Thibs in that way and fairly splitting judgment between the two hats he wears. I keep coming back to his history. He went to a tiny Massachusetts college, then was an assistant at Harvard in the mid-1980s, as the school was in the midst of a decade-long streak of losing seasons. In ‘87, he befriended Bill Musselman at a coaching clinic; two years later, Musselman gave the 32-year-old Thibodeau a job as an assistant with the expansion Timberwolves. With that, his NBA odyssey began; two years with the Wolves, one as a scout with the Sonics, two seasons under John Lucas in San Antonio, two more under him in Philly, a decade with Jeff Van Gundy in New York and Houston, then three seasons with Doc Rivers in Boston, before finally arriving in Chicago. My point? The guy spent thirty years grinding to make it here. And to make it as an assistant coach, to show value in an industry with this much turnover, you have to grind. It’s what Thibs expects from his players because it’s all he knows. It’s what Glen Taylor signed up for when he hired the guy. So while it’s sensible (and cathartic?) for us to air out our minutes concerns, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that we’re having this discussion. Whether he’s got his POBO hat on, or his coach hat, it’s still the same guy that rose from Salem Freaking State University to having full control over an NBA franchise.
Question 3: If you believe there is a serious minutes problem with Thibs and this team, what consequences do you worry about most?
Andy: This is a hard one to answer because I don’t think this minutes problem is that much of a problem. The discussion about it is way disproportionate to its actual impact on anything. To use a recent game example, the Wolves lost a tough one to the 76ers on Tuesday night, and because of the high minutes played by the starters, everybody voicing an opinion was certain that the reason for the L was fatigue at the end of the game. Never mind the fact that the Wolves were 1 for 22 from three-point range before Butler hit a couple clutch threes in the last minute to help force overtime. (In other words, shots finally started to drop when the supposed fatigue set in.) Had the Wolves shot merely poorly from downtown instead of comically terrible, they would’ve defeated a pretty good team by a comfortable margin. But they did shoot comically terrible from three, and that opened the door for the Sixers to win the game and for fans to ultimately cite fatigue as the primary factor in the outcome. I doubt fatigue has had any negative impact on their record to date, and if we were able to test alternative universes, it wouldn’t surprise me if the one where Thibs rides his bench harder involves more losses than what they have now. But if forced to admit it, my greatest fear is that Towns will develop some type of chronic and progressing ailment and — pressured by the Thibs-Butler Culture, even if indirectly — he’ll decide to continue playing through it, eventually leading to something bad. As long as KAT’s truly healthy, I don’t worry about 35 or 36 minutes per game, but he won’t always be healthy and it needs to be OK for him to admit that to himself, his trainers, his teammates, and his coach. In those times, appropriate adjustments need to be made.
Dr. LIC: My responses to the two questions above might sound like I’m trying to excuse Coach Thibs for the minutes issue or at least downplay it. Make no mistake, I think it’s a problem. Specifically for the 4th quarter reasons that everyone is harping on. But the 4th quarter issue is compounded by two largely orthogonal issues: (1) The isolation-heavy offense that also relies a lot on getting free throws and less on three-pointers. Free throws dry up in the 4th quarter as refs swallow the whistle more, and the iso-heavy stuff leads to guys standing around and clock being wasted. Not sure if Thibs, or Butler for that matter, can change his ways around this philosophy. (2) Defense, defense, defense. The 4th quarter stuff is a non-issue if the Wolves can figure out how to defend better throughout the game–this means if KAT figures out his positioning, if Teague can keep guys in front of him, and if they can shore up the transition D as a team. Here, I am very concerned.
Lucas: With increase minutes, logically, comes increased fatigue. The current best evidence in the available scientific literature has essentially proven that with increased fatigue comes decreased athletic performance (cough fourth quarters) as well as increased risk for injury, particularly muscular (though that’s not to say there also isn’t an increased risk for ligamentous injury as well). Additionally, simply playing more minutes also increases the risk for injury. After all, a player who is actually on the court is more likely to get hurt than one sitting on the bench. So, I guess you could say potential injury would be the consequence I worry about most.
Bill: Aside from the short-term worries (injuries, the self-fulfilling 4th quarter struggles) I worry about the long-term effect on the culture. I don’t really worry about the team losing Jimmy Butler, or anyhing, but I do wonder what goes on behind the scenes with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. I wonder if, in year 3 or 4 of this slog, it’ll get to be too much for one of them. I mean, a lot can happen… perhaps POBO Thibs will find a bench he trusts, perhaps the team will win 55 or 60 games next season and everything will be hunky-dory. Or perhaps he won’t, and someone involved will reach their breaking point trying to carry the team with such heavy workloads. I worry about burnout.
Question 4: Injury prevention and fatigue management have become big discussion areas in NBA writing over the past decade. From what you’ve read on the subjects, what do you generally find to be the best source of improvement for the game? On the contrary, what part of the new discussion do you think misses the mark?
Andy: I think the increased awareness of how grueling the NBA schedule is has been good for the game. Somewhere along the line, somebody started noticing that playing two games in two days made winning the second one more difficult than it should be. Adam Silver even adjusted the league’s schedule – stretching it on the front end into mid October to help limit b2b’s and the especially-difficult “4 games in 5 nights” scenarios. Everyone — players, coaches, advertisers, commissioners, and fans — should want the basketball to be played at the highest level possible. (If history could be rewritten and there was no cemented expectation of an 82-game season, but we knew what we now know, they’d almost certainly schedule fewer games.)
The part of the discourse that annoys me is the way “rest” is sometimes celebrated as the best thing that a basketball player can do for his or herself. If you’ll allow me to be the worst version of myself for a moment, it seems as if the Shawn Kemp workout regiment in the 1998 lockout is the fully realized version of the Resters’ vision of conditioning and training. (In case you missed it: Kemp infamously showed up severely overweight to Cleveland Cavaliers training camp after the ‘98 lockout.)
Sure, there was no more Reign Man doing stuff like this:
But who cares? Kemp was well rested! He showed up 315 pounds and couldn’t fly anymore, BUT: his joints were probably a little bit less sore when he entered that ‘99 season than when he was doing all of those crazy dunks in Seattle. I’m sure his muscles were less fatigued, too. Those wild slams can’t be easy on the knees. By doing nothing, Reign Man was just taking care of his body. He was ahead of his time, really.
Okay, more seriously: there are some obvious realities that can’t be forgotten when discussing these issues surrounding fatigue and injury prevention in basketball: One is that basketball players need to be in unbelievably good shape, and getting into unbelievably good shape requires exercise. Yes, even running, yes, even cutting, and yes, even jumping. Two is that “playing basketball” is, um, a necessary activity for anyone to become or remain good at playing basketball. It also accomplishes most of the whole “getting in shape” thing. (Shoutout to killing two birds with one stone!) Third, and unfortunately, playing basketball — while the most necessary thing any player can do to help advance their career — brings both risk of specific injuries (sprained ankles, torn ligaments, even broken bones) and inevitable degeneration of joints. Especially knees. As David Halberstam put it in The Breaks of the Game, “The knee is a delicate piece of equipment, a fragile human hinge whose architect had never suspected that its proprietor might spend some fifteen years in a profession where the principal act was jumping as high as possible some 70 or 80 times a night.” Unfortunately, a basketball career leads to knee problems. It’s an unavoidable fact. The hope is that those problems come later than sooner and that they receive the best medical attention possible, along the way. Appreciating that injuries are just a part of playing (and practicing) the game, you might come away more sympathetic to Thibs’s dismissive-sounding/possibly-dismissive-meaning “all we care about is the winning.” Does he take injury prevention as seriously as other coaches? No. Not with his in-game rotations anyway. But that doesn’t mean he ignores what it is – it might be the reverse, actually. Maybe he’s come to his own grips with the inevitability of injuries in the game, and the way that limits what can and cannot be controlled.
DO YOUR JOB! (Sorry, that felt obligatory.)
Dr. LIC: I don’t know, I kind of defer to Lucas on injuries. I’m way more worried about end-of-game and end-of-season fatigue than injuries. I think there is way more randomness to injuries than minutes. And if you look across the board of great players and great teams in recent history, they’ve all gone through it. I think about the current era, marked by the rise of the Warriors from 2014-this past season. When I think about the top teams during this time period–the Clippers, Warriors, Cavs, Celtics, Raptors, Spurs, Rockets, and Thunder–outside of Lebron, they’ve all faced significant injuries. Sometimes life isn’t fair. The world is not just. Embrace the anarchy of it all.
Lucas: I do think the trend towards playing less minutes is overall a good thing because of what we know about fatigue. Players are better at taking care of their bodies through diet and functional exercise than they’ve ever been before. Like with us common folk, eating right and maintaining a functional exercise program are great ways to stay healthy. In that sense, it isn’t rocket science. However, I think the current conversation around player health misses the mark on two things. One, rehabilitation science and health maintenance programs have improved exponentially over the last decade plus. I think the conversation typically revolves around increased minutes, fatigue, and injury risk without properly acknowledging that players are now receiving better, more scientifically backed treatments before and after games/practice. Proper rehab and health maintenance programs can help reduce the effects of long minutes and fatigue. Two, I think some of the science of injury risk has been misinterpreted. It’s true that injury risk increases with increased fatigue and minutes played, but I’ve often seen people associate that with “Thibs is actively hurting his players by playing them so many minutes.” From the literature I’ve read (obligation to point out that I’m currently in physical therapy graduate school and also that the research is ever changing), that’s not exactly what the research says. Thibodeau isn’t actively hurting the players knees, ankles, and muscles by playing them as many minutes as he is. What he is doing is increasing their risk for developing injury. I think that’s an important distinction that needs to be made. (A related aside: I’m not a huge fan of when people point to Luol Deng and Joakim Noah and declare that Thibodeau is the sole reason that their bodies broke down. That takes the extreme complexity that is athletic injury and boils it down into a super easy explanation that fits a common narrative. Thibodeau increased their risk for injury. Their genetics, biomechanics, mindset towards individual health, random dumb luck, and a number of other factors have them at where they are today.)
Bill: I think the understanding that the game is so much different than it was even ten or (especially) twenty to thirty years ago is a net positive. I think people are aware of, and sympathetic to, what the players are up against on a nightly basis, and that’s led to a more nuanced discussion of the league and its players. Spreading out the schedule to increase rest and cut down on back-to-backs and 3-in-4 or 4-in-5 situations was long overdue. So I think in general it’s been very positive.
Question 5: Could anything cause Thibs to change his ways?
Andy: I can’t imagine anything changing his process at this point. He’s been in the league forever and his past success reinforces his methods. The only thing that could change what happens from a practical perspective would be stronger bench play. Aside from Tyus Jones and the [somewhat ironically, for purposes of this discussion, due to his own limited minutes] injured Nemanja Bjelica, the performance numbers of the bench are terrible. That’s Gorgui. That’s Jamal. And that is especially Bazz. If Thibs either trades for a different bench guy or starts seeing better play from the players he’s already got, he might play them more than he is now.
Dr. LIC: Yes! And that answer is if they make considerable roster moves, most of which have to occur after FA restrictions loosen up (post-Dec15). It is unconscionable that the Wolves still have a roster spot open, but I think that they will acquire a wing to replace Bazz soon. Sean Kilpatrick on the open market intrigues me and I would love to go after DeMarre Carroll, Jared Dudley, or even Wes Matthews via trade. I am also throwing my hat in the ring for going after DeAndre Jordan at all costs (I know, I know we need a wing). As I’ve said on Twitter, if none of this comes true by the all-star break, I’ll happily light my torch and grab my pitchfork to start strolling toward Thibodeau manor.
Lucas: All we can do is hope that acquiring one or two more bench players that Thibs can trust to be consistent will help cut down on the starters minutes. But other than that, I’m a little dubious.
Bill: I suppose I said my bit already; I think Thibs is what he is, and I think we’ll be grappling with the “minutes dilemma” for the entirety of his tenure here.