The Timberwolves starters are playing a ridiculous amount of minutes this season. What does that look like when put in context?
(Editor’s Note: The statistics below are current through December 15. The W-L numbers and conference standings are current as of December 21.)
Tom Thibodeau is known for riding his starters hard, perenially seeming to be the coach whom people free associate with unnecessarily arduous minutes for his main rotation players. Although Thibs’ proclivity to play his starters long minutes was far from a secret when he joined the Wolves before last season, an increasing number of people—national writers, local writers (Editor’s Note: AWAW recently did a massive roundtable discussion on this issue and you really need to read it), hordes of frustrated Wolves fans on Twitter and Canis Hoopus comment threads, and others—are saying that enough is enough: Thibs needs to cut back the workload of his starting five. They might get tired in the 4th quarter. They might face a heightened injury risk. They might be worse on the tail end of back-to-backs.
Or, according to others, the real reason Thibs’ starters have played so many minutes this season is due largely to a lack of depth. POBO Thibs improved the roster from last season in an attempt to optimize it for wins, and not for wins in a few years—Thibodeau wanted to win this season.
You can make an argument that he’s right. The Wolves haven’t made the playoffs since 2003-04. For those joining us late, it’s now 2017. Unless there’s a nuclear holocaust involving North Korea in the next 10 days—never say never—the calendar will roll over to 2018 soon.
And a lot of us want to win, and win now, and if the minutes pile up, well, at least we tried.
One can argue that so far, this approach is working: the Wolves are currently 19-13 (a .594 winning percentage), which is good for 4th in the always-competitive Western Conference. Although no one knows what the future holds, what is obvious is that the Wolves are not as bad as some of the most vocal Thibs critics, who are calling for his firing, suggest. At their current pace this season, the Wolves are on track not only to make the playoffs for the first time in over a decade, but also to win almost 50 regular-season games before enjoying home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
You probably don’t need a reminder about how truly abysmal the Wolves have been for years and years and years. But here’s one anyway. To make a long story short, Timberwolves basketball has been synonymous with losing. Did you get excited for a second like I did remembering that the 2013-14 squad flirted with a .500 record?
I did too. Bad, bad, bad.
How We Got Here
The 2014-15 team—which was 16-66 in Flip Saunders’ last full season as Emperor and Grand Poobah of the Wolves—tanked its way, along with some good ping-pong ball luck, to the number one pick in the 2015 draft. Thusly, a KAT became a Wolf. Kevin Love got tired of losing and wanted out. The Wolves dealt him to Cleveland. Thusly, Andrew Wiggins became a Wolf. (Editor’s Note: The Wolves also got former number one overall pick Anthony Bennett from Cleveland—we still love you AB fuck the h8erz.) As we know, the Wolves burst on to the national scene as a possible contender with the 2017 draft-night trade with Chicago, which brought us Jimmy Butler. Thibs filled out the starting lineup by signing Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson to replace Ricky Rubio and Gorgui Dieng.
To supplement the starting unit, POBO Thibs also re-signed Shabazz Muhammad to a minimum deal in free agency, but only after Bazz realized he had little value or bargaining leverage on the open market. It was considered to be a good deal for the Wolves at the time.On his affordable contract, Bazz (Editor’s Note: Does anyone know when Bazz is planning to go through with the legal name change so we can just refer to him as Bazz without first invoking “Shabazz Muhammad”? He feels like “just Bazz” already.) was supposed to provide wing depth and receive sufficient playing time, such that he would be able to help the team with scoring and energy off the bench whilst increasing his value for another run at free agency after the season. But Bazz quickly played hisself out of Thibodeau’s rotation, which was shortened to eight players after Thibs shelved Bazz on November 29. He remains out of the rotation, recently replaced by Marcus Georges-Hunt.
Equally troubling from a depth perspective is the absence of Nemanja Bjelica, another key rotation player. After two less-than-stellar seasons with the Wolves, Belly, who was awarded the 2015 Euroleague MVP, appeared to (finally) be breaking out as the kind of invaluable bench player other teams can only ignore at their peril. When Bejelica went down with an injury in November, he was leading the NBA in three-point field goal percentage. Perhaps equally important, he was a threat on dribble penetration to score or kick the ball out to open teammates for easy catch-and-shoot opportunities.
The Wolves miss “Good Belly” in a bad way. Bjelica took a lot of pressure off the rest of the team with his style of play and caliber of performance off the bench. Belly, who has missed the last 14 games with an “increasingly mysterious ‘mid-foot sprain,’”, is working out again but is expected miss more time.
So yeah. The Wolves bench is essentially shot. We haven’t even gotten to Jamal Crawford yet, but an entire other post could be written about his travails despite his vastly improved play this week. (Editor’s Note: Britt Robson has already written it over at The Athletic.) Tyus Jones and Gorgui Dieng have been the only steady bench performers. Neither can play the wing. For the 2017-18 Timberwolves, depth at the wing is kind of like the Bermuda triangle: players who’ve ended up there have disappeared into thin air.
While it seems fair to adjudicate both arguments—Thibs’ starters are playing too many minutes, and the reason is a lack of bench depth—as correct, we still know almost nothing about how the team’s current minutes debacle fits into a broader kahntext or about where it belongs when considering patterns of playing time in the NBA if the lens is widened to include other teams and other teams in past seasons. That’s what I want to look at in this post.
This post aims to do some basic comparative analysis to shine a light on where the current Timberwolves starting core’s minutes per game stacks up vis-a-vis other teams, both for the current season as of now, as well as for previous seasons going back to when Tom Thibodeau got his first head-coaching job for Chicago in 2010-11.
Specifically, I’m going to talk about (1) Thibs’ teams versus the average NBA starting unit mpg since 2010-11; (2) how the Wolves starting unit compares to other teams this season; and (3) for fun, whether any coach during Thibs’ tenure as an NBA head coach has ever relied more heavily on his starters than Thibs has so far this season.
To set up this analysis, here’s what I did: first, I got scraped all seasons of player data from basketball-reference starting in 2010-11—Tom Thibodeau’s first season as an NBA head coach—to the present (as of December 15th). To identify each team’s “starters,” I filtered the data to include only the top-five players per team and season in average minutes per game. So while I refer to “starters” below, for transparency’s sake, I simplified the concept to encompass a given team’s top-five players in average minutes played per game in a given season. I then took the average number of minutes played for each team and season from the MPG average of its top-five minutes grinders. In the course of the process, a few teams’ starting lineups, as depicted, here look different from the team’s regular starting lineup as you’d observe it while watching games, this approach to parsing the data enables us to see whether any team plays a core stable of players as relentlessly as Thibodeau does his current starting core.
What the Data Show
Thibs’ Teams MPG versus the NBA average, 2010/11-2017/18
Playing his starters high minutes is part and parcel of Thibs’ reputation as a coach. I wanted to see how this season’s team compared with previous Thibs-coached teams.
The table below breaks down the data.
|Team||Season||MPG (Thibs)||NBA avg.||Minutes (Thibs-NBA avg.)|
In Chicago, Thibs’ starters typically played 1-2 minutes per game more than the league average for each season. During Thibs’ tenure in Chicago, his starters averaged 32.5 mpg. Since he took over Minnesota’s bench, his starters have averaged 34.3 minutes. In Minnesota, where his teams have had less quantity and quality so far—the narrative in ‘Sota, at least for this season, remains largely centered around making the playoffs—Thibs’ starters played almost three more minutes per game than the league average in 2017 and a whopping five mpg more than the league average so far in 2017-18.
This season is obviously the most significant outlier, and it’s the one we’re currently experiencing. It’ll be interesting to see whether POBO Thibs can add any depth to the current roster, which seems like the most probable way to bring the starting units’ minutes down in a #RegressionToTheMean kind of way.
Comparing the Wolves’ Starters to Other Teams in 2017/18
Unsurprisingly, Thibs’ Timberwolves starters lead the league in average minutes per game. As the table below shows, Thibs has played his starters an average 35.5 minutes. Jason Kidd’s Milwaukee Bucks starting unit—Giannis, Khris Middleton, Bledsoe, Snell, and Brogdon—is second at 33.44 mpg. Alvin Gentry’s New Orleans Pelicans (Holiday, Cousins, Ant Davis, E’Twaun Moore, and Rajon Rondo) rank third at just over 33 mpg. Rounding out the top-five are Doc Rivers’ Clippers starters (Griffin, Rivers, Gallo, DeAndre, Lou Williams) and Billy Donovans’s OKC Thunder (Westbrook, George, Melo, Adams, Roberson) at 32.8. [Editor’s Note: Recall that a handful of players like Lou Williams, who has averaged the fifth-most minutes per game this season for the Clippers get counted as “starters” as defined above.]
How much do the coaches of the NBA’s best teams lean on their starters? The team currently atop the NBA, the Houston Rockets, are in the top quarter of the league in starters’ minutes per game. Moreover, Golden State’s Steve Kerr has not shied away from playing his starters significant minutes—the Warriors are 9th in the NBA at just under 32 mpg. The Spurs’ Gregg Popovich has stuck to his practice of keeping his players rested, as his Spurs starting lineups have averaged the fifth-lowest number of minutes at a hair under 28 mpg.
So while it is fairly obvious that there is a stronger correlation between talent and winning than there is between minutes and winning, the difference between running a starting unit 35.5 mpg (Wolves) and 32 mpg (Rockets, Warriors) adds up over an 82-game schedule and should be felt more later in the season and in the playoffs than it has been so far. And, as we know, so far the high number of minutes Thibodeau’s core rotation is playing has already attracted the ire of Thibs’ critics in wake of several disappointing fourth-quarter performances that led to losses.
Another way to skin the cat here is to look at whether high-minutes starting units tend to be good, bad, or mediocre. What do we know about the quality of the teams whose starters log the heaviest minutes? Looking at the top-5 from the table above, four of the five teams would make the playoffs if they started today.
- Timberwolves: 19-13, 4th in NBA Western Conference
Pelicans: 15-16, 8th in NBA Western Conference
Bucks: 16-13, 5th in NBA Eastern Conference
Clippers: 12-18, 10th in NBA Western Conference
Thunder: 16-15, 6th in NBA Western Conference
The Wolves currently have the best record (and would have the highest playoff seed). The others have been underwhelming: the revamped Oklahoma City Thunder, with its new big three of Westbrook, Paul George, and Melo, are one game over .500 and in a logjam with Portland and Denver for the fifth, six, and seventh spot in the West. The Pelicans currently have the eight-best record in the West, but aren’t even playing .500 basketball. The Bucks have MVP-candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and are 16-13, good for 5th in the Eastern Conference. Each of these teams has one or two megastars, but is kind of thin otherwise. To be competitive, as all of these other than the Blake Griffin-less Clippers, have so far in their quest for a playoff birth, you get shorter rotations and more reliance on a small core. The best teams tend to have a couple of stars (Editor’s Note: Make that four in the case of Golden State.) but are also deeper and thus can afford to play their backups in longer rotations.
Has any coach ever relied more heavily on his starters than Thibs?
I thought it would be fun to see how Thibs’ current team’s workload compares to some of his contemporaries. The table below shows the top-20 highest mpg averages by starting unit since 2010-11.
|LAL||2013||Mike Brown, Bernie Bickerstaff, Mike D’Antoni||34.88||4|
Terry Stotts, ladies and gentlemen!
(Editor’s Note: Patrick J makes a mental note to spend Christmas break in the Blazer’s Edge archives to see if the level of minutes hysteria in PDX in 2012-13 was as high as it has been in ‘Sota this season.)
Seriously, there are a lot of old-school names in the table above. Even the current coaches on that list, like Doc Rivers, now seem pretty old school.
Does that condemn Thibs’ program to the dustbin of history? Not at all. The Wolves have a ton of talent and are finally winning at a nice clip. But, that said, when you look at the table above, you don’t instantly think you’ve seen the future of NBA coaching before your eyes.
This post has tried to outline a few patterns to contextualize how Tom Thibodeau has used his core rotation this season. Although the minutes issue is unlikely to become uncontroversial during Thibs’ tenure in Minnesota, it should normalize—at least by Thibodeau standards—if and when Coach Thibs’ boss, POBO Thibs, does his job and acquires more depth.
Meanwhile, here’s a top-10 list of songs about being tired. Hopefully we won’t hear them blaring from the home locker room anytime soon.
Till next time.