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Monday Musings: Thibodeau and Minutes

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The Wolves’ “big three” have been playing heavy minutes under new coach Tom Thibodeau

Philadelphia 76ers V Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Tom Thibodeau’s teams are notorious for good defense, toughness, overachieving, and playing starters too many minutes. In President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach Tom Thibodeau’s first year with the Timberwolves, the team is only fulfilling one of those criteria, playing starters heavy minutes.

The Wolves are currently the only team that has three players in the top 30 in minutes played per game with:

  • Zach LaVine first in league at 37.6
  • Andrew Wiggins is 6th at 36.8
  • Karl-Anthony Towns 15th at 35.5
  • Gorgui Dieng 47th at 33.2
  • Ricky Rubio 62nd at 31.5

In terms of miles run per game:

  • Zach leads league at 2.72
  • Towns 17th at 2.43
  • Wiggins 19th at 2.42
  • Rubio 41st at 2.29

Now these heavy minutes are quite intentional, especially with Lavine, Wiggins, and Towns, as Thibodeau has been placing heavy burdens upon the “big three” in hopes that this will foster rapid development. Thibodeau recently remarked in response to Jerry Zgoda, “I think everyone’s good. We just want to be consistent with our starters and our bench. We have young guys that need to play. They need to learn. I’m good with what they’re doing. It’s a group that has worked really hard and they’re in great shape. I think it’s a plus.”

These minutes are also an indictment of the shallow bench, as recently games have shown Thibodeau going to an 8-man lineup. The Wolves’ bench is one of the worst in the league in points per game as well as minutes per game, a direct result of playing the starters so many minutes.

It is uncommon for teams to have three players in the top 30 in minutes per game. Two players in the top 30 in minutes per game happens fairly often, as last year Houston, Detroit, Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Portland, Phoenix, Charlotte, and Toronto each had two players playing heavy minutes. James Harden led the league that year with 38.1 minutes per game.

However, looking back at the last six years, a team that is coached by Tom Thibodeau has led the league in minutes per game in all but one season where Thibodeau was coaching, which was his first season with the Bulls.

  • 2011-2012: Luol Deng led league at 39.4
  • 2012-2013: Deng led league at 38.7
  • 2013-2014: Jimmy Butler tied for 1st at 38.7
  • 2014-2015: Butler led league at 38.7

Butler is still playing heavy minutes after Thibodeau has left and Fred Hoiberg has taken over, this year Butler is 5th in the NBA with 36.9 mpg.

This minutes problem was one of the issues that led to the rift between Thibodeau and the Bulls’ front office. There is also a somewhat widespread narrative that Thibodeau’s heavy usage of his stars led to the recurring injuries of Joakim Noah, Deng, and Derrick Rose.

Ultimately, this may prove to be a correlation rather than a causation with Thibodeau and the minutes he is playing the Wolves. LaVine, Wiggins, and Towns are all much younger than the core he started with in Chicago and all of the three do not have an injury history.

If we start to view this year as a development year (which is, unfortunately, becoming closer to the case every day as the losses pile up) than these heavy minutes that the young Wolves are playing will be viewed in as a constructive process, a trial by fire for LaVine, Wiggins, and Towns to try to learn through extensive praxis and repetition.

Thibodeau has had to answer the question of why his players are playing so many minutes many times throughout his career in Chicago and his answers ranged from basically, “If Michael Jordan can do it, my players can do it” to more nuanced responses about how minutes per game are one facet of player usage that the media can easily latch onto, as the outside reporting is not as heavily involved in practice schedules, off-season training regimes, and in-season rest strategies for player maintenance.

But minutes per game are going down league-wide, as in a copycat league the Spurs became the organization to emulate. In fact, LaVine’s league-leading 37.6 mpg would be the lowest in modern basketball history and the league leader’s numbers have been trending downwards since 2009-2010 when Monta Ellis averaged 41.36 mpg.

Only time will tell if the Wolves’ current high minutes usage for LaVine, Wiggins, and Towns will continue throughout their tenure under Thibodeau. For now, it seems that Thibodeau’s old ways have continued and the efficacy of them is questionable. While not quite as visceral of an issue as Flip’s and Sam Mitchell’s disinterest in three-point shooting on offense, Thibodeau’s old-school methods may prove damaging in the long run.