After Saturday’s loss in Portland, the Minnesota Timberwolves are effectively eliminated from playoff contention — if they weren’t already. The Wolves are seven games behind Denver for the eighth seed with only 10 games remaining.
A colossal string of events would need to take place for the Wolves to make the playoffs.
Despite that, head coach Tom Thibodeau isn’t adjusting his philosophy toward playing his star players ultra-heavy minutes. Thibodeau told the media Saturday night that he won’t be dialing back playing time for Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.
“I want our guys to get used to what star players do,” Thibodeau said. “Our starters, they’re going to play. They have to play. They have to learn. They have to grow.”
When asked if he’ll dial back their minutes — Wiggins is averaging 37.3 minutes, Towns 36.9 a game — or rest his top players for a night, Thibodeau said his young stars must know the burden an NBA superstar carries.
“When you look at what a [Houston’s James] Harden does and all the great players, that’s what they do,” Thibodeau said. “That’s what I expect of them, and I want them to concentrate on trying to win. We’re still learning and growing and it’s all part of it.”
Wiggins (2,681) and Towns (2,654) rank No. 1 and No.3, respectively, in the NBA in total minutes played this season, with Harden in between at 2,666. Thibs is also responsible for three of the NBA’s top six in minutes per game. Zach LaVine was playing 37.2 minutes per game prior to his ACL injury, pitting him third in the NBA. Wiggins (fourth) and Towns (sixth) aren’t far behind.
It’s no secret that Thibodeau likes to play his star players heavy minutes. This philosophy received considerable criticism during his tenure in Chicago and it may have ultimately played a role in his departure after the 2014-15 season.
Thibodeau has been a head coach for six seasons. In every season, one of his players has led the league in minutes per game. In four consecutive seasons from 2011-12 to 2014-15, a Chicago Bull led the NBA in minutes per game.
Notable High-Minute Players Under Thibodeau
- 2010-11: Luol Deng (4th in NBA, 39.1 MPG); Derrick Rose (14th in NBA, 37.4 MPG)
- 2011-12: Luol Deng (1st in NBA, 39.4 MPG)
- 2012-13: Luol Deng (1st in NBA, 38.7 MPG); Joakim Noah (16th in NBA, 36.8 MPG)
- 2013-14: Jimmy Butler (T-1st in NBA, 38.7 MPG)
- 2014-15: Jimmy Butler (1st in NBA, 38.7 MPG)
- 2016-17: Zach LaVine (3rd in NBA, 37.2 MPG); Andrew Wiggins (4th in NBA, 37.2 MPG); Karl-Anthony Towns (6th in NBA, 36.9 MPG)
After a triple overtime loss in 2014 in which Jimmy Butler played 60 minutes, Thibodeau was asked by the media about his minutes allocations. He defended his tactics by referencing Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. Specifically, Thibodeau argued that Jackson played Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen heavy minutes while each was well into his thirties and argued Tim Duncan played heavy minutes young in his career under Popovich.
Thibs was correct in pointing out those players all played heavy minutes in the respective time frames he mentioned. But they weren’t close to leading the league in minutes per game.
Duncan didn’t crack the Top 10 in minutes per game until his fifth season in the NBA. Meanwhile, neither Jordan nor Pippen ranked in the Top 10 once during Chicago’s three-year run as champions from 1996-1998. The highest between them both was Jordan finishing 18th in 1996-97. During those three seasons, Pippen was no higher than 28th.
Fast-forward to 2016-17, and Popovich has adjusted the philosophy that Thibs has been trying to emulate. Kawhi Leonard has sat out multiple times this season to rest. And in San Antonio’s championship 2013-14 season, the Spurs didn’t have a player in the Top 100 in minutes per game.
Successful teams don’t put their star players on the floor more than other teams. Neither Cleveland or Golden State had a player in the Top 10 last season.
Successful teams receive consistent production from bench players so the star players aren’t required to play 40 minutes. If Thibodeau wants to win, that’s what his goal needs to be — obtaining a bench that can produce consistently enough to allow Wiggins, Towns and LaVine to get adequate rest.
Thibs doesn’t have that from the bench yet, so he has relied heavily on his starters to get the job done because he doesn’t know what it’s like to be a head coach and miss the playoffs. He has never coached a team that has nothing to play for.
But this season in Minnesota is different. The Wolves are effectively eliminated from the playoffs and have very little to play for other than experience and development.
Minnesota just wrapped up a back-to-back series on the West Coast in which Wiggins and Towns logged a combined 86 minutes on the front end in Los Angeles. The following night in Portland, fatigue set in and the Wolves came out flat behind uninspired performances from their young leaders.
At some point, the question needs to be asked: How much are Wiggins and Towns really growing and developing by competing in these last season games, while running on fumes, that have little meaning outside of lottery position?
Thibodeau’s philosophy will likely need to be altered soon for the sake of the health of his budding superstars and for the sake of the franchise.