The Minnesota Timberwolves are on pace to win 47 games and capture a home playoff seed in the Western Conference. They’re also on pace to grind their starting lineup into a pile of burnt ashes.
Wolves wing Jimmy Butler offered a friendly reminder of that fact after playing a season-high 43 minutes in a 113-107 road win against the undermanned Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night:
“Yeah, we’ve got to talk to Thibs,” the three-time All-Star told Fox Sports North sideline reporter Marney Gellner during his postgame on-court interview. “These 40-minute [games] are starting to add up.”
Thibs would be Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau, who built a reputation on running his former Chicago Bulls players into the ground over the course of a season. One of those players was Butler, whose 38.7 minutes per game led the league in 2013-14 and 2014-15. Before that, Bulls forward Luol Deng led the league in minutes per game for consecutive seasons. That led to a .647 winning percentage in Thibodeau’s five regular seasons in Chicago and a sub-.500 mark in the playoffs.
Butler’s postgame comments may have been tongue-in-cheek, but they’re also rooted in truth.
It’s unclear whether Thibodeau’s coaching style resulted in the early career declines of Deng, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah before their 30th birthdays, but there is ample evidence that limiting minutes and strategically resting players during the season can both improve their performance and prolong their careers. This is precisely why the NBA added two weeks to the NBA calendar this season.
Except, Thibodeau still doesn’t seem to subscribe to sports science. There are 13 players in the league who have already played 850 minutes this season, and four of them play for the Timberwolves. Andrew Wiggins leads the league with 960 minutes, and Karl-Anthony Towns is fourth with 905. Butler is seventh, despite missing two games due to illness, and 32-year-old ex-Bull Taj Gibson is 10th.
Butler is seeing the worst of it, having played 40 or more minutes in all four of Minnesota’s games this month. He’s been great, averaging 26 points (on 50.7 percent shooting), six assists and 5.3 rebounds. Yet, the Wolves are 2-2 in those games, and they could be paying with more losses down the line.
As The Ringer’s Paolo Uggetti pointed out this week, Thibodeau has already shortened his rotation, playing an eight-man rotation in the past three games and using a ninth man fewer than five minutes in the previous three. This is typical of playoff basketball, not the regular season. Not in 2017-18.
Minnesota’s starting lineup is playing 25.6 minutes per game together. The next-most commonly used lineup that’s played double-digit games together? The Detroit Pistons’ starters at 17.4 minutes a night. That means the Wolves’ starters are grinding almost 50 percent more often than any other unit.
This is the product of a coach who is known for living and breathing basketball, watching tape at all hours of the night, running through game plans on a few hours sleep, and, apparently, treating early December games as if they’re the playoffs. We can only hope that history doesn’t repeat itself in Minnesota after a once-promising Chicago team slowly broke down before they reached their peak.
It’s only natural to want your best players on the floor as often as possible, especially when your bench ranks as the league’s fourth-worst, and relying on them may give you a better chance on a given night, but it’s not the best formula for winning in the long run. This is why most teams carefully monitor minutes, map out rotations and plan rest days weeks in advance, rather than letting the raging of ball of fury that is Tom Thibodeau on the sidelines make these calls in the moment.
Butler should talk to Thibs about all of these 40-minute games. Let us know how that goes.
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