“I think every team is different,” Thibodeau said in an interview Wednesday afternoon on KFAN in Minneapolis. “If you have younger players, you’re going to play them a little bit more. If you have guys in their mid-30s, you’re probably going to pull back on it.
“Everybody’s different. When you look at the minutes in Houston are playing — and they’re one of the elite teams in the league — they’re winning their way.”
Thibodeau referenced the Rockets a couple of times, undoubtedly because veterans James Harden (36.3 minutes per game), Trevor Ariza (36.0), Eric Gordon (32.4) and Chris Paul (31.4) are playing long minutes for coach Mike D’Antoni.
While a lot of coaches are settling for the equivalent of quality starts — six innings or more, three earned runs or fewer — Thibodeau sometimes is cast as old-school Billy Martin.
“I hear people say, ‘Well, this guy’s playing …’ Well, Karl’s playing 35 minutes a game,” Thibodeau said. “Wiggs is playing 36 minutes a game. Jimmy’s probably up about 30 seconds more than he should be.”
Thirty whole seconds? Oh no. Some critics make it seem like the only safe and acceptable approach would be 10 players getting 24 minutes each.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that only four NBA players currently are averaging more than 37 minutes and none is topping 38. When the ’86-87 Celtics set that record for starters’ minutes, 19 players in the league averaged more than 37 minutes and eight averaged 38 or more.
The current Celtics, who play host to the Timberwolves Friday have no one averaging more than Al Horford’s 32.5 mpg.
That’s where baseball’s revamped ethos toward complete games and long innings relates directly to the NBA’s newer thoughts on playing time and days off. Like pitchers’ precious arms, hoops stars’ legs and bodies are valuable assets of limited resources.
“Players used to want to stay on the floor,” one veteran coach said this week, “but now they’re thinking about playing more years, because the salaries are so great. They don’t want to get used up.”
Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek, a few days before Porzingis discussed his fatigue, was asked what he considered to be too many minutes for an NBA player in 2017-18. “I think one year in Phoenix I played 39 [actually 38.0 in 1991-92], so I don’t know,” Hornacek said. “Nowadays it looks like it might be 33.”
Said Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg: “I played with Kevin Garnett, and he played 43 minutes one night. Then on the back-to-back, he played 45. Jimmy [Butler] had the unique ability to go out and play a full half. … Certain guys are just wired that way. A lot of it’s on the individual. There are certain guys you can’t throw out there for too long — they’ll break down.”
That’s the rap on Thibodeau, that he presided over some of the NBA’s more unfortunate individual breakdowns and blowouts. Former Bulls forward Deng, for example, averaged 39.1, 39.4 and 38.7 minutes in his first three seasons with Thibodeau. He had a series of nagging injuries before aging seemingly overnight, and for three seasons has been the shell of the All-Star player he once was.
Noah was a two-time All-Star who won Kia Defensive Player of the Year and finished fourth in MVP balloting in 2014. He, too, embraced Thibodeau’s work ethic and played through injuries until he couldn’t. Noah missed 53 games in his final season with the Bulls and has appeared in only 52 of a possible 120 games since signing a four-year, $72-million deal with the Knicks.
Rose remains the poster guy for careers waylaid by injuries, most traumatically his blown left ACL in the playoff opener of 2012. The Bulls’ point guard had missed 27 of the post-lockout 66-game schedule with various ailments before suffering his knee injury late in the Game 1 victory over Philadelphia, the outcome arguably no longer dependent on his services.
Like many coaches, though, Thibodeau tends to think that the 21.5 hours each day a player is not playing in a game matters more than five or six extra minutes of competition. And the days in between matter, too, with body maintenance so important and with Thibodeau — unbeknownst to many — easing off the throttle in the frequency and intensity of Minnesota’s practices.
Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum said the prep time between games allows him (36.8) and backcourt mate Damian Lillard (36.9) to log big minutes.
“I’m comfortable playing 48. That’s what I prepare for in the summer,” McCollum said, before correcting. “Well, obviously you’re not going to play 48 through the year but you want to get into the best shape you can. To be able to play overtime and withstand back-to-backs. That’s just my mentality — take care of your body and when duty calls, you show up.”
At 26, McCollum doesn’t sense a risk of breaking down from overuse. “I do a great job taking care of my body — whether it’s taking a massage, acupuncture, hot yoga, whatever it takes to get myself ready,” he said. “Overall, the nights you have to play 40, 44 balance out and if you take care of your body, you’ll be able to bounce back.”
Thibodeau faces an extra burden in the starters vs. bench dynamic. The Wolves’ reserves must slice and dice fewer available minutes — 62.8 on a typical night — than any other group of backups. And since the coach is the same guy who built the bench, his apparent limited trust in guys other than Jamal Crawford — Gorgui Dieng, Nemanja Bjelica, Shabazz Muhammad, Tyus Jones until recently — seems to reflect directly back on him.
“But if you look in the box scores, there are a lot of teams that play guys [big minutes],” Thibodeau said. “You’re going to always play your main guys more minutes.
“Now, your depth may change that. Boston is a much deeper team. When you also look at scoring margins, there’s probably more blowouts for them. But in close games, if you look at minutes, your main players are probably going to be playing 35 to 37, somewhere in there.”
Some coaches want to ration out their best players’ exertions. Others feel that limiting court time also limits undue exposure to injuries. Then again, coaches like Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr aren’t dragging around 13 consecutive seasons in Lotteryland as the Timberwolves are.
“I think people sometimes get caught up in the wrong stuff,” Thibodeau said Thursday. “The most important thing is the winning.”
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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