Since Tom Thibodeau’s arrival, the cries of concern about his coaching style driving players to an early grave has been constant by journalists, podcasters and then reverberated into the fanosphere.
Fact: Players on championship teams often log as many or more minutes than the Minnesota Timberwolves Big Three of Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.
In a recent Star Tribune article by Michael Rand, the number of minutes played was raised as a concern:
"Can’t keep playing your starters 35 minutes a night, especially on back-to-back games. The schedule is pretty weird also with all these single home games then on the road. I am a little worried that Thibs might not be the best coach for this team."
Few NBA coaches wouldn’t prefer to have a deep roster that provides players rest or have the ability to take over when others are injured. Most NBA teams have two or three players that take up their salary cap, leaving few dollars to attract great players to leave on the floor for extended minutes.
Teams develop their benches through the draft, free agency, and trades. Teams that have the best chances of securing strong supporting players have either won an NBA championship or close to achieving such an accomplishment.
Many of the best free agents are willing to forgo dollars in pursuit of a ring, especially as they are entering the twilight of their careers. Players are willing to waive “no trade clauses” so they can be traded to a team poised to compete for a championship.
Playoff destined teams with the best players more often than not spend more minutes on the court and time isn’t reduced until later in their careers.
Here are the Timberwolves Big Three ages and minutes played on average this season:
Jimmy Butler, age 28, avg 36.4 mins for the season
Andrew Wiggins, age 22, avg 36.9 mins for the season
Karl Anthony Towns, age 22, avg 34.4 mins for the season
Thibs needs to ride his Big Three to reach the playoffs and then become a preferred destination for free agents.
At twenty-nine years old, Jeff Teague‘s 33.9 minutes-per-game is up from last season with the Indiana Pacers (32.4). Taj Gibson at thirty-two years of age is averaging 32.6 minutes, the highest of his career.
Over the previous nine seasons, Gibson played close to 80 percent of the regular season games. And Teague played in just over 90 percent of the regular season games throughout his eight years.
Their top guys aren’t playing an unusual number of minutes for players of their ages on playoff teams. To demonstrate, here’s a list of the most minutes played on a per game basis:
Top Ten Players All-Time Minutes
According to a recent CBS Sports ranking of top 50 greatest players. Here is the number of total career minutes played by the top ten players with multiple rings:
- Michael Jordan – 38.26 (Six Championships)
- LeBron James – 38.86 (Three Championships)
- Wilt Chamberlain 45.80 (Two Championships)
- Magic Johnson – 36.69 (Five Championships)
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – 36.82 (Six Championships)
- Bill Russell – 42.29 (Eleven Championships)
- Tim Duncan -34.03 (Five Championships)
- Larry Bird – 38.40 (Three Championships)
- Shaquille O’Neil – 34.73 (Four Championships)
- Kobe Bryant – 36.13 (Five Championships)
These numbers are career averages and most players played more minutes when they were younger (which was when they were also older than the Timberwolves top three).
Chamberlain is the clear outlier at 45.30 minutes averaged over this career. Duncan had the lowest number of average minutes played over his twenty years in the league.
Five of top ten players NBA players of all time played more minutes than Andrew Wiggins and Jimmy Butler this season over their career average. Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson’s numbers are just slightly under Twolves top wings players for career averages.
Kobe from the age of twenty to thirty played between 38 to over 40 minutes on average per season and played more than 38 minutes three of his last seven seasons in his thirties.
Magic was an unusual point forward and he never played less than 36 minutes per season and as many as 38 at the age of twenty-four and only dropped to 29 minutes in his last season.
Wiggins is 22 years of age and the average minutes he’s playing will likely be reduced by the end of their his career, it’s fair to assume the same for Butler. Neither Twolves stars are playing the number of minutes Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson did when they were their ages.
Karl-Anthony Towns at 22 is playing fewer minutes than almost all top ten players with Duncan being the lone exception over his career average. Duncan played more minutes than KAT when he was older and the same is primarily true for all other top stars.
Top Ten Current Players Minutes
Sports Illustrated ranked the top 100 current players and here is the top-ten and the number of minutes played. Comparing Twolves Big Three to current stars playing in the league.
- LeBron James – 37 mins this season & 38.9 career
- Kevin Durant – 34.1 mins this season & 37.3 career
- Stephen Curry – 32.3 mins this season & 34.6 career
- Kawhi Leonard – 30.6 for his career, hasn’t played this season
- James Harden – 36 mins this season & 33.7 career
- Russell Westbrook – 35.2 mins this season & 34 career
- Chris Paul – 27.8 mins this season & 35.5 career
- Anthony Davis – 36 mins this season & 34.5 career
- Giannis Antetokounmpo 37.3 mins this season & 32.1 career
- Draymond Green -31.2 mins this season & 27 career
James leads in minutes and coincidentally also has the most championships of the top ten players.
Curry and Durant’s minutes have decreased as they’ve either joined a deep team or had players come to their team.
Curry at 24 years of age played 38 minutes and as few as 33.4 at 28 years of age, last season. The Golden Boy’s minutes didn’t see much of a reduction (which was little) until after winning his first NBA championship at the age of twenty-six.
Curry’s career average is lower than Wiggins, but higher than Butlers.
KD from the age of 20-to-25 played between 38 to 39 minutes over the length of a season. His minutes reduced to 33 to 36 minutes per-game his last several seasons with the Thunder. He played 33.4 minutes per game last season with the Warriors.
This season, at the age of 29, Steve Kerr, has increased Durant’s playing time to 34.4 minutes which is equal to the number of minutes played by Timberpup Karl Athnomy Towns.
If coach Thibodeau has his star players logging too many minutes on the court than Coach Steve Kerr with a much deeper bench is equally mismanaged his players minutes.
Antetokounmpo, Davis, Harden, and Westbrook are ranked in the top five for minutes played (Top-Ten Ranked Players) and coincidentally none of them have an NBA championship. Their coaches are riding them hard, trying to get closer to that cherished NBA goal.
All of these players minutes are similar to Wiggins and Butler with the exception of James and Antetokounmpo who are playing more minutes and Westbrook and are essentially the same.
KAT’s minutes are lower than any of the top five players.
This season, Chris Paul has seen his minutes reduced which is as much a result of an injury as joining a deeper team – Rockets. Paul from the age of 20-to-26 played between 36 to 38 minutes each season. During that span of this career, he was playing more minutes than the young Andrew Wiggins or Jimmy Buckets and lead his team to the playoffs every year.
Kawhi Leonards minutes are the lowest of players ranked in top ten which would lead us to believe he’s the least fatigued and able contribute the most. Kawahi hasn’t taken the court this season because of an injury and it’s uncertain when he will return.
Reduced minutes are just one reason that contributes to players longevity in the NBA.
Pop is one of the greatest coaches of all time and has survived nearly thirty years while winning five championships with the Spurs. He’s been praised and criticized for the way he manages players minutes by the league and fans.
Last season, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver sent a memo to team owners about coaches resting their élite players. As the master of player rest, Coach Popovich was interviewed:
"And it’s hard to make a rule. … I think the league has to understand the science of what we do is a whole lot more sophisticated than it used to be. We have definitely added years to people’s [careers]."
”So it’s a trade-off. Do you want to see this guy in this one game? Or do you want to see him for three more years in his career?”
Coach Pop acknowledges that it’s a science and a sophisticated decision-making process and in an ideal world he wants to cut minutes to make sure he can extend players careers.
Which is the central criticism of coach Thibodeau, that he, A) allows starters to play too many minutes and B) it’s assumed, he’s doing this because he cares more about winning now then extended players careers. Fair enough!
Let’s look at Popovichwhose been criticized for not playing his star players enough minutes to have them rested for the playoffs.
Tim Duncan played nearly 20 years with Coach Popovich. They won championships in 1998-99, 2002-03, 2004-05, 2006-07, 2013-14 together. Below are the ages and the several minutes played for each of those championship seasons:
- Age 22 – 39.3 mins during the season & 43.1 playoffs
- Age 26 – 33.4 mins during the season & 40.6 playoffs
- Age 28 – 33.4 mins during the season & 37.8 playoffs
- Age 30 – 34.1 mins during the season & 36.8 playoffs
- Aged 37 – 32.7 mins during the season & 32.7 playoffs
Tim Duncan played his most minutes at the age of 22 and continued to play about 34 minutes a season during their playoff years. Coach Pop played Duncan the most minutes at the age of 25 during the 2001-02 season when played 40 minutes per game. That season, the Spurs won the Midwest division but didn’t reach or win the Western Conference. Duncan played his second highest minutes when he was 22 years old and won his first championship with David Robinson in the twilight of his career.
Robinson who was the Spurs key player and perennial All-Star from ages of 24 to 30 played over 36 minutes-per-game and as many as 40 at twenty-eight years of age. Robinson was six years older than Towns and logging six more minutes-per-game.
In addition, Robinson played more minutes at an older age for half of his career than KAT this season.
Duncan played more minutes than KAT this season in eight of his nineteen years in the league and always as an older player.
Depth helped the Spurs reach the promise land, yet, Pop wasn’t afraid to play Robinson significant minutes to get there.
Duncan’s minutes didn’t drop below 31 until after the age of thirty-three and then still consistently hovered between 28 to 30 minutes each season until reaching thirty-nine years of age which was his last season when he played 25 minutes.
Tony Parker has won four championships with the Spurs. He’s is one of the Spurs best all-time players with six All-Star game appearances. Below are the ages and the number of minutes played for each of those championship seasons.
- Age 20 – 33.8 mins during the season & 33.9 playoffs
- Age 22 -32.5 mins during the season & 37.5 playoffs
- Age 24 – 32.5 mins during the season & 37.6 playoffs
- Age 31 – 29.4 mins during the season & 31.3 playoffs
Parker from the age of 22 to 30 played between 32 to 34 minutes each season with the exception being the 2009-10 season where his minutes played were barely under 31. After reaching his 30’s his number then began to decrease which is common for most NBA players.
Parker played slightly fewer minutes most seasons than Wiggins or Butler, but on championship teams that had been able to lure great talent.
Pop has been agile in developing his squads, he’s adapted to the talent and the league conditions as needed. He’s never been afraid to play his star players significant minutes to win a championship.
Thib’s like Popovich understands it’s a science to keep players on the court and also wins games. Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to argue Thibodeau is playing his star players more than Pop. An argument can be made he’s not playing them enough.
Phil Jackson coached the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships and Lakes to five for a total of eleven rings. He wasn’t’ often criticized for overplaying his elite players to win championship rings. Here is how he managed his star players in their first and last championship seasons.
Jordan won all of his championships with Phil Jackson – The Zen Master. Jackson was perceived as the Buddhist Munk of the NBA, using his divine coaching powers to guide his teams to victory.
1990-91 NBA Champion Bulls
Michael Jordan at the age 26, Jordan – avg 39 mins for the season & 40.5 playoffs
Scotty Pippin at the age 25, Pippin – avg 36.8 min for the season & 41.4 playoffs
Horace Grant at 25, Horace Grant avg under 34 mins for the season & 39.2 playoffs
1997-98 NBA Champion Bulls
Age 34, Michael Jordan 38.8 mins for the season & 41.5 playoffs
Age 32, Scotty Pippin 37.5 mins for the season & 39.8 playoffs
Age 36, Dennis Rodman 35.7 for the season & 34.4 playoffs
Jackson one of the greatest coaches played Jordan and Pippin more minutes than Thibodeau has his key wing players consistently throughout their careers.
Jordan averaged more minutes thirteen of this fifteen years in the league than Butler or Wiggins this season.At the age of thirty-nine, Jordan’s last season in the league he played slightly more minutes than Maple Jordan and Jimmy Buckets this year.
Pippin played more minutes each season than Buttler or Wiggins the majority of his years in the league. At the age of thirty-three, Scottie averaged 40.2 minutes over the length of the season.
25-year-old Horace Grant minutes are almost identical to Towns during the 1990-91 championship season.
Jackson had no problem playing Dennis Rodman more minutes when he was fourteen years older than Towns current age.
Jackson and Laker First and Last Championships
Phil Jackson’s first Lakers championship teams star players, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neil again played more minutes than any of the three Timberwolves big three.
Jackson’s last tile with the Lakers, Bryant, and Gasol played more minutes than our adored Wolves stars.
All four of these Laker stars played more minutes when they were older than the Timberwolves Big Three currently are logging.
The first Laker’s championship team supporting cast starters Glen Rice, Ron Harper and A.C. Green played fewer minutes than any Wolves starters. None of these players were considered franchise players. The last Jackson championship starters included, Meta World Peace, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum minutes played were similar to Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague.
Phil Jackson is the Balli Lama of the Triangle Offense who is considered one of the best to coach the game. Jackson wasn’t concerned about his star players suffering by playing too many minutes and together they transcended to greatness.
The concern about the Timberwolves starters playing a lot of minutes is understandable because they are leading the league in minutes played for starting five-man lineups. Minnesota is followed by the Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons, Los Angeles Clippers, and Charlotte Hornets, none of which are presently considered near the top of the league, but rather fighting to get there and become an attractive free agent destination.
Included in the top ten for minutes played are the Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets and Cleveland Cavaliers who all have elite players much older than the Twolves.
Durability and the ability to play significant minutes are two of the qualities of the NBA’s greatest players that lead teams to the playoffs and win championships.
It’s in coach Thibodeau’s interests to be able to win games, which will help the team become attractive for other players which will result in reduced minutes for his starters. It’s also fair to conclude Thib’s is playing his Big Three the correct number or even not enough minutes to reach the playoffs or win an NBA championship.
When it comes to winning an NBA Championship it’s a sophisticated science of managing players minutes to reach that objective.