CHICAGO – On a short list of the dirty words of Chicago sports, “minutes” is to the Bulls these days what “Bartman” is to the Cubs or “Cutler contract” is this week to the Bears. Cringe-inducing lightning rods, all three of them.
To many around the Bulls, outside the team and even inside, minutes equal workload, which equals overuse, which equals injuries. No team has been more waylaid by them the past two seasons than Chicago. The most obvious have been Derrick Rose‘s two knee mishaps: an ACL blowout that wiped out 2012-13 and the torn meniscus that shut down his comeback after just 10 game this season. But others – Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler – have crowded into trainer Fred Tedeschi‘s domain often enough that he should hand out numbers, like the deli counter.
So far this season, only Gibson, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy have played in all 31 games. Joakim Noah has missed just one, but that’s on the heels of a training camp and preseason lost almost entirely to a groin strain. Deng came back Thursday against Boston from soreness in his left Achilles – for the second time – but has missed nine games. Hinrich’s aching back put him down for a week last month. And Butler followed up a case of turf toe that wiped 11 games off his schedule with a sore ankle that cost him another just before Christmas.
Because this is more than a one-player or one-snakebit-season thing with this club, questions and criticism have intensified about coach Tom Thibodeau‘s demands on and use of his players. Remember how Butler played three entire games consecutively and hit 48 minutes in five of 12 overall? And how Deng, after averaging 39 minutes through 211 games in Thibodeau’s first three Chicago seasons, got so worn down that he became sick, leading to the spinal-tap exam and complications that put him in the hospital in what some termed a life-threatening crisis?
Last season, despite Rose’s absence and lineup juggling to accommodate other hurt players, the Bulls overachieved to a 45-37 finish and a first-round upset of Brooklyn in the playoffs. This season, they’re 13-18 – 7-13 since Rose went down Nov. 22 – and the crankiness has become more targeted.
Say “injuries” and the dogs of Chicago instantly drool. So do some many miles from United Center, too.
One former NBA player and coach told NBA.com recently: “Is Tom going to become the new Larry Brown, where after three years, because of the grind he put on guys, they can’t take it? Because the players were complaining about Thibs and practices last year, and all the minutes they were playing there. On their team, everybody’s always hurt. Even Jimmy Butler – young guys are breaking down. He just keeps his foot on the pedal the whole time.”
Leave it to NBA.com’s stats maven, John Schuhmann, to pull some numbers that indicate just that: Minutes logged late in lopsided games.
|Most fourth-quarter minutes with team up or down
16 or more points among players who have started
at least half their team’s games
Makes sense, right? If a coach is using key rotation players deep into games that look to be breezy victories or lost causes, then he is overburdening them and courting future injuries from overuse. Or, viewed from the half-full perspective, that’s a swell time to conserve energy and legs, while giving backups and young players on-the-job experience. At least that’s how coaches like San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and a few others see it, yanking veterans such as Tim Duncan and Tony Parker unless circumstances change drastically.
Now consider the Bulls: Through Friday’s games, they had five players among the league’s top 59 in fourth-quarter minutes when their team was either ahead by, or behind by, 16 points or more. Sixteen points, the filter applied via NBA.com/Stats, seems a reasonable-enough definition of “blowout” or “garbage time” in the fourth quarter – that means it is a six-possession margin. Through Friday, Schuhmann discovered, teams were 1-205 when trailing by 16 points or more in the fourth quarter. The lone exception: Golden State’s comeback against Toronto on Dec. 3.
Among Bulls players, Gibson topped the list – and ranked second in the NBA to Brooklyn’s Mason Plumlee (115) – with 100 minutes played in the fourth quarter when Chicago was up or down by 16 or more. Dunleavy was next, No. 12 in the league at 82, followed by rookie Tony Snell, No. 39 with 65.
Noah, at No. 44 with 63 such minutes, ranked second among players who have started every game, behind only Indiana’s Lance Stephenson (No. 23) with 74 minutes. Then there was Hinrich, No. 59 with 56 minutes played in fourth-quarter blowout situations, good or bad.
- Certainly, not all teams endure or create the same amount of garbage time. Chicago (124) ranked fifth, through Friday, in the number of minutes that met the criteria. Brooklyn (144), Golden State (134), Minnesota (126) and San Antonio (125) all had more, with Indiana (124) matching the Bulls. Yet many of their key players ranked low, like Kevin Love (tied at No. 227, 25 minutes), Manu Ginobili (No. 266T, 22) and David West (No. 294T, 19). Others – Duncan (2 minutes), Parker (9), Kevin Garnett (5) – were down at the bottom.
- “Up 16” and “down 16” are two very different scenarios, the former lighting up a victory cigar, the latter running up a white flag. Many coaches are loathe to do either, including Thibodeau. “Oftentimes, if you can get it to a manageable number, with the way you can use the ‘three,’ you can make up ground quickly in this league,” the Bulls coach said. “A bad matchup or a hot hand can get you 10 points in a minute. You see it all the time in this league. I think you have to be careful both ways.”
- That said, the Bulls are 0-10 in games in which they trailed by 16 or more. They’re 8-0 when leading by that much.
- Ideally, a stat based on this type of measure would equalize for the player’s opportunity to be used in “blowout” conditions. Denver and Toronto, for instance, has played only 47 minutes when up or down by 16 in the fourth, with Atlanta next at 49 minutes. Phoenix has played just nine games (fewest in the league) in which those situations arose, with Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington at just 10.
- Still, none of the usual starters on all those teams match Noah’s 50.7 percent (with nearly double the minutes). The only one over 40 percent is Gerald Henderson (27 of the Bobcats’ 65 blowout minutes), who doesn’t have the mileage or history of foot issues that the Bulls’ center has.
- Noah preferred not to talk about the late-minutes issue, aware that it is a source of criticism of Thibodeau. “I think Thibs just has his mind set, he comes in with substitution patterns before the game,” Noah said after adding a few “blowout” minutes Thursday night, playing with a possible triple-double in the offing in what wound up a 94-82 victory over the Celtics. “I think that’s what it is. Ask him.”
- General manager Gar Forman preferred not to talk about it either. “Go pull the quotes from media day,” Forman said Thursday. “Tom decides the minutes at the end of the day.” But Forman was intrigued by the list of Bulls players’ “blowout” minutes, punching some numbers into his phone for future reference. Forman and Thibodeau allegedly are not on the best of terms, stemming from the dismissal of assistant coach Ron Adams after last season and other possible issues, though both publicly say their working relationship is fine.
- The Bulls used to have a backup center, Omer Asik, on whom Thibodeau relied defensively, and the minutes showed it. Asik averaged 12.1 and 14.7 minutes per game in his two seasons in Chicago. Since the start of 2012-13, Nazr Mohammed has averaged 11.0 and 7.7 minutes, with Noah and Gibson picking up the slack.
- Because he missed most of the preseason, Noah had to get more work in once real game commenced, chasing that elusive “rhythm.” Thibodeau mentioned that again Thursday, after the big man’s 17 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists against Boston.
- Guys have to play sometime, which was Gibson’s explanation for his 100 lopsided, late-game minutes. “With me, I don’t know. I’ve always been playing in the fourth quarter,” the 28-year-old power forward said. “Either it’s me and Carlos, me or Joakim. I’m playing [small forwards], I’m always guarding somebody different.” That’s one reason you see veterans such as Rashard Lewis (68), Boris Diaw (63), Mike Miller (57) and Ray Allen (44) with “blowout” minute totals seemingly wasting their skills.
- Gibson also agreed with Thibodeau’s no-lead-is-safe, no-deficit-too-great outlook. “Everybody’s in this league for a reason,” he said. “Everybody can score. Ten-point leads are nothin’ in the NBA. Five-point leads, you bite your nails. You never can ease up.”
- Truth is, Thibodeau has eased up in games. Only Deng (37.7 minutes) ranks among the NBA’s top 25 in average minutes played and Noah is next at 32.3, which ranks 68th in the league. Last season, Deng ranked first (38.7) and Noah 17th (36.8), with Boozer 65th (32.2). Against Boston, with Deng still on a limit, no Chicago player logged as much as 34 minutes with eight playing more than 22. “Like a normal coach,” one wag cracked.
- Keep in mind, much of this can be circular. When players such as Rose, Deng and Gibson have been hurt, guys such as Hinrich, Butler and Noah piled up minutes. That might or might not lead to their breakdowns, which do lead to minutes piling up on teammates, some of whom have just come back from injuries. And so on.
- Lots of NBA coaches and players believe that the difference between playing 34 minutes or 39 minutes on a given night is negligible, once the man has a full sweat and adrenaline pumping. It’s the days in between, practices, travel and off-days, that matter more. The Bulls reportedly go lighter than many teams in practice, despite Thibodeau’s one-gear reputation.
- “We don’t really scrimmage,” Gibson said. “We run a lot of plays, we do a lot of dummy offense, but we do a lot of individual skill-set work. We do a lot of defensive contact but I don’t think he kills us that much in practice compared to previous years. Previous years, it was tough. But he’s made an adjustment this year on a lot of different things.”
- Said Dunleavy: “One thing about him, he’s very aware of giving us off days. We don’t do a lot of contact. Particularly after training camp. He’s very aware of that.”
- Aside from Rose and a few minor dings here and there, the Bulls’ roster is as healthy as it’s been all season. Thibodeau said he was looking forward to some slack in the schedule to practice. “High intensity” practices, he said.
Uh-oh? Look at that this way: If Thibodeau and his players can achieve results from that, it might do away with some of those behind-by-16-or-more filters being used against them.