‘Blowout Minutes’ Contributing To Chicago’s Injury Woes?


VIDEO: The GameTime crew talks about how the Bulls are adjusting without Derrick Rose

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
Player MIN Team MIN PCT
Lance Stephenson 74 124 59.6%
Wesley Johnson 71 96 74.1%
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 65 104 62.5%
Joakim Noah 63 124 50.7%
Victor Oladipo 63 114 55.3%
Paul George 56 124 45.1%
Kirk Hinrich 56 124 45.1%
Jodie Meeks 54 96 56.4%
Arron Afflalo 51 114 44.7%
Nikola Pekovic 48 126 38.1%

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.

Some observations:

      • 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.

18 Comments

  1. Kamote says:

    Things were a little different when the Bulls have their Mob Squad back then. Now, they simply have a lack of talent, add that their franchise player is out again. The Bulls don’t have that one player that could turn things around if the tide goes against them. And please stop using the Popovich card, because even champion coaches do play heavy minutes on their star players, Phil Jackson included. I mean that’s Popovich’s talent as a coach, so you just can’t say every coach can have that.

    I’d understand if Thibs can’t let their team relax if they lead big in the 4th, they don’t have that star player that can shift the momentum back to them in case the opposing team managed to come back. But I guess he can let a blowout go if they are the ones losing, as that’s the best time for him to let his “other players” in just to run and execute the plays so at least they can be useful next game. I just hope Thibs can add a little flexibilty rather than just following his substitution patterns.

    Its also stupid to say that these players earn millions so they should not complain if they’re being run to the ground. These athletes, unlike us, only have a window of 12-15 years (some may go 20 like KG etc.) to earn this money. So they have to be in peak shape to be competitive for that period of time. As for the organization, its also not wise to give a 5-year contract to a player, only to have them useful for around 2-3 years because their bodies are all banged-up. They are athletes with superior skill than most normal people, but they still are as durable as the rest of us.

  2. okc2014 says:

    Coach Thibedeau is a workaholic, he has no family, isn’t marries and gives his whole life to the Bulls. And he loses his voice within the first quarter of every game. So why wouldn’t he work his guys the same way? That’s sad if he loses his job. It’s his life.

  3. Jazzy J says:

    Coach need to utilize his players by practicing defensive on the court. Learning how to pace the game in other words playing all four quarters. Lately the NBA players are burned out by the third court quarter which leads to bad performce for fourth quarter.

  4. Bullsfan53111 says:

    How do you call Tom a terrible coach? Look at his team, he has no one too work with other than Taj and Dj off the bench. I never heard or read anyone calling him a bad coach when he had his 2011 team. You cant blame him for making his teammates exceed the normal amount of minutes if he has no one in the bench to really contribute for him. All in all he is a great defensive coach and good all around coach. Cant blame him, blame the organization.

    • Anonymous says:

      Respectfully, I disagree. Why in the world would anyone play someone that’s not even a primary scoring option 48 minutes a game?! That is ridiculous, and it just goes to show how bad he really is. Look at Pop, he is able to utilize his bench to max efficiency, and they’re not that spectacular either.

      • Bullsfan53111 says:

        But look at Toms team, who is he going too play other than the 5 he starts? Thankfully two “okay” scorers coming from the bench (Mike and Dj) but even then how do people expect The Bulls to win games with ought any real talent. At least Pop has Manu and Marco scoring from the bench. Either Tom keeps doing what he is doing (Most likely ends up getting fired) or he plays his bench and ends up like Mike Brown with 5 consecutive loses.

      • DAMN RIGHT says:

        I agree, Look at POP, he makes decent players look great off the bench and WHATEVER he has on the bench looks good every season. Has there been a bench in San Antonio in recent history that is not good? Talent wise: yes. Playing wise: no. Thibs MILKS those BULLS until they become COWS.

  5. That Guy says:

    Rose is a modern day Penny Hardaway: so much talent, yet so injury prone.

  6. vinsanefan says:

    @Wanker

    I used to think that too until playing as the starting PG on my high school. I was surprised out how worn out I got over the course of the season, or even after a particularly physical game. It wasn’t like I was aerobically tired. But over the course of the season the bumps and bruises, and rolled ankles, jammed fingers etc. start to add up. Also, you have to remember that all we see is the minutes they play on the court, but you have to add in practices, individual workouts/conditioning, and remember that for each game the players are there several hours early warming up and shooting around. I was an all-state cross country runner and track runner , and I went from one sports season to the next with virtually no break year round. After my senior basketball season I ended up with a stress fracture in my foot and missed the entire track season. That’s my experience and our games were only 32 minutes (compared to 48) and we only played about 25 (rather than 82 + playoffs). Also, we rarely played back to backs and did minimal traveling. NBA players travel a ridiculous amount which takes a toll even if you are traveling in a private jet. Finally, many of these players have been following this arduous routine for years. The older NBA players have probably been playing basketball/conditioning or working out virtually non stop for over half their lives. When you start to take all that into account you can see why their bodies break down. That being said I think that injuries are generally the result of freak accidents more than anything else, and it’s hard to place the blame on any one person.

  7. The truth says:

    I feel playing hard for 48 mins is not a problem. I have to work 12 hour days for 21 days straight. then seven days off a month to relax. These guys are supposed to be super athletes, these guys can’t handle working hard for 48 mins for millions of dollars, should stop crying. When the get hurt they get there full wage and the best medical staff in the world. You get hurt in a real job and they only pay 80% of your wages and are pushed to get back to work as fast as possible.

  8. Freida says:

    It appears that Coach Thib only wants to win and doesn’t care how he wins. By the end of the year, players are always broken down. So many injuries during the year. He may be a good coach but it appears he is not a smart coach. Pop is a smart coach and an excellent coach. When will Thib learn. And playing 48 minutes for every game is ridiculous, especially backs to backs. If they were just shooting baskets that is one thing, but getting bumped and thrown on the floor is completely different. It is not only physically exhausting but mentally exhausting. Keep Thib there so other Eastern teams don’t have to worry about them winning the Eastern Conference. By then they are injured and exhausted.

  9. darko says:

    some coaches. . .

    D’antoni has had periods when he only played 7; now he plays most everybody.
    Terry Stotts now should remember last years melt down and let his bench develop.

  10. Wanker says:

    You get paid millions a year, with great training facilities. There is no reason you can not play 48 minutes of basketball with multiple breaks.

  11. KingKaash94 says:

    I really use to like Coach Thibs and his physical, defensive style. But now that it seems like he’s grinding his poor players into the ground, I don’t like that. A coach has to know when enough is enough. This is really sad.

  12. Marco says:

    They get hurt because they play physical, they play physical because they aren’t as talented skill-wise as most teams. Thibs is probably top 5 best coaches. PS. Michael Jordan used to play high minutes, yet he never complained. Iverson played high minutes, never complained. Kobe played high minutes, never complained. Lebron used to play high minutes, never complained. KG used to play high minutes, hell he wishes he could go back to that. Rondo plays high minutes, never complains. If the best players never complained about the workload, why should role players? You’d think they’d want more minutes considering.

    • Joey says:

      LMAO, Thibodeau is a terrible coach, which is why bulls will never make it past the conference finals, with or without Rose

  13. Kiwi says:

    Such a belated story. Everybody knows coach Thibbs asks too much of his players physically