It has been a hot topic during most of Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau’s career, and it is resurfacing as his first season with the Wolves winds down. The issue, of course, is his minute distribution and his tendency to play his best players extremely heavy minutes.
It was always a talking point in Chicago, and with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins holding a firm lead in the league for most minutes played, many are again questioning: Why is Thibodeau pushing his starters to play so many minutes? Entering Tuesday’s contest against Oklahoma City, Wiggins leads the NBA with 2,981 minutes played, and Towns is on his heels with 2,954. Houston’s James Harden is third with 2,912 minutes. Gorgui Dieng (26th) and Ricky Rubio (44th) will likely finish in the top 20 and top 40, respectively.
In an era where players are resting more than ever, and late in the season when nearly every other team is limiting its players minutes or even sitting them out entirely, Thibodeau’s decision not to cut back on his star players’ minutes is going to stick out. In the six games since Minnesota was officially eliminated from playoff contention, Wiggins has averaged 37.0 minutes per game, Towns has logged 36.3, Rubio has 36.0 and Dieng follows closely behind with 34.5 minutes per game.
Why is he pushing his players so hard in seemingly meaningless games?
Thibodeau may not be satisfied with the results from his team in their first season together
Well, the simple answer may be that it is hard to teach old dogs new tricks. In his final season in Chicago, Thibodeau ran Jimmy Butler out for a league-high 38.7 minutes per game (over two full minutes higher than any other player in the NBA) over 65 games. Pau Gasol and Luol Deng also finished in the top 33 in minutes per game. In the three previous seasons, either Butler or Deng finished in the top two for most minutes per game. When taking the job with the Timberwolves last summer, Thibodeau suggested he learned a handful of things in his season off that he would apply in Minnesota. Although it was assumed minute distribution was one of them, maybe it was not.
Another possibility is Thibodeau may not be satisfied with the results from his team in their first season together, especially on the defensive end. Through 80 games, the Wolves own a defensive rating of 111.9 points per 100 possessions — which ranks 27th in the NBA. The team is 31-49, despite having the league’s 10th-best rated offense. It is entirely possible Thibodeau views every last game of development as something too valuable to throw away before going into the most pivotal offseason for the team in over a decade.
Resting players by holding them out entirely, especially for home games, may not even sit well with owner Glen Taylor. Despite a year with fairly lofty expectations, Minnesota is sitting dead last in the NBA with an average of 14,696 fans per home game. If fans have not been coming all season, they certainly won’t pay to see Wiggins or Towns in street clothes.
Minnesota’s bench ranks 30th in the NBA by a decent-sized margin
Perhaps the most sobering reason for Thibodeau riding his starters for high minute totals is the fact the team has little to no depth. Minnesota’s bench ranks 30th in the NBA by a decent-sized margin in several categories including: minutes, points, rebounds and 3-point percentage. It also owns a -12.3 efficiency rating — only three other teams in the NBA have a bench with an efficiency rating below -5.1. A big part of the development Thibodeau wants to see is winning. Whether the games “matter” or not, Thibodeau will want his young team as experienced as possible entering next season. Playing a depleted bench any longer than a handful of minutes per half will likely decrease the chance of winning games.
Heading into next season, it’s entirely possible Thibodeau will continue to play Wiggins, Towns and others for 35-40 minutes per game. Whether he does it out of necessity or not will depend on what the team decides to do about its bench this offseason.