Do Chicago Bulls Need to Reduce Starters' Minutes to Avoid Late-Season Collapse?

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Do Chicago Bulls Need to Reduce Starters' Minutes to Avoid Late-Season Collapse?
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Tom Thibodeau, head coach of the Chicago Bulls, is drawing a lot of criticism for his heavy playing of Luol Deng and Joakim Noah. Many are concerned that by giving the two heavy minutes, Thibodeau is jeopardizing the team's postseason hopes, as well as risking injury to the players.

Deng, averaging 41.0 minutes, and Noah, 40.3 minutes, are first and second in the league in minutes per game, which is what the concerns are predicated upon. 

In a recent interview with K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, Thibodeau defended himself at considerable length when asked about Noah's minutes. Per Johnson, Thibodeau "half mocked," in regards to Noah

Jeez, he's in his 20s.

I sat on the opposing bench when Phil (Jackson) was coaching the Bulls. I used to sit there and say, 'When's he going to take those guys out? Because I don't want to see them on the floor, He never did. Same thing with (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich). We played them in the Finals in 1999. (Tim) Duncan never came out.

Depends on who they are. If you look at a guy like Duncan, he probably could've played the whole game. Wilt (Chamberlain) wasn't bad playing a lot of minutes. Depends on the body type. (Kevin) Garnett was a huge minute guy, and it never bothered him. (LaMarcus) Aldridge is playing big minutes.

You have a lot of guys who can handle it. You look at the conditioning component, how guys are taking care of themselves year-round.

If a guy is in his 30s, you have to watch him more closely. Like Garnett, big-minute guy in Minnesota, where he hardly ever got hurt. He got to Boston in his mid-30s and we had to watch his minutes more. You have a guy like Rip Hamilton, he should be playing mid- to high 20s.

That's a big part of pacing your team. If you're playing guys a lot, how much contact do you have in practice? How many days off do you give your team? Those things all play into it.

If you check the history, Thibodeau makes a valid point. Since the merger, players under 30 have averaged 40 or more minutes per game 108 times. Those payers average 74.4 games played in those seasons. If you account for strike-shortened seasons, 103 players average 75.6 games. 

Furthermore, players who played at least 40 minutes played at least 75 games on 79 occasions (77 percent of the time). They've played in at least 80 games 59 times, and they've played in all 82 games 27 times. 

Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Wilt Chamberlain averaged 48.5 minutes for an entire season in 1961-62.

If you want a comparison for that, the last full 82-game season the NBA had, 32 players played all 82 games. That's 32 out of 399 players who were key rotation players (averaging at least 20 minutes per game and playing at least 20 games).

If you only look at players under 30, that's 24 out of 297 players who went the distance. 

If anything, the statistical data supports that there's a much better correlation between not getting injured and playing at least 40 minutes per game. Players who exceed 40 minutes play all 82 games 28 percent of the time compared to less than eight percent of the time in general. 

Rather than seeing a high injury rate with high minutes, we actually see a very low injury rate. 

Of course, there's a difference between "correlation" and "causation" here. It's also true numbers don't "prove everything," but here, they aren't being used to "prove" anything or to show causation. They merely disprove the notion that heavy minutes mean more injuries.

If the premise is that players get injured more frequently when they play heavy minutes, the history falsifies it. 

At a minimum, there is evidence to support Thibodeau's assertion that heavy minutes don't injure players, if not flat-out prove it.. 

Additionally, there is significant evidence that playing heavy minutes has no impact on making deep postseason runs. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson and Michael Jordan have all carried their teams deep into the playoffs (at least the conference finals) while averaging 40 minutes or more per game. 

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
The most minutes per game by an active player came from LeBron James, who averaged 42.5 minutes per game in 2005-06.

So why all the concern?  Possibly because over the last five years, there's bee a decline in players who average 40 minutes per game. Including Deng and Noah, there have only been seven players to eclipse that threshold since 2008. 

In the five years prior to that, there were 36 such seasons. That's a massive drop-off of more than 80 percent, and for completely inexplicable reasons.

So while 40 minutes a game seems a lot because the Bulls' tandem is currently leading the league in minutes, it's really not that many in the broader scheme. Frankly, 40 minutes a game isn't that many. Deng's 41.0 minutes per game ranks only 170th in NBA history. 

If Deng had the 170th-best PER in league history, that's hardly panic-worthy. 

It seems that history vindicates Thibodeau's assessment well. If a player is young and well-conditioned and practices are moderated, a couple of extra minutes a game is no big deal. 

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