Luol Deng is having another All-Star caliber season.
But, in the grind of an 82-game season, there's reason to wonder if his workload is too heavy. It may not appear so now, but come later in the season, we could begin to see signs of fatigue. This would be decidedly inconvenient if this took place late in the season, when the Bulls are battling for playoff-positioning.
Further, the Bulls certainly need a completely healthy Deng for the playoffs, rather than a worn-out, battered Deng that isn't contributing at his normal rate.
Deng has been the model of consistency throughout his career, but he is playing the most minutes he's ever played in 2012-13. No player is immune to nagging injuries or strains when they're expending their body at this rate.
Plus, Deng's versatile and slashing style of play beckon physical contact and much use of his legs. It's not like he's ever taking possessions off, whether he's on offense or defense. He's typically guarding the opposing team's best perimeter player, so it's not like he can get a quick breath on defense as he guards a lacking offensive threat.
An interesting way to watch the Bulls is to merely watch Deng. Watch in admiration as he exhibits constant effort on both ends of the floor. He does so many things that don't show up on the stat sheet.
With that said, he does plenty of things that do show up on the stat sheet, evidenced by his 17.7 points per game and 7.0 rebounds per game.
His presence on the Bulls is simply invaluable, and Coach Tom Thibodeau clearly has a lot of trust in the 27-year-old veteran. But is Coach Thibs perhaps showing him too much trust? Could he be overusing him and potentially setting up troubles later in the season?
With Deng's active style of play, this is a concern. Bulls fans don't want to witness Deng's high point of 2012-13 to come now, but would much rather see it occur in the late spring/early summer.
Yet come playoff time, assuming Deng remains healthy, he will have played around 80 games at 40-plus minutes per outing, if he continues at this rate. Can any player maintain full-fledged consistency and health while embracing this workload?
Another factor to consider in this is that while he's just 27 (the height of a typical player's prime), he is an "old" 27. This is Deng's ninth year in the league and he's been playing steady minutes his entire career.
Therefore, his legs have much more wear and tear on them than let's say Taj Gibson, who is also 27 years old but is in just his fourth year and has only garnered limited minutes throughout his NBA tenure.
It's not like Deng should be treated like a 35-year-old veteran, but he's been exerting himself at a high level for many years now. It shouldn't come as a shock if signs of wear-and-tear emerge.
Because of these concerns, the Bulls would be wise to curtail his minutes as the season progresses. They should pump the brakes on his workload in hopes that he peaks at the right time—the playoffs.
In this, it's not like his minutes should dwindle in an excessive manner. It would be foolish to cut his workload under 30 minutes per outing. He's too valuable to make that drastic of a move.
But, it's perfectly logical to cut his minutes to around 35 per game. This extra rest, while seemingly insignificant when considering that it's just five minutes an outing, could be distinctly valuable as the season's climax nears.
Further, a bright spot to the Bulls' season thus far has been the play of second-year wing Jimmy Butler. Butler's versatility on defense is superb, and his offense has showed signs of improvement in the season's early stages.
Because of this, Butler has revealed that he's more than capable of playing extended minutes. He's currently tallying 17.7 minutes per game, but that number could and should increase. The Bulls should insert Butler an extra five or so minutes a game while allowing Deng to gain some further rest.
The reality is that the Bulls don't lose much, if anything, defensively when Butler replaces Deng. Offensively, Butler isn't nearly as adept as Deng, but the Bulls can just feature Butler with other potent offensive weapons (Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson) so he doesn't have to fill an offensive void.
The bottom line here is that the Bulls have no reason to utilize Deng at such an overwhelming rate. He's most definitely a workhorse who is a prominent leader on this ballclub, but he can remain this while accepting a slightly diminished workload.
How many minutes should Luol Deng be playing per game?
When viewing the season as a whole, it's wise for the Bulls to consider limiting Deng's minutes. Deep playoff pushes aren't made in January, and the Bulls simply aren't going to make a deep playoff push without a healthy Deng.
Their ultimate hope should be to maintain the health of Deng, Joakim Noah and the rest of their core members while also receiving a recovered Derrick Rose in February or March. If these things take place, the Bulls have a chance to make major noise in April, May and June.
In fact, if they handle their core members appropriately, they could find themselves peaking at just the right time and a run to the NBA Finals could be made.
*Stats used in this article were as of January 3, 2013.