The Chicago Bulls’ head coach, Tom Thibodeau, has a reputation for being a brilliant general whose biggest deficiency is that he exhausts his troops, running them into the ground. Is that true, or is he just the victim of cruel coincidence?
From a historical perspective, it’s hard to say that Thibodeau gives his players excessive minutes.
Luol Deng’s minutes per game this year, a league-leading 38.71, would seem to suggest he is overplayed. The same goes for last year, when Deng averaged 39.43 minutes. That sounds like a strong case until you dig deeper.
Those are also the two lowest averages for a league-leader in the history of the NBA. His average this year qualified for 580th all-time. Placed in just the context of this season, it seems to be a lot of minutes, but in a broader, historical perspective, it is not.
By comparison, the Portland Trail Blazer have three of the nine most-used players in Nicolas Batum, Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. All three had played at least 37.7 minutes per game, and two of whom played a mere six seconds fewer than Deng.
If you just look at average minutes, then it’s hard to say very much. However, if you look at the minutes from a slightly different perspective, you can make a pretty compelling argument that there’s a problem.
Part of the complaint against Thibodeau isn’t about the “average” minutes, but the “extreme” minutes he plays his guys during certain games. Is there a way of determining how the Bulls stack up with the rest of the league in that area?
In the NBA last season, there were 19 streaks where players logged at least three consecutive 42-minute games. Here they are.
In baseball, there’s a metric called “Pitcher Abuse Points” which assigns points for every pitch over 100 pitches. It got me to considering an idea for “Player Abuse Points" in basketball, with one point assigned for every minute in a game over 39 minutes (so 40 minutes is one point). (As an aside, remember that PAP is plural, like RBI in baseball. Also, a PAP game is a game in which a player registered PAP.)
Here is how the league shakes out in terms of PAP. As you can see, the Bulls are on top.
When you couple this with the fact that the Bulls had six players combine to miss 113 games, it’s easy to connect the dots. That may be premature.
In logic, there is a fallacy known as “post hoc ergo propter hoc,” which is translated, “after this, therefore, because of this.” The fallacious reasoning confuses correlation with causation.
For example, say hypothetically that I want to meet Derrick Rose, and I’m thinking about this as I walk to Walgreens to buy a can of soda. As I walk through the door, Rose walks in behind me.
I might think that because I wanted to meet him, the force of my will somehow compelled him to shop at that particular Walgreens at that particular time. I use his arrival as evidence of the power of my will. That wouldn’t be very logical.
Just because two things are true, it doesn’t mean they are related.
All we know that’s true is two things happened: The Bulls had a lot of PAP, and they had a lot of injuries. We haven’t established that the injuries were caused by excessive playing time.
Looking at where the other top teams were casts some doubt on that conclusion. Portland was second in PAP, and they stayed fairly healthy. The same goes with Oklahoma City, at least until the playoffs started.
Furthermore, another team that had as many injury issues as the Bulls, the Minnesota Timberwolves, were near the bottom of the league in PAP. So, keeping minutes down doesn’t assure a team of being injury free, and accumulating a large PAP doesn’t guarantee injury.
Then again, the size of the difference between Chicago’s PAP and everyone else’s is pretty startling.
Deng had 150 PAP by himself. That’s more than half the teams in the league. Jimmy Butler had 94. The pair combined for more PAP than all but three other squads.
So, it seems there’s enough basis to at least look and see whether there could be a causation effect here.
Let’s look at the players who missed at least seven games for the Bulls this year, and their respective PAP.
With Richard Hamilton and Jimmy Butler, we can rule out causation immediately. Butler didn’t miss any time, and Hamilton didn’t have any PAP. (Hamilton would get injured walking through a safe house made of clouds and cotton anyway. That’s not on Thibodeau.)
Most of Butler’s PAP came at the end of the season with his teammates' injuries escalating. You could argue that injuries caused his PAP more than the other way around.
Kirk Hinrich had only 12 PAP and missed most of his games because of a popped bursa sac. All 12 of his PAP came after his injury issues. It’s hard to conceive of how playing extra minutes would cause that injury anyway. Excessive dribbling maybe?
Taj Gibson missed 17 games, but 20 of his 26 PAP came a full three weeks before he started having problems with a sprained MCL, and the other six occurred a month before that. Furthermore, Gibson injured himself against the Oklahoma City Thunder stepping on Kevin Martin’s foot. It seemed pretty instantaneous, not like an attrition injury.
We’ll credit that one to a fluke.
Luol Deng become the poster child for Too Many Minutes Syndrome when his playoff performances went downhill. While he had a massive PAP, it’s hard to connect the dots from that to the spinal tap complications which caused him so much suffering.
However, Deng was out for a five-game stretch in the regular reason. He strained his hamstring playing injured against Boston. This came after playing hurt almost 48 minutes in the previous game against the Toronto Raptors. Therefore, it’s fair to ascribe those five missed games to PAP.
Marco Belinelli had been playing 38.8 minutes a game over the nine-game span preceding his abdominal strain. He racked up 29 of his 46 PAP in the 15 days prior to his injury. There was never a clear indication of what started his problems, or when they started. It’s certainly feasible that seven of his nine missed games were, at least in part, due to PAP.
Finally, Joakim Noah, who has a history of plantar fasciitis, missed a total of 15 games with the condition. His other game was missed because of the flu.
All but two of Noah’s PAP games came before his feet started to flare up. Ergo, it’s reasonable to speculate the playing time had something to do with it, particularly if you include the fact he may have been logging more miles than any player in the NBA on those problematic pods of his.
Based on those explanations, the table below shows how many of the missed games could reasonably be ascribed to PAP.
Due to PAP
PAP may have caused 27 missed games, but how many PAP games did the injuries cause?
Logically, PAP games should go up as the number of available players goes down, because the same number of minutes is distributed over a smaller number of players.
Here’s what happened to the Bulls in terms of PAP games when they were missing zero, one or two or more rotation players last season.
Rotation Players Out
PAP per Game
Based on this, it’s pretty apparent that injuries may cause PAP games as much as PAP games result in injuries.
The two factors appear to have a snowball effect. As players get injured, the number of PAP games goes up, which causes more players to get injured, which cause more PAP games, and so on.
The Bulls were almost doomed from the beginning last season. Without Derrick Rose available, and with Rip “Waste of Money” Hamilton on the roster, the Bulls were already effectively down two roster spots to begin the year.
Nazr Mohammed and Belinelli struggled to pick up Thibodeau’s defensive schemes. This in turn caused Thibodeau to turn to the players that he trusted, namely Deng and Noah, and lean on them for heavy minutes at the start of the season.
Then the injuries started. As the number of maladies grew, the more the PAP grew. Note the striking parallel in the two trend lines below, which show PAP per game and injuries per game.
It would appear that both are the cause, and both are the effect.
So what does that mean for the Bulls next year, and can they avoid falling into the same trap?
There are a few things that suggest they have a better chance of getting through the season without collecting injuries like some people collect stamps.
First, Mohammed now knows the system, and he won’t have to begin the season learning it. Hopefully that will mean that Thibodeau doesn’t play Noah 40 minutes a night to begin the year again. To be fair, when Omer Asik was with the team, Noah’s minutes were more contained.
Second, adding Mike Dunleavy gives the Bulls the best sixth man they’ve had in the Thibodeau era. It also appears they plan on giving Marquis Teague more minutes, which will allow Hinrich to play some as the backup shooting guard. If both Dunleavy and Hinrich can log 15-20 minutes a night, that will help Butler and Deng to keep their minutes around 35.
Third, Thibodeau seems to be committed to reducing Noah’s and Deng’s minutes. It might not seem like much, but he’s defended their excessive playing time before. This marks a shift in thinking on his part.
Last year seemed to be the perfect storm of problems. Thibodeau’s willingness to give his players heavy minutes, their willingness to play them, an excess of wasted roster spots, a new bench and bad luck all converged on Chicago.
Early indications are they’ve learned from their errors, and this year should be better.
All stats were obtained from Basketball Reference.