In Today's NBA, Even the Stars Play Less, and for Good Reason—Here's Why
Remember the days when the biggest stars in the NBA, such as Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson in 2000-01, played 40 minutes or more per game? That season, 11 players in addition to Bryant and Iverson were in that minutes range.
In fact, over most of the league's history, the players with the highest mileage per game every season hovered around 39 to 42 minutes.
Nowadays, not only are role players seeing less court time, but so are your favorite star players—some even five minutes fewer per game. (And that's happening as the average price of an NBA ticket goes up. There was a 3.5 percent rise to $50.99 in 2012-13 from the previous season, according to Team Marketing Report.)
The decrease in individual player minutes has been quite noticeable since the 1998-99 season. The average number of players seeing 40 minutes or more per game from 1998-99 to 2002-2003 was 9.4 per season. It decreased to 6.8 from 2003-04 to 2007-2008.
Then, from 2008-09 to last season, that average number dipped all the way down to 0.6.
So what's going on?
For starters, a key number behind the downward trend came from the NBA's new collective bargaining agreement in the summer of 2005. The size of the regular-season roster increased from 12 to 15 players, with 12 active for every game. Then in August 2006, the NBA Board of Governors put that number into effect for the postseason.
With those adjustments, coaches started expanding their rotations and spreading out minutes. From 2005-06—the first season of the roster changes—to 2008-09, the number of players who were above 40 minutes per game went from nine to six to three to zero. And in the past four seasons, only two guys total averaged 40 or more minutes (Monta Ellis twice for the Golden State Warriors and Gerald Wallace once for the Charlotte Bobcats).
"Coaches are smarter to the extent that they're using their entire roster of players, and not only that, developing them," said former Chicago Bulls player and head coach Bill Cartwright, who was also an assistant for the Phoenix Suns and New Jersey Nets in the 2000s. "To me, that's the biggest advantage of any championship team—that your bench is fully developed, your bench is making a contribution."
Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra added, "Coaches want to work in that depth to keep their players as fresh as possible for that stretch run."
In 2012-13, Bulls forward Luol Deng averaged 38.7 minutes per game—the lowest mark for a most-played individual in a season in NBA history. Chris Paul, arguably the best starting point guard in the league, averaged 33.4 minutes last season while missing only 12 regular-season games. Now that Darren Collison is Paul's teammate again—they were together in New Orleans in 2009-10—could the backup point guard steal some minutes from him?
Collison represents the emergence of the competitive second unit, a consequence of the deeper benches.
"I was talking to Al Harrington about starting, not starting (in Washington)," said his longtime trainer Joe Abunassar, who has worked with hundreds of NBA players. "He said, 'I don't mind not starting because Eric Maynor is a great point guard on the second unit.'
"Al's thinking, 'Back in the day, there was no second unit; there were a couple subs.' Even the Pistons teams that won championships (in 1989 and 1990) with Joe Dumars and Isiah (Thomas), they had (Dennis) Rodman and (John) Salley off the bench, and Vinnie Johnson was the guard. It was like a three-guard rotation. That's not the case any more."
The bigger rotations aren't the only reason for the lower player minutes. To gain a deeper perspective, Bleacher Report also spoke with a few other NBA insiders: current Heat and longtime assistant Ron Rothstein, former standout head coach and current TNT broadcaster Mike Fratello, and Dr. Mike Clark, the physical therapist for the Suns for now a 14th season.
Here are other factors behind the trend.
More Rest, Better Recovery
One of the significant effects of deeper benches: allowing players to recover better game to game.
"Not only are you developing your team using your entire roster, but you're also giving your guys more time to rest," Cartwright said. "It's not a sprint, it's a marathon, and the healthier that you can stay during the course of a season, the better."
Clark added, "The less minutes played by these athletes will certainly increase their durability, resilience and longevity because it enhances recovery overall. When you play less minutes, you get less beat up."
Fratello said that like in Major League Baseball, where managers are more protective of their pitchers and use them in fewer innings, NBA coaches have made a more conscious effort to limit their players' minutes. He said that's even happening overseas, where he's been the head coach of the Ukraine national basketball team for the past three summers.
"Now, people are afraid to play guys 42, 44 minutes a night," he said. "It's just part of the times, part of the expanding of the staffs. There are that many more people involved, and you have that many more opinions. And they think this guy will last longer in the NBA if we cut down his minutes to 34, 36 minutes a night."
Along with the minutes decrease, players have the luxury of recuperating with advanced technology and treatment methods. Those aim to help players maintain their minutes—even while lower—more consistently throughout the entire season. Cartwright recalled that when he played for the Bulls and New York Knicks in the 1980s and '90s, a player who hurt his knee would just apply some ice, take some aspirin and then put on a brace for the following game.
He said that's all "completely different today."
"We're smarter in how we train and play," Cartwright said. "It's so unbelievable with what's happening now with how players are being taken care of after the game with the trainers. You've got Jacuzzis, cold tubs, masseuses, oxygen tanks for the guys and cryotherapy that freezes the players. We didn't have any of that when I came into the league."
What fewer minutes, rest and recovery really boil down to, Spoelstra said, is "peaking at the right time before the playoffs."
"That does not mean we're devaluing regular-season games by any stretch of the imagination," he said, "but we want to make sure that they're reaching top physical and mental performance, and hopefully staying relatively healthy as possible."
Bigger and More Diverse Health Staffs
For many years, determining minutes was mostly a collaboration between coaches and management. Now, there are many others involved on the health side in the decision-making process.
With the new advancements available for player recovery has also come the expansion of teams' training, medical and even science staffs. For example, Alex McKechnie was hired as one of the first team directors of sport science in the NBA when he joined the Toronto Raptors in 2011. Fratello said with more personnel working together, "analytics have played a large part" in the decrease in player minutes.
Abunassar, the player trainer, agreed.
"There are so many more people evaluating minutes played and who's tired, who's not tired," he said. "It's like Kevin (Garnett) not playing in back-to-backs (this season). They never did that in the '80s, like with Moses Malone. When they were tired, they were tired. They never did all the (testing) and the body analysis—the stuff that they're going through now.
"Back then, they didn't have six guys on the training staff analyzing the body. Nowadays, every team has one, maybe two, therapists. Now, there's the trainer, the strength coach, a director of performance like in Toronto."
Cartwright said teams also have masseuses and chiropractors, and some, like the Heat, have team doctors for almost anything, including a cardiologist, dermatologist, neurologist and podiatrist.
Clark, the Suns' physical therapist, cited "a very specific specialized form of training that incorporates movement efficiency, manual therapy, physical therapy, sports performance training, nutrition, visual training, sports psychology."
Spoelstra said he and the team's trainers are in "constant communication" pointing out "possible red flags" regarding injuries and creating "specific plans" to help players stay fit, strong and productive.
Clark shed some light on what those plans might entail.
"They implement a systematic injury-prevention and movement-enhancement program, and then overlay that with athletic performance training, and then overlay that with appropriate recovery, like nutrition, hydration, stress management," he said. "Now, you start to see athletes maintain their durability to peak into their later years and still be playing at a very, very high level."
Recall LeBron James' stat line for the ages last season? 26.8 points and 56.5 percent shooting in only 37.9 minutes per game, with the highest player efficiency rating in the NBA (31.7).
While James got a lot of attention for having one of the most efficient campaigns ever, it represented a focus around the league: productivity in fewer minutes. Not only are there more analytics factored in player health, but also in coaching strategy.
"Coaches have found out with many players, you reach a point of diminishing returns," Heat assistant Rothstein said. "Most players, to quote Chuck Daly, 'want 48 minutes and 48 shots,' and they all think that they should be starting and they all think they should be stars. But certain guys, if you play them 24 minutes a night, and then you start playing them 32 minutes a night, their numbers won't increase.
"Coaches have sort of figured out over the long haul, 'OK, we're better if this guy is a limited-minutes guy because some guys are limited-minutes guys.' They don't want to buy it, but the more they're on the court, the more their weaknesses become exposed. And the shorter their stint, the more their strengths are apparent."
Rothstein said those kinds of discussions stem from being able to "watch film and chart everything today."
"This is a whole different world and we can do a whole lot more from a preparation standpoint, technology standpoint," he said.
Rothstein said sometimes coaches have to "bite the bullet" and use their star players more depending on the game situation. But the Heat, led by Spoelstra's direction, always make the point to their players about being effective no matter how long they're on the court.
"It's about making the most of whatever those opportunities are for the benefit of the team," Spoelstra said. "Getting a group of 15 men to buy into that takes an incredible amount of sacrifice. You've got to have the right type of pros who understand the big picture and are in it for the reasons to keep the main thing the main thing, and that's to win. Our guys have done that, and it hasn't been easy."
Cartwight said one of the biggest reasons for increased player protection during the season is because the NBA has grown into a "billion-dollar industry and there's more technology" to enable guys to play at a higher level over a longer period of time.
But some of the players themselves are requesting limited minutes. While teams are taking more precautionary measures because of the higher salaries invested in their rosters, players are also more aware of their longevity and brand image in order to be consistently visible on the court and stay in the league for more years.
"Money changes everything," Rothstein said. "Guys are taking better care of themselves because they're more concerned about the length of their careers and how much money they're making, and they want to pile all of that away. You probably have more guys who have people telling them that you don't want to wear yourself out. Players have expressed to coaches and training staffs that they'd like to limit their minutes. There's a little bit of a herd mentality in everything. One guy sees it and the other guy says, 'Well, if that's good for him, maybe it's good for me too.'"
Fratello said he's finding more players being "content" with logging fewer minutes, which has surprised him a bit. But Cartwright said guys are "simply smarter now" and don't want to risk playing longer minutes, especially when they're feeling some pain.
"We used to play when we were injured all the time," he said. "If you twisted your ankle or your knee swelled up, the next day you're just going to put some tape on it and play. Now, guys are going to take some time off and get themselves back to where they were, so they can play at a very high level. If you look at those old films, guys were bandaged by the end of the season from head to toe, and just playing with whatever was bothering them. Now, they don't do that."
When you watch the Heat's swarming half-court defense, or the Denver Nuggets of last season pushing the ball frenetically, or many more teams going with a small-ball lineup, such as the Knicks last season with Carmelo Anthony at the 4, there's an overall quicker, more athletic and aggressive pace to the game today.
And that's what coaches are looking for—players to get after it even more in fewer minutes.
"In order to play productive minutes, we try to emphasize the intensity of how hard you're playing and not pacing," Spoelstra said. "If you're playing at the intensity level that we would expect, you shouldn't be able to play 45 minutes a game."
In addition, you can point to teams needing a higher defensive output—therefore, a bigger rotation—to counter the new caliber of athletes in the game who run more high pick-and-rolls and spread three-point-shooting schemes, creating the need for opponents to cover ground quickly in a shorter amount of time. Sometimes coaches will need to play more than nine guys in a game to consistently keep the other team's offense in check. Foul trouble can also play a role with trying to contain two or more offensive loads on a team.
"There [used to be] more non-athletic players in the league," Abunassar said. "There are more athletic freaks now, so you can say the athlete has made the game different, which is now making teams play more guys."
Abunassar remembers the summers in the 1990s when players would simply lift weights and play ball.
Nowadays in the offseason, advanced training techniques, intense play in various scrimmages and tournaments and more hoops commitments have taken over, as the NBA has become a more competitive league. Players crave that edge on and off the court, year-round. The coaches are also behind the increased basketball-never-sleeps mentality.
"There's no offseason anymore. Guys are training so hard," Abunassar said. "Also, most teams are asking their guys to come back now like the week after Labor Day. When I started training (in the late '90s), guys would show up on September 25th. We used to go to—Kevin (Garnett), Chauncey (Billups), Joe Smith, Al (Harrington)—to L.A. for like the last month-and-a-half, and stay in Marina del Rey and train out there. Now, in our gym (Impact Basketball), almost everybody is gone by the 10th."
While players are in better shape coming into training camp, the limited summer rest has forced coaching and training staffs to scale back on minutes.
"The days of guys coming into training camp to get in shape are over," Rothstein said. "And I think that has led to the mindset, 'I can't give you everything in 44 minutes that I can give you in 36 minutes.'"
Could Players Log More Minutes?
Clark said there is one key area of training that could help players not only remain healthier, but also potentially play longer minutes. He said it relates to post-playing recovery.
"Everybody could do a much better job on recovery, and recovery is your nutrition," he said. "When you're done with practice or a game or training, you have a 30-minute window opportunity where you can take a sports protein shake. Your body can recover nutritionally very, very quickly, but most athletes don't like that. They just want to get out, practice, shower up and get out of there.
"Also, a lot of guys don't hydrate themselves enough after practice, training or a game. Once you start to become dehydrated, that affects your tissue, flexibility, it affects your recovery, all that stuff. A lot of guys don't go through and re-lengthen their muscles that just got short by either training, practice or the game, so they don't stretch. While a lot of guys are pretty good about icing their knees—getting into the cryotub, sauna, whatever—most guys do not do enough flexibility and tissue laceration at the end of the session."
Spoelstra spoke very highly of James, Ray Allen and Chris Bosh's training regimen and that of Dwyane Wade, calling his season in 2012-13 "his most efficient year offensively." Spoelstra believes that if more players put in the work like the stars he coaches, guys would have no problem staying on the court longer throughout the entire season and, ultimately, their careers.
"I believe the best-conditioned, strong, fittest, most diligent players could still play and log 40-plus minutes," he said. "LeBron, Dwyane and Chris could play more minutes, so it's not like we're really shaving minutes off. I can't tell you how many hours they spend behind the scenes in training and in science and in nutrition to keep their body strong and fit and young."
Just another reason why the Heat are the two-time defending champs—and projected to three-peat.
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