This was the year things were maybe, possibly, going to be different for Tom Thibodeau, the Timberwolves and their bench.
The Wolves had a wafer-thin bench in 2016-17, and it cost them countless times a disappointing 31-51 season. Minnesota’s reserves played the fewest minutes and scored the fewest points of any team last season.
This offseason, Minnesota added Jamal Crawford to the bench, while the signing of Taj Gibson pushed Gorgui Dieng to the bench as well. Shabazz Muhammad re-signed late, adding to the depth. Add in Nemanja Bjelica and Tyus Jones and the Wolves had the look of a team that could easily go 10 deep and give starters a much-needed rest.
The depth wasn’t perfect, but it was improved. Head coach Tom Thibodeau, known in past years for playing his starters heavy minutes, seemed at least to have more reserves he could trust.
But here we are, 24 games into this season, and very little has changed. Minnesota’s bench production is still dismal (26th in points scored per game), largely because Minnesota’s reserves are once again playing a league-low 13.4 minutes per game — leaving almost 35 minutes, per game, on average for the starters.
Sure, the Wolves have been dinged by a few nagging player absences. Jimmy Butler missed a pair of games early. Dieng missed three, while Jeff Teague missed four. Bjelica has missed the last six. Along the way, Muhammad has struggled mightily to the point that he’s been a healthy DNP (did not play) twice recently and hasn’t topped seven minutes in any of the last three games he played.
With Muhammad struggling and Bjelica out Sunday, Thibodeau used just eight players in a win over the depleted Clippers. All five starters played at least 35 minutes, which isn’t surprising.
Are you ready for this? All five players in Minnesota’s typical starting lineup are in the top 40 in terms of average minutes played per game this season. Andrew Wiggins is tied for third (37 minutes), Butler is seventh (36.5), Karl-Anthony Towns is 20th (34.5), Teague is 28th (34) and Gibson is 40th (32.9).
Only one other NBA team even has three starters in the top 40 — New Orleans, with Jrue Holiday, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis.
This is the continuation of a pattern with Thibodeau, and a reputation he has earned. Starting with 2011-12, his second season in Chicago, in his last five full seasons coached in the NBA his teams have never finished higher than 25th in bench minutes. The Wolves are well on their way to making it six in a row.
That’s a pattern. Thibodeau clearly identifies players he trusts, and he uses them heavily. The more important question then becomes: Is that a bad thing?
Some have blamed Derrick Rose’s injuries on heavy minutes logged for Thibodeau early on in Chicago. That said, it’s hard to say whether there is legitimate cause-effect or if that is just a convenient retroactive narrative to use by those who don’t like Thibodeau and/or his methods.
When you are in the flow of a game is there really much difference between playing, say, 37 and 32 minutes — particularly for the young Wiggins and Towns or the relentless Butler?
I mean, I legitimately don’t know. It would seem to be a bad idea to play these guys so much on the front end of back-to-back games (the Wolves are in Memphis on Monday after Sunday’s heavy minutes), but just last week all starters played at least 37 minutes against Washington and the Wolves routed the Pelicans the next night.
LeBron James has averaged nearly 39 minutes per game over the course of his career and is once again leading the league this season. Good players play a lot. The Wolves have a lot of good players.
As noted in a previous post, the Wolves have assembled a remarkably durable group of players. Where this becomes most troubling is if players start to break down (beyond the minor stuff so far this season) for long stretches, calling into question both their workload and the perilous depth of the team.
If Muhammad is a scratch, Bjelica is hurt and Thibodeau doesn’t want to play anyone else, the rotation is about as tight as it can be right now.
It would be nice if the Wolves could get 30 minutes a night from their bench wings so Butler and Wiggins “only” had to combine for the other 66. It might be smart to go with more of a 30/18 split with Teague and Jones, particularly after Tyus showed he could handle the increased workload (39 minutes or more in three straight games) when Teague was out.
But maybe you can’t have everything you want and still have a 14-10 record at this point? We’ll probably find out a lot more in the next 58 games.