Recently, public opinion of Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has begun to swing towards the negative, specifically his handling of player minutes and the assertation that he runs his players into the ground. While it can’t be argued that Thibodeau plays his team hard, one must be left wondering why the thing we’ve been praising him for is now suddenly his biggest weakness (and, potentially, the downfall of his tenure as the head coach of the Bulls). Most unfairly to Thibodeau, the entire discussion seems to paint him as either a heartless, results-oriented monster trying to kill his players or as god-king, impervious to criticism and second-guessing. He’s being held up as an avatar of over-working, the yin to Gregg Popovich’s conservative, player friendly yang, and not a basketball coach who is simply trying to do the thing he was hired to do: win basketball games. More broadly, I believe there are several logical flaws in the sort of criticisms we’ve come to see of Thibodeau’s dreaded minute load.
The first of these is the idea that Thibodeau somehow invented playing his guys major minutes. How recently did playing someone 40 minutes a game become taboo? LeBron James did such for four consecutive seasons during his Cavs tenure, and while he’s certainly not a fair standard to hold opposing players to, he’s also not alone. Kevin Durant has led the league in minutes played twice, and played at least 38.9 mpg in three of his first four seasons. Paul George played nearly 38 minutes a game this season, and plays more per game (36.2) than Thibodeau’s new alleged whipping boy, Jimmy Butler (35.1). The fact that these three players have generally been healthier over their careers than the recently traded Luol Deng is not an excuse to ignore their minutes totals, if one is dead set upon crucifying Tom Thibodeau upon the altar of player safety. Larry Bird was playing 39 minutes a game well after his back became a problem.
Their coaches play them because, unsurprisingly, they give them a better chance to win. This leads me to the second false premise, that Tom Thibodeau played Deng huge minutes out of malice, masochism or even just neglect, and not because Luol Deng was (and is) a good player, especially in Thibodeau’s defense, which generally requires an aggressive wing defender to alleviate pressure on the big men in the pick and roll. Deng was active enough and strong enough to contain the seams opened up by the over-rotation that is a built in feature of this defense. Besides that, he’s a smart player, a true pro’s pro with a proven calming effect upon his teammates. The perfect counterpoint to the fiery intensity of Joakim Noah. How can we praise Thibodeau for getting the most out of his teams if we will simultaneously demonify him for playing good players? Deng’s reputation as an injury prone player is slightly overblown (he played in all 82 games in 2010-11 while averaging 39.1 minutes per game). Had he not elected not to have surgery on the torn ligament in his wrist and sat out the 2012 Summer Olympics, we might be singing a different tune about a player who has been proven to be one of the league’s preeminent iron men. It is also worth noting that Deng was considered fragile and broken before Thibodeau’s arrival, primarily due to his missing the latter stages of the 2008-2009 with an undiagnosed stress fracture in his leg.
All of this is not to say that there aren’t some major flaws in Thibodeau’s rotations. There always have been. He seems to think it illegal to make substitutions in the last five minutes of a game, and he very much seems to fail to anticipate potential overtime scenarios, as best evidence in Jimmy Butler’s recent 60 minute game. Coming into the final few minutes, Butler had played the entire second half, a situation which seemingly would have been ignored had the Bulls not failed to close out the Magic in regulation. Had Thibodeau sat Butler for a few minutes in the early 4th, the entire thing might have been avoided. Of course, the Bulls might also have lost, as they are being outscored by 2.3 points per 48 minutes with Butler on the bench, and his 5.3 net rating is second on the team behind the sparingly used Cartier Martin.
This leads me to perhaps the most misunderstood aspect surrounding Tom Thibodeau’s minutes allocation: the depth of his rotations. In the aforementioned 2010-11 season, where the Bulls rocketed to a number one seed, a 62-20 record, and Coach of the Year honors for Thibodeau, only four players logged more than 30 minutes per game: Deng (39.1), Derrick Rose (37.4), Joakim Noah (32.8), and Carlos Boozer (31.9). Four more players (Kurt Thomas, Ronnie Brewer, Taj Gibson, and Kyle Korver) averaged at least 20 minutes per contest, while James Johnson, C.J. Watson, and Omer Asik tallied at least 10. Eleven players in all averaged at least 10 minutes a game. Last season, during which the Bulls faced “crippling injury woes” and a “depleted roster,” only three players reached the 30 minute per game mark (Deng, Noah, and Boozer). Six players (Kirk Hinrich, Butler, Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson, Taj Gibson, and Richard Hamilton) tallied at least 20 minutes per contest, and Nazr Mohammed played 11, leaving the total of players in double figures at 10, one less than the Eastern Conference Finals juggernaut of years past. Minutes are one thing, but how about games played? In 2011, 8 players logged at least 80 games played, a remarkably high number. In 2011-12, the lockout season, 6 players played at least 60 of the 66 games. Last season, 5 players played at least 70 games. This season, 7 players have played in at least 35 of the team’s 42 games. So, sure, the Bulls have suffered through more injuries than they did in Thibodeau’s first season, but is that his fault, or is it simply the fault of trying to live up to the standards of an incredibly lucky and healthy first season? If Thibodeau’s first year had seen his team riddled with injuries, would we care? His teams have played roughly the same number of players the same amount in all four of his seasons at the helm.
So what separates these teams? What one factor was present in 2011 and not in 2013? What turned the Bulls from a promising young contender to a group of wounded warriors pulled across the finish line by their demented drill sergeant of a head coach (WAR METAPHORS!)? Could it be the fluke injury of Derrick Rose? An injury that, when it occurred, saw nearly the entirety of the NBA blogosphere to leap to Thibodeau’s defense when he was accused of overplaying his MVP? Injuries are, by their very nature, binary sorts of things. They either happen, or they don’t. Correlation does not imply causation, but does it imply the need for change? As I said before, Thibodeau’s rotations can be problematic. Joakim Noah’s plantar fasciitis would have happened if he were playing 10 minutes a game. Assuredly, playing his teams as though every game is a playoff game is as much of an advantage in the regular season as it is a relative disadvantage in the postseason. What blame lies upon the Bulls training staff? If these players are truly injured, why are they routinely cleared to play? When presented with a minutes limit, Thibodeau has shown to be both receptive and respectful. Furthermore, his practices are described to err on the lighter side. Perhaps most importantly, not a single player has yet to complain or speak out. If Thibodeau was the ruthless taskmaster his critics would have you believe, wouldn’t someone have spoken out by now? Or is it more likely that we’ve allowed the crushing letdown of Rose’s knee woes color our perceptions and leave us looking for someone to blame other than the random, blameless cruelty of the universe. Al Horford has suffered two similar shoulder injuries. Do we blame Larry Drew and Mike Budenholzer for overplaying him? Injuries happen, and whether or not the NBA needs to shorten the season is a discussion for another time. If things had played out differently, we might never have questioned Tom Thibodeau at all. Correlation does not equal causation, and causation is never a certainty.