He’s at it again.
For almost the entirety of his coaching career, Tom Thibodeau has been a lightning rod when it comes to his rotation management. After playing Jimmy Butler 80 total minutes on a back-to-back at the start of this month then leaving emerging star Karl-Anthony Towns in for 48 minutes during an overtime loss to Philadelphia this past Tuesday, Thibodeau once again opened himself up for criticism. But with the league entering a new frontier when it comes to monitoring player health and performance, the critique of Thibodeau’s approach isn’t as straightforward as we think.
Over the past few seasons, the NBA and it’s very sharp fans have been part of a “rest revolution.” Fascinating pieces about the importance of sleep seem to come out annually now. For some fans, hearing the word ‘Catapult’ doesn’t make you think of the Middle Ages. And of course, Gregg Popovich’s indie band-esque disregard for a win-at-all-costs mentality became mainstream. Because of Pop, DNP-Fake Excuse turned into DNP-Rest in nightly box scores. Though a few curmudgeonly holdouts like Jeff Van Gundy still wax on about the good ole’ days when players weren’t treated like precious cargo, more people around basketball began to understand the importance of rest during the NBA’s marathon 82-game season.
(Quick aside: I always find it ironic that some of the loudest opponents of this shift are former players who state their opinions while dealing bad backs, creaky knees and generally broken bodies that a direct result of playing during a period when no one care about this stuff).
After seeing his tenure in Chicago end in part due to a cascade of injuries to worn down stalwarts like Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and, of course, Derrick Rose, one would think Thibodeau would approach his next job with more caution. Yet if this December is any indication, Thibodeau has clearly not evolved with the times. Jimmy Butler is averaging the second-most minutes per game of his career. Taj Gibson, now 32, is averaging a career high. Towns is spending nearly 40 minutes a game on an NBA floor so far in December.
If more minutes and less rest is bad, Thibodeau is the worst (.....when it comes to creating an atmosphere of optimal health and performance). It should be cut and dried that those criticizing him are within their right to do so. But pull back the curtain on what’s going on in the NBA and it that’s not so clear.
To understand why, it’s best to begin with examining the role these minute tallies play in the grand scheme of this debate. For a lot of people, it’s the starting and end point. Five years ago, I was one of those people. But now older and wiser, I realize that crying “minutes” and letting slip the dogs of fatigue is only took into account a tiny part of all the things that go into injury prevention and performance when it comes to NBA athletes.
For starters, all minutes are not equal. A couple weeks ago, I was in Chicago to catch LeBron James and the Cavaliers smash the Bulls by 22 points. James played 34 minutes during a blowout -- something that seems unnecessary. But it was clear that James was hardly expending all his energy and intensity during his time on the floor (and as a testament to his insane talent, he still had 23 points, seven rebounds and six assists). There have been and will be times when James plays a similar minutes total but expends far more energy.
The problem for the NBA, is that there isn’t currently a (legal) way of scientifically measuring what those in the performance industry to refer to as “load” -- the term used in reference to the stress the body accrues during exercise/training or, in this case, competition. Right now, only G-League teams can use devices that monitor load during games. If NBA teams had access to data like this (and whoa boy are there ethical dilemmas that’d come with it), it’d create an avenue for them to better understand where James’ physical state was on a nightly basis. And in an overly simplistic explanation, those 34 minutes James played at half-speed could have been the equivalent of a jog around the track to most of us. This just part of the problem of seeing a high minutes tally as a catch-all for negligence (or whatever you call what Thibs is doing).
The other part is that you need to find that playing time into context with everything else the team is doing. Though NBA performance staffs can’t currently monitor load in games, most (and probably all at this point) are using some type of tool to measure it during everything else their athletes do with the team (workouts, lifts, practices, etc). Combined with sleep data and general physical assessments, good franchises put a lot into painting a clear picture of a player’s day-to-day state.
So now let’s tackle Butler’s 80 minutes over the course of roughly 24 hours from a couple weeks ago. How he’s handled before and after that stretch makes a difference in assessing the risk of playing Butler that much in those games. If Thibodeau doesn’t have Butler practicing and the team’s performance staff (and Butler himself) are on top of his recovery process, playing 80 high intensity minutes in a short time isn’t great, but it’s manageable. I’m not saying that’s how the Wolves are operating, merely pointing out that there is a world where 80 total minutes during a back-to-back isn’t quite as bad as it now seems.
The final thing to remember in this debate is that every player responds differently to their minutes load -- something teams can (sort of) identify with those performance tracking tools -- due to outside factors. Butler’s genetic makeup, general fitness level/training capacity and, most importantly, stress management all feed into his ability to maintain performance and stay healthy during these rigorous stretches. And those factors mean that Butler responds differently to how Thibodeau doles out minutes than Towns or Gibson or do. That means that Thibodeau’s extreme rotation management would not be as damaging as it seems with the right setup.
This type of setup would essentially mean that the Wolves' heavy minutes players, rarely if ever participate in high intensity activity outside of actual games. It would also mean the days the team has off, Butler and the rest of big minute players are in a well-tuned recovery routine prepared specifically to get them through periods where acute loading can cause injuries and/or impair performance. It’d be highly unorthodox in the NBA world (and would require a big commitment from how players manage their personal lives as well), but it could work. Maybe not for Thibs, but someone else (A big flaw in this approach is that you obviously minimize windows for practices).
The problem with Thibodeau is that we’re not sure how exactly things are being handled behind the scenes. We see the minutes, read and hear stories of his past style in Chicago and assume, maybe rightly so, that his grinding approach is going to wear players down and/or contribute to injuries. The problem, however, is that not every situation where heavy minute totals are involved means it’s a precursor to a meltdown.