Bulls’ front office has no problem with how coach Tom Thibodeau allocates minutes
BY JOE COWLEY firstname.lastname@example.org April 24, 2013 10:37PM
Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah (13) tries to block Brooklyn Nets forward Reggie Evans (30) in the first half of Game 2 of their first-round NBA basketball playoff series, Monday, April 22, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
There was an uncomfortable
smirk on Bulls coach Tom Thibo-
deau’s face before the question even was finished. It was clear he rather would talk about something — anything — else.
But questions about minutes played and what effects they might have on player injuries are unavoidable in the NBA these days, especially where Thibodeau is concerned.
Derrick Rose has missed the entire season while recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee suffered in the first round of the playoffs last season. Joakim Noah recently
returned to action after plantar fasciitis in his right foot forced him to miss 12 games in late March and early April. Taj Gibson is fresh off a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee that has him playing in a brace.
At one point two weeks ago, Rose, Noah, Gibson and Luol Deng all were in street clothes in back-to-back games.
Bad luck or bad pacing of his team? Thibodeau has heard both going back to last season.
‘‘Show me the science,’’ one NBA official said last weekend. ‘‘It’s nothing more than the newest witch hunt.’’
In the same way pitch counts have consumed major-league coaching staffs in recent years, minutes played is a growing concern from those outside the NBA bubble. That’s why Thibodeau has an almost-defiant approach to the question. His attitude almost mirrored that of the NBA official: Show him the science.
‘‘There’s a lot more scrutiny today of everything,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘ ‘This guy doesn’t play enough. This guy plays too much.’ That goes with the territory. You do what you think is right. It’s easy to work backwards, but pacing a team is important. If you’re young, you play.
‘‘What people have to understand is it all depends on where you are with your team, whether you’re a young team or an old team. How you pace your team is important. . . . I mean, if you look at Tim Duncan, everybody talks about him now, but when he was younger, he was playing 41 minutes a game. You look at [Michael] Jordan and [Scottie] Pippen, they were big-minutes guys. That was always intended in Phil [Jackson’s] coaching — to always keep two of his three best players on the court at all times. Each team is different.’’
Lost in the accusations about Thibodeau is that he has looked at the science — the science that’s available, at least.
Before becoming the Bulls’ coach, he was an assistant with the Boston Celtics, who were one of the first NBA franchises to
embrace basketball analytics. General manager Gar Forman is quick to point out that the Bulls have an analytics department and that minutes played in correlation with injuries is studied.
‘‘It’s hard to generalize,’’ Forman said. ‘‘Different players’ minutes will affect [things in] different ways, so it’s hard to generalize that assumption in whole. We have studied that. I mean, different body types, different years, how many years you’ve played, the age, all those things are factored in.’’
What every team agrees on is that bigger players must have their minutes monitored more.
‘‘It’s still somewhat of a general assumption, [but] big-framed guys have a tendency to have more injuries,’’ Forman said.
And from everything the Bulls have come up with, they are fully behind how Thibodeau hands out playing time.
‘‘In our scenario, Tom paces the team throughout the year, and we think he does a good job at that,’’ Forman said.
If there is one Bulls player who should have concerns about minutes played, it would be Deng. Since Thibodeau took over as the Bulls’ coach three years ago, Deng twice has led the NBA in minutes played per game.
‘‘I don’t know why so many people think about it,’’ Deng said. ‘‘Whenever you play, you play. Whenever you’re out there, you’re out there. You just be a professional and go out there.’’
The good news for the NBA is that science might be catching up. SportVU, an optical tracking technology, is starting to find its way into the league. Its selling point is that it allows teams to understand how quickly players get fatigued, as well as how much their productivity drops when they hit that point. The idea is to restrict players’ minutes, depending on how they test.
For now, though, it’s about feel, communication between player and training staff and common sense.
‘‘Anybody can get injured,’’ Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler said. ‘‘You don’t have to be ‘the old guy’ or the guy with a lot of minutes.
‘‘We’re professionals. You take care of your body the right way, you do what you’re supposed to be doing off the court, get the right rest, all of that limits the chances of getting injured.’’
Then Butler laughed.
‘‘And hope for a whole lot of luck,’’ he said.