With his team nursing a 94-86 lead in the waning moments of last night’s game against Philadelphia, Chicago center Joakim Noah crouched low on the left block as Evan Turner attempted the second of two free throws. As the ball arced toward the rim, Philly’s backup center, the lumbering Spencer Hawes, took one step toward the baseline, spun off his left foot, and put Noah onto his back.
It was an odd sight considering the state of unrelenting fervor Noah brings to the court, but it’s hard to find Noah at fault for the momentary letdown. The play came as Noah was putting the finishing touches on his sixth outing in the past 12 days in which he’s played at least 41 minutes. In fact, in back-to-back games against the Clippers and Sixers, Noah played a staggering 87 minutes, raising his season average to a mind-boggling 40.1 — a number that no big man has put up since Tim Duncan averaged 40.6 during the 2001-02 season.
With the absence of Derrick Rose, this type of usage has been born out of desperation. Last year, a deep Bulls bench featuring Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Omer Asik, and C.J. Watson went a long way toward picking up the slack as Rose missed 27 games with an assortment of injuries. This year, those four all have new addresses, a product of the Bulls’ offseason effort to cut costs. They’ve been replaced by an assortment of bargain-priced veterans and unproven young players. Though there have been some surprising developments — most notably the steady play of second-year wing Jimmy Butler and Warriors castoff Nate Robinson — the bench is still significantly lacking compared to a year ago.
The responsibility to keep the team afloat as it waits for Rose’s return has seemingly been heaped onto Noah. With the shortcomings of Carlos Boozer and the only big-man alternative being the ancient Nazr Mohammed, the mobile and skilled Florida product has been invaluable for the Bulls so far this season. From his high-post passing to his non-stop motor, Noah has played well enough to merit some serious All-Star consideration and deserves a lion’s share of the credit for the team’s 12-9 start to the season. The problem is the long-term effects of this excess playing time.
Since the 2007-08 season, just five other big men have averaged more than even 37 minutes per contest. That’s the same season the Celtics won a title thanks to suffocating defensive schemes employed by current Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, then an assistant for Celtics. As it would happen in a copycat league, the following season saw Thibodeau’s philosophy became commonplace throughout the NBA, with more teams adhering to tactics that required post players to expend far more energy on the defensive end of the floor. This was a shift from the isolation-heavy era of the '90s and early '00s that allowed players like Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon to rack up a colossal amount of minutes.
You would think, being the man behind such a taxing system, that Thibodeau, of all coaches, would be acutely aware of the toll such heavy minutes could take on an injury-prone big man. Yet with Milwaukee and Indiana both nipping at Chicago’s heels in the Central Division, Noah’s minutes will likely stay consistent. They could even increase as the season wears on and the stakes get higher.
Noah isn’t the only one who has been asked to carry a heavy burden so far this season. Forward Luol Deng is also averaging a career high in minutes at 41.0 per game. Deng isn’t elite at any one thing, but after watching the Bulls for just a few minutes, it’s easy to understand the temptation Thibodeau feels to leave him on the floor for such extensive amounts of time.
If Noah is Thibodeau’s security blanket in the frontcourt, Deng is his Swiss Army knife. On offense, Deng can be called upon to act as a screener, ball handler, spot-up shooter, or post threat with equal proficiency, sometimes even on the same possession. At the other end of the floor, he is a prototypical Thibodeau player — sure in his assignments, excellent in help positioning, and effective on the ball. Perhaps the only flaw Deng has in his head coach’s eyes is that he isn’t a cyborg who doesn’t tire.
Given their impact, it’s perfectly clear why Thibodeau would keep Deng and Noah on the floor as much as possible. It’s the best way for the Bulls to continue to win games until Rose returns. But as Henry Abbott of ESPN.com explored in January, an approach like this comes with a price:
The question is, if you're Mike Brown or Tom Thibodeau, how many minutes can you expect all those Kobe Bryants and Luol Dengs to endure on their way to a title?
The answer appears to be: Not as many as you might think.
Even though I looked strictly at the three players with the heaviest minutes on title teams, we didn't find many players logging crazy minutes. Over the last 20 years, this group has averaged 2,706 minutes per 82-game season, or 33 minutes a game.
Right now, the Bulls top three of Noah, Deng, and Boozer average 37.0 minutes per game, putting them on pace for 3,034 regular-season minutes. According to Abbott’s research, over the past eight years (another period with significance since it coincided with Mike D’Antoni bringing the spread pick-and-roll to the NBA) the number of teams whose top three contributors played more than 3,000 minutes and won a title was zero.
Since the unofficial public sentiment is that this season is a lost cause given Rose’s absence, it may strike some as odd to worry about the negative ramifications that would result from the continued overuse of Deng and Noah. But given how quickly fortunes can change in the NBA, no season should ever be considered "lost," especially for a team like Chicago that is on the cusp of contention.
As the 2011 Mavericks proved, championship windows for talented but overlooked teams can open up without warning thanks to simple luck. That summer, Dallas’s shooters got hot at the right time and the best team in the conference that year (San Antonio) was upset in the first round. The reigning champion Lakers imploded against the Mavs a round later, and LeBron James followed that up with his memorable disappearing act in the Finals. Because Dallas managed their minutes well during the regular season, they were in a position to take advantage of some good fortune come playoff time.
It’s because of this that Thibodeau’s minutes allocations shouldn’t be brushed aside because of Rose’s absence. Given the fact that the Eastern Conference appears surprisingly open with Miami’s up-and-down play, is it really impossible to imagine a scenario in which the Bulls, aided by a return from their star point guard, find themselves in a position to make some noise in the playoffs?
As the team experienced with Rose’s injury last season, title hopes can end (and arise) in the blink of an eye. If the Bulls are to be the ones to capitalize, Thibodeau must reevaluate his current commitment to using Noah and Deng at all costs.