By Bryan Toporek
All things considered, the Minnesota Timberwolves must be pleased with how they’ve fared so far this season. Even after coughing up a nine-point fourth-quarter lead against the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday and suffering a 118-112 overtime loss at home, they’re sitting fourth in the Western Conference at 16-12, a half-game ahead of the Denver Nuggets and only three games behind the third-seeded San Antonio Spurs. Jimmy Butler has shaken off his slow start to the season—as evidenced by his season-high 38-point eruption against Philadelphia—and Minnesota’s starting lineup is outscoring opponents by 3.5 points per 100 possessions, the 10th-best mark in the NBA.
There’s one big problem, though: Head coach Tom Thibodeau has next to no faith in his bench.
Heading into Tuesday, Jimmy Butler sat fourth leaguewide in minutes per game (37.1), while Andrew Wiggins (36.9) and Karl-Anthony Towns (34.9) weren’t far behind. All five of the Timberwolves’ starters ranked among the top 50 in the NBA in minutes per game, while no reserve was averaging more than Jamal Crawford’s 17.6 minutes per night. Coincidence or not, Minnesota sits dead last in fourth-quarter net rating this season, per NBA.com, allowing opponents to outscore it by 11.5 points per 100 possessions over that final period.
Against Philadelphia, that Achilles’ heel reared its ugly head once again.
All five of the Timberwolves’ starters played at least 38 minutes in the overtime loss, and all but starting point guard Jeff Teague topped the 40-minute threshold. Meanwhile, only three players made it off Minnesota’s bench—Tyus Jones, Gorgui Dieng and Jamal Crawford—and they combined for a paltry 11 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in 53 minutes. Philadelphia, meanwhile, rolled out four of its reserves for at least 15 minutes, and the Sixers bench chipped in 28 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists, four steals and three triples.
Thibodeau has long embraced a starter-heavy rotation dating back to his early days with the Chicago Bulls, which served him well at first but came back to haunt him in his later years with that franchise. As Drew Mahowald noted at Canis Hoopus this past March, a Bulls player lead the league in minutes per game in four straight seasons from 2011-12 through 2014-15. According to Steve Aschburner, Thibodeau’s distribution of playing time contributed to his acrimonious departure from Chicago, as general manager Gar Forman and team vice president John Paxson grew increasingly agitated with his insistence on regularly handing starters a heavy minutes load.
In Minnesota, Thibodeau is both the head coach and the head of the basketball department, which should (theoretically) cut down on any behind-the-scenes drama regarding his minutes distribution. Tension may be bubbling between him and the players, though.
Butler recently told sideline reporter Marney Gellner that the “40-minute [games] are starting to add up,” according to Ben Rohrbach of Ball Don’t Lie. Andrew Wiggins deflected concern over his playing time, telling reporters, “I’m only 22. I can run forever.” Forebodingly, however, he added, “For now.”
Conventional wisdom in the NBA has shifted in recent years toward giving players more rest whenever possible. Sure, stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Damian Lillard sit atop the minutes-played leaderboard, but most of their teammates are playing far fewer minutes. If Thibodeau doesn’t embrace the strides being made leaguewide toward overuse-injury prevention, he may jeopardize the Timberwolves’ chances of making real noise in the playoffs come April.
Kawhi Leonard is Back
By Jesse Blanchard
For the first time since the first game of the 2017 Western Conference Finals, the San Antonio Spurs were complete…and they weren’t.
Kawhi Leonard returned to the court against the Dallas Mavericks, knocking down his first three shots and showing glimpses of his MVP play from last season. His first shot of the night was a reminder of the improvement of his handle and ability to navigate the pick-and-roll, setting his defender up to get downhill and create space for a pull-up jumper:
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) December 13, 2017
The length, balance and footwork showed little ill-effect from the layoff, getting an early jab-and-go series into a driving hook that would surely had Tim Duncan knocking over a potted plant from where he was watching.
Meanwhile, in Dallas, Kawhi is back and already just messing with mortal humans pic.twitter.com/Qfal7LJl2Z
— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) December 13, 2017
But this is a process. Kawhi Leonard’s jump shot still holds steady under duress, no matter how he deploys it; but some of the lift and burst were lacking on the turnarounds and drives that made him unstoppable during last year’s playoffs.
Leonard was obviously winded at times, even if his long arms make his tugging on his shorts less obvious. Conditioning is so much of what makes Kawhi special, staying locked in on both sides of the court for all his minutes without his decisions or shot form degrading.
Still, 13 points on 6-for-12 shooting with six rebounds, an assist, a steal and a block in limited minutes has to be reassuring for San Antonio, even if it will take some time to reincorporate the player they’re literally built around.
Kawhi Leonard is going to occupy real estate on the court and possessions others have made wonderful use of in his absence, as he should. There were questions about how LaMarcus Aldridge’s renaissance might fair with Leonard back, but his 23 points (on 9-for-23 shooting) and 13 rebounds indicate he’ll be fine.
It will be the likes of Pau Gasol, Danny Green, Tony Parker or Patty Mills who will have to work the most around Leonard’s return. The Spurs have done more than survive without Leonard, building a rhythm and finding stability.
Leonard’s return, bringing high usage in what will be, for now, limited minutes, might disrupt that continuity some. But it’s a wonderful thing to work through.
The Spurs are complete once more (give or take a Kyle Anderson). It’s only a matter of time before they’re more than that.