Tom Thibodeau is used to being asked if he might be playing guys too many minutes.
Last year, it was Luol Deng who led the league in minutes per game. Recently, Joakim Noah has logged 43.6 minutes over the past five contests.
On Friday at the Berto Center, Thibodeau finally decided to have some fun with the topic.
“It’s never the right amount of minutes, that’s the only thing I do know,” Thibodeau said. “If a guy’s not playing big minutes, it’s not enough minutes. If a guy’s playing big minutes, it’s too many minutes. I don’t know. You play to win. That’s the thing. What gives you the best chance to win?”
Deng once again leads the league in minutes played, with Noah a close second. How many is too many? No one really knows for sure, but there’s always room to speculate.
“Here’s the thing. I sat on the opposing bench when Phil (Jackson) was coaching the Bulls,” Thibodeau said. “I used to sit there and say, ‘When’s he going to take those guys out?’ I don’t want to see them on the floor. He never did.
“Same thing with Pop (San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich). We played them in the Finals in ’99. (Tim) Duncan never came out. So, who knows? I think there’s more scrutiny all around.”
Thibodeau was on the New York Knicks coaching staff in 1999 and they lost to the Spurs in five games.
The last four Bulls games have been two sets of back-to-backs, and both times Noah played a combined 87 minutes in just over 24 hours. He’s not counting along.
“As a player, you want to be out there on the court,” Noah said. “You don’t really ask to get subbed out as a player. I guess it’s a little bit different for you guys, because you guys write stories and stuff.”
Yes, sometimes reporters ask to get subbed out, but we tend to be older than most NBA players. Thibodeau used the age argument when initially confronted with Noah’s 44-minute per game pace.
“It doesn’t matter. He’s in his 20s … Jesus,” Thibodeau said. “Who knows? If you study film, the best players have always played high 30s, low 40s — mid-40s in the playoffs.”
The trend in recent years has been to play big guys less. Guards and small forwards tend to lead the league in minutes played. Kevin Garnett last averaged 40 minutes over a full season in 2002-03; Duncan in 2001-02.
It wasn’t always that way. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell rank 1-2 in average minutes per game over a career. Chamberlain, who hated to come out of games early in his career, averaged a whopping 48.5 minutes in 1961-62 and once went the distance in 47 consecutive games.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar averaged at least 40 minutes in his first seven NBA seasons, with a high of 44.2. Vin Baker, Jeff Ruland, Buck Williams and Moses Malone have all led league in minutes played.
“Usually, I feel pretty bad after the games, but we’ve had a couple days off,” Noah said. “Yeah, I’m enjoying it. You learn what works for you. I kind of know what I need to do to get prepared for a game. It’s not easy. Sleep is the most important.”
At least Noah has the right idea: Get some sleep before Brooklyn.
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