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Tom Thibodeau Should Probably Be Playing More Than Eight Guys in Early December

The Timberwolves coach is notorious for burning out his best players, and he’s showing no signs of changing that approach in his second season in Minnesota. Pray for Jimmy Butler.

Jimmy Butler Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

With 1:37 left in the Timberwolves’ matchup with the Grizzlies on Monday night, Jimmy Butler lay flat on Memphis’s FedEx Forum court, trying to catch his breath.

Butler had just been knocked to the ground by Andrew Harrison, earning a trip to the line with the Wolves down three points. When he finally stepped to the stripe, Butler’s hands stayed on his knees for five long seconds, forcing the referee to wait with the ball. He sank both free throws, but the Wolves fell short 95–92. Butler played 40 minutes on the night, marking the fourth time this season his minutes had crept into the 40s.

It was a snapshot of Butler’s relentless effort — and a reminder of who his head coach is. Tom Thibodeau, now in his second season in Minnesota, is once again running his best players into the ground, and the Wolves — who played just eight guys Monday — are starting to show signs that fatigue may be affecting them more than the growing pains of a reshuffled roster are.

Here’s a fact: The Wolves’ starting lineup of Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and Karl-Anthony Towns has played a total of 484 minutes together this season in 19 games. The next most-used lineup in the NBA — the Detroit Pistons’ starting unit — has played 145 minutes fewer than the Wolves’ lineup, in 20 games.

When averaged out, the Timberwolves’ starting unit plays a whopping 25.5 minutes together each game. The second-, third-, and fourth-most-used lineups are all below a 19-minute average. Those three non-Wolves lineups — the Wizards, Clippers, and Hornets — have all been forced to overcompensate at some point this season because of an injury to a key player. Guess which team owns the fifth-most-used lineup behind them? Swap out Butler for Shabazz Muhammad and you’ve got yourself a winner. I can keep going, but you get the point.

Here’s another fact: 40 players this season are averaging 33 minutes or more per game. Four of them — more than any other team — play for the Wolves. Wiggins, Towns, Butler, and the 32-year-old Gibson have all already played more than 800 total minutes this season, which puts them all among the 15 most-used players so far. That’s neither normal nor ideal.

There’s a constant tug-of-war that seems to follow Thibodeau wherever he goes. On one side, Thibs feels the need to keep his rotations tight in order to execute at a high level and grind out wins. On the other side, there’s a rationale and mounting information — backed by the league itself — that shows how important health, rest, and recovery is to NBA players.

Thibs’s never-stop-working mentality is well documented. When Luol Deng averaged a career-high 39.4 minutes per game in Chicago during the 2011–12 season, his post–All-Star break numbers declined in points, rebounds, and assists per game, as well as field goal percentage and 3-point percentage. Last season under Thibs, both Wiggins and Towns were the only two players to play more than 3,000 minutes; both regressed defensively in the second half of the season. This season the Wolves defense is already feeling the fatigue. In the first 15 games, they were allowing 106.8 points per 100 possessions. In the past 10 games — six of which have been at home, and only one of which came against a top-10 offense — that number is 109.9.

The deeper you dig into Thibodeau’s new-look roster, the more you understand why he would stick to this strategy. The Wolves starters have a net rating of 6.8, but the bench is a disheartening minus-8. You can argue that a lack of depth is more on the front office than the coaching staff … except, Thibodeau, the team’s president of basketball operations, is in charge there, too.

During crunch time in Monday night’s game against Memphis, TV cameras showed the five Wolves starters on the bench, visibly exhausted and catching their breath. At one point, Taj Gibson patted Towns’s knee as if to give an encouragement through a gesture instead of having to muster up the energy to speak. After the loss, Thibodeau called out the team’s defense. Butler — who, despite being pushed to the limit in Chicago under Thibodeau, is cut from the same sandpaper as his coach — had issued a similar critique just a week before that.

Locking in on defense is hard enough, let alone doing it for 40 minutes. The Wolves, at 14–11 overall, are currently fifth in the West, and they’ll likely be fighting to stay in that space until the playoffs arrive. We’ll see if Thibodeau’s starters can make it that far.