Evolve or die.
Human beings are constantly evolving. Technological advances have aided an information revolution.
Children are born into a world in which everything is touchscreen and every piece of information is available at their fingertips.
The NBA is no different.
The best coaches and organizations, the ones most equipped for the future of the league, are willing and able to evolve.
Schematically speaking the NBA is a complicated ecosystem. There has been a major ongoing evolution within the NBA that has put a greater emphasis on adaptation and growth.
Tom Thibodeau is fantastic coach who has revolutionized defensive philosophies as a direct result of offensive innovation. But Thibodeau is about to be fired by the Chicago Bulls, and it’s a decision that’s justifiable considering his one fatal flaw.
We can second guess his rotations, and this season we assuredly did.
We can second guess his offensive philosophy, or question the existence of one.
But neither of those two really matter when you factor Thibodeau’s biggest failure as a head coach: Limiting minutes.
It’s not a debate. It’s an instrumental evolution of the game.
“And if you guys study the history of the league, which I’m sure you do, and the great Bulls teams, you’d see that Jordan, Pippen well into their 30s were playing huge minutes,” he said. “So I’m trying to be like Phil.”
Thibodeau said this in 2014 when defending his minutes distribution, according to Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago.
The life expectancy in 1928 was 55.6 years of age, and after the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940’s that number increased by more than 11 years. The more we evolve, the more information we have, the smarter we become, the more we can make informed decisions.
What Phil Jackson did in the 90s by heavily taxing his most important components is inconsequential in today’s game. It was a different era and it’s a different game.
Thibodeau has made consistent references throughout his reign as head coach of the Bulls to his old school instincts, neglecting the scores of data and information that contradict that tenet.
In January of 2012, ESPN’s Henry Abbott wrote about the 3,000-minute plateau:
Over the last seven years, since Ben Wallace in 2004, NBA players have played beyond the 3,000-minute mark in the regular season nearly 100 times. The players who have done that are essentially a who’s who of NBA studs. The vast majority are All-Stars, and many have won titles. The names include LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Pau Gasol, Blake Griffin, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Chris Bosh.
But interestingly, when those players played those heavy regular-season minutes, do you know how many of them won titles?
In the last seven years: Zero.
They all won their titles in seasons when they played fewer than 3,000 regular-season minutes.
In the two seasons since Abbott wrote about the invasiveness of the 3,000-minute mark, the two championships squads, both Miami and San Antonio also fell into that category.
There have been only eight players in the last three seasons combined to eclipse 3,000 minutes. In 2014-2015, for the first time in the modern 82-game structure, not one player went over 3,000 minutes. James Harden led the league with 2,981.
The sharp decline in minutes over the last three decades is a direct reflection of the realities of overuse.
But … you know … MJ and Pippen and all.
Abbott continued in his piece from 2012 to look at trends specific to title winning teams:
Jason Kidd played the most minutes, 2,653, of any of the 2010-11 Mavericks, just slightly more than Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki. Between them they averaged a paltry 31.4 minutes per 82 games. But, interestingly, that 31.4 is more or less what things have been like for high-minute players on title teams for the last seven years.
That number remained constant in 2012-2013 with the Miami Heat, and then took a sharp decline in 2013-2014 when the minute conscious Spurs won a championship without a single player playing over 30 minutes per game.
Since Thibodeau took over in 2010-2011, he has never had his top three players average less than 32 minutes per 82 games, with the exception of this year’s team, but he was also on a minutes mandate from upper management.
At 34 years old, Pau Gasol played 2,681 minutes this season, which is more minutes than he played in a single season since 2010-2011.
The Bulls’ three top players averaged 29 minutes per 82 games, a number commensurate with the rest of the league, but it wasn’t because Thibodeau changed. Rather, John Paxson and Gar Forman forced it. (Injuries to Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah also helped bring this number down.) The minutes mandate is the major point of contention between Thibs and upper management and is the main reason their relationship has reportedly deteriorated.
Paxson and Forman needed to intervene. From the time Thibodeau was hired until this past season, the Bulls used their top three players for more minutes than any other team in the NBA.
Tom Thibodeau will become the sixth NBA coach to be fired after leading his team to the playoffs in the last four seasons. Success in the NBA is difficult to gauge. Jeff Van Gundy, an unabashed advocate for NBA coaches everywhere, recently said that coaches bear the brunt of the responsibility when expectations aren’t met. There’s little debate; coaches are fed to the wolves when expectations are unfulfilled.
Continuity continues to be one of the most undervalued aspects of success in sports. Continuity is king, and change isn’t always a necessary evil.
For all of Tom Thibodeau’s positives, his inability to understand the obvious value of a minutes limit is reason enough for dismissal.
You can make whatever broad cause-and-effect conclusions you want to about overexertion and injuries. The fact remains, the teams that win titles every year aren’t playing their best players the heavy minutes that Thibodeau insists his team needs to play.
Today’s NBA is full of innovative coaches and executives, and the ones most willing to adapt and evolve are the ones with the most staying power.
“It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent,” said Charles Darwin. “But the one most responsive to change.”
Tom Thibodeau justifies heavy minutes by insisting that it’s the way the game was played in the 1990s. Evolution is apparently lost on him.