In his stints as an associate head coach in Boston and head coach in Chicago, Tom Thibodeau made his name and his career with a set of genuinely smart and hugely influential defensive tactics, leveraging the NBA’s relaxed rules against zone defense to essentially eliminate what had been the dominant style of offense in the league to that point.
The thing a team—the Lakers, say—would do was, Kobe Bryant would catch the ball over on one side of the floor, and all four of his teammates would go to the other side—bringing their defenders with them—to give Kobe as much space as possible to work with. In this setup Kobe could shoot, or attack his single defender off the dribble and draw help defenders toward him to open up a pass to an uncovered teammate, or call a screener over to run a basic side pick-and-roll. This was a basic element of how pretty much every team ran at least a large portion of its offense circa 2007: Clear out one side for the star to either work one-on-one or call over a screener for a side pick-and-roll.
Thibodeau’s first major innovation, a style of defense that’s still mostly referred to by his name, in broad terms involved loading up the ball side of the floor with four defenders, to crowd the action, shut down passing lanes, and prevent penetration, leaving a single rangy defender on the weak side to play zone defense against back cuts, skip passes, and quick ball reversals. This would have been illegal once upon a time, when NBA rules strictly prohibited defenders from wandering more than a couple steps away from their assigned counterparts. By 2007, though, thanks to rules changes, the only things keeping defenders at home were the entrenched culture of NBA coaching and the fear that the ball might find your man in a dangerous spot before you could get back to him. What Thibodeau wagered on, smartly, is that with three or four offensive players intentionally positioned as far from the ball as they could get, and his defenders now allowed to roam freely in between, his defense could clog the ball side, make the isolated star’s job impossible right off the bat, and then recover and reshape itself on the other side of the floor when the ball made its way over there. He was right, and the Thibodeau defense was the effective death of the offenses that came before it.
His second big tactical score involved popularizing what’s known as “icing” (or “blueing”) the side pick-and-roll. The goal of the side pick-and-roll is to get the ball, in the hands of a skilled playmaker, moving toward the middle of the floor, where the whole court and all five offensive players are in play. “Icing” the side pick-and-roll involves forcing the ball-handler away from his screener and toward the baseline, where his options and passing windows grow smaller and smaller as he dribbles his way toward being trapped in the corner. Done effectively, particularly when it was new, it rendered the side pick-and-roll all but unusable.
Both of these innovations were influential enough that, although switching has become the popular defense against ball-screens nowadays, you can see discernible elements of them in how virtually every NBA team plays defense a decade after the Celtics hired Thibodeau. More than that, you can see his system’s influence in how pretty much every team plays offense, too—hell, the whole way people talk about and evaluate basketball players in 2017 is shaped by the pressure Thibodeau’s defensive ideas put on the sport. The best way to beat the Thibodeau defense, it turned out, was to run offense from the middle of the floor, instead of isolated on the wing; and to fill your lineup with versatile three-point shooters who can’t be left alone; and to keep them and the ball in near-constant motion, rather than running a slow-developing side pick-and-roll with the three non-participating players stationed as far away as they can get. Nowadays, to the extent basketball still has positions, the ideal player at any of them must be able to shoot perimeter jumpers well enough to keep his defender glued to him at all times; in other words, he must be able to prevent the other team from playing the Thibodeau defense comfortably.
In that sense, the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs—with their endless waves of quick-thinking, unselfish shooters, constant ball-movement, and general non-reliance on the basic pick-and-roll—can be read as extreme expressions of the Thibodeau defense’s influence. And everybody else is trying to do what they do. The modern NBA has Tom Thibodeau’s fingerprints all over it.
All of which is to say: With basically every team having incorporated some or all of what made Thibodeau’s Boston and Chicago defenses so good, and with the NBA’s smartest teams engineered to beat that same set of tactics, that stuff isn’t quite the skeleton key it once was. But Thibodeau, now the head coach and team president of the Minnesota Timberwolves, has another trick up his sleeve, one he developed during his time with the Bulls. It isn’t really an X’s-and-O’s thing; in fact, the Timberwolves don’t really do anything innovative or even particularly sharp, basketball-wise. It’s just: When the other team takes its starters out of the game to get some rest... Thibodeau, uh, doesn’t.
According to the NBA’s stats site, Minnesota’s starting five—Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson, Karl-Anthony Towns—is the NBA’s most used five-man lineup, by miles. Through 28 games, that lineup has logged 167 more minutes—nearly three and a half more games—than any other lineup. And that’s only when they’re all five playing together: At a point in the season when other teams are using deep rotations and all-bench second units to develop their reserves and prevent wear and tear on their starters, the Timberwolves virtually never go any significant stretch of time without at least one starter on the floor. Butler is playing the second-most minutes of any player; Wiggins, the sixth-most; Towns, a 22-year-old seven-footer in a sport in which heavy minutes burdens have been known to correlate to career-shortening lower-leg injuries to seven-footers, is playing the 15th-most minutes in the entire NBA. 22 of the other 29 teams do not have one single player logging more minutes per night than any of those three. All five Timberwolves starters average more than 33.5 minutes of playing time per game; seven entire NBA teams are not giving that much playing time to even one single member of their roster; 11 more teams only have one player logging that heavy a burden.
And in recent days Thibodeau has taken this to even more perverse extremes. Last night, against the Philadelphia 76ers, in a game that included a five-minute overtime period, Teague played 38 minutes; Gibson and Wiggins each played 40; Butler played 46; Towns, the seven-footer, played 48. From the 3:41 mark of the third quarter to the end of overtime, Towns never sat, logging nearly 26 straight minutes of action—as many minutes, for reference, as Enes Kanter, the starting center for the New York Knicks, averages in total per 48-minute game. The Timberwolves only used eight of their 12 active players against the 76ers. Two nights before that, against the Dallas Mavericks, all five starters played at least 34 minutes in regulation, Towns played 38, Butler played 41, and again the Timberwolves only used eight players.
Thibodeau has used a ninth player only once in December, so far. Back on the first of the month, Shabazz Muhammad checked in for Butler with about 10:30 left to play in the first half against the Thunder. He checked out three minutes later, and did not return.
On Dec. 3 and 4, the Timberwolves played a back-to-back pair of games, at home against the Los Angeles Clippers and then in Memphis against the Grizzlies. They used only eight players in each game. Towns played 75 of the two games’ 96 total minutes, with less than 24 hours of rest in the middle. Wiggins played 74; Gibson, 77; Teague, 74 [CORRECTION: 67]. Butler played 80.
You get the idea. Tom Thibodeau uses his best players a lot, and a lot more than anybody else.
In purely abstract terms, where the players are not human beings but rather tools of varying usefulness, this is smart. Let’s look at a hypothetical game against, say, the Denver Nuggets—literally none of whom average more minutes of playing time per game than Minnesota’s least-used starter, Taj Gibson. When the two starting fives are on the floor together, Minnesota’s starters might play Denver’s starters to a draw. But during the minutes when Denver goes deep into its bench, Minnesota will have a major advantage: It will have at least two of its best players on the floor against a lineup including Denver’s ninth and 10th man. It can expect to win those minutes. Over the course of a game, that ought to add up to a lead on the scoreboard for the Timberwolves. Over the course of a season, that ought to add up to some number of wins that the Timberwolves otherwise might have lost if they’d used a deeper rotation. And that might possibly add up to a higher playoff seeding, and thus to a more favorable matchup, and thus to advancing farther in the playoffs than they otherwise might have.
Of course, the terms are not abstract, because the players are human beings: They get tired, they get injured, the cumulative load of basketball builds up and wears them down over the course of a game or a season or a career. This gets to the ugly, cynical heart of the trick Thibodeau is pulling. When, say, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich gives a long handful of second-quarter minutes to a unit composed entirely of weird, generically European bench players you’ve never heard of before, it isn’t because LaMarcus Aldridge and Danny Green and the rest of San Antonio’s starters are too exhausted to play, and play well, at that exact moment. They’re not. They’re fit professional athletes; they can get through a lot more than 10 or 12 straight minutes of basketball if called upon to do so, particularly if a chunk of those minutes will come against reserve bozos they can mop up without ever having to breathe through their mouths. It’s because it’s in the players’ best interest—and, because the best of those players come with expensive multi-year commitments on the part of the team, it’s in the team’s best interest, too—to balance some of the effort to win this game, right now, with their intent to keep the players fresh and healthy and uninjured later, and to insure that if they do get injured later, the guys who will be called upon to replace them will know what the fuck they’re doing on an NBA court.
So the imbalance Thibodeau is leveraging, when the other team sends its best players to the bench to get some rest and he simply does not, is not that his best players have greater stamina or toughness—or greater resistance to long-term fatigue, or to the kinds of injuries that can result from the accumulated stress of playing a crazy amount of world-class basketball night after night for the better part of a year—than the opposing team’s. It’s that the opposing team gives a fuck about what’s in its and its players’ best interests beyond the game it is playing right at that exact moment—about the long-term harm it can avoid by biting the bullet and letting its shitty third guard run the offense for a few minutes while the starters get a rest—and Tom Thibodeau does not. In video game parlance, it’s a cheap exploit: The opposing coach will regard his players as human beings, if only insofar as recognizing that they might get tired and start bricking shots by the fourth quarter if they don’t get some rest, and Thibodeau refuses to do the same for his.
As you might expect, treating his players like they are not human beings has tended not to work out super duper well for those players. Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, two of the most important players on Thibodeau’s Bulls teams, aged like bananas under his care; both eroded from All-Stars to shambling old zombies by the time they turned 30. Thibodeau’s Bulls teams limped to the end of season after season, wracked by injuries. The knee injury that sent Derrick Rose’s career into a tailspin came with the Bulls leading the Philadelphia 76ers by 12 points, with less than 90 seconds left to play in the game—and Rose, who’d struggled with injuries all through the 2011-12 season, out on the court instead of watching from the bench. (Plenty less abusive coaches would also have had Rose in the game, but having done so certainly doesn’t cut against the overall theme of Thibodeau’s career.) This past February, 21-year-old Zach LaVine was averaging more than 37 minutes per game for the Timberwolves when he hurt his knee on an awkward landing in a close contest against the Detroit Pistons; after he finished writhing on the floor and clutching his knee in visible agony, Thibodeau allowed him to play six more minutes in that game, on what turned out to be a torn ACL. Thibodeau traded him to the lottery-bound Chicago Bulls in the offseason to get Jimmy Butler. LaVine has not returned to play yet this season.
For all that, Thibodeau’s over-reliance on his starters isn’t even good basketball. The talent-overloaded Timberwolves have performed terribly in fourth quarters this season, when their best players are tired and their opponents’ aren’t. They scored a mere 39 points in the second half of the second game of that back-to-back on Dec. 3 and 4, and lost to a cratering Grizzlies team that had just fired its coach.
Last night was more of the same: The T-Wolves went into the fourth quarter with a 76-75 lead on the Sixers, and then got outscored 44-36 in the fourth quarter and overtime. A number of critical, crunch-time possessions ended with the Sixers getting an easy basket on a backdoor cut while visibly gassed Minnesota players failed to rotate. The players Thibodeau had relied on to win him the first three quarters of the game had already played an absurd amount of basketball. They got tired, like humans do.