MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Timberwolves won in the most un-Timberwolves way possible Monday night.
Heading into the fourth quarter, the Wolves were down nine points to the Portland Trail Blazers in a game that would determine which team would hold fourth place in the Western Conference -- the top of the non-Warriors/Rockets/Spurs tier. For the Timberwolves this season, being down nine points going into the fourth quarter would seem a death knell. Whatever the reason -- and many basketball pundits have decided the reason is the same old Tom Thibodeau narrative, where an over-reliance on his starting five means his best players are gassed by the end of games -- the Wolves have not been a good fourth-quarter team. By some metrics, in fact, they are the worst fourth-quarter team in the NBA.
Check out the numbers: In the first three quarters of games, the Timberwolves ought to be considered among the NBA's elite. Their net rating through three quarters of games is plus-4.8. If they were able to keep that net rating for four quarters, that would rank fourth in the NBA -- behind the Warriors, Rockets and Raptors and virtually tied with the Celtics.
It's in the fourth quarter of games where they fall apart. The Wolves' net rating in fourth quarters is minus-10.1. That's the worst in the NBA, and drags what would have been an impressive overall net rating all the way down to a middling 11th.
This is not a new problem. Last season's Timberwolves lost 22 games in which they held double-digit leads. They lost 11 games when they led by 15 or more points, a feat that hadn't been accomplished by an NBA team since the 1996-97 season. If just half of those blown 10-point leads had turned into wins, the Wolves would have morphed from one of the worst teams in the NBA into a playoff team.
The Wolves knew this, which is why their big offseason splash was to acquire one of the league's best players in crunch time: All-NBA wing Jimmy Butler. Butler is a beast for 48 minutes, but most important, he would be the beast when the Timberwolves need him most. Last season Butler averaged 4.3 points in the final five minutes of games where the margin was five points or less. That was the third-best mark in the league, behind Russell Westbrook and Isaiah Thomas. At the end of games, on offense as well as on defense, it's hard to pick a better player to have on the floor than Jimmy Butler.
What we saw Monday night was the team the Timberwolves' front office was daydreaming of when it put together that monster offseason trade. Butler simply took over. He scored 11 of the Wolves' final 16 points in their comeback, including four clutch free throws in the final minute. It was a perfect Jimmy Butler game; he played 35 minutes, scored 37 points, got six rebounds and five assists and thieved three steals. Most of all, he gave his team a fourth-quarter intensity and focus that it lacked last season. One more un-Wolves-like positive note from that game: Offseason acquisition Jamal Crawford came off the NBA's least-used bench and scored a season-high 23 points in 23 minutes.
If this fourth quarter is what the Wolves look like when they are at their best, then Thibodeau and his front-office colleagues had a perfect offseason and vaulted this team into the elite.
So why has the fourth quarter we saw Monday night been very much the exception for this team instead of the rule? Why is it that the Wolves' efficient offense turns into a pumpkin in the fourth quarter, and its already-suspect defense turns into a disaster, with the worst fourth-quarter defensive rating in the NBA?
This is where that old Tom Thibodeau trope comes in: He runs his best players into the ground. National media have started beating this drum again in the past couple weeks, especially after Thibs played all five starters 38 or more minutes in an overtime loss to the 76ers, including 48 minutes for young franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns. Deadspin published an anti-Thibs screed with the overwrought headline, "Tom Thibodeau is Destruction." The Big Lead: "Tom Thibodeau is Running the Timberwolves' Starters Into the Ground." BBallBreakdown wondered if Thibs is the right coach for the Wolves.
All this criticism for a team that, if the season ended today, would be hosting a first-round playoff series in a city that hasn't sniffed the playoffs since the 2003-04 season, which also happens to be the only season in franchise history where the Wolves won a playoff series. (Needless to say, fans here are pretty damn pleased with this team, despite the flaws.)
A thoughtful and nuanced piece by RealGM's Brett Koremenos examined more about what goes into injury prevention and performance -- that all minutes are not created equal, and that all players are not created equal. A Jimmy Butler or a LeBron James can handle heavier minutes and more taxing minutes than a less physically gifted, less physically fit player. Judging Thibs only by "he plays his starters too much" does not take into account what is going on behind the scenes.
"Good franchises put a lot into painting a clear picture of a player's day-to-day state," Koremenos wrote. "Every player responds differently to their minutes load -- something teams can [sort of] identify with those performance-tracking tools. ... Butler responds differently to how Thibodeau doles out minutes than Towns or [Taj] Gibson do. That means that Thibodeau's extreme rotation management would not be as damaging as it seems with the right setup."
So what of it? Is minutes management by Thibodeau the only thing keeping this team from the NBA's elite? Or is it a chicken-egg scenario, where Thibs has failed in his role as the team's president of basketball operations in getting a competent bench, so Thibs the head coach has to deal with a bench that he doesn't trust?
We're past the quarter point of the season, so small sample-size arguments are less of a selling point. Thibs is playing his starters a lot, period. Minnesota's bench averages a paltry 25.5 points, 27th in the league. And zero coaches in the league use their bench less than Thibs does in Minnesota. Minnesota's bench players average only 13 minutes at each position -- 2.6 fewer than the 29th-ranked bench, the New Orleans Pelicans. Amazingly, it's nearly a full minute less per player per game than Thibs used his bench a year ago. Butler is third in the NBA in minutes per game; Andrew Wiggins is eighth and Towns is 13th.
All this, though, is just number-crunching without going to the actual source. So that's what I did last week. I headed to the Target Center and, after a Wolves shootaround, asked Thibodeau if he believed there was validity to the criticism that he's leaning on his starters too much.
"Like all teams, you play to your strengths, you cover up your weaknesses," Thibs told me. "If you have young guys -- when you look at the wings, the wings usually play -- you look at LeBron and Harden, all those guys, they're gonna play. Unless the guy's older or he's injured, then you don't play him as much."
Interpretation: Of course Thibs the coach is going to play his best players a ton of minutes. That's what he believes gives his team the best chance to win. For Thibs the coach, winning today is the most important thing.
But that's why teams generally have a different person in the front office whose role is to look out for the team's long-term future as the head coach looks out for the immediate future. The dual role Thibs has for the Timberwolves is increasingly rare in today's NBA, and perhaps this is why: He has to balance in his mind the coach's win-today mentality with the executive's win-more-tomorrow mentality. Fair or not, Thibs and his overreliance on starters took much of the blame for the injuries and wear and tear that severely hampered the careers of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. Some even blame Thibs for overplaying Zach LaVine and causing his ACL tear last season.
I asked a couple Wolves players the same question: Is playing too many minutes affecting them late in games? Perhaps they were observing the locker room code to keep internal issues behind closed doors, but two of this team's stars seemed to relish in playing those heavy minutes.
"At this moment, it hasn't hit me," Wiggins said with a shrug. "I don't feel tired or nothing like that."
"I've played plenty of minutes throughout my career," Butler told me. "We train hard enough in the summer for me to be able to maintain it. It's all about taking care of your body. The majority of it is mental, for me and for a lot of people. If you think that you're tired, you will be tired. Otherwise, just fight through. I'm pretty sure there's a lot harder things that I've endured in my life than playing a couple extra minutes."
You want a player who wants to be on the floor for 48 minutes. It's that killer mentality that helps a team in crunch time. But if a player is dog-tired in the waning minutes of a game, the desire doesn't matter as much as the simple physiology. Mind over matter sounds great, but if your legs aren't working, your legs aren't working.
Perhaps Thibodeau is taking this criticism and paying a bit of attention to it. It should not be forgotten that, after the post-Philly uproar over Thibs playing his starters too many minutes, he has (slightly) extended his eight-man rotation. Marcus Georges-Hunt, who had played 17 minutes all season (in 28 games) before the Philly game, played 17 minutes in the very next game. In the next two games he played 13 more minutes. In the three games since the overtime loss to Philly, Butler has averaged 36 minutes, a bit less than his season average. Wiggins has averaged 34 minutes, below his average. Towns has averaged 38 minutes, a tick above his season average.
The NBA is different today. From 1990 until 2011, the NBA leader in minutes averaged more than 40 minutes in every season but one. Since 2011, the number of minutes played for the league leader has steadily crept downward. LeBron James led the league with 37.76 minutes last year; a decade ago, the top 20 players all averaged more. The "rest revolution" is here and only growing in support.
The beef people have with Thibodeau is that he's too old-school, too stuck in his ways. Maybe he will change and begin to value the importance of rest, but evidence certainly doesn't point to this old dog learning new tricks. The concern isn't that it'll hurt the Wolves today as much as that it'll hurt them tomorrow. Maybe the minutes are what's affecting this team's fourth-quarter struggles, but the bigger problem isn't fourth-quarter struggles as much as next-year struggles and how these big-time minutes affect big-time players years down the road.
We won't know the lasting effects of Thibodeau's current minutes management until years down the road. By then, if damage has occurred, it'll be way too late to fix.