The San Antonio Spurs made history last year by running through the league, despite no player playing 30 minutes a game on average. They were obviously the only team close to pulling that feat off.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich believed strongly in his method and it worked out for him. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t seem to have the same strategy in managing his players’ minutes. This isn't an attempt to compare the two coaches – both have seen their share of success. But they are on such opposite ends of the spectrum in regards to this particular issue, and it's useful to use them as reference points.
So here are tables for each team’s minute distribution. I only listed players who hit 1,000 minutes on the year.
San Antonio Spurs
Carlos Boozer played the fifth-most minutes on last year’s Bulls squad, totaling 2,141 on the year. Meanwhile, Tim Duncan led the Spurs in minutes with just 2,158 for the season. Gibson, Dunleavy, Butler, and Noah were all significantly ahead of any Spur, and Butler would’ve hit the impressive 3,000 minute mark if he had played all 82 games.
That's a tight rotation.
So why is this important?
Next Year's Team
The Bulls are having quite the busy summer in regards to their frontcourt rotation. They just signed Pau Gasol to a three-year, $22 million contract and Nikola Mirotic to a three-year, $17 million contract. They also traded two of their first round draft picks last month to move up and acquire college star Doug McDermott.
Add those three players to likely starters Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson and you have a very good, but very crowded rotation.
Carlos Boozer will have to be amnestied to make room for all their incoming contracts, so that opens up some minutes from last year. But that won’t be close to enough.
Gibson proved that he’s a starting-caliber forward last year and has earned Thibodeau’s trust and his allotment of 30-plus minutes. Noah was perhaps the best center in the league last year, so there is no way that he is getting a significant minute reduction.
After Noah, Gibson, and Boozer, the next big man in the rotation was Nazr Mohammed, who only played seven minutes a game. That means their three main big guys played a whopping 92% of the available frontcourt minutes.
If they amnesty Boozer and let's say they keep Gibson's minutes the same, they will have about 2,700 minutes for Gasol, Mirotic, and McDermott. That equates to 11 minutes a game if we say they play all 82 games, though that might not be the case.
Thibodeau will likely experiment with Mirotic and McDermott at the small forward spot, which will be an interesting story to watch. Thibodeau values defense above all else, and there is much doubt that either one of those guys can defend adequately on the perimeter. If not, they'll get moved out of that position quickly.
What's the Solution?
Unfortunately, there isn't one that gets all five players sustainable playing time. Unless the Bulls make a trade, which is unlikely at this point after Carmelo Anthony re-signed with the Knicks, one of their big men will likely not get very many minutes this season. If Mirotic is really the best European player since Dirk Nowitzki, as I've seen claimed, then I doubt he would be the one to fall out of the rotation. It is also doubtful that the Bulls would sign Gasol if they weren't going to play him this year.
That means all signs point to Doug McDermott having a quiet season this upcoming year. He has been impressive out in Vegas in the Summer League, but unfortunately, the guys in his frontcourt starting in October are just too good. We may have to wait a couple years before truly seeing what McDermott can do in this league.