Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders has seven timeouts to use during the course of a game, and there is a method to how he wants to use them.
As one might assume, Saunders uses some of his timeouts to try to stop an opponent’s run.
But Saunders uses a few of them per game solely to steal some rest at opportune times for his players. This goes hand in hand with the analytical approach the Wolves are taking toward every facet of the organization, even down to how Saunders uses his timeouts.
“On the road it might be a little bit different where you try to save an extra timeout to stymie a run,” Saunders said. “Then, I try to save an extra timeout before I lose it in the fourth quarter to possibly [rest] a guy like [Karl-Anthony Towns] and Andrew [Wiggins], a higher-minutes player who might be playing over 10 minutes at one time.”
The Wolves have data that can analyze how players respond as their minutes increase. So if Saunders wants them to keep playing at a high level, he has to find as much rest during the game as he can. It’s also why, when looking at the Wolves’ top players, they are playing fewer minutes than they were under Tom Thibodeau. Wiggins clocks the most at 34.6 per game — that ranks just 19th in the league. Towns is at 32.8 (No. 43). That total could be higher if not for foul trouble that has depressed Towns’ overall minutes in some games.
Compare that to the 2017-18 season, Thibodeau’s last full season with the Wolves. Jimmy Butler was third in the league at 36.7 per game, Wiggins was ninth at 36.3 and Towns was 14th at 35.6.
Saunders and the analytics staff have numbers that help them map out how they want to distribute minutes and rest.
“We have data and we have analytics on when guys play over a certain amount of minutes, their production value goes down,” Saunders said. “So that might be a reason why I might give Karl a break if he’s playing nine minutes straight. It may seem like, ‘Why are you taking Karl out right now?’ We’re taking him out because we have three timeouts and we have to give them a minute here, then we call the timeout … he gets a little break and he’ll go back in.”
Of course, the players may not always want to come out of the game.
“I love our group and I love how committed they are to keeping us safe and everything,” Towns said. “But, you know, I’m a Spartan. I’m here. I’m a Greek warrior. I’m trying to be out here and get this ‘dub.’ If it requires me to play another two minutes of a game, I’m willing to put that sacrifice on my body for glory now.”
Towns said he communicates with Saunders on when he might be able to push his body a few minutes longer than he might otherwise. It varies on the situation and how the Wolves are playing at that moment. To Towns, it’s no big deal to go a little longer, even in the name of putting his body at risk.
“I don’t think anything we’ve been doing in the NBA is good for our long-term health, honestly,” Towns said. “I’m pretty sure that two extra minutes ain’t going to hurt the way we feel at 50.”
But it might affect how they play in the moment.
Chris Hine covers the Timber-wolves and the NBA for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @chris_hine E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org