Last week, Timberwolves guard Jeff Teague said the team was tired toward the end of its 95-92 loss to the Grizzlies at Target Center in a comment that caused criticism for his demanding boss, coach Tom Thibodeau.
“Some guys ran out of gas,” Teague said. “I’m not going to lie. I was a little tired, but that’s not an excuse. If you’re on the floor, you have to be able to help our team win.”
Dating to his time in Chicago, Thibodeau has been renowned for playing his starters heavy minutes. Thibodeau has chalked up a lot of wins doing that and he has the Wolves on course for the playoffs for the first time in over a decade as he has leaned on Teague, Karl Anthony-Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler when all are healthy. The starting five averages between 32.8 and 37 minutes per game. Critics of Thibodeau say that playing his starters that many minutes drains them of energy late in games and late in the season, that the wear and tear on their bodies catches up with them.
Just how much wear is on the legs of the Wolves? The league can help fans quantify that thanks to tracking data it provides on NBA.com, where it displays just how many miles players have run during the season. For reference, only participants in tennis (3 miles per match), field hockey (5.6) and soccer (7) top basketball players in terms of miles covered in a game, according to Runner’s World.
Given the high volume of minutes the starters play, it might come as no surprise the Wolves have turned over the odometer quite a bit.
Butler, when he plays, covers the most distance on the Wolves — and of almost anyone in the league. He travels 2.62 miles per game, which ranks third in the league behind Portland’s C.J. McCollum (2.7) and New Orleans’ Jrue Holiday (2.68). The Wolves actually have four players in the top 40 in average distance per game. Wiggins is 21st (2.43), Towns 26th (2.41) and Gibson 40th (2.34). Only one other team (the Lakers) has three in the top 40.
Most players in the NBA tend to run more on offense than defense, and the Wolves fall in line with that norm.
If you look at individual total distance covered, the numbers are even more jarring for the Wolves. Wiggins, Towns and Gibson are all in the top 20 in total miles with each going over 180.
In terms of team total distance, the Wolves have covered 1,283.4 miles, which ranks only 25th in the league. But the starting five accounts for 833.7, or 65 percent of the team’s total mileage.
This is nothing new for Thibodeau-coached players. Former Wolves guard Zach Lavine traveled the farthest per game last season of anybody in the league (2.71 miles). Towns and Wiggins weren’t far behind.
But if you look at some of the current Wolves when they didn’t play for Thibodeau, their numbers didn’t much change.
For instance, Lavine actually averaged more distance per minute played this season than last. He played fewer games and fewer minutes per game in Chicago because of injuries, but he was still running a lot when he was on the floor.
Last season Butler, then with the Bulls, was third in distance per game, his same rank as this season. He was first the previous year, also when Thibodeau was not his coach. Some players and their roles seem to lend themselves to a lot of distance. Wiggins actually ran .06 of a mile more per game his rookie year under Sam Mitchell than he has this year.
Teague is running the same amount per game (2.11) as he did with the Pacers last season.
Towns has had to catch his breath a little more under Thibodeau — he ran just 2.16 miles per game his rookie year compared to 2.53 last season and his 2.41 mark this season. Gibson has seen his minutes significantly increase now that he’s back playing under Thibodeau and his mileage has also spiked, but like Lavine, his distance per minute hasn’t much changed from when he wasn’t playing for Thibodeau.
Looking around the Western Conference, McCollum and teammate Damian Lillard are both in the top 10 in miles per game — and have been near the top of that metric for the last few years — but there is no outcry for Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts to reduce the amount of rubber they are burning.
Instead, Portland is one of the resurgent teams in the league, while Thibodeau is saddled with the reputation that he overworks his starters.
It is possible to play a lot of minutes without being among the top players in the league in distance traveled. LeBron James leads the NBA in playing 37.2 minutes per game, but he is only 31st in average distance per game (2.39 miles), nearly a quarter mile less than Butler. Rockets guard James Harden is also saving steps. He averages 35.5 minutes per game, tied with Towns for 14th in the NBA, but is 74th in distance per game (2.18 miles).
The Wolves’ starters have a lot of miles on their bodies compared to the rest of the NBA, but it’s hard to say definitively if that’s necessarily a bad thing, and if it is, that it’s all Thibodeau’s fault and has little to do with each player’s individual style.