Will the Bulls be rested come playoff time?

Will the Bulls be rested come playoff time?
September 11, 2013, 2:30 pm
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Mark Strotman

If there's one qualm fans and media alike have about Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, it's that he tends to overwork his starters. In reality it's a small issue -- if one at all -- in the grand scheme of positive things he has done in three seasons since taking over the helm in Chicago. The Bulls finished with the league's best record in each of his first two seasons and last season battled through an injury-riddled, Derrick Rose-less roster to 45 wins and a third straight playoff berth.

But with such a talented roster and one of the top coaches in the league, the Bulls still have not gotten over the hump -- more accurately, past the Miami Heat -- and into the Finals. Thibodeau's playoff record is a respectable 16-18 and he has won three playoff series in six tries.

Reasons for all three playoff exits have been legitimate: In 2011 LeBron James and the Heat were playing their best basketball; in 2012 Derrick Rose's ACL injury in Game 1 against the Sixers was a mental death sentence, and Joakim Noah's ankle injury cost him the last three games of that series; and in 2013 Luol Deng (and Rose) missed the entire playoffs, including a five-game loss to the eventual champion Heat.

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But what if Thibodeau's potential overuse of his core players is a reason that the Bulls aren't as rested for the postseason? Deng's illness last year was unrelated, but he has led the league in minutes the past two seasons and, in 2011, he was fourth in the NBA with Rose averaging 37.4 minutes, the 14th highest mark in the league. Over the last three years, only the Bulls, Warriors and Clippers have had a pair of players in the top-20 in minutes per game in at least two of those seasons.

Last season the Bulls relied more on their starters thanks to a shortened bench and the absence of Rose. In particular, Deng, Noah and Carlos Boozer saw a lion's share of those minutes. In fact, of the five teams with the best record in each conference, the Bulls' "Big Three" averaged the most combined minutes per game.

Rank Team (Season totals) MPG
1. Chicago (Deng, Noah, Boozer) 35.8
2. Miami (James, Wade, Bosh) 35.2
3. Oklahoma City (Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka) 34.8
4. New York (Anthony, Smith, Felton) 34.7
5. Memphis (Gasol, Conley, Randolph) 34.6
6. Brooklyn (Williams, Johnson, Lopez) 34.5
7. Denver (Lawson, Iguodala, Gallinari) 33.9
8. Indiana (George, Hibbert, West) 33.2
9. LA Clippers (Paul, Griffin, Crawford) 31.7
10. San Antonio (Duncan, Parker, Leonard) 31.4

Deng led the league with 38.4 minutes in 75 games, Noah averaged a career-high 36.8 minutes -- six minutes per game more than he averaged in 2011-12 -- and Boozer's 32.2 minutes were the most he had played since his final season in Utah (34.3 minutes). But in terms of fighting for playoff positioning, season averages and totals are too broad a statistic to gauge whether or not the Bulls (and other teams) were rested come playoff time.

Using March 1 as a baseline of the "home stretch," when teams were either battling for playoff position or resting starters with said position locked up or, in the Spurs' case, just to be ready for the second season, the Bulls' trio remained the group that averaged the most minutes per game. Below are the numbers for each trio's minutes per game from March 1 -- a span of 20-27 games, depending on schedule -- as well as the amount of combined games missed (GM) due to injury or rest.

Rank Team (March 1-April 17) MPG (GM)
1. Chicago (Deng, Noah, Boozer) 35.1 (14)
2. Memphis (Gasol, Conley, Randolph) 34.5 (6)
3. Miami (James, Wade, Bosh) 34.4 (20)
4. New York (Anthony, Smith, Felton) 34.0 (12)
5. Oklahoma City (Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka) 33.6 (1)
6. Indiana (George, Hibbert, West) 33.5 (9)
7. Denver (Lawson, Iguodala, Gallinari) 33.2 (14)
8. Brooklyn (Williams, Johnson, Lopez) 32.9 (9)
9. San Antonio (Duncan, Parker, Leonard) 32.4 (19)
10. LA Clippers (Paul, Griffin, Crawford) 32.2 (2)

The Bulls' trio played fewer minutes in March and April compared with season totals, and the 14 missed games came courtesy of Noah (12 games missed) battling a right-foot injury and Deng (two games) resting an injured hip. Boozer, who has missed just three games the last two seasons, appeared in all 24 contests down the stretch.

Staying in the Central Division, the Pacers actually saw their trio of Paul George, Roy Hibbert and David West increase slightly in minutes thanks to a battle for the division crown and the No. 3 seed, both of which they accomplished.

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But the most interesting note from the second set of numbers is the games missed from Miami and San Antonio. In true Gregg Popovich fashion, his trio rested down the stretch and missed 19 of a possible 69 games (23 team games) while the Oklahoma City Thunder trio, vying and eventually receiving the top spot in the West, missed one game. The Heat, who wrapped up the top spot in the Eastern Conference early down the stretch, sat the trio of James, Wade and Bosh 20 games, the most of any team documented. Perhaps subsequently, those two teams won their respective conferences to meet in the Finals.

Odds are the Bulls won't run away with the Central Division or the Eastern Conference, so Thibodeau may not have the chance to rest his starters much down the stretch. And these numbers will change with a healthy Rose inserted into the lineup, likely pushing Boozer out of the Big Three discussion, though it's not out of the question that Thibodeau may rest Rose down the stretch if he can find games to do so.

Thibodeau won't be changing his style now, and though the bench is deeper this year, Noah, Deng, Boozer and Jimmy Butler will again log major minutes as starters. But if the Bulls can still be successful while decreasing those minutes in March and April, it may be the difference late in the playoffs.