The New York Knicks, led by head coach Tom Thibodeau, are playing .500 basketball through 40+ games. Let that sink in.
Their best player, Julius Randle, leads the league in minutes played (1547), and their second-leading scorer, RJ Barrett, is fifth (1410) despite his inexperience; Barrett is just 20-years-old.
Neither Randle nor Barrett have shown serious signs of fatigue. On the contrary, Barrett’s sophomore campaign is going well, with Barrett averaging 17.2 points and 6 rebounds per game; and Randle is doing even better, posting career-bests in points, rebounds and assists.
But amongst the optimism in New York, the shortened careers of Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah haunt the more cynical of the fan base. And while it is a near certainty that Thibodeau plans on going full steam ahead, the question of how logging heavy minutes will effects players’ longevity looms.
Injuries are as much happenstance as they are a culmination of events, and age and dedication to one’s body factor in, too. So while there’s a well-established narrative about Coach Tom Thibodeau and how he plays his guys too many minutes, let’s exonerate him outright before diving into the players themselves. After all, the great coach Gregg Popovich played Tim Duncan for 3,000+ minutes in four different seasons, and that didn’t run him into the ground. Phil Jackson and Doug Collins leaned heavily on Michael Jordan, playing him 3,000+ minutes on 12 different occasions, including in 2002-02 as a 40-year-old. Jackson also played Kobe Bryant at least 3,000 minutes in five different seasons (Bryant also played 3,000+ minutes in 2012-13 under coach Mike D’Antoni). And the list goes on.
Essentially, the better the player, the more minutes they play. It’s that simple. In spite of a growing push to manage players’ workloads (i.e., load management), coaches have their own agendas – and it’s not nearly as sinister as that sounds. Coaches want to win now, and that makes sense because they rarely make it through a rebuild with the same franchise.
But back to the matter at hand: should Knicks fans be worried about Randle and the number of minutes he plays? Let’s extrapolate what he’s played thus far for a full season and compare that to others from the recent past.
Randle is averaging 36.7 minutes per game, and he’s played in all 42 of the Knicks’ contests so far this season. The 2020-21 season is shortened, spanning just 72 – but for comparison’s sake, we’ll spread it across 82. If he continues to play at his current rate, that works out to 3,009 minutes.
Believe it or not, just five players have amassed 3,000 or more minutes in a single season in the past five years: Bradley Beal (3,028) in 2018-19; LeBron James (3,026) in 2017-18; Andrew Wiggins (3,048) and Karl-Anthony Towns (3.030) in 2016-17; and James Harden (3,125) in 2016-17.
Granted, the 3,000-minute mark is an arbitrary line in the sand – after all, 2,900 minutes spread across 82 games is just another 1.2 minutes per game – but the fact that only five players have surpassed 3,000 in a single season over in the past five seasons is telling and simplifies the argument.
After a quick perusal of the list, it becomes clear that only ultra-talented players secure this accomplishment. James, Harden, Beal and Towns are exactly the type of players that teams dream of when beginning a rebuild, and not the type that franchise would misuse. While Wiggins may not be elite, he, too, is ultra-talented and could still grow into an All-Star caliber player. This year, Wiggins is shooting career-highs on two-point and three-point field goal attempts, while turning the ball over at a near career-low, all while scoring 17.7 points in 32.1 minutes per game.
So it’s mostly great players who play 3,000+ minutes. But does doing so harm their longevity? Nothing is conclusive and it’s anyone’s guess if the culmination of the minutes played will ultimately be to blame for any late-career deterioration, but all five are still active and, better still, healthy. In fact, all five are having career years in one way or another – Harden’s making a run at MVP, having transformed himself into the ultimate distributor; James continues to impress with his age-defying antics, averaging 25.8 points, 8.0 assists and 8.1 rebounds per game at 36-years-old; and Beal, Towns and Wiggins are all continuing to grow as players, too.
They have all been unaffected by playing 3,000+ minutes so far. But while the long-term effects are still undecided, the short-term effects are easily identifiable.
Following the 2015-16 season, Harden followed up his 3,125 minutes with 81 games and more than 2,900 hundred minutes, across which he averaged a then-career-high 29.1 points per game. And he won the MVP the season after that (2017-18).
Following the 2016-17 campaign, both Wiggins and Towns played another 82 games each, averaging 36.3 and 35.6 minutes per game, respectively – and while both saw small drops in production, they were also acclimating to a notoriously prickly teammate in Jimmy Butler. They also qualified for the playoffs for the first time in either of their careers in 2016-17.
James is the outlier of the bunch, of course. Following 2017-18, James suffered a hamstring injury that ended his season. He suffered the injury on Christmas Day, but he probably would have returned had the Lakers been in the playoff hunt – and his output was still incredibly impressive prior to the injury (25.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 8 assists in 35.2 minutes per game). James had also just turned 34 just prior to the injury, so he’s a unique case in that he was already approaching his mid-30s in his last 3,000+ minutes season. It’s worth mentioning that James surpassed 3,000 minutes seven times prior to 2017-18 and hadn’t missed a considerable amount of time until 2018-19.
Following the 2018-19 season, Beal played 36 minutes per game in the pandemic-shortened season, in which time he secured a career year, averaging a career-high 30.5 points, 6.1 assists and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 51.5/35.3/84.2. And he’s upped the ante this season, too – averaging career-bests in points (32.5) and rebounds (5.2).
It’s understandable that fans worry about the longevity of their stars. And it’s especially so from the Knicks’ fan base, which appears ever-so near to some success for the first time in decades. But players play. Hell, Thibodeau himself is huge on riding his very best players – see some of those former and current Minnesota contributors on this very list.
And Randle prepared himself for the long-haul, using the extended break between last season and 2020-21 to get into the best shape of his career. Could a freak injury derail his career year? Of course. If it does, it will more a product of happenstance than a durability issue. So relax, and enjoy what he’s doing – because it hasn’t been done in Madison Square Garden in a while.