Gregg Popovich and Minutes Per Game

Just another reason why Grumpy Pop is the best basketball coach of all time

LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland’s leading rebounder and scorer, will miss six to eight weeks with a torn ligament in his left thumb. The fact is, throughout his career Aldridge has often been injured. He really hasn’t played a full season since 2010-2011. If you want to chalk it up to the Blazers’ medical staff, do that. If you want to chalk it up to a shoddy body, do that. News flash: I’m no doctor. But I can tell you this, and you’ve heard it from me before: The coaches who find ways to rest their players during the regular season—ahem, Gregg Popovich—are also the coaches who find they have healthy, energetic rosters during the postseason. Portland has been one of the offenders on this list. Both Aldridge and Damian Lillard are in the top-ten in minutes per game. Cleveland is the only other team with two players in the top ten in this category, and we’ve seen the minor injuries they’ve navigated.

This minutes thing, though, is real. It’s something that coaches around the league have started to change, probably because of San Antonio’s success. As I’ve started to dig into this category I’ve noticed some fairly astonishing trends. First, I looked at the number of qualified players who have averaged more than 38 minutes per game over the last 11 years. To qualify, you simply have to have played 70% or more of your team’s games. Look at these bonkers trends:

Players Averaging More than 38 Minutes Per Game

2014-2015: 2

2013-2014: 5

2012-2013: 7

2011-2012: 5

2010-2011: 8

2009-2010: 11

2008-2009: 12

2007-2008: 16

2006-2007: 18

2005-2006: 25

2004-2005: 23 

For kicks, I also looked at the number of players averaging more than 40 minutes per game. These players were of course counted in the category above, but I thought it might be useful to specify them as well, to show that not only are fewer players playing substantial minutes (in my mind, 38 is substantial but not insane), but fewer players are playing stupid, insane, ridiculous minutes (40 minutes per game is stupid, insane, ridiculous).

Players Averaging More than 40 Minutes Per Game

2014-2015: 0

2013-2014: 0

2012-2013: 0

2011-2012: 0

2010-2011: 1

2009-2010: 2

2008-2009: 0

2007-2008: 3

2006-2007: 6

2005-2006: 9

2004-2005: 6

NBA: JAN 13 Spurs at Wizards

Popovich has mastered the art of controlled minutes


Look, I know there are more factors than Gregg Popovich at play here. We understand the human body more and more, right? Health, nutrition, what the body can and cannot do. The game, too, evolves. It’s not the same as it was in 2004 (thankfully). But here’s the crazy kicker to all of this, the reason why I think Gregg Popovich is behind this stark trend (side note: look at the Atlanta Hawks this year, coached by Mike Budenholzer, AKA a Popovich product). Not only, of course, did the Spurs bring us the first team since the NBA-ABA merger that didn’t start have a single player averaging more than 30 minutes per game, but he’s done something else. Guess how many times in the last 11 years a San Antonio Spur has been in the top 40 in minutes per game for qualified players. I’ll give you a second to think.

Zero. The answer is zero. The last time a Spur appeared on that statistical list was the 2003-2004 season, when Tim Duncan tied for 37th in the league in minutes per game.

Now, I’m not saying this is how basketball works: The less you play your players, the more you win. At this point, all I want to do is point out a trend. Because who is the NBA team with the longest playoff streak? It’s the Spurs, who’ve made the postseason 17 years in a row. No one even comes close to that. And yes, they’ve played with exorbitant amounts of talent in those 17 years—Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, etc.—and yes, they’ve got continuity, and yes, they’ve drafted impeccably well and on and on you could go. The minutes thing is one of a zillion thing the Spurs do to succeed. But it’s a crucial one.

Maybe this doesn’t get you as excited as me, because I’m a huge nerd and love this kind of thing, but for goodness sake isn’t this interesting?

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