It’s no secret that Portland’s starters played big minutes last season. It was, in fact, too much – the mounting injuries and subsequent 13-game losing streak to finish the season are more than enough hard evidence for that. When I looked even closer, though, it becomes ridiculous: Damian Lillard (38.6), Nicolas Batum (38.5), and LaMarcus Aldridge(37.7) were ALL in the top 10 of minutes played per game. In fact, Aldridge was ninth, so in reality, of the top nine players in the league last season in terms of minutes per game, a full third belonged to the Blazers.
For context, the next closest team to this was the Bulls, who had a paltry two players in the top 17 of minutes per game. While ludicrous, it is in the past, so not worth getting re-upset over. What I was interested in, though, was how much other teams played their starters in order to gauge a baseline. I was mildly surprised by the results – teams today appear to be taking the wear and tear of their players’ bodies more seriously.
Only 31 players played more than 35 minutes a game last season, or roughly an average of one per team. This seems like a great cutoff to me; even before perusing the numbers, I was thinking how nice it would be to get Lillard’s minutes down to 35 a game. Going from 38.6 minutes per game to 35 may not sound like a lot, but during the course of an 82 game season, that would save his body nearly 300 minutes of abuse. This is in turn roughly equivalent to Lillard playing six games less during the season, if he played the entire game in each of those six games. Again, three or four minutes less a game may not seem like much, but over the course of a season it’s huge.
If three hundred minutes were shaved off of his league-leading playing time last season, Lillard would have finished 17th in total minutes played, sandwiched between Lebron James and Russell Westbrook, a far more palatable proposition. It’s not just Lillard, though. Both Aldridge and Batum would benefit greatly by having their minutes reduced, again even if it’s just down to 35 a game.
If this reduction occurred, not only would these three hopefully stay healthier, but it opens up more minutes for bench players. Dropping each of the aforementioned three players’ minutes to 35 a game would open up nearly 10 minutes a game for coach Terry Stotts to parcel out, or 820 during the course of an entire season. This will be invaluable during the upcoming season, when the bench will most likely consist of players who need (Thomas Robinson, CJ McCollum, Meyers Leonard) or expect (Mo Williams, Dorell Wright) minutes. It will make Stott’s balancing act much easier.
As I mentioned in my previous article, last season the Los Angeles Clippers featured one of the strongest benches in recent memory, a bench that was largely assembled by our own Neil Olshey. That team offers a fantastic example of how much an excellent bench can help out the whole team. Their two best players, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, only played 33.4 and 32.5 minutes a game, respectively. While the team was cruising to a franchise best 56-26 record and first-ever division title, no player even broke a 35 minutes a game average.
It isn’t realistic to make a straight comparison to our current Blazers, however. The Clippers boasted arguably the best point guard in the league, and the overall talent level of the team was higher. Even if the Blazers can’t quite get to such a conservative level of minutes for starters, it offers a great insight into the positive effects a strong bench offers.
This is welcome news for Blazers fans, who had to endure watching the team wear out and almost literally break down towards the end of last season. Starters are starters for a reason, and certainly deserve to play the bulk of the minutes, but as with everything there is a limit. Unfortunately for Stotts, the bench was so weak last season he felt that he simply couldn’t afford to keep the reserves in the game very long if his team was going to have a chance to win the game.
This problem should now be non-existent for the upcoming season, and if the Blazers make the playoffs (fingers crossed), it will pay dividends.