More than halfway through the 2016-17 season, the NBA’s leading scorers this year are a pair of point guards. First on the list is 6’3” Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who’s averaging 30.9 points per game. Second is the Boston Celtics’ Isaiah Thomas, who’s putting up an astounding 29.9 points per contest despite being the shortest player in the league at 5’9”.
As surprising as it is that the two highest scorers are so small (the average height of an NBA player is 6’6”), there’s another curious similarity between Westbrook and Thomas: Both stars are playing under 35 minutes per game. Thomas is averaging the fewest minutes a night (34.5) of any of the league’s top eight scorers, while Westbrook is just ahead of him (34.7).
For comparison, superstar LeBron James is on the floor 37.6 minutes per game and the No. 3 scorer, James Harden, is logging an average of 36.6.
The concept of giving players games off to rest in order to preserve their health has become an increasingly popular notion in the NBA over the last few years–but what about the idea of allowing them more time to rest within each game?
Both Westbrook and Thomas are the only elite scorers on their respective teams, as well as their club’s primary ball handlers. Westbrook has the highest usage rate (estimated percentage of offensive plays involved in) in the NBA at 41.9 percent. Thomas is fourth at 34.1 percent.
With each player being such an integral part of his team’s offense, it would be easy for Thunder coach Billy Donovan and Celtics coach Brad Stevens to overextend their point guards’ minutes.
From ESPN.com’s Royce Young, Donovan is making a concerted effort in the other direction:
“Entering this season, with Kevin Durant gone, the Oklahoma City Thunder were keenly aware of of their situation and what that would mean for the workload of Russell Westbrook. … the Thunder worked to hatch a plan to make sure their franchise player — singular now — wasn’t run into the ground by April.”
“Part of what complicated it was the fact that Westbrook packs as much energy into every minute he plays as anyone in the league. … with his relentless rim attacks, the responsibility to engineer an offense and effectively carry a team into the Western Conference playoffs, the Thunder knew they’d have to manage it.”
Young notes that Westbrook has played fewer than 40 minutes in every non-overtime game this season.
Thomas’ low minute count may have less to do with preserving him for the playoffs and more to do with Stevens keeping him fresh for the end of games. The Celtics All-Star has been unstoppable in the fourth quarter this season, earning the Game of Thrones inspired nickname “The King in the Fourth.”
Isaiah Thomas is now averaging 10.5 points per game in the 4th quarter this season, most by a player in the last 20 years.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 2, 2017
Thomas’ usage rate climbs to 43.2 percent in fourth quarters, while his shooting percentages increase significantly as well. In quarters one through three, Thomas’ field goal percentage is .458 and his three-point percentage is .371. However, in the fourth quarter those numbers jump to .493 and .417.
Closely monitoring minutes is nothing new in the NBA, but teams may soon have live physiological data from their players to use as well. The league’s new collective bargaining agreement (which goes into effect July 1) includes a three-page section on wearable technology with guidelines anticipating devices such as WHOOP will soon be approved for in-game use.
With real-time access to things like players’ heart rate and heart rate recovery, coaches could manage minutes from a much more knowledgeable position.