The Bigger Picture: Managing Minutes to Prevent Injuries

Are we doing this again?

After the ending of that game last night, it’d be easy to talk about the micro, seconds and tenths of seconds and how those things can decide games and affect the season as a whole. It’d be easy to talk about games stolen by bad officiating and clutch shots. But let’s instead take a macro approach, and talk about minutes, and the effect those have on the season as a whole.

A season ago, Kyle Lowry finished 7th in the NBA in minutes played, as he averaged 37 minutes over the course of the season, and it took a clear toll on him as he suffered an elbow injury in January that continued to plague the All-Star point guard into the playoffs, where he struggled for the most part to find his shot. Lowry maintained that it wasn’t an elbow issue as much as him just missing shots in the postseason, but either way, the fact that he led the league in minutes from January until the end of the season can’t have helped things along.

This wasn’t totally Lowry’s fault either, as the Raptors tended to struggle with him off the floor, managing just a 0.0 net rating in the minutes he didn’t play. The offense often sputtered, and Lowry often had to return to the floor after leads were squandered with him on the bench. This trend has continued into this season, when the difference between him on and off the floor has been larger this season, with the team having a +8.6 net rating with Kyle in the game, and a -10.7 net rating when he sits. Even with DeMar DeRozan’s improved offensive play this season, it’s Lowry, not DeMar who is the linchpin for the team and the offense and defense both suffer without him.

Even still, this trend has to be somewhat worrying, as DeRozan’s minutes per game are also up this season, and with both players averaging more minutes than they have any previous year in their career, the team has still struggled offensively when both players are off the floor, although this is an extremely small sample size, as there has only been 14 minutes so far this season with neither Lowry or DeRozan in the game. That the team hasn’t scored well in these minutes is hardly surprising, as it would be hard for any lineups without either player to have established any offensive identity in such a small sample, even with the improved play of both Terrence Ross and Norman Powell.

Maybe that should be where this conversation all centers, as well because that feels like both the problem and the solution. Ross and Powell have been fantastic to open the season, Ross in his role as 6th man off the bench, providing a scoring sparkplug and also being surprisingly clutch, both hitting huge threes in Denver on Friday night as well as hitting the shot that sent the Sacramento game to overtime.(I reject any premise that the shot did not count) Powell has been great in any role asked of him, whether playing minutes off the bench as a contributor, or coming in just in the 4th quarter as a defensive specialist or starting in the place of DeMarre Carroll. Their numbers are even better when they’re on the court together, where they’ve played 32 minutes together and the team has a scorching 128.7 offensive rating and +27.2 net rating.

It’d be remiss to continue this discussion without bringing up the struggles of Cory Joseph, who last year was the stabilizing hand off the bench for the team, running the offense and allowing Lowry to play off-ball in two point guard lineups, as well as guarding the toughest assignments and playing hard-nosed defense. This year there’s been little sign of that player, as CoJo hasn’t been much of a presence on either end of the floor, and that surely contributes to the difference between when Lowry is or isn’t on the floor. This would seem to be further supported by the fact that of the 32 Norm/Ross minutes, 13 of those were with Cory as the other guard, and they have an 89.0 ORtg in those minutes, versus a 157.5 ORtg when Lowry is the other guard.

Even still, at some point, when you’re a good team, the season has to be just as much about preparing for the playoffs as it is about winning each and every contest. While the team’s 8-5 record is solid, given the level of competition early in the season, this has to be addressed at some point. At the 2016 MIT Sloan Sports Conference, a paper was presented titled “Preventing in-game injuries for NBA players”, and in that they presented their 5 most important factors in injuries:

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By these 5 factors, there has to be concern for both Lowry and DeRozan and their risk of injury as the season progresses. While neither player averages an overly high speed when on the court, both are again in the top 10 in minutes played, and each player carries a high usage rate when they’re out there, with DeRozan at 36.5% so far this year and Lowry’s usage at 25.2%. Neither player has played less than 34 minutes in a game thus far, regardless of opponent. And while Delon Wright and Jared Sullinger have yet to play due to injuries, it’s hard to imagine either of those players has a large impact on the minutes of DeMar and Kyle given that Powell can’t get on the floor on some nights.

Maybe the solution isn’t necessarily a large reduction in minutes, but a retooling of the offense to take some of the load off their shoulders, and moving it more towards Jonas Valanciunas, DeMarre Carroll, Terrence Ross and Norman Powell, each of whom has shown signs they can, when needed, be relied upon to provide some offense. That, in itself, even with the large burden of minutes, could help lessen the chance of an injury.

Could reducing their minutes to prevent future injury cost the team wins? It’s entirely possible, especially if you do it by staggering their minutes more, because for the most part, any minutes without Lowry have been a net negative for the team, aside from the lineup of DeRozan, Joseph, Ross, Patterson and Poeltl, which has been solid in just an 18 minute sample size. At the same time, this is a marathon, not a sprint, and the goals need to be bigger than simply winning as many games in November and December as possible, the team needs to build towards a playoff run and advancing once again to the Eastern Conference Finals and perhaps farther, and in order to do that, the health of their All-Stars has to be of paramount concern. At the same time, giving the other players more time without the stars on the floor might establish some chemistry and offensive flow, and give some protection against a possible injury. Because right now, what the Raptors are doing is both increasing the risk of an injury, as well as providing no protection in terms of a plan for success should one occur.

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