We've reached the point of attrition in this physically devastating NBA season where a case of back spasms amounts to little more than rest.
Once again, circumstances force any discussion of the state of the NBA to begin with health, or the lack of it. While the Bulls plot how to treat Derrick Rose's back spasms and win a couple of road games in the meantime, they have to thank the basketball gods they aren't the Los Angeles Clippers, now in despair over the loss of Chauncey Billups for the rest of the season with a torn Achilles, or even the Denver Nuggets, trying to keep their edge the next month or so without Danilo Gallinari.
To that end, you know what the Bulls need a lot of to stay in serious contention between now and the end of June?
Plain old dumb luck. They need mild sprains instead of torn ligaments, bruises instead of breaks. As far as this new local obsession with the number of minutes that coach Tom Thibodeau is playing Rose and Luol Deng and how it might save them from worse boo-boos, forget about a reduction. It ain't gonna happen, and there's even historical evidence that suggests the number of minutes they're playing is just fine.
In Deng's first game back after missing seven with his bad wrist, he played 41 minutes against Milwaukee. Two nights later Thibs kept Deng on the floor for 35 minutes against the Nets. Both games were blowouts, the kind you might expect starters to play reduced minutes, especially in this compressed season that seems to be taking an undo toll on players. Rose played 35 in that same blowout of the Bucks.
Yes, Deng's 38.2 minutes per game tie him for third-most in the NBA, and Rose's 36.1 minutes tie for 18th. But the fact is, these are the kinds of minutes Rose and Deng almost have to play the way the team is structured, where they're by far the two best players.
The Bulls have passed this way before, mind you, with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. At the same stage of his career, Jordan averaged 40 minutes, then 40, then 39, 37, 39, 39, 39. That's more minutes than Rose's 36. Jordan's lowest output with the Bulls was 37.7 minutes per game, and when he was in his fourth season -- as Rose is now -- Jordan led the NBA in average minutes played with 40.4. Pippen, meanwhile, averaged 38, 37, 38, 38, 38 when the Bulls started reaching conference finals. Pippen's lowest average-minutes-played was 36.7.
And we know Jordan and Pippen had more blowout victories than Rose and Deng; yet Phil Jackson kept his stars on the floor as long as Thibs is. In the abbreviated lockout season of 1999, Pippen's 12th season at 33 years old, he played in all 50 games and averaged a career-high 40 minutes. So Rose and Deng are playing a lot of minutes, but not disproportionately so, not a crazy amount of minutes. (In fact, the games they've missed so far might provide the necessary rest they're not going to get on a nightly basis. Deng, by missing seven games at an average of 38 minutes per game, saved himself 266 minutes. Rose, who one would hope would get a couple of nights off in New Orleans and Charlotte to rest his back, would be saving himself 72 minutes.)
The point isn't that Rose and Deng should do everything Jordan and Pippen did, but it is that Rose and Deng, in order to win a championship on a team with two stars and not three or four, have to shoulder the load, and that starts with minutes played. It appears to be the price players have to pay for winning a championship.
Even though the Bulls' starters have played the third-most minutes in the NBA and have scored 73 percent of the team's points, again, the third-most in the league, it's not like Thibs is killing the other starters. Carlos Boozer is averaging 30 minutes a game, down from 33 per game over his career. Joakim Noah's 29 minutes per game is up 2.5 minutes from his career average. Ronnie Brewer, who started in place of Deng, is averaging 26.7 per game, just about his career average. Kyle Korver, who's had four starts, is averaging 23 minutes, about the same. C.J. Watson's 21 minutes per is the same. Taj Gibson's 19.2 per game is actually down four. And given that, by the end of this nine-game road trip, the Bulls will have played 20 of their first 30 games away from home, it's reasonable to expect the starters to have produced more in every statistical category. Bench players traditionally play much more at home, and the Bulls' schedule is back-loaded with home games.
Thibs also isn't in the position of, say, Gregg Popovich, who absolutely has to limit the minutes of older players like 35-year-old Tim Duncan, who is down from a career-high 41 minutes per game 10 years ago to 27 per game now. There's no saving minutes for Rose, 23, and Deng, 26, at this point of their careers, not if the Bulls are going to max out while they're in their physical primes.
Also, Rose and Deng aren't playing more than most of the big stars who have to carry their teams. Kevin Durant is averaging 37.6 minutes per game, Kevin Love 39.4 per game, Blake Griffin 37 minutes, Chris Paul 36, Dwight Howard 38, Kobe Bryant 38.3, LeBron James 37.5, Deron Williams 37.3. Only Dwyane Wade (33.8), Carmelo Anthony (34.3) and Russell Westbrook (34.7), whose minutes have never been higher, aren't in the 36-39 minute range. In short, the best players in the league, with very few exceptions, are going to be on the floor for close to 40 minutes every night.
Making it more or less imperative for the Bulls to stay in line is the importance of home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference. And in the course of pursuing that goal, an injury could do to the Bulls' season what it did to the Bears' season, which is to say end it. Billups was averaging his fewest minutes in 10 years and still suffered a season-ending Achilles tear.
Just days earlier, Billups' former coach, George Karl, had talked about part of the Clippers' success this season -- they lead the Pacific Division -- being that they had two "closers" in Billups and Paul. "You got Mo Williams shooting the ball as well as he's ever shot it," Karl said. "You've got Caron Butler thinking he's gonna make every shot he's taking. Chris Paul knows how to run a team. Chauncey knows how to be a stud on a team ... "
And just like that, the Clippers, second only to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference standings, aren't quite as formidable. Would Billups have avoided ripping his Achilles if he'd been averaging 27 minutes per game instead of 30? Perhaps. Except coaches of the best and most ambitious teams in the world aren't that cautious. The Bulls have been determined, especially with players in and out of the lineup already with injuries, to start decisively, both the season and individual games. As Korver said recently, "We're not easing into games."
And as a result, it's best to watch the Bulls (probably every team) through spread fingers ... or accept the fact that not every player, probably not Rose and Deng, will play the rest of the games between now and the playoffs. Already, only Boozer, Korver, Brewer and Omer Asik have played all 27 games this season. On Monday night alone, Rose went out with his back spasms, Billups was lost with his Achilles tear, Gallinari suffered a chip fracture and Anthony left the floor with a groin injury. You could put together four-fifths of a playoff team with just Monday's casualties.
And the really, really bad news? It's almost certain to get worse. The vast majority of players never got into the kind of shape they're usually in, and a season routinely featuring four games in five nights makes the players even more vulnerable. The teams that enter the playoffs with their best players simply standing might have to be the favorites, and no amount of juggling by Thibs or any other coach is likely to alter the unfortunate course of what is increasingly becoming an injury-wrecked season.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.