Last night, Tyrus Thomas scored 17 points, pulled down 13 rebounds, and had 2 blocks, all in only 30 minutes. Though he's played more minutes the last few games, Thomas is averaging only 22 minutes per game this season, despite being, by many measures, the Bobcats' most productive player.
Our natural inclination has been to call for more minutes. Start him! Play him 40 minutes per game! Wring all that production out of him!
But what if he's producing at this level largely because he's playing so few minutes?
There are two examples from other fields that inform my thinking on this possibility. First: Jamaal Charles. Football fans (fantasy football owners, especially) saw that the Kansas City Chiefs were going into this season with a young running back who had averaged nearly 6 yards per carry in 2009 and expected him to set the NFL on fire when unleashed in 2010.
And you know what? That happened. Sort of. Charles finished second in the league in total rushing yards (1,467), second in yards per attempt (6.4) behind Michael Vick, and also had 45 receptions, which is more than Adrian Peterson has had in any single season, and more than Michael Turner's had in his entire career. It was a massively successful season in just about every way.
But you'd never guess that from the wailing and gnashing of teeth over Charles's usage. How dare Kansas City give only 230 carries to Charles and 240 carries to Thomas Jones, who was inferior to Charles in virtually every facet of the game?
Here's the thing. [Puts on Troy Aikman mask.] I'm not so sure Charles would have been nearly as successful had he received 350 carries. [Takes off Troy Aikman mask.] Want the back of the envelope math? Looking only at rushing yards, assume he has a monster season. Assume he can't get 6.4 yards per carry, because that's an insane rate, and instead, subjected to the grind of a full rushing load, runs for 5.0 yards per carry (which was slightly better than what Arian Foster did, and would be the best yards per carry of any back with more than 300 carries). That would give him 1,750 yards. Again: monster season. But that takes away 120 carries from Thomas Jones, who, we'll assume, wouldn't do worse than his 3.7 yards per carry, and might have done better, say, 4.0 yards per carry, because he's merely "good enough" at this stage of his career. That's 480 yards for Jones, and between the two of them, 2,230 yards. Which is funny, because in reality, they ran for 2,363 yards together.
This ignores certain factors that can only be measured by play-by-play data, such as leverage, and play value*, but the general point stands that, over the course of the season, it's very possible that the Chiefs found an ideal balance between Charles and Jones.
The same isn't necessarily true in basketball. Though I can't find it now, I seem to recall a study that concluded that NBA players usually increase per-minute production when they get more minutes, up to a certain point, at which the better players tend to level off with each increased minute per game, and a few players drop their production with too many minutes. But even if that's not true generally, Thomas might be different.
The second example: Black Swan. (WARNING: Possible spoilers ahead, though I wouldn't consider them spoilers.)
The Official Fiancee of Rufus on Fire and I saw it the other day, and it was one of the rare movies we've seen together that had us both hooked and interpreting exactly alike, from start to finish. Where I'm usually in tune with outside references and directorial flourishes, the Official Fiancee is more often in tune with the details in actors' performances and the pure charisma a cast exudes. But in this case, we both came to the exact same conclusion about the movie's theme: The most transcendent art is created when the artist's reality completely succumbs to the reality of her art.
Rearrange and substitute in a word or two, and isn't that exactly what American culture demands of its highest-profile athletes? "Living and breathing [insert sport here]" is a cliche in this country because our culture believes that the very best athletes' reality and desires succumb to the demands of their sport.
Black Swan could very easily be about sports. Make it about a quarterback, or a point guard, and it still makes all kinds of sense. I can't wait for someone to mash it up with the first season of Friday Night Lights. But do you buy its point about artistic greatness? Does that point apply to every athlete? Ones like Thomas?
Nina Sayers, Natalie Portman's character in Black Swan, has all the tools to be a transcendent ballerina, but over the years, she simply hasn't taken the next step. Over and over, we're shown that she's devoted her life to the craft, and we're told that she's technically perfect, but that she also shows zero emotion as she makes her art, and that's what's keeping her from being Great.
The thing is, what if Nina is perfectly cast as a Soloist, and horribly miscast as a Principal? Though she certainly desired the accomplishment of a Principal, it appears she was a wonderfully productive member of the Ballet as a Soloist. By choosing her to become a Principal, Leroy takes a major risk and threatens to ruin the entire season on the chance that Nina can become something she hadn't been before, and that she can do it at the field's highest level.
It's not an exact analogy to Thomas, of course, because Thomas has shown that he's a starting-quality forward in previous seasons, whereas Nina, within the scope of the movie, had not shown that she was Principal material. Maybe Beth (Winona Ryder) really can't cut it anymore. Maybe she is merely good enough at this stage of her career. Maybe Thomas Jones is merely good enough at this stage of his career. Maybe Boris Diaw is merely good enough at this stage of his career. And all of them have a person behind them that is excelling in a lesser role. That doesn't necessarily hold that those subordinates will be equally excellent in the principal role.