The idea of "earning your minutes" has a certain appeal to the everyday working man. After all, you don't want some snot college kid jumping in and stealing all your responsibility having proving nothing at all. That's why it's no surprise to hear coaches like Nate McMillan using it to explain why rookies rarely get any run.
It's a nice construct that jives with the way our lives operate. It also jives with a popular narrative among general interest columnists that NBA players are lazy and entitled. But everyone knows youngsters need playing time to improve, so how does a young player not immediately thrust into a major role prove himself? Theoretically he jumps on bit minutes, plays well, and earns more time as things progress. However, I don't really think that's happening.
A brief survey
Since I'm probably the only stat geek that doesn't really use SQL functions I used a small sample and just looked at players from the 2009 draft. These guys are in their third year in the league, so if they are going to get their shot, it has probably happened by now. Out of that draft class, 29 players have played over 2000 minutes. If a player has gotten less than 2000 minutes in two and a half seasons, I think it's fair to say he hasn't earned a role (LaMarcus Aldridge plays 3000 minutes in a season, Rudy Fernandez played over 1800 minutes last year in a fairly spotty bench role).
Out of those 29 players, all but four were consistently getting more than 10 minutes per game by November 15, 2009. Those four are
Dante Cunningham: A guy who "earned" his minutes by kneecapping Greg Oden and Joel P., and otherwise probably never would have seen the court for the Blazers and could well have washed out.
Jordan Hill: A player Mike D'Antoni hated, Houston thought they could rescue but quickly set about un-earning any role he had in Houston and is one of the rare top 10 picks who will not have his 4th year option picked up.
Gerald Henderson: A player who got incredibly inconsistent minutes under Larry Brown (20+ one night, <5 the next) but now has a steady role on the worst roster in the NBA. Whether he "earned" any of these minutes or whether his playing time has been determined by Larry Brown's mood swings and the pathetic state of the Bobcats' roster post-Crash Wallace trade is not totally clear.
James Johnson: Another potential counterpoint, Johnson was able to leverage a smaller bit role at the beginning of the season into a moderate role as apparently Chicago's 4th big, then serious minutes after Joakim Noah was injured for several weeks in the spring. He then was traded to Toronto where he is now a bad player getting plenty of minutes on one of the worst teams in the league.
From the year 2009, there isn't a single example of a player going from DNP-CDs to a considerable role in the NBA without the help of severe injuries. What does that tell us? Well, good players are generally high draft picks, and go to teams where they play right away. Also, coaches can identify good players and will play those guys right away regardless of draft position (for example D'Antoni was probably right about Jordan Hill).
However, what's interesting is that so few of the unheralded players who panned out were asked to "earn their time." Marcus Thornton, Dejuan Blair, Darren Collison, Jodie Meeks and Chase Budinger all were given immediate rotation minutes within the first two weeks of their NBA careers.
It's also true that a number of players were given plenty of opportunities and fizzled. However, I find it very interesting that there's really no example of anybody "earning their minutes" and turning into a highly valuable player. James Johnson and Gerald Henderson are hardly the heartfelt bootstraps success stories that encourage little kids to work hard.
This survey was a bit too cursory to totally dismiss the idea that it's possible to "earn your minutes" in the NBA. However, given the Blazers organization's history with this stuff, I think it's fair to categorize McMillan's words as cliched tripe. And though I don't encourage kneecapping anybody, if Nolan Smith and Elliot Williams are looking for a well-made club, they should get in touch with me.