Bulls fans remember April 28, 2012, like they remember the day they learned Santa Clause was not real. It was the day that the championship hopes, once vibrant and alive, collapsed in a heap on the ground, clutching its left knee.
In the final two minutes of an already-decided playoff game between the top seeded Bulls and the eighth-seeded 76ers, Derrick Rose, the best athlete in Chicago since Michael Jordan, drove the lane, did his trademark jump step, leaped in the air flailing about, passed the bull to Kyle Korver, then folded on the ground towards the baseline. Rose had had countless minor injuries all season, which caused him to miss about a third of the Bulls games all year, but now supposedly he was back and better than ever, except, of course, for the ACL that he had just torn. It ended the Bulls season. They would push the series against the inferior 76ers to six games, but they would become only the fourth top seed in NBA history to lose in the first round of the playoffs.
All the fingers immediately pointed to the coach, Tom Thibodeau. He should not have been in the game at that point, they said. And just like the year before, fans, media, coaches alike, questioned Thibodeau’s psychology. In 2011, the Bulls again had the best record in the NBA and had beaten the star-powered Miami Heat three times out of three in the regular season. Yet, when the Eastern Conference Finals rolled around, Miami dispatched of the Bulls in five games. The team’s role players like Luol Deng and Joakim Noah looked slow and worn out, and Derrick Rose was ineffective, and for the first time, Thibodeau’s strategy was not fully supported.
Tom Thibodeau is widely regarded as the best defensive mind in the NBA. When he was an assistant in Boston under Doc Rivers, the Celtics were always among the league’s best in points allowed. After the Bulls fired Vinny del Negro in 2010, Thibs, as he is affectionately referred to, was the front-runner for the job from the beginning. And his defensive reputation followed him, as the Bulls were atop the NBA defensively in each of his first two seasons as head coach. His record reflected this, as well, because the Bulls were the NBA’s top team in those two years.
However, players often dealt with nagging injuries that they would always choose to play through. Joakim Noah had plantar fasciitis. Luol Deng had bone chips in his wrist. Carlos Boozer had a calf. Derrick Rose had an ankle. But they would always play through it. Whether it was the players’ own personal prerogative or the culture pressed on them by Tom Thibodeau is not clear, but one thing is perfectly clear: Thibs wants, and needs, to win every single game, regular season, postseason, preseason.
This is often the only criticism that befalls the brilliant coach. Bulls fans had not seen a coach of the year in Chicago since Phil Jackson in 1996, but Thibs brought one home in 2011. Fans love his vein-pulsing screaming and his perpetual pacing on the sidelines. They love that he has never married and dedicates every second of his life to basketball. But they could do without seeing their star center limping up and down the court. Noah and Deng have been among the league leaders in minutes in each of the last three seasons, despite the nagging injuries, some of which have required surgery.
The obvious reason for Thibs’ stubbornness is his love of defense. He plays guys who he trusts in that regard, and Jimmy Butler, Noah, and Deng are three of the best defensive players in the game today. He plays rookies little more than garbage time because of this lack of trust. He develops the rookies well in practice—see Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson—but he will rarely let them sniff the court. Thibs uses what is essentially a seven man rotation to play forty-eight minutes of basketball, and this is–at minimum–taxing on the players, if not detrimental to future performance.
Thibs’ harshest critics point to another successful coach, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, as an example of how to use his players as humans playing basketball, rather than robots. Last season, in a throwaway game in December against Miami, Popovich held out his three stars in order to rest them for the long haul. The league had planned on this being a prime game, since the Spurs and the Heat were two of the league’s best. The Spurs were fined $250,000 for this, but Popovich did not mind too much, since the Spurs lasted the grind of the season and went to the NBA finals. If more proof is needed that Pop’s style works, just look at the four titles he has won since the Bulls won their last one in 1998.
As we head into a new season, one that returns Derrick Rose after his long layoff from ACL surgery, the Bulls are expected as a favorite to win it all this year. With Deng’s wrist still nagging him, Noah’s plantar still full of fasciitis, and Rose essentially still rehabbing, minutes of the team’s three best players will be under a very large microscope. No one wants him to go back on his drill sergeant style, but no one wants another season full of limping and soreness and another playoff loss to Miami. Thibs will more than likely look to his bench a little more, particularly veterans like Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy, and chances are rookie Tony Snell will get more playing time than Marquis Teague did as a rookie last year. He may drop a game or two down the stretch because of it, but with fresh legs from the league’s best defensive squad, maybe that never-present smile will appear when the Bulls finally get over the Miami hump come May.
Photo courtesy of http://www.nba.com/bulls/sites/bulls/files/thibodeau_cotm_110401.jpg