After a strong start to the season, the Chicago Bulls have fallen to fifth in the Eastern Conference at 30-20.
In January, the Bulls went 8-9. They have lost three games in a row and six of their last ten.
Thought to be a contender to win the Eastern Conference, the Bulls now look dangerously close to falling apart. Derrick Rose’s play has been up and down, center Joakim Noah can’t get healthy, breakout star Jimmy Butler is regressing each month, and there seems to be tension between coach Tom Thibodeau and the front office.
At the center of it all is Thibodeau. While Thibodeau is one of the better coaches in the NBA, making the Bulls a perennial playoff team despite a glut of injuries each year, his glaring weakness is minute management for players.
In an age of the NBA where player health and workload are monitored more closely than ever, Thibodeau defies recent trends. When forward Luol Deng was on the team, he led the NBA in minutes two years in a row, and Butler is doing so this season, playing an absurd 39.8 minutes per night.
Pau Gasol, at 34 years old, is averaging 35 minutes per game, his highest in three years. Noah has been playing through injuries all season long, yet still averaging 31 minutes per game.
Thibodeau continues to disregard the notion that he overworks players. When asked about that perception, he said (via USA Today’s Sam Amick):
“No. Listen, I’ve been around a long time. There are so many different ways to pace your team. Like everyone, (outsiders) look at minutes but they don’t know what’s going on in practice… You have to have core values. What do you believe in? Do you believe in hard work? Do you believe in discipline? Do you believe in conditioning? Because those are the things I know that do work.
“… The regular season is important. Your meetings are important. Your walk-through is important. Everything is important. You want to be a championship team, there’s a price to pay. And that’s what you have to do. There’s no shortcuts. You can’t shortcut your way to success.”
There’s evidence that heavy minutes are wearing certain Bulls players down, particularly Butler, who began the season as a possible MVP candidate. From November to January, Butler’s minutes have hung around 40 per night, but his points per game and field goal percentage have decreased each month. According to the Wall Street Journal, Butler has run an NBA-high 126 total miles this season.
Bulls players haven’t thrown Thibodeau under the bus in any way — Gasol actually said Thibodeau’s practices aren’t that hard — but the things coming out of the locker room after losses aren’t encouraging, either. Refrains about committing to defence — which has fallen to 13th after being ranked 2nd and 5th the previous two years — communicating and being more consistent don’t present a united front.
There have also been a few hazy, behind-the-scenes stories about Thibodeau’s relationship with the rest of the organisation.
According to Bleacher Report’s Sean Highkin, there’s tension between Thibodeau and the training staff about minute restrictions. Highkin reports that control over playing time has been given to head trainer Jennifer Swanson.
“Final say over player availability has been taken completely out of his hands. It was the training staff that imposed the 30-minute limits on Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah early in the season as they recovered from knee injuries,” Highkin reports.
Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe mentioned the same issue on an episode of the “B.S. Report.” Simmons mentioned the issue with Thibodeau and Swanson, saying, “Apparently [the Bulls] rely on her to the point that it makes Thibs a little uncomfortable. And she’s actually telling management how many minutes guys should play, and that’s a lot of the conflict.”
Thibodeau and the Bulls management haven’t always had the most harmonious relationship. Contract extension negotiations for Thibodeau extended into training camp in 2012, and there are rumblings each season about Thibodeau’s future with the team.
As is the case most of the time, it’s difficult to gauge whether the Bulls are just in a slump or if this is a bigger issue. Thibodeau and the Bulls are often said to be at odds, but Thibodeau returns each season and the Bulls make the playoffs.
However, from the outside, it doesn’t look like a good situation.
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