By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) In case of emergency, pull necktie.
Forgive me for envisioning Bulls VP John Paxson accosting Tom Thibodeau in the same way he famously did Vinny Del Negro, but somebody has to do something to make the coach understand that the goal of the regular season is not to pile up wear and tear on a team’s most important veteran players.
It’s the lone continuing downside to Thibodeau, who has established himself as a top NBA coach, second only to San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. As good as he is at teaching and preparing, he appears to remain blind to the facts that players are human beings, and that some games matter more than others.
Luol Deng is leading the league with an average of 40.1 minutes per game. He is 27, but already in his ninth NBA season. He recently missed time with a sore hamstring. In the playoffs, he will be expected to be the primary defender of Lebron James, while also providing his All-Star recognized combination of scoring and rebounding.
Joakim Noah – also an All-Star — is sixth in the league with his average of 38.6 minutes. He turns 28 this month, has had repeated problems with plantar fasciitis, and is currently dealing with the latest flare-up of that chronic condition. It’s the same issue that was central to the Del Negro incident in 2010.
What is this team going to look like in the spring, when the outcomes actually count for something?
This is not to mention the expected injuries to the elderly Rip Hamilton and brittle Kirk Hinrich, or even the resurgent Carlos Boozer. Taj Gibson has averaged an insane 43 minutes in the Bulls’ last four games, and he has a history of his own debilitating, bilateral foot problems that necessitated shockwave treatments.
It’s not a deep frontcourt, obviously. Two bigs – Nazr Mohammed and Vladimir Radmanovich — can’t play, and Jimmy Butler has only recently emerged as a trustworthy rotation player. Paxson and GM Gar Forman must know that Thibodeau can reasonably say “What would you prefer I do?” and point to the bench.
I’d prefer that he start finding a way to grab more rest for Deng and Noah, and later on in the year for Boozer, Gibson and others, even if it means bums on the floor here and there. Even if it means (gasp!) losing a regular-season game.
No coach has ever been better at this than the aforementioned Popovich, who annually tops the league’s anonymous survey of GMs as the best coach. Always aware of bigger things, he will tell Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and/or Tony Parker to take a night off, sometimes all three at the same time. He’ll do this on several occasions throughout the year, mindful of preservation.
There’s some kind of nobility in Thibodeau’s relentless competitive spirit, playing every possession as if it were Game 7 of the NBA Finals, but this exercise is not theoretical. Muscles and bones and ligaments have limitations.
Derrick Rose should be a reminder that title dreams are fragile. He is likely to return to action later this month, amid increasing expectations for the Bulls in a weakened conference led by a desultory Miami team that seems to be coasting. Optimists are already envisioning outsized possibilities for a Rose-driven postseason surprise.
Rose’s minutes – like those of Noah in 2010 – will be limited as he works his way back to form. Doctors, trainers and therapists will continue to be consulted along the way, as the front office ensures responsible management on the floor.
Whatever mechanism is in place from the top to enforce that should be used for others as well to benefit the larger goals of the franchise.
Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.
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