Bernstein: Thibodeau Already Pushing Too Hard

By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist

(CBS) — One game. That’s how long the limited-minutes deal for Joakim Noah lasted before the coach got right back to riding his center in a futile effort to beat Cleveland.

So much for the agreement forged between Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and his bosses to keep Noah and Derrick Rose from being overtaxed during their respective recoveries from knee surgery, an arrangement with the proper perspective that having a healthy team for the playoffs is what matters most of all.

The game in front of him remains all that Thibodeau is capable of seeing, and that’s why he kept Noah on the floor for more than 37 minutes Friday night in an overtime loss to the Cavaliers, openly flouting well-considered plans. Rose only logged 25 minutes, but that’s because he rolled his ankle in the second quarter. Had he not, you can bet Thibodeau would have blown past the “limit” for him, too.

It’s probably a coincidence that this happened with John Paxson unable to attend the game for personal reasons, but it also avoided the easy camera cutaway to the VP pacing in his box, watching his coach already go off script. There was no postgame confrontation to be had.

A coach could say that he was down a wing defender going in with the injury to Jimmy Butler, and Taj Gibson’s own ankle sprain in the fourth necessitated more of an emergency plan, validating his decision to extend Noah past the 32-minute average previously decided. A good general manager would tell him that’s utter garbage and completely ignorant of his job responsibilities.

In short, so what? It’s October. The outcome meant nothing. This remains a fundamental Thibodeau problem, this reluctance or inability to coach a season instead of a game. He becomes blinded by the heat of competition, focusing on the next possession instead of the best path to winning an NBA title.

There’s only upside in letting Nikola Mirotic experience the intensity of fourth-quarter minutes in a home opener against a likely playoff foe. Let Doug McDermott get more of a taste of it, too, for that matter. So they play like rookies and you lose. Big deal.

And here we thought Thibodeau was beginning to understand what Gregg Popovich and others in his position do, but he can’t help himself. During times of injury attrition – now a signature aspect of every Thibodeau team’s season – he loves the mantra, “We have more than enough to win.” When he has the luxury of a full roster, however, his coaching demonstrates that’s not really what he believes.

Meanwhile, sources tell 670 The Score that Pau Gasol is also concerned about what is being asked of him physically, and that he and Thibodeau didn’t make it through the preseason without some conflicting understanding of Gasol’s usage in games and expectations for practice. The veteran center is 34, has a history of foot injuries and came to Chicago with an idea of how he’d be handled.

“We will act accordingly and adjust to differing scenarios and situations of the team,” Gasol told the Boers and Bernstein Show in July. “Hopefully I won’t need to play over 35 minutes a game for us to win ballgames, and I think we have enough depth and quality for me not to be in that position.”

Hopeful is the key word. Gasol played 36:30 last night.

Of course it’s ridiculously early for this kind of concern, but that’s exactly the point. According to some reports, Noah has admitted that he thinks his knee is going to be an issue the entire season, and that what was characterized as a “minor” procedure has left him with more pain to endure than initially expected. Rose’s record speaks for itself, and Gasol’s beliefs could not be more clear.

The tense relationship between Bulls management and Thibodeau has simmered along at varying degrees throughout his tenure, with the issue of regular-season minutes for important players a constant source of disagreement. That’s not changing anytime soon.

This Bulls team was constructed to contend for a championship, and the playoffs are 80 games away.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s “Boers and Bernstein Show” in afternoon drive. Follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein and read more of his columns here.

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