CHICAGO – Imagine Hugh Hefner with only one girlfriend. Tony Stewart actually driving 55. Joey Chestnut pushing himself away from the table after just two weenies.
Now imagine Tom Thibodeau getting Derrick Rose back in the Chicago Bulls’ rotation, but with a limit on his minutes. After all, when Rose returns from ACL surgery and rehab on his left knee, he almost certainly will come with strict restrictions on his playing time.
With Thibodeau, the Bulls’ hard-grinding coach, that could be like putting a $150 cap on Keith Richards‘ bar tab.
He is the anti-“Pop,” never unduly resting players who might be able to add a couple of points or burn a few more minutes off the game clock regardless of their fatigue. You buy a ticket to a Bulls game, you never have to worry that Chicago’s key players are going to spend more time planted in seats than you are.
Let’s put it this way: If Thibs were in charge over in Pamplona, Spain, those runs with the bulls would be 26.2 miles long. And los toros would be kvetching.
In the 93-85 victory over New York Saturday night at United Center, Bulls forward Luol Deng played 46:34 minutes. Joakim Noah was on the floor for 44:19 and even Marco Belinelli, subbing these days for injured Richard Hamilton, logged 44:59. Joked Deng afterward: “It’s always tough when after the game, you see Marco icing.”
Deng’s workload over the just-completed stretch of four games in five nights: 41:14, 42:23, 42:25 and finally that 46:34. He has played fewer than 40 minutes only four times in his 19 starts this season and he again leads the NBA with an average of 41.2 minutes. The 27-year-old led the league last season too (39.4) and ranked fourth (39.1) in his first season with Thibodeau in 2010-11.
Noah’s minutes have reached an all-time high as well: 39.8 this season, after never having averaged more than 32.8. He ranks second in the NBA to Deng and played 171:31 of the possible 192 minutes in the 4-in-5 run against Indiana, at Cleveland, at Detroit and vs. the Knicks.
The 6-foot-11 center, also 27, had a career night against the Pistons with 30 points, 23 rebounds and six assists. But his legs were gone for parts of Saturday’s game, until he managed eight points, three boards, an assist and a block in the final quarter.
“I was tired but it’s all worth it right now,” Noah said. “The thing that stinks is when you feel like this and you don’t get the win.”
At the moment, the Bulls (11-8) have enough wins to sit precariously atop the artless NBA Central. But at what price? Both Deng and Noah have dealt with injuries before. Overuse could lead to new ones or cause one ones (Noah’s plantar fasciitis, Deng’s achy left wrist) to flare up.
Thibodeau might not see many options. Besides Rose, Hamilton is out indefinitely with a left foot injury. Guard Kirk Hinrich missed the second half Saturday with a left elbow injury. Backup big Taj Gibson lasted just 11:35 before getting tossed in a 1-2 flurry of technicals from ref Derrick Stafford. And of course, vet Carlos Boozer effectively manages his own minutes, generally by how helpful he is on any given night at one end or the other.
Still, the possibility of Rose returning to action just as teammates such as Deng and Noah go down is a real one. Like those profligate-spending folks in Washington, there is a chance Thibodeau could run Chicago right over the physical cliff.