CHICAGO – If there is one coach in the NBA who looks like he might enjoy hitting himself in the head because it feels so darn good when you stop, it is Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau. That essentially is what this season has been like for him and the Bulls, and rather than simply enduring it, Thibodeau seems to have embraced it.
“You’re always trying to learn. You never want to stay the same,” Thibodeau said the other night, reflecting on the curve he’s traveled since taking over the Bulls in June 2010. “Y’know, I like going through things that are challenging. This season is certainly challenging.”
Uh, yeah. Chicago has been without the services of 2011 MVP Derrick Rose all season — and about six weeks longer already than it reasonably expected, based on Rose’s projected recovery time from left knee surgery last May. Veteran shooting guard Richard Hamilton has been equal parts “Rip” and R.I.P., missing nearly half the team’s games for the second straight year.
Lately, the All-Star tandem of center Joakim Noah and all-purpose forward Luol Deng have fallen to injury flare-ups. Yet Chicago has been comfortably over .500 since late December, clinched a fifth consecutive postseason berth, and still has a shot with one week left at gaining homecourt in the first round. There are those who think Thibodeau has done his best work yet.
That’s no small achievement, whether true or just kinda close. In 2010-11, after years of waiting for the opportunity, Thibodeau took over a .500 team and — adding Carlos Boozer and a newly upholstered bench — tied the NBA record for most victories (62) by a rookie head coach. He (and Rose) got Chicago to the conference finals for the first time since Michael Jordan roamed United Center.
Last season, despite the short post-lockout prep time and an increase in injuries, the Bulls got a little better at 50-16 (.758 vs. 756 in 2010-11). Their offensive/defensive ratings were 107.4/98.3 compared to 108.3/100.3 the year before. The Bulls allowed the fewest points per game (88.2) by any team in eight years, while leading the league in scoring margin and rebounds. Thibodeau reached 100 victories faster than any other coach in league history and ran the Bulls’ streak without suffering consecutive losses to 86 games (Feb. 2011 to April 2012) .
Then Rose went down near the end of the playoff opener against Philadelphia. Noah followed days later with a badly sprained his ankle and the Bulls’ clipped postseason and plans for much of 2012-13 circled the drain.
Sure enough, this season Chicago has dropped two in a row nine times. Only once, though, has that turned into a three-game skid. Its offensive rating is down (103.3, 23rd in the NBA), its defensive rating is up (103.0, sixth), so based on stats alone it ought to be about a .500 team. Yet the Bulls began Thursday — with the New York Knicks in town (8 p.m. ET, TNT) — in fifth place in the East, percentage points in front of Atlanta, long shots to chase down Brooklyn.
“Each year is different, you learn things,” said the taciturm Thibodeau, not generally given to public self-evaluation. “You’re presented with different challenges. It’s how you respond to those challenges that’s important. Our team has repsonsed well overall.”
Last season, when his bench featured reliable options such as Omer Asik, C.J. Watson and Kyle Korver, seven different Chicago players missed a total of 98 games in the 66-game schedule. This season, the maimed-and-missing has just about doubled — 176 games in 77 played so far — and the only reason Thibodeau has used only 13 different starting lineups is the lack of available combinations with so many out. Besides Rose, Hamilton has missed 31, Kirk Hinrich 22, Taj Gibson 14, Noah 13 and Deng 7.
There’s been no getting around the absence of Rose — the Bulls were 9-0 last season when he dished 10 assists or more and 20-3 when he scored 20 points. This season, uh, they’re 1-2 when Hinrich has 10 assists and 2-2 when Hamilton reaches 20. After going 12-6 last season against the West, they’re 11-19 this time. And the home record (22-17) for much of the season has been embarrassing.
Still, the streak-buster over Miami March 27 was one of the NBA’s signature victories and the Bulls are 11-7 when playing without two of their three primaries (Rose and either Deng or Noah). There still is a rumble just beneath the surface in Chicago that if Noah (plantar fasciitis), Deng (hip), Gibson (knee) and Hamilton (back) can be healthier in 10 days than they are at this instant, the Bulls might be trouble for somebody into the second round.
And if, by some divine intervention (Rose has referred all such calls upstairs) the point guard returns as the dynamo he’s rumored to be in closed-door practices … nah, that’s still best-left to the realm of imaginations.
“You have to have a mentally tough team when you face adversity,” Thibodeau said. “For the most part, our guys have done that. The Derrick piece, we knew from the summer so we could prepare for that. We’ve lost some other guys along the way.
“It’s been an opportunity for others to step up and they’ve done so. We have to do it with great intensity and we have to do it collectively, and that’s what gives us our chance.”
See, it’s a typically Thibs season in Chicago. Maybe more so.