The things Tom Thibodeau has accomplished in his tenure as a first-time NBA head coach are remarkable. He took a team that finished 41-41 under Vinny Del Negro in consecutive seasons and immediately boosted it to a 62-win club (the additions of Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer certainly helped). The only two seasons he's worked with a healthy Derrick Rose, the Bulls have improbably secured the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. He was the quickest coach ever to 100 wins. The Bulls' defensive finishes under Thibodeau (including this season) are exceptional: No. 1, No. 1, No. 5, No. 2.
Tom Thibodeau is a great basketball coach. He might have the most impressive resume for a first-time head coach this side of Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. But there's always been a dark side to Thibodeau's success, one that has reportedly strained his relationship with the front office. Thibodeau's teams win in part because they play harder and smarter than the competition on a nightly basis, but there's a cost to such consistent, strenuous effort. Maybe Thibodeau pushes his players too hard, particularly the ones returning from injury.
Last night against the Magic, Thibodeau's penchant to physically punish the roster reared its ugly head again. Jimmy Butler -- in his second game back from a thigh bruise and still recovering from a turf toe injury that sidelined him for 11 games earlier in the season -- played 60:20 in the win over Orlando. Thibodeau laughed the whole thing off:
Thibodeau on Butler playing 60 minutes, a franchise regular-season record: "That's my favorite TV show."— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) January 16, 2014
Butler wasn't as cherry. It sure seemed like he was taking passive-aggressive shots at his head coach:
Butler: "y'all can (talk to me) right now because I can't move." He is sitting on floor with ice packs on knees.— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) January 16, 2014
Butler on possibly playing another OT. "I would have played but 911 would have been on speed dial."— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) January 16, 2014
Asked Butler how he thinks he'll feel tomorrow: "About your age." Touche.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) January 16, 2014
Butler said his thigh bruise was feeling all right. He's more concerned about the turf toe injury that put him out of action almost a month.— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) January 16, 2014
Some tried to make Butler's "accomplishment" -- a new franchise record for minutes in a single game -- a celebration. Joakim Noah joked they should buy him a cake. He knows better, though, and so does anyone who has paid attention to this team the last three and a half years.
Butler's minutes total was simply uncalled for last night. It's not the first time we've complained about abuse to Butler this season, and the player himself is already on record wondering if turf toe will bother him his entire career. He's one of two under-25 players of note on the entire roster and is about to get locked up to a big contract extension following this season. Butler should be treated with extra care, not run into the ground to win a meaningless January game against one of the worst teams in the conference.
While Butler's minutes total was the most striking offense last night, Noah's box score might be just as hurtful. Noah was phenomenal against Orlando, finishing with 26 points, 19 rebounds and six assists, but he also played 49 minutes. It was season-high but nothing particularly out of the ordinary. Noah hasn't played less than 34 minutes in a game since Dec. 30. It may be a fair number for someone who has been healthy the whole season and is unarguably the Bulls' most consequential player. But the lack of foresight from the head coach is really troubling.
Joakim Noah is the light of this Earth, but I fear that light may have an early expiration date. He has something close to a recurring condition in his feet, and he turns 29 years old on February 25. Foot injuries are the worst thing possible for aging big men who rely on athleticism. That's exactly what Noah is. In this truly meaningless season, shouldn't the Bulls be doing all they can to preserve Noah for the rest of his career? It's true this season has been an ongoing nightmare for the Bulls, but the only thing that could make it worse is to see Noah's longevity cut by another foot injury. Thibodeau is walking a thin line right now.
What's so disheartening is how obvious it is that this will never change. Everyone knows it's a problem, from the front office to the fans to the players to Thibodeau himself. That hasn't stopped it from happening every game of every season. It's gotten to the point where I think the question asked in the headline is a legitimate one. Perhaps Tom Thibodeau does more harm than good.
Are the Bulls a great defensive team because of their head coach? Of course, but in basketball, players far outweigh the impact of X's and O's. Thibs is a tactical mastermind, but he can only do what he does because he has had Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson and Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler on the floor. Gaudy regular season win totals are nice, but they don't mean shit if the entire roster is injured in the Eastern Conference finals.
What's more, the system Thibodeau essentially created and implemented is all over the league at this point. Look at what Steve Clifford is doing with the Bobcats this year. The strong-side overload zone defense that is Thibodeau's signature is everywhere now, knocking the Bulls' competitive advantage down a peg or two. The Bulls just do it better than anyone else because they have the players, but it's becoming clear Thibodeau is putting the future of those players in jeopardy. You just don't find another Joakim Noah overnight.
I'm not saying Thibodeau should be canned after the season; simply that it's an argument worth having. At what point does the bad outweigh the good? Unlike other authoritarian head coaches, Thibodeau hasn't seemed to wear out his welcome with players just yet. They haven't tuned him out, and by all accounts love playing for him. Perhaps that says more about the character of the roster than it does about the coach. There's real evidence here of the damage Thibodeau does -- look no further than his decision to reinsert a clearly limping Noah in the 2012 playoffs after he suffered an ankle injury.
It keeps happening. It won't change. Do the Bulls cross their fingers and hope for the best, or take matters into their own hands?
My original headline "Should Tom Thibodeau be fired for player abuse?" was...not well done, and I'm sorry for that. I changed it.