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On Joakim Noah and hazards of ThibsBall

How much blame should Tom Thibodeau take for the Bulls' current injury situation?


A team doesn't elevate so quickly from the rungs of the draft lottery to the conference's elite without a good deal of luck and a lot of savvy planning. The Chicago Bulls had both in their ascent to winning more regular season games than any team in the two seasons that predated the current one. The biggest coup and most improbable bit of luck came in the 2008 lottery when the Bulls capitalized off a 1.7 percent chance to land the No. 1 pick and Derrick Rose. The second was more a stroke of genius than luck -- the Bulls fired coach Vinny Del Negro after he led them to the playoffs in his only two seasons and replaced him with Tom Thibodeau.

You can point to plenty of other reasons why the Bulls have found so much success since the start of the 2010-2011 season, and all of them are accurate. They made smart free agent signings in the summer 2010 after missing out on a second max free agent, instead using the excess cash to form one of the league's most formidable bench units. They found Omer Asik in the second round of the 2008 draft, found Taj Gibson with the No. 26 pick in the 2009 draft, found Jimmy Butler with the No. 30 pick in the 2011 draft. Hell, let's even give them credit for taking Rose over Michael Beasley, Joakim Noah over Spencer Hawes, and for nabbing Luol Deng at No. 7 in 2004. (The player who went before Deng in that draft was Josh Childress, the player who went after was Rafael Araújo.)

But it's still mostly about Rose and Thibodeau, a point that has only been hammered home during this thoroughly exhausting season. The abscense of Rose is the reason the Bulls weren't fighting for 60ish regular season wins, the presence of Thibodeau is the reason they were still able to win 45 games and snag the No. 5 seed. But for as brilliant as Thibodeau is, these playoffs are also reinforcing another thing: the coach's peddle-to-the-floor style is reckless and is probably costing his team in the postseason.

There's no urban dictionary or basketball-reference entry for ThibsBall, but YFBB should probably be in-charge of both. In short, it's a 'win at any cost' attitude that starts from the moment the games begin counting for real. It's putting W's ahead of rest and player development; it's an undying coaching philosophy that says the Bulls have more than enough to win with provided they're working harder and playing their best players longer than the competition. You don't finish with the No. 1 seed ahead of LeBron and co. two years in a row without it. You also might not be missing your two best players with for the second consecutive postseason without it, as well.

Thibodeau is such a fine coach that criticizing him is on par with walking on glass. You have to be careful. With a lesser coach, who knows how formidable the Bulls would be. No one wants him fired. But that doesn't mean that part of the reason the Bulls can be so good could also ultimately serve as their downfall.

This all comes back to Joakim Noah, of course. After seeing Noah hobbled and ineffective in 14 minutes in Game 1 vs. the Nets, it's hard not to think back to his quotes from before the series started, when Noah was ruled doubtful for Game 1 and some wondered if he wouldn't play the entire series. Here's the most troubling quote again:

"I've got a tear in my foot. I've got a tear in my foot, so it is what it is," Noah said. "I'm upset at myself because I let this linger for a long time, and I have nobody to blame but myself. I just wish that I was a little bit smarter. I played games in the regular season that I probably shouldn't have played. It's going to be tough, but these are the cards I was dealt, and I'll just do the best that I can to get back as quick as I can."

Noah was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis for the second time in his career after a Jan. 30 game against the Bucks in which he played 40 minutes in a 16-point win, finishing with 12 points and 12 rebounds. It came at the end of the Bulls' best month of the season, one where Noah was averaging 37.5 minutes per game and posting 10.9 points and 13.2 rebounds.

Noah missed the next three games -- only three games -- before returning. He took it easy in his first game back, playing 23 minutes against Denver, but then was back right where he was before, minutes-wise. He played 38 or more minutes in seven of the 10 February games, the last of which being that amazing triple-double against Hawes and the 76ers where he put up 23 points, 21 rebounds and 11 blocks.

Noah suffered a setback somewhere in March, and played in only one game from March 23 to April 14. He came back to play 14 minutes in the last two regular season games against the Magic and Wizards, and at that point it was clear he was hurting and wasn't the same player.

Look back at that quote again, with Noah questioning his own decision to play. Ball Don't Lie's Kelly Dwyer hit the nail the on the head on the subject on Sunday:

Noah "only" played 13 minutes in the loss, but he could barely get up and down the court, and the Bulls organization should be embarrassed for not acting as the bigger, smarter voice in situations like these, once again clearing injured players for action merely because the players want to give it a go. All players want to give it a go. It’s up to the professionals in an organization to say "no."

Exactly. This isn't second guessing, either. Most of us were saying the same thing in November when we could already start to see the writing on the wall; I even wrote a column about it.

The Bulls are now 11-12 overall in the playoffs under Thibodeau and it doesn't feel unfair to wonder if he's burning his team out in the regular season. Brooklyn's Joe Johnson battled plantar fasciitis too and got it around the same time as Noah. He's moving a lot better than Jo right now, but a look at his game log suggests the Nets weren't super cautious with Johnson, either.

Still, you know a problem when you see one. Who could forget Noah literally limping back out on the court in Game 3 against the 76ers last year after badly hurting his ankle? For Thibodeau, this type of punishment is nothing new. The Bulls respond well to it because they're generally a tough bunch, but sometimes you need to save the competitors from themselves.

The Bulls rolled over in Game 1 against the Nets, something a Thibodeau team can rarely be accused of doing. But when you look at the players on the floor, it's no wonder the Bulls got smoked. Noah plays such a vital role in everything Chicago does defensively. That it looks like he was run into the ground before the playoffs even began could easily become the story of the series if the Bulls can't compete.