Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has turned in perhaps the finest initial three-year run as head coach as anyone we’ve seen in modern NBA history, but for the one massive caveat that points to the series of players to whom he’s given court time despite their suffering from significant injuries. Because Tom recently indirectly copped to past mistakes with All-Star center Joakim Noah, though, we were ready to move on and credit the man for turning a corner when it came to minute allotment.
Then the team’s general manager Gar Forman had to try to explain things away to the Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley. After quoting an “NBA official” that we’re super-sure is in no way affiliated with the Bulls as calling attacks on Thibodeau a “witch hunt,” Forman went into this explanation:
Before becoming the Bulls’ coach, he was an assistant with the Boston Celtics, who were one of the first NBA franchises to embrace basketball analytics. General manager Gar Forman is quick to point out that the Bulls have an analytics department and that minutes played in correlation with injuries is studied.
‘‘It’s hard to generalize,’’ Forman said. ‘‘Different players’ minutes will affect [things in] different ways, so it’s hard to generalize that assumption in whole. We have studied that. I mean, different body types, different years, how many years you’ve played, the age, all those things are factored in.’’
And from everything the Bulls have come up with, they are fully behind how Thibodeau hands out playing time.
‘‘In our scenario, Tom paces the team throughout the year, and we think he does a good job at that,’’ Forman said.
It’s true that this is your “scenario.” It’s also true that this is truly, unabashedly incorrect.
Thibodeau did pace Noah down the stretch of the season, when Noah was incapable of playing due to his plantar fasciitis injury, but that was because he had little choice. Little choice, after playing his center a ridiculous 39.2 minutes per game from October to the start of the 2013, and “easing off” while tossing him out there for 37.4 minutes per game in January and February. A February that saw Noah miss three games to start the month, so as to attend to a plantar fasciitis injury that doesn’t get better after taking three games off and then playing 392 minutes spread out over 10 games. Which is exactly what happened to Noah after he returned from his stint in street clothes.
Worse, if the Bulls did commit to a significant analytics department, they would see that Noah’s minutes per game are unlike those of any other player in the NBA. An ESPN Insider column from Tom Haberstroh from earlier this month details as much:
Noah, who ranks 14th in minutes per game, ran a staggering 2.74 miles per game under the SportVU lens. No one has covered more distance than the high-energy center on a game-to-game basis — and that includes Luol Deng, who leads the NBA in minutes per game with a 38.9 figure. Deng actually came in second with 2.68 miles run per game. Something tells me that Tom Thibodeau won't be satisfied until the top five consists of all Bulls players.
Now, that’s the 14th-ranked Noah after a series of fits and starts that led from him dropping from second to 14th in minutes per game once the plantar fasciitis injury hit.
As Haberstroh mentions, these numbers came from utilizing the SportVU camera technology that 15 out of 30 NBA teams use to analyze their players and opponents. The Bulls, as you’d expect, are not one of those teams — despite ranking as one of the league’s more profitable franchises for a quarter of a century. Seems like an analytics department addition, to use the phrase Forman signed off on, worth sussing out.
So what does this technology tell us? It points out that a 35-minute night from Joakim Noah is unlike a 35-minute night from any other player in the NBA, because he strides up and down the court more than anyone else. And that’s barely getting into his stop/start work within Thibodeau’s brilliant half-court defense, a defense that relies on Noah above all to smartly hedge on any intruders while being able to dash back to the interior to contest a potential close shot and/or grab a rebound.
What you have here is the perfect storm. Noah’s minutes are the most wearing minutes of any player in the NBA — and frankly, this is obvious from an eye test, and eschewing something like SportVU. He was coming off of a significant ankle sprain from last spring as he entered 2011-12, and he has suffered from plantar fasciitis in the past. For those that are unaware, dealing with and “overcoming” plantar fasciitis is like overcoming an addiction. You may be clean for a decade and a half, but you’re always an addict. It’s always in you. And Noah’s run of minutes per game in November and December as akin to locking an addict in a penthouse suite with an endless supply of comped 12-year-old scotch, an eight-ball, and enough hotel matchbooks to make it through those three cartons of Lucky Strikes stacked atop the bar. And the only water bottle available costs nine bucks.
In a huge way, the Bulls front office forced Thibodeau’s hand in this.
The team decided not to pay a large contract for former backup center Omer Asik, letting him go to Houston without any compensation. Because it whiffed in refusing to sign-and-trade for Kirk Hinrich (a necessary acquisition, it must be noted), the team was forced into a set of stricter salary cap laws that made it tough to work around the salary cap.
In a vacuum, picking up veteran big man Nazr Mohammed was a perfect save, but Mohammed showed up to camp out of shape and was not a significant threat until recently — this isn’t because he didn’t receive minutes until Noah went down.
Most important was the handling of backup big Taj Gibson. Because the Bulls and Gibson didn’t work to put pen to paper earlier in the offseason, Gibson appeared to have taken it easy with his offseason regimen, not wanting to injure himself with what could be his lone large free-agent contract still waiting to be offered. He was not in his typical shape, with typical timing, early in the year — mainly because the man was unaware of his future as a Bull until the team and Gibson’s agents finally got it together in late October.
And we’d give the Bulls a break on that part, had they not gone through with just about the same exact scenario in 2005 with Tyson Chandler, then watching as an off-kilter Chandler dealt with a rough 2005-06 as a result. Chandler was traded the following summer in a completely unnecessary move to avoid the luxury tax (the team had signed free agent Ben Wallace the month before); in return the Bulls picked up an expiring contract that they did not use in a trade and let lapse, and Chandler has thrived in the years since.
Because of this lacking depth, an outsider could argue away Noah’s minutes. The problem with this argument is that this is the figurative definition of penny-wise and pound-foolish. The Bulls coaching staff ran Noah to no end racking up wins with a thin bench in the first part of the season, fine, but the team also racked up loss after loss (finishing the season losing 15 out of its last 29 games) without Noah down the stretch.
Part of being a leader means understanding history and likely scenarios, and it was apparent early in the season that this was not a sustainable concept, and it was frighteningly apparent (look at the game tape) that Noah was indeed suffering in February and March after sitting out three games with his plantar fasciitis injury. He just wasn’t right.
While we’re at it, during that gimpy stretch in February and March, it’s worth mentioning that Noah played more than 38 minutes a contest nine times.
And in the five games prior to Noah going down with his plantar fasciitis injury in late January? He averaged 42.4 minutes per game. This is not defendable. In any “scenario.”
1) No center should be playing this many minutes.
2) A player like Noah, who has been documented as doing more running than any player in the NBA while on the court, should not be playing this many minutes.
3) Past plantar fasciitis sufferers should not be playing anywhere near this many minutes.
Thibodeau has come around. His comments to the media over the last month of the regular season spoke of a man who was determined to do whatever it took to help Noah prepare himself to play, even if it meant sitting Joakim out for the rest of the regular season and possibly the playoffs. Thibodeau’s finest hour as an NBA coach may have come on Monday, when his will and basketball IQ led the Bulls through a 48-minute run that seemingly didn’t feature a single misspent possession on either end. It was, as is usually the case with Thibs, breathtaking work.
It was also, unlike what we saw earlier in the season, a diversion from the norm. Before the game, Thibodeau committed to a 20- to 25-minute playing window for Noah — and this is the man who promises absolutely nothing to the press prior to the game. And despite a Brooklyn run in the second half with Noah stuck on the bench, Thibodeau stuck with his play. Joakim played 25 minutes, and the Bulls won. It appears that Tom Thibodeau has figured out yet another way to overcome adversity, while admitting that the “if you can play, you play”-ethos is way, way off.
Now it’s time for the Bulls’ front office to do the same.