Chicago Bulls fans have been uneasy all season about the one small stain on coach Tom Thibodeau's otherwise sterling resume, and that's the handling of his starters in the late stages of blowout games. Chicago has a terrific bench and is leading the NBA by a wide margin in point differential, topping teams by an average of 10 points per game, but regular watchers of Bulls games will notice Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and especially Luol Deng in the lineups late in what appear to be already-decided games. Complicating things further is the fact that Noah and Deng, due to both fatigue and plain bad luck, have been injury-prone over the course of their careers. And Rose is set to miss his third straight game due to back spasms after missing five games with turf toe earlier in the season.
Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, while not exactly calling coach Thibodeau out, sees a parallel between this mini-controversy and his own time spent with Phil Jackson coaching Bulls teams featuring Michael Jordan. From ESPN Chicago's Melissa Isaacson:
"I'm one of those people who watches and thinks, 'Why don't you get him out of the game?'" Reinsdorf said of Rose. "When Michael was still in the game and he would be in at the end of big wins, I'd say, 'Phil, why don't you take him out?' And Phil would say, 'When I was with the Knicks, an opponent once scored 23 straight points against us at the end of a game to win.' With Phil, he just wouldn't listen. He'd just keep bringing up that same game."
We understand where Reinsdorf is coming from regarding Rose, and while Michael Jordan played some heavy minutes during his time with Chicago, the Bulls owner may have his facts a little botched in this situation.
For one, the game Jackson was referring to was actually a Knicks win. And it's surprising to note that Reinsdorf, who grew up a Knicks fan, doesn't remember the famous Knick win over Milwaukee that saw the team (including Jackson) put together a 19-0 run at Madison Square Garden to finish the game and beat Milwaukee by a point. And I know Jackson wasn't relaying bad facts to curry favor with Reinsdorf, because we've heard him discuss this particular game a couple of times.
Secondly, ardent Bulls fans (and especially those who weren't fretting while watching a player they paid millions a year to) will also recall the fourth quarter after fourth quarter that saw Jordan and Scottie Pippen with bags of ice plastic-wrapped to their knees. Not just out of the game, but with ice on knees. As in, "game over." On top of that, angry Bulls fans threw their fair of vitriol the television's way when Jackson would sit Jordan during long stretches of games, letting his teammates "work things out" while the lead (and game) seemingly slipped away. I was one of them, at times.
Jackson cut Jordan's minutes after taking over the Bulls in 1989, and dropped his minutes even further once Jordan came back from his first retirement. The minutes spiked in Jordan's last season with Chicago, but only because a beat-up Bulls team (with Toni Kukoc playing through injury and Pippen out for the first half of the season) badly needed Jordan to stay afloat as they hung on to win a series of close games.
Jerry's points hold up, but it's the usual mix of fear, fandom, pragmatism, the boss/employee relationship, and happenings 10 (or 20) years ago. And, again, Reinsdorf isn't ripping Thibodeau (who has been masterful, otherwise, in his second season with Chicago) here. We've had issues with Reinsdorf's stewardship from time to time, but he also has done a fine job over the years of staying out of coaching decisions save for asking then-coach Stan Albeck to put a limit on Jordan's minutes in 1986 as he worked his way back from a broken foot.
Reinsdorf is right about Rose, as Derrick prepares to sit out Chicago's Tuesday night game against the lowly Sacramento Kings. The lead-up to it might be a little off, though.
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