Luol Deng (Getty Images)
Any NBA observer with half a game's credit to his or her name can just about sign off on the Eastern Conference coming down to the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls sometime this spring. Fans that don't tune into NBA ball during the regular season because it feels as a type of exhibition of sorts aren't entirely off in that regard, knowing that the best team will usually prevail in a way that doesn't resemble the unpredictable baseball playoffs or the one-and-out scenarios that dot college basketball, NCAA football, and the sainted NFL. In a litany of seven-game series, spread out over two months, things have a way of righting themselves.
So why play and/or obsess over this regular season, even if it's both limited (and extended, because these teams really should be playing 55 games in this term, at most) by owner greed? Because you build up that capital. If you're the Chicago Bulls, you peel off 16 wins in 19 tries to start the season so that you can take advantage of someone like Deng going down. Because everyone, from Los Angeles to Chicago to Miami, eventually goes down.
It's not just depth that allows for the time off, as Deng recovers. Having the much-improved Ronnie Brewer around to take over the small forward slot is a luxury, but at some point depth can be overcome by top-heavy talent. What usually can't be overcome is a head start in the standings, something the Bulls have earned with their cohesion and tough play to start the year. No, the 3.5-game lead they boast over the sixth-place (!) Miami Heat isn't insurmountable, even between now and the All-Star break, but it helps.
And this is why you sit Deng until that All-Star break, at least. Because he's earned that time off.
We don't trust the Bulls to make that call. Even on Tuesday, as word filtered down about Deng's significant injury (the same one that Kobe Bryant is taking shots for, before every game to much acclaim), Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was referring to Deng's injury as "a pain tolerance thing," which seems descriptive at best and passive/aggressive at worst.
Nobody respects Deng as much as the reigning (and deserving, again) Coach of the Year. Thibodeau continually points out how Deng means more to Chicago as any player, including MVP Derrick Rose, and about how much Luol's all-around gifts are the biggest reason behind many a Bulls win. And, with 78 regular-season wins taken over the team's last 101 games, the Bulls have won quite a bit.
But the note that began all can also destroy. This team has relied on Thibodeau's consistent brilliance to peel off all these wins, but they come at a cost. And that cost, as NBA.com's John Schuhmann pointed out on Monday night, also has Thibodeau putting Joakim Noah (who was hobbled with a sprained ankle and in walking boot last week) into a game up 17 with less than four minutes left against one of the worst teams in the NBA.
Deng's injury, yell it to anyone who cares to listen, has absolutely nothing to do with Thibodeau playing him for 39 (fourth in the NBA) and 38 (third) minutes per game over last season and this one, but for Bulls fans wary of Deng's many fatigue-related injuries that dotted the first six years of his career, it's more than a little worrying. Especially when he's surrounded by subs waiting for a rebound at the free-throw line, tugging at his shorts, with the Bulls up 20 with three minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
All this is armchair speculation, which would make sense if we actually owned an armchair, but the combination of Thibodeau's unrelenting passion, Deng's willingness to play through any number of injuries (such as a fractured leg, a few years ago), and Chicago's team-wide winning obsession (seriously, we love these guys) all add up to an outfit that could think "win now" and lose sight of what really counts (accurately, to both fair weather and NBA obsessives alike) in May and June. The fact that Thibodeau and Deng actually differed on whether or not Deng was shooting around on Tuesday (Thibs says he was, Deng disagrees) adds to the worry.
This is what you earn, when you start off by winning 16 of 19. You get to sit Derrick Rose's turf toe injury on the odd night. He doesn't have to miss four straight and then come back for good -- you can platoon him like baseball managers have done for years when dealing with players working through wear and tear maladies. He can miss the New Jersey game in preparation for the Miami battle later this week. Or, heaven forbid, in May. The Bulls respect the potential of a loss to New Jersey as much as they do one to Miami, and that's a result of Thibodeau's fantastic coaching and their own mettle. There aren't many letdowns, so it's OK to treat opposing teams differently from night to night.
Sitting and stewing and planning and taking advantage of the fantastic play of reserves like Brewer, C.J. Watson, Mike James and Omer Asik isn't the same as getting fat and sassy and happy with what you've done so far. No, 16 wins spread out over the first 30 days of a regular season means absolutely nothing; at least, absolutely nothing to everyone but these Bulls. They've cared enough to act like professionals and pile up these victories, and they should care enough to make sure they have a healthy "most important player" as they tear into the home stretch of the season following the All-Star break.
Deng has earned this (tough) break. Now give him a chance to help his team earn its first championship in 14 years. Let him heal. Relying on Dr. Kobe Bryant for advice will get you nowhere.
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