Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau probably thought the Chicago Bulls front office was handing him a “minor” minute restriction for Joakim Noah earlier in the season. You know, in the same way the Bulls front office called Noah’s surgery from last May “minor” before pointing out that he’d need at least two to three months to recover from it – hardly minor in the slightest.
Noah has had his moments this season, to be sure, but he’s still at best a B-level version of the player that at times dominated for the Bulls on both ends of the court last season. This is clearly almost entirely due to that knee surgery, which hampered his super-slow start to the season, and has caused him to miss splotches of games here and there as Chicago’s tough 2014-15 has moved along.
Most Chicago observers thought the restriction had been lifted, but Thibodeau pointed to the 32-minute limit on Sunday evening in the hours following Chicago’s loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a matinee game televised by ABC. Noah left the arena without commenting to the media after sitting out all but 19 seconds of the final six-plus minutes in a winnable game over the Thunder.
Thibodeau did comment, reminding the press of minute restrictions and pointing out that Noah played over 31 minutes in the contest – his hands were supposedly tied in the matter. Joakim, in his first comments since that odd back and forth, spoke to the media after the Bulls downed Indiana on Wednesday night. From Nick Friedell at ESPN Chicago:
"It's frustrating," Noah said, his first public comments since before Friday's loss to the Charlotte Hornets. "But I think I'm not the only one who's frustrated sometimes. I think it's part of the grind. But I'm just trying to stay focused on what's important: trying to win basketball games. I'm not trying to get caught up in any noise or anything like that. I don't want to be a distraction. We'll figure it out internally and do what's best for the team."
"I think as coaches, and as an organization, all together, I think we can talk and figure it out," he said. "I think that's fair."
Noah went on to say that “it would be nice” to play down the stretch of close games, because … yeah, it would be nice.
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Joakim Noah had a chance to play down the stretch of that loss to the Thunder, a contest that saw the center/forward contribute 15 points and seven assists, even though Noah entered the fourth quarter having played over 25 and a half minutes over the first three quarters. Had Thibodeau shaved some of those minutes down, given a few token minutes to seven footers like Nazr Mohammad and Cameron Bairstow, and had he kept himself from playing Noah nearly the entire first half the fourth quarter, Noah would have been available for the final chunks of the game.
Instead, Thibodeau either failed to think on his feet, or he put together a very public and nationally-televised protest prior to reminding the press that his hands were tied by Chicago’s anti-win front office that wants to give every kid a trophy after the game win or lose.
Because Thibodeau is one of the NBA’s great coaches, and because he’s so fantastic at thinking on his feet, all signs point to the latter. Just six minutes on the bench, spread out over three quarters (120 damn seconds a quarter), could have allowed Noah to play the entire fourth quarter and still hit for just 32 minutes in the contest.
Even mathematical dumb-dumbs like the guy writing this column can figure that out. For Thibodeau to have passed on that approach means either that a nationally televised game between two hopeful championship contenders got away from him, or that he was staging a public hissy-fit. Neither version of Tom Thibodeau, in this instance, comes out looking good. And it’s to Thibodeau and his front office’s great shame that they can’t figure this out.
Joakim Noah, as with most Bulls, wants to play every possible minute. Thibodeau wore Noah into the ground for two years prior to 2012-13, keeping him in games that were long decided and ignoring data (data the Chicago Bulls didn’t bother to purchase, in spite of routinely ranking as one of the NBA’s most profitable teams) that showed that Noah’s workload and running habits ranked him as perhaps the NBA’s weariest player.
In 2012-13, with Derrick Rose out, Thibodeau continually played Noah for minutes that no NBA center should play, and constantly pushed him to return to game action even when it was clear his plantar fasciitis issues (caused by overuse) were too painful for him to overcome. Thibodeau’s unwillingness to relent was as obvious 27 months ago as it is now, which is why the Bulls front office created the minute restriction.
Chicago’s front office hardly looks saintly in this instance, either, as they tolerated Thibodeau’s overuse for far too long. Thibodeau didn’t mind in the slightest relaying that the knee injury that resulted in “minor” surgery last May had been bothering Joakim Noah for “probably the whole second half of the year,” even though Noah missed just one game in the second half of 2013-14 for the Bulls, playing 35.3 minutes per contest.
Thibodeau hasn’t exactly adhered to the 32-minute rule himself in 2014-15, as Joakim Noah has played over that mark in 24 of the 57 games he’s played this season. Six of those contests saw Joakim play within 60 seconds of 32:00, it should be noted.
Noah hasn’t topped 32 since he played nearly the final 10 minutes of a home win over Minnesota on Feb. 27. The Bulls weren’t blowing the Timberwolves out in that contest down the stretch of that win, Taj Gibson left the game after just nine minutes with an ankle sprain that still has him sidelined, and Pau Gasol had to sit out that night with illness, so you can see why Thibodeau would raise a hackle had the front office taken offense to Noah’s nearly-38 minute night.
Thibodeau and the Bulls’ front office have put themselves in this situation, though, and they’re leaving the team’s heart and soul to answer for it. This is hardly a dignified approach for a player that deserves far better.
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