DEERFIELD, Ill. — “He’s a work in progress.”
On the surface, those five words don’t mean much, but given that Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau has been harping so much on the importance of practice and every player on the roster participating, his description of All-Star center Joakim Noah following Tuesday’s session at the Berto Center could be considered less than flattering, especially coming on the heels of one of his screeds about—you guessed it—the importance of practice.
“You want to be consistent. I don’t know if we ramped it up [in extended practices Monday and Tuesday]. The good thing is we had everyone participate. I think that’s critical. I’m not surprised that some people are not in rhythm yet. You can’t miss an entire training camp or a good chunk of it and expect to play well. You have to put the time and work into it,” Thibodeau explained.
“You can do all the conditioning on the side that you want, if they’re not participating in the contact and you’re not competing – competing is what gives you an edge. You can ride a bike forever, you’re not competing. You have to get used to competing. This is a competition. It’s not a show, it’s a competition. You’ve got to go after people and that’s what we’ve got to get back to.
“The training camp part of it is so important. That’s your start, it’s your foundation. You can see when guys miss, particularly early on, it takes something away. We have to regain that and we have to understand how we regain that, and that’s everyone putting forth the necessary work so that the team can improve. You start off putting your game together in the fall piece by piece individually, and then when camp opens it’s putting your team together in totality. You need everyone to practice. This is a team sport, it’s not an individual sport, it’s a team sport,” he went on to say. “We have a core of guys that have been here for a long time now. So the challenge now becomes how quickly everyone can get on the same page.
Without being prompted, Thibodeau even went as far as to laud the work ethic of starting swingman Jimmy Butler, who missed three preseason games with a left-knee bruise, as an example of what he expects out of his players: “Jimmy Butler has missed a significant amount of time but he’s been working his tail off. He’s working hard in practice, getting here early, staying late, and coming in at night. I’m confident that he’ll be playing well again. He’s putting the work into it. That’s what you have to do. We need everyone. It’s not a Derrick issue. This is a team issue. This is a Bulls’ issue.”
Given that the only other two players who missed time during the exhibition campaign—superstar point guard Derrick Rose, who was sidelined due to precautionary measures in the Bulls’ excursion to Brazil, routinely stays long after practice for extra shooting, and veteran Kirk Hinrich can hardly be blamed for adhering to the league’s concussion protocol, as well as tending to a shoulder injury suffered simultaneously in a home win over Indiana—all signs point to the coach not being currently pleased with Noah, who is averaging six points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.3 blocks in the team's first three regular-season contests.
The center slipped on a wet spot during the first week of training-camp practice and although he managed to suit up in a preseason win over Detroit, that was the only exhibition game he played in before making a not-so-surprising start in the regular-season opener in Miami. While Noah has been active on defense, a presence on the glass and is demonstrating glimpses of regaining his offensive timing—particularly as a playmaker and at least showing the willingness to launch mid-range jumpers, aspects of his game displayed in Friday’s upset loss in Philadelphia—the player Thibodeau described as “completely deconditioned” doesn’t seem to be on the good side of his coach, though he admittedly is trying to play catch-up and improve individually, as he said after the Bulls’ defeat at the hands of the 76ers.
Of course, as much as Thibodeau tacitly expressed his displeasure with Noah, an inspired effort –not simply playing hard, the center’s trademark, but executing at a level that satisfies his coach’s high standards—in Wednesday night’s game in Indianapolis, while matched up with Pacers center Roy Hibbert, would go a long way in getting the two parties on the same page moving forward.