One of the topics discussed Thursday morning on 670-AM WSCR’s “Mully and Hanley Show,” on which this writer is a weekly contributor, was the Bulls already utilizing a seven-man rotation in early March, as the team approaches a six-game home stand beginning with Friday night’s game against Memphis at the United Center.
Since his squad has gotten healthy — cross your fingers that All-Star center Joakim Noah’s thumb injury is nothing serious — Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau has essentially used only sixth man Taj Gibson and backup point guard D.J. Augustin, both of whom basically play starter’s minutes, off the bench, with rookie swingman Tony Snell and veteran center Nazr Mohammed to fill in the gaps. This isn’t really anything new for Thibodeau, but before there’s a public outcry consisting of the typical refrain that he’s overworking his roster, consider that not only are individual minutes down for the Bulls, but the coach has given them more days off from practice this season than in any season in his four-year tenure, including the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign.
Jimmy Butler, at 37.2 minutes per game, ranks seventh in the league in the category, despite inheriting former All-Star small forward Luol Deng’s ironman and defensive-stopper role. Noah, at 34.2 minutes a night, is tied for 35th in the NBA, and hasn’t shown any signs of the plantar fasciitis that’s plagued him throughout his career rearing its ugly head thus far, while fellow starters Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Carlos Boozer, along with reserves Gibson and Augustin, are each hovering around the 30-minute mark nightly.
It helps that their coach, perhaps learning from the Bulls’ injury-riddled seasons of the past, hasn’t held practices on a lot of days where a mandatory full session was considered automatic before, and instead of the Berto Center, game-day morning shootarounds are now always at the United Center, allowing players to not have to worry about navigating mid-day Chicago traffic from the northern suburbs of the city to downtown, something that also is a look ahead to next season, when their new practice facility is scheduled to be intact.
But a kindler, gentler Thibodeau began to emerge back in November, before the Bulls’ circus trip, when Derrick Rose was still healthy. Behind the scenes, players were chafing under his usual demands — a natural occurrence, given it’s a veteran-laden team that’s already very familiar with his message — and instead of living up to his stubborn stereotype, Thibodeau accepted that he had to back off a bit, rather than keep pushing.
Whether it was keeping the team afloat emotionally through Rose’s devastating season-ending injury, a rough December slide, Deng’s trade in January, nurturing then-newcomer Augustin or fostering a better relationship with Noah, Thibodeau demonstrated the understanding that there’s more to coaching than strategy, game preparation and barking out calls from the sidelines.