BROOKLYN—It's fitting that the Bulls will play the Nets, partially owned by hip-hop icon Jay-Z, Thursday night at the Barclays Center, because Tom Thibodeau embodies one of the Brooklyn rapper's classics: "Never Change."
The Bulls head coach uses a variation of the song's title--off the album, "Blueprint"--as a mantra and just because the regular season is winding down for his injury-riddled team, don't expect him to deviate from his script.
Even in the wake of the left-knee injury top reserve Taj Gibson suffered in Tuesday's loss at Washington, Thibodeau isn't the type of coach to sit players to simply rest his team for the playoffs, like some of his peers.
[RELATED: Gibson re-aggravate knee sprain]
"Well, everybody’s different. It depends on where you are with your team. if you have a younger team, you probably play a little bit more. If you have an older team, you’re looking at rest, you’re looking at who may have a tweak here and there, and I think the challenge becomes when do you rest them? Sometimes teams rest guys at the end and then you lose rhythm going into the playoffs, so I think you’re seeing now that the rest is coming a little bit earlier, so they can play more at the end, so you have some rhythm going into the playoffs, so you have to strike the balance.
"I think it all depends on your team and where you are, injury-wise and stuff like that," he explained. "All the same things go into winning and then the [playoff] seeding takes care of itself at the end. Whoever you have available to play, just go out there and get the job done. It’s whatever your circumstances are. Sometimes you’re not in that position, so there may be some teams where they play guys straight out. Only really the head coach is going to understand how to pace his team going into the playoffs and understanding where you are injury-wise, and that’s an important part of the job."
Unlike Miami's Erik Spoelstra, who rested the superstar duo of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade (as well as starting point guard Mario Chalmers) at San Antonio recently, Thibodeau is more concerned with winning every single regular-season contest, a view his players frequently espouse and was evident even in better times, when the Bulls had the league's top mark the past two campaigns.
“Every team is different and it’s one of two ways to look at it. I don’t really care what other teams do. I care what our team needs and no one mentions when guys are playing big minutes for other teams either. Now, ‘Oh, they’re sitting this guy out,’” he said about his team’s chief rival, whose 27-game winning streak the Bulls ended.
“Well, you may give sit a guy out for a game, you may give him a few nights off and part of that, part of what I think Miami’s done is the byproduct of they've separated themselves. They've put themselves in the position where they could do that and when you look at the minutes that LeBron had, I give LeBron a lot of credit. The guy plays in every game, plays huge minutes for his team and that’s a big part of why they’re in the position they’re in, so we’ll see how it unfolds.”
NBA coaches sometimes don't even wait for the postseason to approach to begin strategically giving players in-season breathers that are unrelated to injury.
Gregg Popovich of the Spurs sent Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, among others, back to San Antonio prior to an early-season game in Miami--which led to raised eyebrows over Spoelstra's timing--prompting a hefty fine from the league, as the game was a highly-anticipated, nationally-televised matchup between two marquee squads.
Even the secretive Thibodeau--he makes a habit of not willingly informing the media in advance when a player is hurt, unless questioned specifically--can understand that a scenario like that hurts fans who pay for tickets and barring injury, expect to see visiting teams' top players.
"Respecting the game is very, very important. But I also think you have the obligation if a guy is hurt or hurting, it’s best to give him the rest," he said. "In my eyes, you do what’s right for the game.
"You have to look at it in totality, too. I think where that player is, in terms of is he an older player, will the rest serve him well, will it serve the team well and getting ready for the playoffs? I think that all factors into it. I think how you pace your team is a huge responsibility for the head coach," Thibodeau continued. "The first part is for the team, but I think you also have to philosophically look with what you believe in, what you believe in is best for your team, your organization, what’s best for your organization. I think that all plays into it."
In contrast with his theories about resting players, Thibodeau’s philosophy on long-term injuries has come into picture, too.
Gibson himself took responsibility for “rushing back” from his injury and re-aggravating it, but it could be argued that the likes of Rip Hamilton, Joakim Noah and Marco Belinelli, all currently sidelined with various ailments, fit their coach’s theory of the difference between hurt and injured, with the latter necessitating being held out of the lineup and the former requiring readiness to play.
“Whoever’s available, get out there and the job done. That’s it. Talk to Fred [Tedeschi, the team’s head trainer]. Whoever can go has to get out there and get the job done. That’s the way we’ve been operating since the All-Star break,” Thibodeau explained. “We’ll see how it unfolds. We’ll see if somebody needs rest. But we’ve got to keep playing.”
Of course, the best illustration of Thibodeau’s stance is the case of Derrick Rose, whom the coach never once utters anything close to impatience about whenever the issue of the former league MVP’s recovery comes up, which is often.
“Whether it’s tomorrow, the next day, five games from now, 10 games from now, the playoffs, next year, it doesn’t matter. When he’s ready, he comes back,” he said, before quipping: “I get concerned about you guys [the media]; Derrick, I’m not concerned about.
“He’s not going to be swayed by anything except being ready.”
Bringing it back to Jay-Z—besides his partial Nets ownership, Mr. Carter also recently made a venture into representing athletes, starting with Yankees superstar Robinson Cano, in a partnership with CAA, the behemoth company that represents Thibodeau—the Bulls coach confirmed that he recently inked the four-year deal he agreed to with the organization at the beginning of training camp.
“As I said before, it’s a non-issue. It’s taken care of,” Thibodeau said, growing irked, presumably because he addressed the issue before last Sunday’s loss to Dallas. “I have [signed the contract].
“It never was an issue. I don’t know how it became an issue,” he continued. “As I mentioned, the lawyers had it. They were changing language and stuff. Quite honestly, I wasn’t paying attention to it. It was done in October.”