Since the Tom Thibodeau Era began in Chicago, the Bulls have been considered the closest thing the NBA has to an NFL team. The rugged defense, the embracing of physicality and the ridiculous minute loads all contributed, but it was primarily due to their underdog Next Man Up mentality. Well, that and the blatant mismanagement of injuries. Unfortunately the “we have more than enough to win” mantra became necessary because of those injuries, which befell literally every important player at some point, not just Derrick Rose.
Consider how injuries have affected all of their playoff runs. In 2011, Omer Asik broke his leg in the Eastern Conference Finals against Miami. He was allowed to try to play through it and (shockingly!) could not. While everyone remembers Rose tearing his ACL against Philadelphia in 2012, the one that gets lost is Luol Deng, ironically the only major player to not miss significant time during the Thibs Era, playing through a torn wrist, which he never did get surgery for after eschewing it to play for Great Britain in the London Olympics. Joakim Noah was also lost midway through the series with a nasty ankle injury.
2013 was perhaps the worst of all. Rose missed the playoffs while continuing to manage his knee. After returning too soon, Taj Gibson was hampered by an MCL injury that he re-aggravated. Noah struggled with plantar fasciitis for months, limiting his effectiveness for much of the Brooklyn series. In addition to playing through the wrist again as well as a fractured thumb, Deng, despite being ruled day-to-day, was sidelined after a severe reaction to a spinal tap that saw him lose 15 pounds and fear for his life. Gibson and Nate Robinson were vomiting on the bench due to the flu. On top of all that, the Bulls didn’t help their cause by playing the ever-brittle Kirk Hinrich 60 minutes in the famed triple-OT Game 4 win over the Nets. Just like Deng, he was termed day-to-day. Just like Deng, he wouldn’t play another game that season.
This time last year, the Bulls stayed healthy other than Rose (torn meniscus) for much of the regular season, but after trading Deng to Cleveland in early January, Jimmy Butler played a preposterous 41.4 minutes per game. He was noticeably exhausted at times during the first-round loss to the Wizards, and even admitted as much after playing all 53 minutes of Game 2, saying “[it’s] only a mental state. Once you hit a certain point, it’s just like you can’t get more tired than this.”
Also, while a career-best season from Noah earned him Defensive Player of the Year and All-NBA First Team, he joined Pau Gasol and Ben Wallace as the only centers at 28 years or older in the last dozen years to play 80+ games at 35 minutes a night. Come playoff time, Noah was dominated by Nene as he privately dealt with a knee injury. After the series ended, Noah admitted the knee was bothering him, but that it wasn’t an excuse. Thibs was even more revealing, saying, “His knee has bothered him for a while. Probably the whole second half of the year.” Despite being armed with that knowledge, Noah’s minutes per game rose from 34 to 37 after the All-Star break.
The dramatic highs and lows, the obsessive curmudgeon who clashes and even trolls his superiors, the constant Patients of the Week, the fact that it’s yet to be lupus: the Bulls are essentially the real life version of House. The injury bug just seems to be something the franchise can’t shake. However, as any doctor knows, not all germs are bad, and this year, the continued onslaught of injures may have actually saved Chicago’s season.
Had the Bulls been as healthy as last year, the evidence from Thibodeau’s career suggests they’d be in much worse shape than they are now. At 38.8 minutes per game, Butler leads James Harden and Kyrie Irving by nearly two minutes per contest for most in the league. That would be the largest gap between first and second in 20 years and the second-largest in the last 30. Had Butler not missed as many games this season, he would have crossed the 3,000-minute threshold, a number that’s all but extinct. Over the last decade, that number has slowly tapered off, from 20 players who did so in 2006, to 11 in 2010, to three last year and none this season, barring a sizable jump from Harden over this final week of the season.
As it stands, Butler will play a maximum of 66 games and will in all likelihood play over 2,500 minutes, which would be just the 13th such season since the merger. (By the way, the last to do it? Kevin Durant, who played every game of the lockout season, and book-ended it with two 3,000-minute seasons before and after, plus the 2012 Olympics. No wonder the guy got hurt.) He’s also the only player in the top 50 of total minutes played to have missed 15 games.
Instead of supplying star rookie Nikola Mirotic and Tony Snell with consistent workloads to be prepared should one of the veterans get injured, or at the least be another tactical option in a seven-game series, Thibodeau preferred to ride his vets. In his first year with the Bulls, Gasol became the only 34-year-old center (part or full-time) in the last decade to play 2,500 minutes, as well as the first center-eligible player to play 2,500 minutes in a season at even 31 years old since Tim Duncan in 2009.
Noah’s maintenance program and nagging injuries for Gibson gave Mirotic an opportunity he wasn’t guaranteed to get. It seems like eons ago, but Mirotic was routinely playing under 10 minutes a game to start the season. Gibson missed six games around Thanksgiving after rolling his ankle against Portland. In those seven games (Portland included), Mirotic averaged 12.7 points on 49.1 percent shooting plus 43.5 percent from deep to go with 8.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.4 blocks in 27.4 minutes per game. The very next game, Mirotic played eight minutes in a home loss to Golden State in which Draymond Green shattered his career-highs across the board and the Warriors’ offense demolished Chicago by exposing the deficiencies of the Noah-Gasol combo.
Mirotic’s role wasn’t even solidified after dominating the second end of a back-to-back in the Grindhouse, where the Bulls sans Rose and Gibson beat the Grizzlies largely because his shooting, 6-6 from beyond the arc, rendered Zach Randolph unplayable. That was a week before Christmas and it took until March 20 for Mirotic to play even 20 minutes in a game when Chicago’s frontcourt was healthy.
Limping through the back half of the season also gave the Bulls much-needed time to breathe. They started the year as possibly the most up-and-down team in the league, marked by dealing the Warriors one of only two losses at Oracle all season, then giving away an agonizingly bad double-overtime game to the Lakers. They’ve beaten every team in the league save for Atlanta. (They’ll get one more crack at them in Game 82.) They’ve also lost twice to Detroit and been beaten handily at home by Boston, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Indiana, Miami, Orlando and Utah.
Every game had become a referendum on whether they could reach the Finals. One night it was, “Rose scored 30! He’s back!” Later that week, the tone would flip to “Noah looks gimpy. They’ve got no shot.” This was a team that has always thrived as the underdog, the team that has been slighted. After LeBron James left Miami and Paul George broke his leg, the East lacked a clear favorite. Many picked Cleveland, understandably, to make the Finals, but it was the Bulls whose window had opened. It was “their time,” and the expectations appeared to counter how they function best.
Fast-forward to April: Atlanta has run away with the top seed and the Cavs have slowly become the juggernaut many anticipated. A discussion of the East Playoffs often features those two teams, and those two alone. Even the most ardent Bulls believers are prepared for failure. No one’s pick out of the East, the spotlight is gone, and they’re better off for it.
Back to being the underdog, the rest of the East won’t know what’s coming. How could they? The Bulls themselves aren’t even sure. The only thing that’s remotely an approximation is a small sample in mid-February where the Bulls got five games in with Dunleavy back before Rose went out. The results: 4-1 with a 10.5 net rating (107.5 offense/97.0 defense, per NBA.com), though that very well might be noise due to All-Star break-related factors. The always-candid Noah admitted, “Usually at this time, everybody kind of has the luxury to know exactly who is playing, what the rotations are. We don’t have that luxury because of various reasons. We just have to keep building. I still believe in this team.”
Had Chicago been injury-free this season, it’s possible they’d be heading into the playoffs with more cohesion but without maximizing their talent the way they’ll have to considering the challenges Atlanta and/or Cleveland will pose. A bench led by Gibson and Hinrich with doses of Mirotic and Aaron Brooks just won’t put enough talent on the floor. The NBA playoffs are not dissimilar to baseball’s postseason: sometimes the only way to win is to trust the young but wild flamethrower who can hit 100 on the gun.
The Bulls are certainly walking a tightrope, as Rose will only have a couple games back before the real games start, and playoff series are tough enough to win without the added task of re-calibrating the pecking order on offense and communication on defense. In the big picture, though, Butler got some needed time off, Mirotic emerged, Noah came through his minute restrictions looking more and more like his old self, and ultimately, Rose will have played about 50 games this season plus be available for the playoffs for the first time in three years.
More than enough to win? Thanks to some fortuitous injuries, that might finally be true.