A problem isn't really "a problem" until everything begins to crash and burn. Superhero villains aren't dealt with until the first bank is robbed or the first innocent person is shot, the NFL didn't really care about concussions until the lawsuits started piling up, and it isn't hard to draw the real life parallels to FEMA. On Monday night, the Chicago Bulls finally met this moment. Up 27 points to a vaguely threatening Milwaukee Bucks team, the Bulls appeared on their way to back-to-back victories, and, more importantly, putting the problems that arose during the team's three-game "Circus Trip" losing streak behind them, at least momentarily.
And then it happened: those jump shots the Bulls had been hoisting all night started falling flat, Milwaukee got hot, and before you could say "Ersan Ilyasova" Chicago had a red alert on its hands. As Rip Hamilton bricked his final jumper, the Bucks -- the Bucks! -- had completed the incredible comeback for a 93-92 win at the United Center, giving the Bulls their third loss in the last four games. What happened?
You didn't have to look hard to find Tom Thibodeau's blood all over the loss. After a season's worth of evidence suggesting the Bulls' new bench wasn't nearly as potent as the old group, Thibodeau finally snapped. He played his starters for nearly the entire game and refused to go to his bench even as Chicago started bleeding points on the court in the fourth. Luol Deng played all but 42 seconds, and it's not like his fellow starters got much more rest: Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer each played 39 minutes, Kirk Hinrich went for 37, even Hamilton, who had been noticeably absent during crunch-time throughout his tenure in Chicago, was out there for 36 minutes.
That crash and burn? It covers so many avenues. It signals the fault of ownership for allowing it to get so bad this summer, when they chose to save luxury tax dollars over trying to get better. Never forget: this has been maybe the most profitable franchise in the NBA for over two decades, yet remains one of six teams in league history never to pay the luxury tax. The Bulls' problems start and end with ownership that barely cares, a high hurdle to clear for any franchise. Oh, but there are more problems.
Even if this new, crappy bench is a direct result of financial conservativeness, the front office would have been better served to spend their precious few dollars in any other way. Hinrich had a 16-day stretch this month without making a single three-pointer, Marco Belinelli is far from a suitable replacement for the departed Kyle Korver, whom the Bulls literally traded for a cash exception they'll never use, and Nazr Mohammed can't get off the pine. The Bulls' best offseason signing was, somehow, Nate Robinson, and he couldn't even get a fully guaranteed contract.
And then there's the problem no one wants to talk about: Thibodeau's minutes management. It's been an issue long before the Bulls blew this 27-point lead, but no one really cared as long as the Bulls kept winning. With and without superstar Derrick Rose, Chicago still won the most games in the NBA each of the last two regular seasons, largely because Thibodeau is crazy good. Emphasis on crazy. Thibodeau's maniacal commitment to running players into the ground has had consequences and will continue to have consequences.
It's easy enough to spot on the surface level: Deng leads the NBA in minutes, playing 41 per night. That is insane, but it's nothing new for Chicago's warrior small forward: Deng led the league in minutes per game last season and finished fourth the season before. Second in the NBA in minutes? That would be Joakim Noah, who's logging an average of 39.2 minutes per night. No other center cracks the top 15.
Want more concrete examples of minute management gone array? They're everywhere. Who could forget Noah being reinserted into Game 3 of the first round series vs. the 76ers in last year's playoffs despite the fact that he could just barely walk? During a game against the Bucks in February of last season, Luol Deng played 41 minutes even though the Bulls were up by 20 for much of the second half. Most painful of all is how Thibodeau handled Rose during his assortment of injuries last season.
Rose was averaging 36:18 minutes per game before reaggravating a turf toe injury on January 10 vs. the Timberwolves. Rose would sit the next night, but then played 39 minutes two days later and 41 minutes the day after. The Bulls sat Rose for four games -- or seven days -- until he was back on the court playing nearly the entire game. Rose played for a stretch of eight games before spraining his back against the Nets in the ninth. During that run he was averaging 37:17 minutes per night. "The leg bone's connected to the hip bone", ect. I don't need to tell you how the story ends.
This isn't to say Derrick Rose tore his ACL because Thibodeau mismanaged his minutes, but the mounting evidence is hard to ignore. Make no mistake: this is becoming the elephant in the room for the Bulls, and there will only be more hell to pay as this 82-game season continues. Think Deng and Noah look tired now? Wait until a back-to-back night in March, if they aren't injured or ground into a fine dust by that point.
We know what we know about Thibodeau, and it seems unlikely he'll change his ways anytime soon. He's an NFL coach stuck in the NBA, a no-nonsense tactician with brilliant schemes and an exemplary work ethic. Hiring him was the best decision the Bulls have made since they selected Rose over Michael Beasley. He is a huge part of the Bulls' success and deserves to be revered in this city and around the league. But that old phrase 'nobody's perfect'? It would seem to apply to Thibodeau, too. This is turning into a real problem, and there doesn't appear to be an end in sight.