On this date a year ago, the Chicago Blackhawks were 41-16-5 and enduring or enjoying, depending on how you look at it, a long break from game action. Nonetheless, playoff fever was already taking hold amongst serious hockey fans and would soon spread to the general Chicago sports populace at large.
The Chicago Bulls, meanwhile, were 30-27, having a decent season and many basketball fans were expecting them to make perfunctory playoff appearance but not expecting much beyond that. And most general sports fans would shrug hopefully when you mentioned Derrick Rose really was a good, young player.
A year later, the two teams' respective fates are almost reversed. The Blackhawks are 31-23-6 and, with 68 points, are tied for ninth place in the Western Conference with the Anaheim Ducks and the Dallas Stars.
Most Many Some fans still hold out hope that they can make it to the estimated 96 points it will take to seize the eighth-seed playoff spot. But, even then, a postseason will appearance will likely have a perfunctory, consolation-prize feel to it -- unless the team goes on a miracle run thereafter.
The Bulls, on the other hand, have vaulted themselves into true contender status. And though making it all the way to and through the NBA Finals is hardly a given, they've been too good for too long this season to completely count out.
So with the scene set, the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Cubs warming up in Arizona, and the Chicago Bears drifting toward an uncertain future, let's get down to brass tacks with this month's head coach/manager power rankings. (This is the eighth installment of our rankings. To read the previous one, click here.)
1. Tom Thibodeau
Previous position in power rankings: 1
Why he's here: Coach T came to Chicago preaching defense and, last night's loss aside, he's gotten the team to, for the most part, practice the words emanating from his pulpit. (Editor's note: The preceding sentence was obviously written about Wednesday evening's loss to the Toronto Raptors, not Thursday night's exhilarating smackdown of the Miami Heat.) By and large, the Bulls have been able to keep opponents on the perimeter, tossing up shots ranging from challenging to desperate, and then rebound those missed hoops to an excellent degree. The team is well above league average on offensive, defensive and total rebounds.
He's also been able to maintain the team's success through two major injury losses: Carlos Boozer didn't start the season until Dec. 1 and Joakim Noah didn't play for more than two months following a Dec. 15 win over the Toronto Raptors. Granted, Thibodeau is enjoying the fruits of a MVP-caliber season from Derrick Rose and solid efforts from Boozer and Luol Deng. But for a team that currently ranks 17th in points per game, well below league average, something else must be clicking -- and that's the defense, Thibodeau's speciality.
Where he's headed: He should stay atop our power rankings unless something disastrous happens. Of course, that doesn't mean all is rainbows and sunshine. There are grumblings and anxieties aplenty. Coach T's stubborn insistence on sticking with veterans such as Keith Bogans (over Ronnie Brewer) and Kurt Thomas (over Omer Asik) could seriously hurt the team down the stretch as these older players wear down and other teams take advantage of their lack of athleticism. Thomas, in particular, has been a great find during Noah's absence, but it's time to give him a rest and start letting Asik's younger, faster legs back up Joakim.
2. Joel Quenneville
Previous position in power rankings: 4
Why he's here: Call it a sympathy vote if you want, but Coach Q's team is, as noted above, still arguably in the hunt. And the poor guy just battled his way back from a severe stomach ulcer that put him in the hospital. He even gave fans one of the brighter quotes of the week/month with this gem:
I was on [injured reserve] for a week. We’ll call it an upper-body injury, and it’s all good to go.
The Blackhawks did go 3-1 in those games under assistant coach Mike Haviland and, briefly, were back at the eighth spot, though tied with several other teams. Now that Coach Q is back, he faces a monumental uphill climb to get the team back into the postseason.
Strangely, however, I don't get the impression that all that many fans blame Quenneville for the team's predicament -- or at least not entirely. He's shifted around the lines; he's held players accountable; and he's even shut down a practice or two. Now I'm sure he has his detractors, but they go away entirely only immediately following a ... well, a Stanley Cup championship.
Otherwise, fans will always find reasons to criticize a head coach or manager. The blame for this season seems to revolve more around questionable salary cap moves going in and aggravating under-performance and ill-timed injuries once it was underway.
Where he's headed: His recent health scare has given him a sympathetic boost as he rallies his troops for one last charge at glory over the coming month or so. But things could get ugly fast for Quenneville on our power rankings if his efforts are unsuccessful. At this time next month, we'll pretty much know.
3. Mike Quade
Previous position in power rankings: 5
Why he's here: Because, though it's still ridiculously early, there's seems to be something brewing with this Cubs team. A certain happy-go-lucky vibe. Cartwheels on the field. Kind words expressed to youngsters in strip mall parking lots. (Just watch the clip.) A nice mix of old faces (Kerry Wood, Reed Johnson ... even Augie Ojeda) working with the young guns giving us hope for the future (Andrew Cashner, Starlin Castro .. even Darwin Barney).
And that all starts with Manager Q, who staked out his own power base by abruptly and decisively naming Ryan Dempster the Opening Day starter on Monday. Since then, he's been pictured widely doing what an organizational guy who's spent decades coaching in pro ball does -- coach. This is not your Lou Piniella delgating authority, glaring from the sidelines and occasionally barking orders. Quade has his boots on the ground and is actively involved. (The preceding two photo links are from Tim Sheridan's great "Boys of Spring" blog.)
Where he's headed: He'll be rising fast if the Cubs' spring training goes well and the Blackhawks fade down the stretch. Manager Q will, as always, face stiff competition from a certain gentleman who calls Camelback Ranch home ...
4. Ozzie Guillen
Previous position in power rankings: 3
Why he's here: Honestly, you can flip-flop Ozzie and Quade any way you please in terms of notoriety right now. I give the Cubs manager a bit of an edge simply because he's actually been in the news at all after keeping such a low profile all off-season. Now it's seemingly Ozzie's turn to downshift to a lower gear. He's been fairly quiet during this opening week or so of spring training, steering clear of controversy and even shutting down one discussion with the media with this classic quote regarding the Sox batting order:
Go out and buy the [expletive] ticket and you'll find out [where Adam Dunn is hitting}. I said he’s going to be third or fourth. I don’t know if he’s going to be fourth. What, you got some bet in Vegas? I bet you want him [expletive] batting fourth. He’s playing.
That's about as controversial as Ozzie has been, thus far. In fact, oddly enough, it's his typically taciturn General Manager Kenny Williams who's been stirring up the controversy.
Where he's headed: Look for Ozzie to be pushing his way up the charts as spring training rolls along. He's got an interesting team with some pretty big expectations on his shoulders. Guillen is bound to say or do something interesting at some point soon.
5. Lovie Smith
Previous position in power rankings: 2
Why he's here: Season's over. There's nowhere for Lovie to go but into deep hibernation down here in the five-hole. He did resurface this week with an interesting Q&A on Chicagobears.com. It's not clear whether Smith dictated his answers or wrote them out, but they're all in appropriately measured Loviespeak. Brian Urlacher is the face of the franchise, Mike Martz did a great job in his first year, Jay Cutler is tough, etc. The only question now: When is that big contract extension going to be announced? Because, whether you like it or not, it's coming.
Where he's headed: When the extension arrives, expect to see Lovie out front and center and moving up our power rankings. Otherwise, like I said, he's got months of quiet contemplation ahead. Maybe more months than usual if the owners and players can't work out this pesky impending lockout thing.
Update: Sure enough, Smith's extension arrived a day after I wrote this. I'm too lazy to rearrange the rankings, though, so ... uh... congrats, Lovie.