For two years in a row, the Chicago Bulls ended the regular season with the best record in the league under new coach Tom Thibodeau. For that, he has garnered praise and awards, but alas, no postseason success.
You could blame the loss on injuries to Rose and Joakim Noah, but you also could say Thibodeau might have had something to do with them. I'm not going there because I have already done that, but I would like to compare him to a coach who seems to have a grasp of what is really important in Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs.
The Bulls and Spurs both tied with the best record in the league this year at 50-16, but the Bulls won the head-to-head, so they were officially the No. 1 seed.
Popovich has been around quite a bit longer with 16 years as a head coach compared to two for Thibodeau.
Thibodeau's record has been brilliant in his two seasons with a 112-36 record for a .757 winning percentage. Popovich's 847-399 and a percentage of .680 almost pales in comparison.
Popovich has been amazingly consistent for such a long time, and has to be in the picture as one of the greatest coaches in NBA history.
After a 17-47 mark in his first year in 1996-97, he went 56-26 in 1997-98, and has never had less than 50 wins in a season other than the strike year of 1998-99 when San Antonio went 37-13 and won the title.
In fact, other than the 50 this year in another shortened season, and a 50-32 record two years ago, they have won 54 or more games every year under Pops.
But I digress, because the regular season doesn't mean anything, at least not to Popovich. He has long been a proponent of resting his players and not worrying about where they finish, as long as they are ready for the playoffs.
Thibodeau puts such an importance on every regular season contest—almost to the point of fanaticism.
Perhaps because of that, the Bulls are only 11-11 under Thibodeau in the postseason, while the Spurs are 116-73 under Popovich, including four championships.
Is it because it took such a long time for Thibodeau to get a head coaching job that he thinks he needs to prove himself every game?
Is it because he's still trying to get that next contract—the one that sets him up for life?
The Bulls are exercising his option for next year, but there is still no big-money extension on the table.
There are rumors that Bulls' brass was not happy with Rose's injury and discussed it with him.
All season long, Thibodeau continued to play his stars extended minutes despite their injuries.
For the season, Rose averaged 35.3 minutes per game in the 39 he played. That would have tied for 21st in the league with Russell Westbrook of OKC, who didn't miss a game.
After coming back from an injury, Rose averaged 34.7 minutes in his first game back, so there was almost no difference how Thibodeau played him. If I take out the game against Miami on April 10 when Rose only missed the previous game and played just 25.28, that average jumps to 36.3 minutes.
That means he played him longer in his first game back than his season average. I guess he doesn't believe in working his players back slowly.
Luol Deng—thought by most people to be the Bulls' second-best player—led the league with 39.4 minutes a game despite having an injured wrist that probably needs surgery.
In contrast,Tony Parker was the Spurs' minutes leader with just 32.1, tied for No. 51. Tim Duncan came in second at 28.2, and Many Ginobili, who played only 34 games, averaged just 23.3.
Is it any surprise the Spurs are 8-0 in the playoffs and finished the regular season with 10 straight wins and were 19-2 in their last 21 games?
The Bulls finished the season 14-7 in their final 21 for a .667 percentage compared to their season average of .758.
In other words, the Bulls were tired and reeling entering the playoffs while the Spurs were rested and rolling.
Popovich has far more experience as a coach, so it's understandable that he realizes what's really important. It's possible that Thibodeau will understand that reality one day.
At least that's the hope.
For now, there is really no comparison between the two. The right guy won the Coach of the Year award.
Popovich is the model that Bulls' fans have to hope Thibodeau evolves into.
Otherwise, rewarding him with a long-term contract might seem like a really long time for Bulls' fans.
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