The Chicago Bulls have lived on a steady diet of adversity over the last three-plus seasons, getting by with anger and pride, but have they finally found their limits this year? Have the injuries finally subdued their stubborn will?
Who realized, when the team was first assembled after the “Decision” left them scrambling for Plan B, that it would be doomed to an array of injuries, bad luck and torment at the hands of whatever basketball gods have determined to test the limits of this group?
In the years since, Chicago has proven, if nothing else, that the expression, “stubborn as a bull, should be amended to, “stubborn as a Bull.”
You could pen a movie franchise based on them, "The Nightmare on Madison."
The Nightmare on Madison: The Beginning
The ominous beginning was found in the offseason of 2010, when the fortuitous alignment of a gym bag, a door and the trajectory of Carlos Boozer from the former to the latter while answering the doorbell led to a broken hand. In just one awkward trip, there was the first injury of the Tom Thibodeau era.
The Bulls had their training camp and played the first 15 games without their new starting power forward. Chicago somehow clawed its way to a 9-6 start to the season, though, in spite of learning a new system with a largely new group of players and its big offseason acquisition sidelined.
Twice during that stretch, the Bulls came back from deficits of more than 15 points to win. The early trends were set. In spite of anything this team would go through, it would not quit.
Finally, Boozer came back. The Bulls lost their first two games with him but then won eight straight.
That lasted until Joakim Noah broke his thumb. Chicago played the next 29 games without him, but fought and survived, winning 21 of those games.
The Bulls had their starters for the next nine games, then Boozer went out for a slate of five games. Noah also missed one of those five. They were healthy for five games. Then Noah got hurt for three. They played their last six games healthy.
They had injuries hurt them in the postseason, too. Derrick Rose (grade-2 ankle sprain), Boozer (turf toe) and Noah (ankle sprain) all played hurt, but they fought to the Eastern Conference Finals where they lost in five games to the Miami Heat.
The Nightmare on Madison: The Injuries Continue
The next year, they added Richard Hamilton and entered the season full of hope. This year was going to be different. This would be the year they were going to be healthy. Now they had a real shooting guard, and they believed they could win a title.
They won four of their first five games and had their starters for all of them. Then Richard Hamilton missed a pair of games, came back for one and sat the next eight.
However, by the time he got back, Rose was injured. By the time both Rose and Hamilton were healthy, Luol Deng was injured. While Deng was out, Hamilton kept bouncing in and out of the lineup, and when Deng finally came back, Hamilton was still absent.
Rose missed another five games with Hamilton out also.
The jokes started. The Bulls were going to be the stars of a M.A.S.H. remake. It was easier to win the lottery than predict the Bulls' starting lineup. A Bull went into a china shop and got injured by the china.
It was getting that bad.
Finally, in the 36th game of the season, the Bulls had their intended starters on the court again. Miraculously, they won 28 of those games. Their starting five was together for the next five games. They won all five.
Over the last 23 games of the season, the Bulls only courted their starters five times and missed a total of 37 starts. “Next man up,” was the standard press conference idiom used by Thibodeau.
Somehow they got to the end of the season tied for the best record in the NBA. Score one for idioms and fortitude.
They finally got healthy for the playoffs, and everything was fine until they started. Rose went down with a torn ACL in the first game. Then Noah got hurt. Then Taj Gibson stepped up and carried the team until he got hurt. The fewer the less merry.
The Bulls lost in six to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Nightmare on Madison: The Injuries Return (but Rose Doesn’t)
The next season is when the injury problems really started getting bad. It was as though everything else was just a preamble.
There was the hope that Rose would be able to come back at some point in the season. He didn’t. That was another 82 games without their “true” starting five.
But even their “fake” starting five, with Kirk Hinrich at the helm only played 25 of the 82 games. Altogether, starters not named Rose missed another 97 games in the regular season. Key bench players (who often also stepped in as starters) missed another 26 games.
Insanely, in spite of all that, they managed to not only claw their way to the postseason, they managed to claim the fifth seed. There was a glimmer of hope that if the Bulls could fight through the first round, Rose could come back and help them get past the Heat.
It wasn’t to be though. The merciless injury stick wasn’t through bludgeoning them. That’s when things started getting really bad. Hinrich got injured. Deng literally fell deathly ill.
Nate Robinson was vomiting on the sideline during timeouts, yet still playing. The Bulls did what they always do. They thrived on adversity. They managed to come back and beat the Brooklyn Nets in a thrilling triple-overtime game.
Eventually, they won the series, closing out on the road in Game 7.
Take that injuries! The Bulls' pride wouldn’t go down that easy. What’s a little near-death experience?
Then they went on the road and beat the reigning champion Miami Heat in Game 1 of the second round. It was the peak of what sheer human will could accomplish. The Heat went on and destroyed the Bulls for the rest of the series. It was inevitable.
The one win was a testament to human will.
It was the kind of postseason you show your son tape of, and tell him, “This is what it means to be a man.”
Nightmare on Madison: Fool Me Once, Shame on Me, Fool me 391 Times and…WHAT?! Did you say 391?
So this year was finally going to be the year. It had to be. How much suffering could one team take? In all, over the previous three seasons, the team had played 230 games and missed 372 games to key rotation players due to injury.
But perhaps the most telling fact of all is the simple one that on only two occasions—and none since March 11, 2011—had the Bulls played their starting five more than five consecutive games. Never had they played more than 10 straight.
Yet, they still had overcome, again and again, always overachieving in spite of the plethora of injuries they were bombarded with.
If Job were a basketball team, he’d be the Chicago Bulls. Surely, they were due some mercy.
The Bulls were healthy entering the offseason this year. They had found their starting shooting guard in Jimmy Butler, and the prospect of him playing alongside Derrick Rose was positively thrilling. There was a palpable sense in the team that this year was their year. This year, things were going to be different.
And for nine games, the Bulls finally had their starting five, and they were healthy. Rose was shaking off the rust, and things were starting to look good.
Then, Jimmy Butler got injured with turf toe.
One game later, Rose got injured, tearing his MCL, and was out for the season.
And then the Bulls seemed to finally relent. After over three years of getting beaten up, they finally looked beaten. For the first time, they played without hope of winning.
They were playing, but the same heart and fight was no longer visible. Even the indefatigable Noah seemed to finally relent to the onslaught. The season seemed like it was about to spiral out of control as the Bulls lost six of seven.
There were two signs of life, though: Deng and Gibson were playing out of their minds.
Since Rose went down, Deng is averaging 26.2 points, shooting 53.3 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from deep. He’s adding 6.0 assists and 5.8 rebounds to that total. Those are the types of numbers elite players put up.
Gibson is averaging 16.1 points on 51.4 percent shooting and 7.5 rebounds per game. Those are certainly worth Sixth Man of the Year consideration should he maintain them.
For the most part, the rest of the team lacked fight.
Then the Miami Heat came to town, and oddly it was just what the Bulls needed. The rivalry woke them up. They played hard for the first time since Rose went down and obliterated the Heat, handing them their worst loss of the season.
And then, just when you thought they were back, the injury news came again. Deng would miss with an Achilles injury. Even the manner which it was revealed was just odd, as Nick Friedell of ESPN tweeted yesterday.
Strange scene after shootaround. Thibs initially didn't reveal Deng's injury. Then Noah said Deng may not play because of an Achilles injury— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) December 7, 2013
Then Thibs comes back out to address reporters for second time (first time I can remember him doing that) to say Deng has a calf injury.— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) December 7, 2013
Without Deng, the undisputable MVP for the Bulls since Rose went out, the Bulls were miserable against the Detroit Pistons. They were blown out in the second half. Whatever last bit of resiliency the team had shown against the Heat was gone.
The number of injuries is just ludicrous: 391 games lost to injury in 230 games. Yet, the Bulls have still managed to win almost twice as many games (165) as they’ve lost (83) over that stretch.
Now the question is: Was the game against the Pistons a temporary setback, or was the game against the Heat just a cadaveric spasm of the Bulls’ deceased team will? Can they re-find that anger and pride that kept them winning when everything was stacked against them, or will they at last surrender to the relentless erosion of injury?
Probably, in spurts. But the sad reality is that when you exude that much effort, it costs you something. There's only so long a team can sustain an unsustainable level of play. The Bulls seem to have reached that point. When all is said and done, this core is not likely to win a title. Perhaps even their own recognition of that fact is part of the reason they're not fighting as hard.
They look like they'll join those teams from history who climbed high enough to see the pinnacle but never achieved it, forever listed as penultimate champions.
 While it may be tempting to lay this all at the feet of Thibodeau’s coaching style, that’s probably not entirely fair when you start reviewing the specific injuries. Many of them were flukes (e.g. Boozer’s hand). Some were in-game injuries which had no bearing on style (Noah’s thumb, Gibson’s concussion).
On the other hand, some of the injuries, such as Noah’s plantar fasciitis are indisputably on the heavy minutes. It’s impossible to quantify what that is, though.
All data for missed games are obtained from Basketball-Reference.com and their starting lineups logs.