The Bulls came into the season with lofty aspirations, feeling that this was their year to win it all. When Rose went down with a season-ending MCL tear just 10 games in though, the metaphorical air was let out of the team’s balloon. Then they literally sank in the standings.
They’ve won just five games in 17 tries since Rose went down, and they’d even miss the playoffs if the postseason started today. They have a 95.5 offensive rating, worst in the NBA over that span. They have been outscored by 6.4 points per 100 possessions, fourth-worst in the NBA.
Derrick Rose is a superstar, and a large part of the reason for the swing, is his absence. While he was struggling after missing the previous season, the offense still ran better with him on the court. He’s the catalyst of it.
The team is built around his ability to drive and kick. Without him, the Bulls are like the high school volcano project having the baking soda without the vinegar. It’s just not going to work.
Still, the Bulls were able to scratch, claw and eke out wins last season in spite of his absence. In part, that was because they had Nate Robinson who could generate points. But let’s not get carried away with his impact. Robinson had some great moments, but he is not a great player. He’s a solid, but streaky, shot creator. There’s a reason he’s not even on a full mid-level exceptions somewhere.
There was something else the team had last year too—hope. They had something to fight for. They believed that at some point Rose could come back. They thought that if they could just make it to the playoffs, Rose could help them through the playoffs. And, they had a coach who kept driving them to be their best.
They played above themselves again and again. They fought through a host of injuries. They ended the Miami Heat’s 27-game winning streak. The landed the No. 5 seed in the playoffs. That was more than anyone could have expected.
And through it all, there was the stocky, hollering coach on the sidelines, bellowing out “Ice!” “Jo!” or “Get over!” Of course there were other things that erupted from him at times that aren’t fit for placement in a family-friendly website. But that hollering man was a big motivation to them, whatever he was yelling.
He was hard. He was disciplined. He kept his team focused. When one player went down, his mantra, “next man up” took hold among the players. When the team struggled, he called them out, allowing no excuses, either for them or himself.
They stepped up and performed repeatedly. Somehow, they rallied, fought through it all and won.
The forge, hammer and anvil go a long way towards making a strong sword. But that is always followed by the carefully and skillfully, almost lovingly, process of polishing it, quenching it and tempering it. The former requires heat, strength and endurance. The latter time, patience and care.
If it’s not applied right, the metal can become stressed and brittle, which can cause it to break in battle. This is the skill Thibodeau is learning, and if he doesn’t apply it right, he could break them.
The Bulls went through the furnace last year, and Thibodeau did an amazing job of getting them there.
As fans, we tend to separate players from their humanity, saying things like, “They’re getting paid millions of dollars! How can they not be motivated?!” But discouragement is a real thing, and the Bulls are discouraged right now.
A great coach needs to know when to not push as much as when to push.
Thibodeau is learning that, and slowly you can see it taking hold. Sure, he’s still yelling there on the sidelines, but his demeanor in postgame interviews has shifted. After a loss, his criticism of the Bulls is less harsh, and his praise of the opposition is more apparent.
He’s not as demanding more of his players; he’s waiting for them to demand more from themselves and find the inner resolve to win.
That coaching style requires some slippage before taking traction, but the innate ability of the team to fight for nothing more than pride is there. Players like Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson are self-motivated players who don’t need hollering to be motivated. They just need time to heal so they can find it.
It seems to be taking form. They won two straight for the first time since Rose was injured before getting obliterated by the Dallas Mavericks. Even in that loss, there were positive signs at the end when the Bulls cut the Mavericks 32-point lead to 14 in the fourth quarter.
After the loss, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, Taj Gibson said,
Right when you're feeling too good about yourself, somebody smacks you. That's part of the NBA. Humble beginnings, I tell you. (Thibodeau) told us what to do. At times, we did it. At times, we didn't do it. And it hurt us. Our rotations weren't there.
Translation: “If we do what Thibodeau says, we can win.” Thibodeau doesn’t need to beat that into them anymore, the team believes it.
And Luol Deng, who missed the game because of an Achilles injury, said,
We've had just an unbelievable amount of injuries. We're better than what our record says. I'm looking forward to everybody being at full strength and seeing how good we can be.
The Bulls are about to regain their tenacity, and it might be more fierce than ever. They’re tired of being depressed. They’re tired of losing. They’re tired of being embarrassed. They’re tired of being injured. They’re ready to fight.
It takes a good coach to motivate a team. It takes a great coach to know when it’s to let the team find internal motivation. Getting the Bulls to the playoffs is going to require the latter, and it’s why this would be Thibodeau’s greatest coaching performance yet.