CHICAGO -- Tom Thibodeau is not one to run from pressure, which is a good thing given there will be greater expectations on the veteran coach heading into next season than at any other point in his Bulls' tenure.
Plenty of fans and critics have pointed to Derrick Rose having the most to prove after sitting out the season while rehabbing from ACL surgery, but if Rose comes back and dominates, much of the focus will turn to the man who has earned a reputation as one of the top coaches in basketball.
Thibodeau will be charged with getting the Bulls to the next level. Being the competitor that he is, it's a challenge he's willing to accept. Up until this point in Chicago, Thibodeau has yet to face much serious criticism. He has been criticized for his insistence to play his young leaders heavy minutes in games, notably Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Rose, but he has been given the benefit of the doubt in almost all cases because of his work ethic and ability to pile up regular-season wins no matter who is on the floor.
The honeymoon effect for the fiery coach was still in bloom during his first trek through the playoffs in 2011, which ended in a five-game series loss to the Miami Heat in the East finals. Fast-forward a year and all expectations faded fast when Rose injured his knee in Game 1 of the quarterfinals against the Philadelphia 76ers.
It was at this point that Thibodeau faced the most criticism for playing Rose at the end of a game that many thought had already been decided -- up 12 with 1:22 left. Even before that moment, Thibodeau had been first- and second-guessed throughout the season for his decision to leave Rose, Deng and Noah on the floor for heavy minutes during a congested 66-game, lockout-shortened season. The Bulls were bounced in six games by the Sixers in 2012, and Thibodeau spent the offseason coming to grips with the fact that he would not have Rose for a large chunk of the following season.
The reason the criticism didn't stick to Thibodeau long was due to the fact he was able to produce winning teams. Never was this more evident than in the past year, when he pushed a short-handed Bulls team to 45 regular-season wins and a first-round series victory over the Brooklyn Nets despite the fact that Kirk Hinrich (calf) didn't play in the final three games of that series, Luol Deng (illness) didn't play in the final two games and Rose, who many within the organization thought would return after the All-Star break, never played a second all season. The Bulls would ultimately get beat by the Heat in the Eastern semifinals, but Thibodeau was lauded throughout the league for a job well done.
The difference this time around is that the expectations on the 55-year-old will be higher than they have ever been. Despite the impressive run to the second round, few, if any, pundits around the league thought the Bulls were going to contend for a title without Rose -- and many weren't sure how good the Bulls would have been even if Rose had returned given how long he had been out and how chemistry would have to be developed with so many new players from an overhauled bench.
The fact that the former MVP never returned made the Bulls' accomplishments that much sweeter in the eyes of many fans, but the reality is that Chicago hasn't had championship aspirations in almost a year and a half. The front office made an organizational decision last summer not to go deep into the luxury tax to sign the popular Bench Mob because it was unsure of Rose's status. In hindsight, that appears to be the right move, but it also took the pressure off the team to contend for a title in what turned out to be a lost season without Rose.
Now Thibodeau steps into a new year with what would appear to be as talented of a core group as he has had since coming to Chicago. Rose, Deng and Noah represent the heart of that group along with Carlos Boozer and third-year swingman Jimmy Butler. Taj Gibson remains a stalwart on the bench along with Hinrich and second-year guard Marquis Teague.
On top of hoping that his team can finally stay healthy throughout an entire season, Thibodeau will have to deal with several other issues that will test his mettle in a championship-or-bust campaign. First and foremost, he will have to balance just how much he uses Rose as the rehabbing guard gets back on the NBA scene. Every move Rose makes will be documented, and Thibodeau will be under a spotlight as he manages the point guard's minutes throughout the grind of an 82-game season.
Speaking of minutes, Thibodeau also may be forced -- either by management or circumstances -- to take his foot off the gas ever so slightly as far as how much he uses Noah and Deng. Like many up and down the roster, both men played through several injuries during the season and appeared to be running on fumes at various points due to accumulated time on the floor. The front office will likely try to impart to the stubborn coach that production in the postseason is the ultimate goal, but that message may fall on deaf ears if the Bulls struggle to find a consistent rhythm.
The demands on Thibodeau's choices won't stop with in-game decisions. He is also going to have to deal with the fact that Boozer is likely entering his last season with the Bulls. If Boozer struggles to find shots and touches with Rose back in the fold, how will he respond given that it's a near certainty that the final season of the power forward's contract will have the amnesty tag used on it next summer? How will Thibodeau make sure that Butler's offensive game continues to develop, and is he confident the Marquette alum can consistently make plays in crunch time next to Rose? Thibodeau also must mesh a new group of players into a bench that figures to look much different given that players like Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli figure to get more guaranteed money somewhere else.
Thibodeau has earned the respect he's been given over the past three years, but he's also the man who will take a lion's share of the blame if the Bulls can't get past the Heat and the Indiana Pacers next season. Many Bulls fans believe their team, at full strength, has enough to get to the NBA Finals, and a lot of that belief is due to their trust in the man with the baritone voice barking out orders on the sideline. Thibodeau has devised so many schemes for so many years as an assistant, and then as the head coach, that fans are convinced he'll be able to draw up a few more to slow down Heat star LeBron James and Pacers budding sensation Paul George. With Rose leading the way, Deng and Butler defending the wings and Noah and Boozer manning the post, the Bulls figure to be up to the challenge next season.
But what if they don't succeed?
Then Boozer likely disappears from Chicago, the front office has to make a long-term decision on Deng that would hamper any potential for the Bulls to attract another star to pair with Rose, and Thibodeau will be left to wonder what might have been with a team that will be looked at as being very good -- just not good enough.
The 2013-14 season is by no means that end all, be all as far as a championship goes. With Rose and Noah locked up for several more years, the Bulls still have the type of young pieces that every team in the league would love to have. But championship windows are wedged open for only so many years, and in the ever-evolving world of the NBA and free agency, things can change in an instant with one or two free-agent signings in the summer.
The Bulls head into next season with plenty of confidence given their recent success and renewed swagger since Rose figures to be back and hungrier than ever to prove his doubters wrong. If Rose returns to his old ways and does his part on the floor and they still can't win, Thibodeau is going to take the heat for not delivering the Bulls back to the prominence they feel they deserve.
Thibodeau knows the Bulls could look dramatically different a year and a half from now without Boozer, and possibly without Deng, and that's why the pressure is on to win now. If the Bulls don't, Thibodeau will feel more criticism than he's ever felt in Chicago.