Commentary

Nobody's tougher than Thibs' Bulls

No Rose, no Deng, no backing down for the NBA's most relentless team

Updated: January 31, 2014, 9:38 PM ET
By Scoop Jackson | ESPNChicago.com

Tom ThibodeauKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsEven without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, Tom Thibodeau has the Bulls fighting for a top-four seed in the East.
There was a moment in the final preseason game when the Bulls let it be known who they really were and who they were going to continue be regardless of the Derrick Rose-less, Luol Deng-less fate that awaited them.

If anyone was paying attention, you'd have seen then their team DNA.

Down 19 with about two minutes left in the first half of Game 8 against the Denver Nuggets, the Bulls -- with Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich out -- refused to "no mas." There is no "us" in quit.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Rose
Steve Dykes/USA TODAY SportsThe Bulls are once again making the best out of a season without Derrick Rose.
They hadn't lost any of their seven previous games, but it was the preseason, so why should they care about losing one meaningless game

Actually, they didn't care. Not about winning the game, anyway.

But by the four-minute mark of the third quarter, the Bulls had tied the game. Two minutes later, they'd take the lead for good. Fin city. Watching them make a 19-point deficit disappear in a span of 10 minutes, it became evident that it wasn't that they were trying to win as much as they refused to lose in a way that misrepresented what they stood for.

Beating the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs the previous season wasn't what they hung their New Eras on. It was how they lost to the eventual champs in the next round. In their five games against the Heat, the Bulls, in their minds, played Miami as hard and challenged them as much as the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs did in the seven games it took them both to bow out.

To them, this whole thing was not as much about winning or losing as much as it is about what you leave on the court. What is left on that floor once the final buzzer sounds.

Blood? Pride? Work? Max effort? Life?

Yes, that one game allowed the Bulls to finish the preseason unbeaten, but a greater story was sold. It was pride. Something most teams in the NBA, if you've noticed, lack.

And when you finally break it on down -- looking now at the Bulls' above-.500 record (23-22) with all they've had to go through and work through since the regular season began -- it's the pride that is the overriding factor behind them being pound-for-pound the best team in the NBA.


Why? What makes the Chicago Bulls right now the owners of the league's pound-for-pound title? When they have the fifth-best record in one of the worst conferences in professional sports history? When they have a record that in the Western Conference would have them battling the Minnesota Timberwolves for a nonplayoff spot?

• The way they play. • The fact that they are never out of any game regardless of who they play, where they play, or the score. • Name another team in the NBA that can lose two All-Stars and get nothing immediately tangible in return (no disrespect, D.J. Augustin) and still accomplish what the Bulls have. • Tom Thibodeau is the Michael Jordan of coaching right now. • Their unwavering, unflinching mentality.

They play with an intensity level that no other team in the NBA can match. They aren't second in the league in points allowed and eighth in rebounding for no reason.

Opponents build leads on them and know the Bulls are so offensively challenged that they don't make runs, but somehow find that lead gone and, half the time, the game lost.

If you think the Knicks are bad, imagine them without Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler. Imagine the Pacers without Paul George and David West. Just the other night the Spurs were without Manu Ginobili, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard but had Tim Duncan and Tony Parker on the floor and still lost at home. Imagine the Clippers without CP3 and Blake Griffin, the Blazers without Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Warriors without Steph Curry and Klay Thompson (and with David Lee not missing many games but on a "day-to-day" status damn-near every game, i.e., Joakim Noah). Imagine OKC without both Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, Miami without LeBron and Chris Bosh, the Lakers without Pau Gasol and no possibility of Kobe coming back for the season.

If any other teams in the league lose what the Bulls have lost in Rose (out for the season with another knee injury) and Deng (traded to Cleveland), they aren't playing at or above .500 ball. The Bulls are 11-4 since the Deng trade.

And if there's any coach who seems to get more out of his players than Thibs, he must be in the NFL coaching for Seattle. Thibs has proven himself to be the MJ of coaching just by making every player who has come into his cipher in a Bulls uniform play to a level that they didn't know was inside them. Just as every player who played with Jordan had the best years of their careers, the same can -- and will -- be said for the most part about what Thibs has done and is continuing to do with his players.

If nothing else embodies what holding the pound-for-pound title in any sport is about, this is it: The ability to get the most out of self and the ones around you, win or lose. And getting it out of them/you on a consistent basis.

It leads to a group of like-minded individuals who develop an unwavering and unflinching attitude toward self-respect in the workplace. Something way past W's and L's.

John Wooden once said, "You can lose when you outscore somebody in a game. And you can win when you are outscored."

That just about sums up all of what is written above.


In a recent interview, Thibodeau reaffirmed his belief in his players in response to Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf recently calling this team "mediocre" and "middle of the pack."

[+] EnlargeJoakim Noah
Joshua C. Cruey/Orlando Sentinel/Getty ImagesJoakim Noah, who made his second straight All-Star team this week, embodies the Bulls' relentless approach.
"If that's the way he feels..." Thibs said. "The way I feel about our team is this: It's that I'm really proud of them and we can do even better. So I'm not selling them short."

It is the same mentality and sentiment put forward by Joakim less than a month ago when the notion of "tanking" seemed to be floating around the organization like "twerking" coexisted with Miley Cyrus and Jimmy Kimmel.

"I don't say nothing to those fans," he said about the fans (and media) who felt the Bulls should tank to put themselves in better position to win a higher pick in the draft. "It's just ... that's not a real fan to me. You know what I'm saying? You want your team to lose? What is that?"

And it is here where the pound-for-pound mantle manifests. This is a player and a coach basically calling out an owner and a fan base. Unafraid and unapologetic. This is who they are and this is what they bring to the basketball court every day -- practice or game. They go to work.

They win games they are not supposed to win (the recent last-second win over the Lakers and the triple-OT win over Orlando, for example). They win games they have no business winning (against San Antonio on the road Wednesday and the wins over Indiana and Miami). They lose games without losing anything else but that game. Their character stays intact.

Let's be honest: When the Bulls have looked bad, they've looked bad. But their "look bad" doesn't look as bad as, say, the Clippers' "look bad" games when they catch a beatdown. Or as bad as Miami's "look bad" appeared the other night versus OKC minus Westbrook, taking an 18-point lead at home and eventually losing by 17 with no significant injury to any player and no foul trouble that kept one of their stars out of the game.

The Bulls simply refuse to be that team. That team that feels it can afford to take games off and not be affected by the aftereffects. The Bulls know they aren't that good but refuse to fully understand or accept it. They see how other teams view them (as inferior in many cases) and know that is the other team's weakness.

Game in, game out, they attack that weakness. If they win, so be it. If they lose, it hurts. But in the end, to a man they all look back on every court they step off to see what they left behind.

If it's blood, if it's pride, if it's maximum effort, if it's a part of their lives that represents fully who they are as individual ballplayers and coaches and who they are as a team, that's what they honor. That is all they honor.

Then it's on to the next one.

Scoop Jackson | email

ESPN.com columnist

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