Commentary

Don't point finger at Thibodeau

Bad luck is to blame -- not the Coach of the Year -- for Rose's season-ending injury

Updated: April 30, 2012, 1:02 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau dressed for the first practice of the rest of the playoffs in his regular black Adidas sweatsuit, like a mourning Ben Stiller in "The Royal Tenenbaums."

"Chas Tenenbaum" Thibodeau's getup mirrored the mood of the franchise, the city and most of the National Basketball Association: funereal.

[+] Enlarge
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireDerrick Rose's ACL tear Saturday was the latest -- and, by far, the most serious -- injury the Chicago Bulls guard endured in a lost season.

The Bulls' coach, who is the best coach to be hated by about half his fan base, was quick to remind everyone that Sunday wasn't a wake. Not for the Bulls and not for Derrick Rose's career. Don't send flowers to the Berto Center. Don't sit shivah for Rose's torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Thibodeau preaches focusing on the present, and he rejects negativity from outside sources, and his team still has a job to do.

That's why Joakim Noah was asked if the coach openly addressed the fact that Rose is out for the season after tearing his ACL at the end of the Bulls' 103-91 win over Philadelphia in Saturday in the playoff opener.

"Of course," Joakim Noah said. "He's our best player, of course we addressed it."

And now they move past it, right? How is that possible? This isn't Richard Hamilton. This isn't Carlos Boozer. This is the reigning MVP and this was supposed to be his time.

"I think we all feel awful for him," Thibodeau said. "Derrick's not only a great player, he's a great teammate, he's a great person. But it's not a death sentence. It's not a death sentence for him, it's not a death sentence for our team. He's going to come back. He's going to come back better than ever. And it's just the way it is, and we've got to deal with it."

Reality and fantasy have diverged in Chicago. Fantasy ended when Rose crumpled to the ground. Reality is what faces the Bulls now. It's raw, and it doesn't come with background music and slo-mo. It's C.J. Watson and John Lucas III and pray that Boozer gets his groove going. Reality is hoping for a trip to the second round, not the NBA Finals. Reality is the MVP sidelined and the Coach of the Year in hot water with the fans.

Thibodeau, who could and probably should win his second consecutive Coach of the Year award, is taking heat for having Rose in the game late with the score all but decided. He is a fantastic coach, but the one complaint people have is that he rides his players too hard, that some starters play too much in the fourth quarter. He is, you know, a coach.

Earlier this season, I was talking to him at the Berto about this criticism. While I usually distrust those in authority, I have sided with Thibodeau. He seems to have a pretty good read on this coaching thing. He mentioned to me, as I've heard him say in the past, that he researched minutes played on championship teams. He looked specifically at the Bulls' teams. He said to me, only half-joking, "I should be playing them more, not less."

Fast-forward to Saturday, when everyone's worst dreams came true. As I dozed off for a nap while watching at home, I wondered why Rose was still in the game late. I saw the seconds ticking away; Thibodeau saw the Sixers coming back. Before you criticize Thibodeau, remember that fans and media think differently than coaches, and there has to be a great divide, because we think critically while they are flush in the moment.

In the moments before Rose's knee gave out, we thought of the risk to Rose's precious, precious health while Thibodeau thought about the 76ers bombing 3s to steal a win.

So I don't blame Thibodeau, not one bit. Call me a sap. Maybe if he were a lousy coach, my opinion would be different. But he's not. Rose's injury was a freak occurrence and the shame of it all, happening when it did, got me thinking about something Scott Skiles said earlier in the year.

It was January and the Milwaukee Bucks' erstwhile center, Andrew Bogut, had suffered another injury. And a few of us were talking about that with Skiles, along with the upward mobility of his former team, the Bulls.

"We're all pretty foolish if we don't realize the effects of luck in life," Skiles said. "It's pretty lucky the Bulls got Derrick Rose. When you look at the percentages, that's very lucky."

Luck is a concept that gets lost in debate. There isn't always a reason things happen. Sometimes they just do. Rose just planted his feet for a jump stop in the lane and pop. Things happen like that. It's been that kind of season for him. After an MVP award, an explosion of rap lyric fame, a mega-contract extension and a new shoe deal, well, things were bound to break bad.

On Sunday, his teammates tried to put on a confident face. Only three Bulls, Noah, Lucas and Mike James, talked to the gaggle of reporters, and they all had the same message.

"We're not going to let anybody paint the picture for us," Noah said. "Obviously, it's tough losing Derrick. We feel for him, but we can't feel sorry for ourselves."

"Now we have more to play for," Lucas said. "Not just for the city of Chicago, but we've got to play for our captain, a guy who has put everything he has into this game, this organization, to this team."

It looks like the Bulls, at least publicly, are already at stage five of the Kubler-Ross model of dealing with grief: acceptance.

Thibodeau and general manager Gar Forman talked with trainer Fred Tedeschi at midcourt of the team's practice facility as the media was let in. Forman and Thibodeau smiled broadly. For the cameras? Maybe. Forman forced a smile during his interview with ravenous reporters. Vice president of basketball operations John Paxson sauntered up to them, as well.

A United Center front for the questions that will follow them until Thibodeau gets a contract extension.

As Forman made his way through generic, positive-sounding answers, he was asked how long it took him to smile again.

[+] EnlargeTom Thibodeau
Cary Edmondson/US PresswireTom Thibodeau now faces his biggest challenge of an incredibly challenging season.

"It took awhile," he said. "Obviously, it hits you. Especially for Derrick. Obviously, this is so important for him. The biggest disappointment is for him and what he's had to go through, having this type of injury. We're going to be fine."

That's Thibodeau's line! Anytime an injury popped up the last two seasons, Thibodeau said, "We'll be fine," or "We have more than enough to win with." And he was right. Until last year's Eastern Conference finals, the Bulls were hands-down the most consistent team in the league.

Rose, who missed just six games in his first three seasons, went from an every-day joy to a rare treat. It started to feel strange to see him play, yet the Bulls still won, going 18-9 without him. The wins felt hollow because he wasn't out there, but it was still impressive to watch.

With Rose out, Thibodeau is preaching an us-against-the-world mentality for the rest of the playoffs.

"In many ways, I don't think that changes," Thibodeau said. "I don't know anyone who was picking us to win the championship with Derrick. I look at it now as that's not going to change. We know what we got to do."

Thibodeau is mostly correct. Few prognosticators picked the Bulls to beat Miami, or in some cases, Boston. Fans, sure. But this team is good enough to win two rounds and, most likely, not good enough to beat Miami in a seven-game series. Maybe they weren't with Rose, who wasn't guaranteed to stay healthy anyway.

The pressure is off and the Bulls can play for themselves. Whatever happens for the rest of the postseason is a bonus, and there is nothing that could happen now that could be worse than Rose blowing out his knee.

Looking ahead, well, that's a different story. Don't bet on another season like the past two. Rose won't be himself next season, not at the beginning anyway, and Luol Deng will probably need wrist surgery after the Olympics. The Bulls brought back all the important pieces from last season. Now, the salary cap comes into play. Can the Bulls keep backup big men Taj Gibson and Omer Asik? What will happen with Thibodeau's contract extension?

Could the entire organization rupture like Rose's blown ACL? Thibodeau doesn't have any guarantees, and while his power might be total in regard to the team itself, he doesn't have the organizational power Gregg Popovich has in San Antonio. I can certainly imagine Thibodeau's bosses getting frustrated with his CIA tactics. When Rose went down, I would bet they wondered why he was playing, though Forman denied it. Hey, it happened with Vinny Del Negro.

"It's absolutely no issue," Forman said Sunday. "And it never entered our mind until we heard some talk about it. You're in a playoff game and a lead has been cut by eight or 10 points, and it's that time of year when you've got to finish a game strong. NBA games are unpredictable. It's a freak injury that could've happened in the first minute of the game. It could've happened in practice."

Forman talked in the corner of the Berto Center, where four months ago he sat next to Rose as they discussed his maximum contract extension. The season hadn't yet begun, and after a lockout, the future was bright.

"Everything has been perfect," Rose said of his Bulls tenure. "I couldn't ask for anything better."

Four months and 67 games later, a lot has changed. Nothing is certain except Rose's contract, which is, of course, guaranteed.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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