Bulls fans have been perplexed by Tom Thibodeau’s management of minutes. For the reigning Coach of the Year, a man who has transformed the Bulls into a defensive juggernaut, the East’s best regular season team and a Conference Finalist, it’s really one of the handful of criticisms you can make against Thibs. He routinely plays his starters in blowouts, logging huge minutes in needless situations. Luol Deng, especially.
The Bulls are routinely involved in blowouts of 20-plus points, comfortable leads, and yet Deng has averaged 38.4 minutes per game, down just slightly from last season when Deng logged 39.1 minutes per contest. Deng was fourth in minutes per game last season, and has moved up to 2nd this year. While most teams are limiting minutes in this crazy schedule, Thibodeau has kept pace with Deng, his best defender and the pivotal player on Chicago’s defense. But with Deng suffering a torn ligament in his wrist and still contemplating surgery, surely Thibodeau would be more careful when and if he decided to bring him back. Nope. Here’s what Thibodeau told NBA.com earlier this week.
Thibodeau says that Deng is “getting close” to being ready to play again. “He’s doing more and more each day,” the coach said before Thursday’s game. But Thibodeau wouldn’t entertain the notion that this stretch is allowing him to get more comfortable with having Deng on the bench.
“I’m comfortable with the minutes he plays,” Thibodeau said. “There’s a reason why he plays those minutes. I’m confident in our bench. We have a bench that’s more than capable. I think that if you studied the teams in the league over the years, there’s players that have averaged those minutes, and it’s fine. So that’s the way we’ll go.”
And true to his word…
Deng returned Saturday night in a blowout win over the Bucks. The Bulls were up 20-plus for most of the second half. So Thibodeau eased Deng back in…
By playing him over 41 minutes.
That’s the sound of a Coach of the Year, trolling everyone.
Now, it’s not like Deng wouldn’t want to play those minutes. If asked, he’ll play. He wanted to come back, to prove he’s tough after so many years of questions regarding his toughness. He’ll play every single minute Thibodeau asks him to, as will most of the Bulls. But it’s just stunning to see that kind of a decision about such a crucial player, playing with such a serious injury, even though doctors have confirmed Deng cannot damage the injury anymore by playing on it. His first game back, and he goes 41 minutes.
Tom Thibodeau enjoys pain. Inflicting it on opponents. Teaching his players through it. This is some Pai Mei stuff going on.
And the Bulls keep winning. By a lot. By hook, by crook, or by devastating exhaustion, Thibodeau keeps his team on a razor’s edge.