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Bulls Fri Nov 30 2012

Tom Thibodeau Should Follow Gregg Popovich's Lead

Bulls_200.pngTom Thibodeau is a fantastic NBA coach. That goes without question. He was named NBA Coach of the Year in his first season with the Bulls, and led them to the best record in the league, along with a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. Last year, he dragged an injury ravaged team to the top of the standings once again, and finished second on the ballot. The guy that finished ahead of him, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, is someone he could learn a great deal from.

I love Thibodeau. Most Chicago fans do, considering he embodies the blue-collar work ethic the people in this city take pride in. But he's got a flaw that has become a running joke among everyone who follows the league: The amount of minutes he plays his starters -- especially Luol Deng.

In a not-so-shocking move, one he has planned since the schedule came out in July, Popovich sent his four best, healthy players (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, and Danny Green) home early at the end of their six game road trip (amid 17 games in 30 days) to rest and prepare for Saturday night's conference tilt vs. Memphis, instead of playing a nationally televised game against the Miami Heat last night.

Reactions from around the league were strong and swift. NBA commissioner David Stern released a statement saying, "I apologize to all NBA fans. This was an unacceptable decision by the Spurs and substantial sanctions will be forthcoming." Pretty much everyone else, including most of the TNT crew broadcasting the game, didn't have a problem with it.

It's not Popovich's first time doing this either. Last year he didn't tip off anyone about his decision until shortly before the game, and listed Duncan on the postgame sheet as "DNP - Old." There were a few grumbles about his decision then (along with a lot of laughs), but it was mostly swept under the rug because of the lockout shortened season. He did it two more times with various players, sans the 'old' joke.

In possibly his most egregious brilliant benching decision, Popovich (who as GM, fired the head coach and hired himself as the replacement) held All NBA center David Robinson out for the final two months of the 1996 season after he had recovered from a back problem and a broken foot he suffered earlier on. Combined with injuries to other key veterans, Popovich thought bringing Robinson back wasn't worth the risk. The Spurs, who finished with the third worst record in the NBA, were rewarded by winning the lottery, and selecting Duncan with the first overall pick. Well played, Pop.

Why is this important? Because NBA players are like cars. The more mileage a guy has, the faster he begins to wear down. With three aging stars that Popovich is trying to milk for all their worth, he's doing what he thinks is best to win a title in seven months, and win a title a two years from now as well.

Thibodeau should be doing the same thing with his best players. Instead, Deng is the only player in the league averaging over 40 minutes a night, a full minute higher than Kevin Durant in second place. Deng isn't the poster boy for health either. He fought through a torn wrist ligament last season while also leading the league in minutes per game in a lockout compacted schedule. He also averaged just 61 games per year in the three seasons before Thibodeau arrived due to various injuries. There was even a seven quarter stretch over two games a few nights ago where Deng rested a total of 42 ticks on the clock. That's out of a possible 5040 seconds during those seven frames.

Deng isn't alone. Thibodeau did the same thing with Derrick Rose back in 2010. Deng and Rose were two of only seven players that averaged over 37 minutes a night while also playing in at least 80 games.

Thibodeau has to trust his bench more. I understand not being enamored with players like Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Nazr Mohammed, et all. They're nothing compared to the 'Bench Mob' the Bulls have deployed in the second and third quarters the past two seasons. But Deng needs rest. If the Bulls expect to compete whenever Rose returns (he'll return this year, but they won't plan on contending until next), guys like Deng need to be able to walk.

Thibodeau has earned the adulation of everyone that knows and follows the NBA because of his tenacity, preparedness, and poise while roaming the sidelines. His focus needs to be on winning it all, not winning every night. It's time to cash in that respect by going against the grain like Popovich does, and give guys a break when they need one.

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