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Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, and the Chicago Bulls' Minutes Problem
In fact, in back-to-back games against the Clippers and Sixers, Noah played a staggering 87 minutes, raising his season average to a mind-boggling 40.1 — a number that no big man has put up since Tim Duncan averaged 40.6 during the 2001-02 season.
With the absence of Derrick Rose, this type of usage has been born out of desperation. Last year, a deep Bulls bench featuring Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Omer Asik, and C.J. Watson went a long way toward picking up the slack as Rose missed 27 games with an assortment of injuries. This year, those four all have new addresses, a product of the Bulls’ offseason effort to cut costs. They’ve been replaced by an assortment of bargain-priced veterans and unproven young players. Though there have been some surprising developments — most notably the steady play of second-year wing Jimmy Butler and Warriors castoff Nate Robinson — the bench is still significantly lacking compared to a year ago.
Since the 2007-08 season, just five other big men have averaged more than even 37 minutes per contest. That’s the same season the Celtics won a title thanks to suffocating defensive schemes employed by current Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, then an assistant for Celtics. As it would happen in a copycat league, the following season saw Thibodeau’s philosophy became commonplace throughout the NBA, with more teams adhering to tactics that required post players to expend far more energy on the defensive end of the floor. This was a shift from the isolation-heavy era of the '90s and early '00s that allowed players like Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon to rack up a colossal amount of minutes.
You would think, being the man behind such a taxing system, that Thibodeau, of all coaches, would be acutely aware of the toll such heavy minutes could take on an injury-prone big man. Yet with Milwaukee and Indiana both nipping at Chicago’s heels in the Central Division, Noah’s minutes will likely stay consistent. They could even increase as the season wears on and the stakes get higher.
As the team experienced with Rose’s injury last season, title hopes can end (and arise) in the blink of an eye. If the Bulls are to be the ones to capitalize, Thibodeau must reevaluate his current commitment to using Noah and Deng at all costs.