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Is Tom Thibodeau running the Bulls into the ground?

It will be tough for Bulls have any success if their key players are continuously bench street clothes.  |

It will be tough for the Bulls to have any success if their key players are continuously on the bench in street clothes. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 5, 2013 10:19PM



Tom Thibodeau told reporters he finally has signed the four-year contract extension he agreed to in October, which in this town is a perfect time to wonder if the Bulls ever will win an NBA championship with Thibodeau as coach.

It is only half in jest that I broach that subject, because the Thibodeau signing comes two days after yet another Thibodeau player has come up lame shortly after returning from an injury.

Taj Gibson — an ultimate Thibodeau Player (defensive-oriented, selfless, aggressive, Stepford-like) lasted seven games before aggravating the sprained MCL in his left knee that cost him 10 games last month.

‘‘That’s what happens when you rush back and try to help your team win,’’ a frustrated Gibson said after suffering the injury in the Bulls’ loss to the Washington Wizards in D.C. on Tuesday night.

Therein lies the problem with the Thibodeau-run Bulls. Players — at least those not recovering from surgery — feel the need to ‘‘rush back’’ to help the team and there is nobody to tell the player that if he rushes back and gets injured again, he’s hurting the team.

Most NBA teams endure injuries over the course of the season (though most of the top contenders have fewer than the Bulls — the Thunder, Nuggets, Pacers, Heat, Clippers in particular). It’s the pattern of players yo-yo-ing in and out of the lineup that sets the Bulls apart. Let’s not forget that before he suffered the devastating knee injury last spring, Derrick Rose was in-and-out of the lineup seven times last season. He never played more than 11 consecutive games.

In two seasons with the Bulls, Richard Hamilton has played in 73 games and missed 66. He’s never played more than 15 consecutive games. Kirk Hinrich never has played more than 13 consecutive games.

Despite all that, Joakim Noah is Exhibit A. When he developed plantar fasciitis in his right foot at the end of January, he promised not to repeat the mistake he made when he had the same injury in the other foot in 2009-10.

‘‘I definitely feel you learn from your mistakes,’’ he said in early February. ‘‘In ’09-’10 I just tried to act like it wasn’t there. I played through it and it was a mistake. I probably played with it for a month until I couldn’t anymore.’’

Noah ended up sitting out three whole games this time. He played 19 games (the Bulls went 7-12) before the foot injury flared up again. He has missed the last six games. Playing through it didn’t work this time, either.

As the two biggest ‘‘energy’’ guys on the team, Noah and Gibson are at the heart of the Thibodeau Paradox — the hard-driving, go-all-out-to-win-every-game mentality that makes the over-achieving Bulls the biggest threat to the Heat at full strength ultimately prevents them from ever being at full strength.

The idea that heavy minutes and hard practices develop a mental toughness that will come in handy in the postseason is admirable. But the Bulls’ injury ledger seems to indicate there is a point of diminishing returns.

And the Bulls’ history of repeat injuries is starting to shed a new light on Rose’s possible return this season — or next season, for that matter.

Thibodeau’s laser focus on winning every game is the secret to his success. But at the end of his third season as the Bulls’ coach, somebody has to start wondering if the constant injuries aren’t too high of a price to pay. Thibodeau’s ‘‘next man up’’ philosophy is a football axiom — an acknowledgement that the physical nature of the game warrants the need for a replacement to fill the same role as the injured player.

With all due respect to Tom Thibodeau, that’s not a proven winning philosophy in basketball — not to the extent the Bulls are trying to pull it off this season. They need Joakim Noah on the court more than Nazr Mohammed. They can’t win with Taj Gibson in street clothes. If Thibodeau is so driven that he can’t see that, at some point John Paxson or Gar Forman is going to have to politely tell the jockey how the horse should run the race.



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