It was not surprising to walk in the gym here in Las Vegas, nearly 90 minutes before tipoff of Thursday’s first Summer League game, and find Tom Thibodeau already sitting courtside, the first NBA higher-up in the building. Thibodeau is a legendary basketball junkie, fresh off one of the most successful three-season spans of any first-time NBA head coach. The principles of the defense he helped pioneer in Boston during the Celtics’ 2008 championship run have spread around the league, and Thibodeau’s ability to coax his players into almost maniacally consistent adherence to those rules is a major reason Chicago kept winning games last season amid an unending flood of injuries. With Derrick Rose set to return next season at full health, the Bulls look primed to resume their fierce pursuit of Miami’s perch atop the Eastern Conference.
Thibodeau sat down with Grantland for an extensive one-on-one about all things Bulls — but not all things Thibodeau.
The NBA playoffs are in full swing, and as the amazing continues to happen, the Grantland crew wants to help you buff up on some of the lesser-known faces populating basketball's second season.
[Note: We’ll have to see what happens tonight, but considering Jimmy Butler’s Game 1 performance, the clearly cosmic elements in play with this Chicago team, and nearly every non-role-player Bull being in some state of disrepair, there’s a chance this series turns into “Who’s That Bull?” until they lose. I make no apologies.]
Who Is He? Taj Gibson.
Where Is He From? USC.
Years Played: Four.
What’s His Salary? $2.15 million (jumps to $7.55 million next year).
His Game in 25 Words or Fewer: One of the game’s truly elite defenders. Has athleticism to protect the rim and guard multiple positions. Excellent pick-and-roll stopper who’s comfortable switching onto guards.
A survey of the players and coaches making moves last night in Brooklyn.
1. Joakim Noah
There will be a lot said about grit and heart and all that today, and while a good portion of the praise heaped on Noah this morning will really be subtweets about Derrick Rose, Noah really does deserve every key punched and bit of ink spilled. His plantar fasciitis kept him out for a majority of the last month of the season, and for anyone who’s watched the Bulls this year, it’s not hard to imagine what sort of injury it takes to earn a minutes limit.
Luol Deng should get some credit for again quietly leading the league in playing time, but it’s Noah who’s provided the life for this Bulls team all year. It’s no coincidence that Chicago got blown out with him playing only 13 minutes in Game 1, and it’s no coincidence that the Bulls were lifted by his presence last night. When Noah game came back in the fourth quarter, a 14-point Bulls lead had shrunk to five, and all he did, on consecutive possessions, was follow up a dunk with a diving-out-of-bounds save to Nate Robinson for the game-sealing 3. And let’s not talk about his reaction after sending back a Brook Lopez hook in the final minute. I might get too emotional.
Behold a video catalogue of the most hated players in college basketball. Some were generational hate-figures found in our Most Hated College Basketball Players bracket. Some were just guys who pissed off our writers at some point or another.
Joe House: There is scientific evidence that suggests the neurological root of hatred follows an activation pattern in the brain that bears certain striking similarities to the pattern for love.
Which happens to provide a perfect explanation for what I'm about to say:
I hated Michael Jordan.
I grew up two miles from College Park, Maryland. While my formative hoops years were populated with heroes on the Washington Bullets and the still-unrivaled highs they delivered (35 years and counting … ), my hoops heart really belonged to the guys playing in Cole Field House. I loved Ernest Graham and Greg Manning and Adrian Branch and Albert King and Dutch Morley and Buck Williams and, of course, Len Bias. Because I could — and did — see those guys play. Not only were the ACC games broadcast on a predictable schedule that was mostly OK for a middle schooler, but I could go to the games (my elementary school had a hookup). And I went to a lot of them. Maryland's coach during this era was Lefty Driesell, who was the perfect underdog coach for a team that never quite got a regular seat at the ACC adults table, and who had a particular skill when it came to fomenting grievances with Dean Smith.
So of course I intensely disliked Michael Jordan. He was an underclassman and he was skinny and it wasn't eyeball-clear why he could play guard and forward so effectively (he used to KILL Maryland on the boards), but more than anything — he was stealing headlines that belonged to Len Bias. Above is the showboater Michael Jordan unnecessarily unveiling the cradle-dunk (10:33 mark) in Cole Field House at the end of a 1984 game Carolina had in the bag.
With 2:15 left in the third quarter at the United Center last night, the Bulls and Sixers made their ways to the proper benches for a TV timeout. It was that time in the night when a footrace between animated breakfast food comes on the video board, and as the racers were announced (Dashing Donut, Cuppy Coffee, and Biggie Bagel), people in the crowd reached for their cards to find out in which Dunkin’ Donuts product they had a rooting interest. My friend made a joke about how Larry Bird must hate all this, but aside from that, I see little problem in providing fans with interstitial bits of entertainment. Plus, Dunkin’ Donuts coffee is delicious.
The troubling part came when we noticed that joining the viewing public was the majority of the 76ers bench. Down 11, two days after a double-digit loss to D-League Orlando followed by a public chastising by its coach, most of the Philly roster was more invested in Dashing Donut’s triumph than in whatever Doug Collins had to say.
Chicago and Philadelphia, it would seem, are in similar situations. Both are in their third year of playing for a demanding head coach who occasionally sounds like he ate a pack of Marlboro Reds for lunch. Both have spent this season without the star that was supposed to define their rosters. And both came into last night’s game mired in their worst stretch of the season. It was something, then, to watch how each responded at their lowest point. It’s not that the Sixers’ starters shared their apathy of their bench-dwelling teammates in their 93-82 loss; it’s that none of them were Joakim Noah.
There was a time, about a month ago, when the February 26 game at the United Center would have been appointment viewing. The Bulls were 24-16 and, somehow, without Derrick Rose, just a game and a half back of the second seed in the East. Rose’s return seemed imminent, and in a season where no clear challenger for Miami’s conference throne had emerged, Bulls fans held out hope that a retooling process that was supposed to take two years wouldn’t exist at all.
Along that road would be last night’s tilt against the Cavaliers, what would be the first clash of Rose and Kyrie Irving since the latter’s ascension to the fraternity of the league’s elite. That Rose didn’t end up playing comes as no surprise, given news of late. The Bulls have elected to bring him along slowly, and given what’s happened in the past few weeks, it’s hard to blame them. Chicago was 4-7 in February as of yesterday afternoon, with the average loss coming by almost 16 points.
Irving’s absence, on the other hand, wasn’t expected. He’d tweaked his right knee in practice last week but had managed to play in two games since. When the team announced yesterday morning that its star guard would be taking the night off, the month-long road from anticipated to unwatchable was complete. With the blessing of A Fate Worse Than Death architect Rafe Bartholomew, it was decided that there was no better time to resurrect Grantland’s dedication to the NBA hate-watch.
Over the last three seasons, the Bulls have cycled through a bundle of shooting guards, or reasonable facsimiles of shooting guards, in trying to find just one that combines “B”-level shooting, defense, passing, and good health. They’ve tried John Salmons, Keith Bogans, Kirk Hinrich, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Richard Hamilton, and Marco Belinelli, and none have quite provided the ideal combination. Chicago, when whole, has a legit top-10 player in Derrick Rose, a very good all-around wing in Luol Deng, and a prized collection of skilled big men. They don’t need a star at shooting guard; they just need someone who can do everything at a decent level without compromising the team in any one area.
Jimmy Butler had plenty of good stretches last night in the Bulls' 95-83 win over the Lakers, but the best came with about nine minutes left in the fourth quarter. After stealing an errant Antawn Jamison pass and throwing it down on the other end, Butler, as he seemed to be all game, was draped over Kobe Bryant outside the 3-point line. The shot clock was ticking down, and as it hit :01, Bryant flung the ball toward the rim, but hit nothing. The horn sounded, and the ball was back to the Bulls.
Bryant finished the game 7-of-22 from the field, and everyone from Steve Kerr to the rest of the Bulls locker room had the same theory why. Kobe’s 42 minutes were topped only by Butler’s 43, and for the second straight game, Butler showed he had no trouble playing the part of Luol Deng, who’s joined Derrick Rose on the list of injured Bulls.
This year was supposed to be a lost one for Chicago. With Rose’s torn ACL keeping him out until at least the All-Star break, a team ravaged in the offseason by financial constraints seemed more destined for the lottery than the conference finals. But with last night’s win, the Bulls are now 24-16, good for fifth in the East and just a game and a half back of the Knicks for the no. 2 seed. With Rose’s return no more than a few weeks away, the question has shifted from how the Bulls will tread water without him to just how good they can be with him.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
The Lakers came back from an 18-point third quarter deficit to top the Bobcats, 101-100, and avoid what would have been the most embarrassing moment of their already difficult season. It was a Pyrrhic victory for some Lakers, including Pau Gasol, who suffered his latest humiliation when Kobe Bryant shoved him into the scorer's table to create a distraction just before hitting the winning bucket. "Make sure you whimper," Kobe hissed. "Really Gasol it up."
With his team nursing a 94-86 lead in the waning moments of last night’s game against Philadelphia, Chicago center Joakim Noah crouched low on the left block as Evan Turner attempted the second of two free throws. As the ball arced toward the rim, Philly’s backup center, the lumbering Spencer Hawes, took one step toward the baseline, spun off his left foot, and put Noah onto his back.
It was an odd sight considering the state of unrelenting fervor Noah brings to the court, but it’s hard to find Noah at fault for the momentary letdown. The play came as Noah was putting the finishing touches on his sixth outing in the past 12 days in which he’s played at least 41 minutes. 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.
Al Horford walks into the Hawks clubhouse, rounding the Ping-Pong table and the flat screen television, minutes after wrapping up a segment for The Jim Rome Show. He doesn't look big enough to guard Dwight Howard, or brave enough to share the shower with Ivan Johnson. But he was just named Eastern Conference Player of the Week, averaging a near double-double during the Hawks' five-game winning streak. Sitting in an enormous leather chair and smiling a lot, he speaks for 40 minutes. The only interruption: the delivery of his 401(k) packet. It's big.
I want to start with the most important question: Was your little brother more excited by the candy or the cheerleader? And is he actually your little brother?
[Laughs.] Yeah, he's 7. Wait, sorry, he just turned 8.
On Wednesday night, in a victory against the Magic, the Bulls’ Joakim Noah tried to feed the people. Up big with seconds left, he chucked up a 3 — just the fifth attempt of his career. If it had rattled in, the Bulls would have cracked 100 points and everyone at the United Center would have gotten a free Big Mac. Sadly, he missed. Even worse, he felt the need to apologize for it. “I regret it a little bit," he’d say after the game. "It wasn't a good shot I just got caught up in the moment and I was trying to get the people a Big Mac. They really wanted a Big Mac [judging by how loud the crowd was getting] we didn't even get the Big Mac.” Jo, buddy — you have nothing to be sorry for. Of course they wanted a Big Mac. And of course you should have tried to give it to them. Next time, take 10 3s. Take a million 3s.
Now, in honor of Noah’s valiant effort, Grantland presents A Brief Look at Notable Moments in NBA Free-Food History.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
Randy Foye hit five 3-pointers to lead the Jazz to a 95-86 win over the Lakers, who are now 1-4 on the year. After the loss, Dwight Howard embraced head coach Mike Brown in the locker room and gave him some words of encouragement. "I appreciate that, Dwight," said a clearly moved Brown, who then walked to the media room with a bull's-eye taped to his back.
Joakim Noah: The bad news: Making $60 million through 2016 . and we have no idea if the Bulls can survive offensively playing Noah in crunch time in June. The good news: He's played better after a botched attempt to sabotage his own trade value in the Dwight Howard talks. The great news: It's really fun to Photoshop his hair on other NBA players. As we're going to prove in Part 2 of this column.
Here's the part where we prove it. Below is our collection of Photoshopped NBA players. Feel free to leave your own suggestions for Joakim Noah Hair Pieces (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?) in the comments.