Bulls aim for title amid trust issues

Derrick Rose puts the sticky pads on his left quadriceps and lets the electrical current stream into his muscles. Many find the treatment awkward or painful, even in small doses. But even with the STEM machine working hard, Rose is calm. After a time, he peels off the pads and sticks them to his right leg, a reminder that he's had surgeries on each knee.

You don't go near most athletes when they're getting pregame treatment, particularly when their major leg muscles are rippling like farmland in an earthquake movie. But at only 26, this is already old hat to Rose. He casually waves me over to his locker before a recent playoff game and tries to explain why he thinks this year is going to be different for him and the Chicago Bulls.

"I feel like I had a good approach on previous injuries," he says, barely even looking down as he positions the pads onto his right leg. "It's just that ... they happen."

The important thing as it relates to injuries, Rose says, is to keep at it. To take the same approach, control what is in your grasp and trust that it will end well one of these years. After a while, the repetition of rehabilitation almost feels good. Comforting, like a bedtime prayer.

Just four years ago, Rose was the NBA's youngest MVP, Tom Thibodeau was Coach of the Year, the Bulls were the East's top seed and it seemed like everything was in front of them.

Since then, Rose has played in just 100 of his team's last 328 regular-season games. Thibodeau might be on his way out if the Bulls don't win it all this year. The locker room is a tangle of divided loyalties. Projecting the Bulls' future was once a game of counting rings. Now the health and makeup of the Bulls is so fragile, the mere sight of Rose clutching his shoulder in pain in the Bulls' 99-92 win over the Cavaliers on Monday can send the entire city into a panic.

Rose's shoulder turned out to be just fine. It was "just a stinger," according to Rose. But it was yet another reminder of how narrow this window of opportunity really is.

Will the explosion that turned Rose into the MVP in 2011 be there when the Bulls need a special performance against LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers? Chicago has been waiting for the next Michael Jordan for more than two decades. Rose always seemed destined to be that man. Now, even he wonders whether he still can.

"Nobody knows what to expect, because I don't know what to expect," he says. "It's kind of like predicting the weather. All I know is that I prepare myself well."

This really might be the last, best chance for the Bulls as we know them. Thibodeau's future in Chicago is murky, at best. He's never come to blows with Bulls management, like former coach Vinny Del Negro did with executive vice president John Paxson, or fought a public war of words, like Phil Jackson and general manager Jerry Krause famously did to end the Bulls dynasty of the 1990s. But the tension between Thibodeau and Chicago's front office is very real and, depending who you believe, possibly beyond repair.

Then there are the personnel questions. Rose and Joakim Noah have already had way too many surgeries for men their age. Pau Gasol has thrived in Chicago, but he turns 35 this year. Breakout star Jimmy Butler is a restricted free agent.

It could all just be "noise," as Thibodeau is fond of saying whenever he's asked about his future with the organization. Much ado about minutes restrictions. A cold war that never escalates.

Despite all that, the Bulls find themselves with a golden opportunity. For once, Chicago has arrived in the playoffs healthy. This time, it's the Cavaliers reinventing on the fly after forward Kevin Love was lost for the playoffs with a dislocated shoulder.

Everything is at stake. The coach. The roster. The future. The incredible rarity of being here, now, and battling a compromised opponent. Rose may be relaxed, but consider everything on his plate, and the calm comes with that queasy anticipation you get just as the roller coaster crests the big climb.

Trust might be the most elusive and precious elixir in sports, and on the big point, the Bulls have it: They all take winning seriously, and they know it.

Thibodeau may be relentless, but he's undeniably a great coach who will have no shortage of suitors if things fall apart in Chicago. You don't see players rolling their eyes or making faces on the bench. Paxson and general manager Gar Forman have done a masterful job drafting from late in the first round (Butler was the 30th pick of the 2011 draft; Gibson was 26th in 2009; and Nikola Mirotic, who played in Europe for three years before joining the team, is making his delayed arrival look prescient) and creating enough salary cap space to pursue impact free agents like Gasol. The core group of players, of which Noah is the emotional leader, has created a dedication that is the envy of the league.

When you're around it day to day, though, these parts don't work together easily. Everything is compromise and negotiation. Even the greatest victories are cloaked in friction.

So much has happened within the walls of the Bulls' locker room these last few years, most prefer to keep the lid on what's boiling, rather than let out the steam.

"What do you want us to do?" Noah says. It's late, and he's hungry. The Bulls have just won a double-overtime game in Milwaukee, and it will be too late for room service back at the InterContinental hotel when he gets back.

A clubhouse attendant comes by with a plate of prime rib sliders from the Capital Grille. Noah grabs one and bites in.

"I just want to enjoy the ride," he says. "We've gone through a lot. I don't want to deal with anything negative. I'm just happy right now."

In college at Florida, Noah also was the emotional leader of one of the most intensely selfless and loving locker rooms in basketball history. He won two titles and friends for life, including Al Horford and Corey Brewer. Noah talks often about creating something similar on the Bulls. Four years ago, the team exuded love for each other.

Now those issues are far more complex.

Rose wrestles an existential question daily but has somehow convinced himself to live with the uncertainty of how his body will respond from night to night. Gasol is recovering from three years of second-guessing, media attacks and trade rumors as a Laker. While coach Gregg Popovich bolsters the San Antonio Spurs' spirits with long meals, soaking in charm, wine and family, Thibodeau keeps things serious and businesslike. After failing to close out the Bucks in Game 4 last week, Mike Dunleavy mentions that the team watched all 28 of their turnovers from the game during film session.

"All 28?" I ask.

Dunleavy nods.

"Did Thibs sprinkle in some cartoon clips to the film, like that other guy who used to coach here did?"

Dunleavy's eyes widen.

"Is that a serious question?" he asks.

The beat reporters who live in this world every day shook their heads, seemingly astonished someone would try to create a moment of levity with a Phil Jackson joke. "Someone hasn't been around," one of them says.

The team has played through one injury concern after another, and this season the front office publicly forced Thibodeau to reduce Rose's and Noah's minutes in the name of reducing injuries.

"When he's on the court, there's always this thought that we can win a championship. ... He makes us one of those teams."
Joakim Noah on Derrick Rose

But whenever each of them is questioned, Thibodeau and Forman actually use the same word to describe the speculation of a rift: noise.

"That's all it is. It's noise," Forman says. "The focus internally has been on this team and getting it healthy and in a rhythm going into the postseason in order to compete at a very high level.

"We've played well this year; we're as healthy as we've been. There's a core group of guys that have been here for a while and been through a lot together. Our sole focus is on the playoffs."

Between Noah and Rose, trust is a far simpler topic. Noah is protective of his point guard. He went to the hospital with him when Rose found out he would need another surgery in February. Noah also was there at the beginning, when Rose was a rookie. He watched him work to harness that explosive talent. When Rose's heart is questioned, Noah comes out swinging.

"I look at Derrick and everything that he's gone through. Just to see him out there on the court having fun again and competing, it feels great," Noah says. "He's always been the toughest individual when it comes to pain. People can say whatever they want. People can judge. But nobody's gone through what he's gone through when it comes to injuries, and the expectations he's gone through being a hometown kid."

Noah was there for every step of the Bulls' 62-win 2010-11 season that got Rose his MVP trophy. Back then, Rose could go for 30 points every night if he wanted. He played with a swagger that bordered on recklessness, cutting at angles that didn't seem anatomically possible.

"When he's on the court, there's always this thought that we can win a championship," Noah says. "When he's not here, people are happy with the fact that we're playing hard. It's different. He makes us one of those teams."

Rose really hasn't been there the last four seasons, and yet Chicago won 45 games in 2012-13 and 48 games last season. Somehow, someway, the Bulls have averaged 48 wins in that span, never missed the playoffs and even bounced the favored Nets in 2013.

In true Thibodeau style, the Bulls just seemed to work harder than everyone else. Without Rose, the offense hung on a string of short-term Rose fill-ins -- Nate Robinson and Aaron Brooks -- but it worked because players like Noah and Taj Gibson anchored a league-changing defense.

"We had defensive-minded players. We had shot blocking. We had Ronnie Brewer, and he loved defense," Gibson says. "We had guys that worked hard, did their jobs and flourished in Tom Thibodeau's work ethic system."

Gibson defends Thibodeau with the same fervor that Noah defends Rose. Ask him if Thibodeau's hard-charging style wears on guys, and Gibson will say something like this: "You've got to have the right kind of players to understand coaching and take coaching. A lot of players don't know how to receive coaching."

When the Bulls play poorly, as they did in a listless home loss to the Bucks in Game 5 of their first-round series, Gibson will say that Thibodeau should have yelled at them more.

"I don't know how to say it, except that we should've got screamed at," he says. "We should've got screamed at from the jump. Thibs was pushing the issue, but at times he tries to let guys play and work their way through.

"I guess at times he just expects us to be veterans, because we are veterans now."

Gibson always has pushed himself harder than any coach could. It's how he made it from Brooklyn to a series of tiny prep schools in Southern California, to USC and then to the NBA. He loved it when Thibodeau started pushing him, calling him out for every defensive miscue during film sessions and screaming at him if he ever repeated them during the game. He always had craved a coach like this.

But not everyone wants a push.

"Do you think I play hard because of a coach?" Noah asks. "Do you think Jimmy plays hard because of a coach? Do you think Derrick plays hard because of a coach?"

It's late, and Noah's still basking in the glow of Rose's resurgence. Rose just had his best game in years, dropping 34 points in 48 minutes in that Game 3 victory. When he's on like that, the whole city feels different. I think Noah is talking about passion as much as politics.

Before I can get him to clarify, though, Noah wards off further questions by taking another bite of his slider and shrugging his shoulders.

Everything remained in a state of relative détente until Jan. 23, when ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, a longtime friend and admirer of Thibodeau, blew the lid off of it during a broadcast of the Bulls-Mavericks game. Earlier that week, a report on SheridanHoops.com claimed Thibodeau was "on the hot seat" and had lost the team -- something many have since echoed. Van Gundy, who coached with Thibodeau in Houston and New York, was disgusted such a story would leak out into the public.

"It's almost criminal ... what he's having to endure with some of the fringe media -- attacking his job status, attacking his personality," Van Gundy said during the broadcast. "This isn't new to Chicago Bulls basketball, all the way back to Phil Jackson. The team has publicly supported their coach, while privately, oftentimes, undermining that same person. You saw it with Vinny Del Negro, Scott Skiles. Think about it: They ran Phil Jackson out after winning all those championships.

"I think it's wrong. It's wrong for the town, wrong for the team and it certainly has not been fair to Tom Thibodeau."

Most interpreted the criticism from Van Gundy, who declined to comment for this article, as a response to the "hot seat" report and a direct shot at Paxson and Forman. But it was just as much of an indictment against Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who is the one constant in the line stretching all the way back to Jackson's time in Chicago. The narrative on Reinsdorf -- that he sees coaches as contract employees and the front office as the true stewards of the franchise -- is well worn. Jackson essentially said the same thing on his way out, writing this for ESPN The Magazine in 1998:

The only dark spot is the resonance of the words of our vice president of basketball operations, Jerry Krause, who said recently that coaches and players don't win championships, that organizations win championships. He would say that. Michael says he won't come back after this season to play for the Bulls unless I'm the coach, but I signed a one-year deal and the Bulls definitely have plans to hire another coach for next year. Probably Tim Floyd of Iowa State. This is what Michael said: "It's a bad way to end an unbelievable run."

To longtime Bulls observers, the parallels between the dissolution of the 1998 championship team and this year are delicious, all the way down to another Iowa State coach -- this time, Fred Hoiberg -- as the long-rumored replacement.

The situation and the issues now are very different, however. The point of conflict usually arises over how many minutes Thibodeau plays his starters -- a live issue in these playoffs, during which Rose has been, by the numbers, essentially an MVP candidate with two or more days of rest and an inefficient bit player otherwise. Management has long been on Thibodeau to limit the team's star players' minutes to keep them at their best. There's too much science now that finds players tend to get injured more when they're fatigued. Lack of sleep, the rigors of NBA travel and heavy minutes are all culprits. Management wants that science heeded. Thibodeau wants flexibility.

"There's the school of thought that less minutes are better," Thibodeau said in late January, before the Bulls beat the Golden State Warriors in Oakland. "There's also the school of thought that when you do less, you also become deconditioned.

"No one talks about Phil [Jackson] on this. He has won more championships than anybody, and he played his main guys big minutes. Pau never averaged less than 37½ minutes under Phil [with the Lakers]."

The rift goes deeper than this, of course. There's more to it than minutes restrictions. That's just the part that people notice, because you can see it on the score sheet every night.

No, this is about trust and whether they can all work their way back to it -- or perhaps win this year, in spite of it.

These Bulls haven't won any titles. Haven't even been to a Finals. Rose isn't Jordan; people just want him to be. Forman and Paxson aren't Krause. (Nobody could be Jerry Krause.)

Thibodeau isn't Phil Jackson, not in accomplishment or personality.

Gasol has played for both and laughs at the idea of comparing them.

"Two different worlds. Two very different people," Gasol says. "Phil's so unique, he's in his own category. You can't really compare him to anyone. And Thibs, he does it his way."

Thibs doesn't have a lot of hobbies outside of watching game tape, and he wears a black-and-white Adidas track suit to every practice.

"I don't know how many sweat suits he's got of that exact outfit, but that's always what he's wearing," Gasol says. "I'm hoping a few. He keeps it simple."

Jackson, of course, writes books, quotes Buddhist and Native American spiritual text and is engaged to Lakers president and owner Jeanie Buss, a business-savvy executive 16 years his junior. Thibodeau has famously been married to his job for most of his 57 years. His former athletic director at Salem State, John Galaris, told The New York Times that Thibodeau told him he broke off an engagement because, "There's no room in my life for a woman if I'm going to be a basketball coach."

As for personality, Gasol has more in common with Jackson. The 34-year-old Spaniard likes opera and sushi. He is a voracious reader. He cooks a mean paella. But he and Thibodeau formed an unlikely bond this summer, when Gasol was a free agent, and it has only grown this year in Chicago.

"What I like about people is when they don't try to appear as something that they're not," Gasol says of Thibodeau. "He's true to himself. He's not trying to do things to get other people to like him or impress them.

"Thibs is just a very intense guy. Very intense. Very emotional. I don't dislike it. I appreciate where he's coming from. I see that he likes to win. He just does it his way, and he cannot help it. Whether you like him or you don't, I respect where he's coming from. I respect his discipline, his commitment to the team.

"He's all in. All he does is basketball. He's completely devoted to it, and he does it 24/7."

Just about every player who has ever played for Thibodeau has a story about running into him late at night at the practice facility. We're talking 2 or 3 a.m., with nobody around but a security guard at the gym, and there's Thibs, breaking down film up in his office.

Most find it amusing, one of his fun eccentricities -- like the black-and-white track suit.

"And the shoes," Rose says. "He wears the same shoes every day, that's for damn sure."

Rose seems to like Thibodeau's quirks.

"It's just him. There's no getting around it. It's who he is 24/7," Rose says. "And that's what you have to respect. You could say whatever you want to say, but he loves the game. I think for everybody on the team, it pushes us. It's never to the point where it's overbearing. Everybody has their own unique way of getting guys ready, and that's his way."

When Gasol was being courted by the Bulls and Spurs in free agency, he says he spoke to Thibodeau and Popovich at length before he made his decision to leave the Lakers and sign in Chicago. He connected with both coaches in different ways. He loved everything about Pop. They share a taste for the good life. But he worried about longevity with the Spurs. There was no guarantee Popovich, Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili would be there by the end of the three seasons he was signing up for.

Gasol is something of a basketball savant. His "basketball IQ" is off the charts. Jackson once told me how he and former special assistant Tex Winter explained the triangle offense to Gasol in one practice. Most players take months to grasp its intricacies. It's why Jackson rarely traded for players midseason. But Gasol picked it up immediately. His mind works that way. So when he got on the phone and started talking strategy with Thibodeau -- who prides himself on knowing every detail about every player and game before he walks in a room -- there was an instant connection.

Thibodeau joked with Gasol about scouting him for the 2008 and 2010 NBA Finals, when Thibodeau was Doc Rivers' lead assistant coach with the Boston Celtics.

"I told him I liked him a lot better in 2008," Thibodeau says as we walk together to the lobby of the team's hotel after a film session in Milwaukee. The joke is a little on the nose -- Boston won in 2008 and lost in 2010 -- but he's trying.

The coach belts out a hearty, deep-throated laugh, which is startling and infectious from a man who typically is so serious.

"I thought I had a great feel for who he was, because I knew how hard he was to stop. But you don't know the makeup of the guy," Thibodeau says, picking up with his answer on Gasol. "I'd read what Phil would say about him. What [former Grizzlies coach] Hubie [Brown] would say about him. All the guys he played for. So you knew that this guy has a great IQ, pure-hearted, plays to win, brings the best out of people."

What surprised Thibodeau when he spoke to Gasol this summer was the seriousness of his tone.

"He's a very proud guy and I think he felt he was more than a bench player," Thibodeau says, referencing Gasol's contentious, uncomfortable seasons under Mike D'Antoni in Los Angeles. "When we talked to him in free agency, I could see how highly motivated he was."

Gasol told Thibodeau he wanted to be pushed. Don't spare his feelings. He knew Thibodeau's reputation. The way he leans on his starters for 35 to 40 minutes every night. The long film sessions. The highly structured, always serious practices every day. And still, he came to the Bulls.

"I told him from day one that I like to be challenged," Gasol says. "I wanted him to challenge me. I came here to succeed. And I ended up having one of my better years as far as blocking shots, scoring and rebounding. I had an extremely good year."

Many believe Gasol has always needed someone to bring out his inner bullfighter. In Los Angeles, that guy was Kobe Bryant.

Watch Thibodeau during any stretch of a game and you'll notice three things. The man never sits down or stops yelling, he fights for every call and his right hand shakes whenever he's not yelling. It's stress. The game is too intense. He's too intense. They have all put too much into this for there to be quiet during games.

Thibodeau coaches with the same passion that drives his players. It just looks a lot different on him than it does on his players. He's stumpy and balding; they're lithe and athletic.

It takes Thibodeau hours after games to wind down. It actually helped when the Bulls' practice facility was 45 minutes away in Deerfield, Illinois. The drive gave his heart rate time to slow. This year, the team moved its operations to a gleaming new facility across the street from the United Center called the Advocate Center. Most of the players moved into condos downtown. Thibodeau moved to a luxury hotel 10 minutes from the arena.

"That's how you know you're doing the right thing. If you have passion for it. You feel for the people that don't really love the things they do. Then I think life becomes a grind." Tom Thibodeau

He doesn't have the long drive home to calm his mind anymore, so he pops in the game tape and watches other games from around the league for hours every night.

"I never look at a clock. Sometimes I have multiple TVs, so if there's another game I want to pay attention to, I'll stay there," Thibodeau says.

I ask if it ever gets to be a grind. He shakes his head.

"That's how you know you're doing the right thing. If you have passion for it," he says. "You feel for the people that don't really love the things they do. Then I think life becomes a grind."

That's not to say he hasn't evolved, in his way.

"I think we all change as we get older," Thibodeau says. "You're really a sum of all your experiences -- the people you've been around, the situations. I hope I'm not the same 10 years from now as I am now. When you come in to your first job, you have to set up a system. That's why it was so important. I had guys like [Brian] Scalabrine, John Lucas, Keith Bogans. They knew what I was trying to do, so they helped sell it to Derrick and Jo and the young veterans.

"But now they're the veterans, so they help sell it as well as I do. They've all grown. They've had a lot of experiences now. The deposits they have to each other and the team. That's the way you'd like it to be. They're older now, the foundation is built, so we can add layers onto the things that we're doing. Now you can see that it's blossoming. Then you throw in a guy like Pau, and it grows even more."

That's the hope, anyway. That's what Paxson and Forman built this team to do. The reason they're all thinking big. But it's also why this year might be the last, best shot this group gets at winning it all together.

Last month construction crews moved the iconic bronze Michael Jordan statue that stands outside the United Center. Thousands of tourists from around the world take pictures with Jordan every year, mimicking his iconic "flight" pose. The pedestal with all his accomplishments is still there, but it's carefully covered to prevent damage while a new office building is built around it. By fall, they'll restore His Airness to his old spot, but with a new atrium to protect it from the ravages of harsh Chicago winters, and time.

For now, the statue is around the corner of the building, 150 feet away -- no distance at all.

But the United Center feels different without the Jordan statue out in front, like something's missing.

This is always going to be the house that Michael built. The Bulls are always going to be trying to recapture some of the glory he led them to.

This year's team is probably as close to doing that as any Bulls team since Jordan left, but who can really shoulder those expectations?

"I'm kind of like a child of the city," Rose says as he sits in front of his locker with electrical currents running through his legs. "It seems like I'm their child sometimes. I'm grateful for it."

Rose has been trying to carry Chicago's hopes since he was a boy growing up on the South Side. It is an enormous responsibility that grew more difficult with every injury. But Rose learned something on one of his many roads back: He can't do this alone, not before his injuries or after them.

"That player that you saw, that reckless player ... he's smarter now," Rose says the day after scoring those 34 points in 48 minutes against Milwaukee. "This player's better. Smarter. More effective. I'm not rushing the game while I'm out there. I'm letting the game come to me."

And has his coach similarly learned to go with the flow?

"I love the way that he's grown as a coach from when he first came in until now," Rose says. "Just practices, the way shootaround is. I feel like it's all about trust. Just, now everybody's on the same page. Not that we weren't in the past."

It's a little different now, though, than when Thibodeau first showed up.

"It was his first time with a young group, and when he came in our record wasn't good," Rose says. "But now the nucleus of the team has been together for a while. So it's like, 'I know what y'all are going to do. I just have to prepare y'all, and y'all will handle the rest.'"

In other words, Thibodeau has given up some control.

"That's hard," Rose acknowledges with a laugh, "especially for him."