Bulls looking for answers with Tyrus Thomas hurt


Nov 6

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So you wanted to see rookie first round draft pick James Johnson? His time is now.

That’s because Bulls starting power forward Tyrus Thomas suffered a freak injury working out with weights before practice Friday, sustaining a fractured left forearm that is expected to keep him out four to six weeks.

Thomas will have surgery Saturday and the Bulls are hoping their estimate is conservative and Thomas will return sooner.

At this point, even with the team short on players, it is not expected that anyone else will be signed. If Thomas’ injury proves more serious or someone else is hurt, the Bulls could try to resign Chris Richard, who was with them in training camp and the preseason, or an unemployed free agent like Harvey’s Melvin Ely or multiple time Bull Linton Johnson.

But now it’s more likely the Bulls begin to play Johnson, who has played only late in the Bulls blowout loss in Boston Oct. 30. Johnson played 11 minutes in that game, scoring four points and getting three rebounds.

I had been expecting Johnson to play some since the talk among the players is Johnson has looked good in practice and had been putting in extra time. But coach Vinny Del Negro clearly was uneasy about playing a second rookie with Taj Gibson the primary backup for Thomas and starting recently with Thomas out with the flu.

I pressed Del Negro about playing Johnson before Thursday’s game in Cleveland and Del Negro said it was merely a matter of minutes because the team was strongest at small forward and power forward. That remained his story and he was sticking with it.

Though talented, Johnson had a tendency in training camp and the preseason to play somewhat loosely with the ball. Johnson had 15 turnovers in the preseason against 10 assists despite his passing ability and shot just 41 percent and 27 percent on threes. Johnson, despite his ample size at 6-8 and about 260, is light on his feet and fits more a small forward role, though with the size of a power forward. It was clear Del Negro didn’t have the confidence to put him into a game, and was loath to have the two rookies in the rotation. Johnson should at least play some now, if not big minutes.

Though many fans were calling for the team to keep rookie guard Derrick Byars because he was seven of 14 on threes in the preseason, the Bulls didn’t because of just such an eventuality. Because of their salary and luxury tax situation, the team has about $1 million to puse. Should they need a power forward given Thomas’ injury and Johnson’s inexperience, they’ll want to have that money available to bring in an emergency player at some point.

Now, Gibson will remain the starter after his best game of the season against the Cavs with 11 points and seven rebounds in 34 minutes, including a steal and a block.

“I work my minutes, play hard and then the next guy comes in and replaces me,” Gibson offered after the Cavs game. “Everyone steps up. Kirk (Hinrich) came back after he got his chin busted. This team has a lot of heart and I like playing for them.”

The Bulls have had some early success playing small lineups with Luol Deng at power forward, so, at least in the short term, I’d expect to see Del Negro go with more smaller lineups with Deng at power forward. Thus far when Del Negro has wanted to go big, he’s played Brad Miller with Joakim Noah.

But without Thomas for at least a month, it seems it would put too much strain on the roster to keep extending minutes for players like Miller, and Deng at power forward.

It will be a balancing act for Del Negro to not wear out his regulars so early in the season and avoid matchup problems. There aren’t many teams in the East that play big anymore, and the upcoming schedule has Charlotte, who’s leading rebounder has been small forward Gerald Wallace. So it shouldn’t be a major issue immediately. Next week there’s Denver with a relatively small front line and Toronto with center Andrea Bargnani who plays on the perimeter.

Though the injury is a blow to the team and especially to Thomas, who is in a contract season and was promising to have a big season. It hadn’t been going well for Thomas with the flu this week and some differences with Del Negro, which had Thomas sitting out the fourth quarter in the Miami loss Sunday. But Thomas had looked sharp starting the season with 13 points and three blocks in the win over the Spurs.

The early estimate has him out anywhere from early December until almost Christmas.

Thomas suffered the freak injury doing what he was supposed to be doing, weight training before practice. He apparently was doing pullups at the time, though these things happen and you almost wonder sometimes why anyone even gets up.

Earlier this season, the Kings Francisco Garcia fractured his forearm when an exercise ball he was working with under supervision exploded. He’s out four months. This once happened with Eddy Curry, too, but we made more jokes about it. Curry once sprained an ankle during a hotel walkthrough with the Knicks

It also brings to mind the vagaries of life, like Derrick Rose last season lacerating himself peeling an apple in bed, though he didn’t miss games. One of the most famous of these in the NBA was the Kings Lionel Simmons going out with a severe case of tendinitis in his wrist for playing the video game Game Boy too much.

Brad Miller when he was with the Kings—a lot of this stuff happens to their players—once suffered a severe gash doing the dishes at home.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, when he was with the Bucks, famously punched out a basket stanchion and broke his hand and another time broke his hand punching Kent Benson, a live basket stanchion. Corey Maggette once did it to a scorers’ table and missed a month. Former Bull Drew Gooden when he was with Orlando had a consecutive game streak ended with an infected leg hair.

I also remember Luc Longley’s famous body surfing injury when the team was playing in Los Angeles during the 1996-97 season and Longley missed 23 games. And I recall Scott Williams missing a week of preseason after he hurt his shoulder at the team’s annual bowling outing for sponsors, after which I suggested a change to ping pong.

Hurry back, Tyrus. Remember, it always could have been worse. And more embarrassing.

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