As Tyrus Thomas goes, so goes the Bulls?


Jan 6

Sure, you’d rather have seen Derrick Rose with the ball in one of those late possessions in Tuesday’s Bulls loss to the Charlotte Bobcats. Maybe you don’t want Kirk Hinrich taking potential game winners, though the shot was open. Maybe you want Rose in sooner in the fourth quarter.

But don’t blame that loss on coach Vinny Del Negro, though that’s always the easy way.

Rose has missed most of his last second shots and, in fact, so did Ben Gordon last year in the regular season. I’d still have gone to Rose, though that’s not the point.

I went back and watched the tape of that game. Go get yourself one and do what I did: Don’t follow the ball. Follow Tyrus Thomas. Watch him on every possession, and then you’ll know.

As Thomas goes so goes the Bulls?

Scary, I know.

It’s no coincidence that the Bulls won four straight with Thomas’ return from injury Dec. 26 as he was active and aggressive, at least in the first three games, averaging 13.5 points and nine rebounds in the four wins. In the last two games, both losses, Thomas averaged 6.5 points and 5.5 rebounds.

Thomas has been the favorite target of everyone since he’s been with the Bulls. It’s that freaky athletic ability and chance to change every game and every play when he is engaged.

If you watch only Thomas in games like Tuesday’s you’ll know why he drove Scott Skiles to distraction, and eventually to Milwaukee, Friday’s opponent, and why there’s been so much speculation about Del Negro’s future.

And the future of Thomas, which is the point now.

When you see games that like 21 and nine in his first game back or eight and 15 in his second, or 19 and 7 in his third, you begin to think with Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson that’s a heck of a young, athletic front line, quick off their feet and, really, trouble for any offense.

I could see sticking with that threesome for the future and concentrating my trade or free agency efforts on a big guard or someone to spread the floor with shooting.

But after watching the last two games, and especially breaking down Tuesday’s loss, you have to ask yourself how long you can go with Thomas and whether you could ever trust him if you pay him, and whether come this February trading deadline you should be thinking about a move.

That’s where the Bulls have to be now.

It was such a contrast Tuesday in Charlotte to watch the Bobcats Gerald Wallace, much smaller than Thomas, challenging every shot on defense and then, in playing Thomas, riding him out of bounds and away from the play on just about every shot with little resistance.

Go ahead. Get a copy of the game and watch and then let me know what you think.

The first quarter Thomas did some good things, and he was hardly the only reason the team lost. No player is at full speed and top energy all the time, and guys make mistakes constantly. It’s why 50 percent is All Star material. It’s easy to sit on the sideline or watch on TV and know what play they should have made every time. But it’s not easy to do.

What is inexcusable is the casual way Thomas floats through so many games in comparison to teammates like Noah—and few are like him so maybe that comparison is unfair—or Gibson.

I liked some of the things Thomas did early. He didn’t come hard to get a pass, but got back fast enough to catch Ray Felton from behind with a block. You see Thomas floating out to corners on offense, which I don’t like about the offense as there’s little movement with the players who go to the corners. If they are not personally motivated, like Luol Deng, they end up just standing there and watching.

Thomas sometimes wanders in some and right after that play got too close to Rose on a driving pull up, and brought his defender too close to Rose and thus made the shot harder. Thomas did come back with his best play of the game, an alley oop dunk from Hinrich as Thomas got inside.

With Charlotte playing big early and Wallace at three, Wallace hit a three to make it 23-18. Thomas was under and let himself get pushed out of bounds by DeSagana Diop, which would be common in the game, though later by Wallace.

The lack of resistance and fight was disturbing.

James Johnson came in and trying to cover Wallace on a drive over a screen got caught falling back into the lane with Thomas behind and again not trying to challenge the shot.

Thomas’ hit an elbow jumper, but his shots came quickly off one pass.

The next possession when Stephen Jackson drove for a score, Thomas began to gather himself to jump instead of going up and Jackson scored easily for a 29-26 lead.

In the second quarter, Thomas had a slick no look pass to Brad Miller for a score to get the Bulls within 34-33, and you could see Thomas has basketball skills and a feel for the game. Again, if only…

Thomas soon after that did disrupt Wallace on a drive and got the rebound in one of his better defensive plays when he did challenge a shot, which was surprisingly rare in this game.

But it was frustrating to watch him trot back so often and rarely see him in the picture with his teammates.

When Rose hit a jumper to bring the Bulls within 36-35, Thomas again was standing and watching instead of trying to get into rebounding position for a miss. On the previous possession when Rose got a block on D.J. Augustin when he was beat and recovered, Thomas waved when Augustin went by instead of trying to step in and stop the ball.

After that questionable four-point play when he was called for that goal tending, which hardly seemed his fault, Stephen Jackson beat Deng on a drive with Deng chasing. Thomas again backed off and let Jackson go at the basket instead of challenging from the weak side.

Again as the half came to a close, Thomas didn’t once box out or put  a body on anyone, preferring to try to rebound from a standing jump. The Bobcats didn’t always get the rebound, anyway, as they play small, but it was disappointing to see that approach.

Gibson was in foul trouble much of the game, the victim of some cheap calls and an unusually poor referring crew. I know fans think referees are against their team. I usually support the refs because I know how good so many are. But some are just not as good, and the Bulls got a second line crew Tuesday. It happens, at times, when two sub-.500 teams play.

It’s also frustrating to watch Thomas back peddle so much against a fast break. When the Bobcats first began to open up the game late in the first half they had gone small. Wallace, who is maybe three inches shorter than Thomas, got a rebound on a Deng miss and took off running. Thomas was back peddling, so Wallace was gaining fast. Thomas never stepped up to stop the ball and back peddled into the Bulls paint, where Ray Felton broke through and got a pass from Wallace for a layup and foul: 59-46 Bobcats. Sigh.

John Salmons answered with a three, but it’s those little things which are big things which really decide the games.

It is harder work than you think. It was the second of a back to back, but it’s a private plane, a first class hotel and these are kids in their 20’s. Thomas isn’t starting, so maybe he’s a bit down about that. I haven’t asked him. He’d likely not say. But he played 23 minutes. You’d think you could hustle for that time, though maybe playing that little is the problem for him and he’s pouting.

You can see a coach’s dilemma. When a player is playing like that you don’t want to reward him with more playing time. Plus, he’s hurting the team by not working. Do you play him more to appease him? Do you play him less to try to motivate him? James Johnson hasn’t been giving the Bulls much, so I might give Thomas some of his time. But I can see why Del Negro doesn’t in a game like that.

Thomas returned late in the third and immediately failed to contest a Wallace shot. Thomas did after that deflect a pass inside for a turnover, but you couldn’t see him in the picture on the subsequent fast break. Wallace also was helping off Thomas and denied Noah at the basket, though he did foul.

Later when Johnson had that low bridge takedown on Wallace that looked like it could be a serious fall, Wallace beat Thomas off the wing, which happens. But Thomas went into the pick and stopped rather than trying to fight through.

With Charlotte up 80-69, Rose broke in for a layup, which he missed and came off point blank to Thomas. For some reason, Thomas pushed it back and it missed instead of trying to dunk it.

Thomas then did strip Jackson on a drive. On the next Charlotte possession, they got it to Boris Diaw along the left baseline and Thomas went to help. But when the ball swung back to Wallace, Thomas stood with Diaw watching his man, Wallace, go up easily for a layup. Yes, he could have gotten some weak side help, but it seemed one move was all Thomas was up to.

Thomas was still out to open the fourth and had a nice contest on Augustin, and he got fouled and made one of two on a shot in a pick and roll. But instead of diving, where you figure he’d have the most impact, Thomas flared out sideways for the shot.

There was that play later in the fourth when Wallace isolated Thomas on the right wing. Instead of being able to step in front, and Wallace is quick, Thomas got beat and just pushed Wallace out of bounds for a foul. With about eight minutes left in the game and the Bulls down four after another Salmons three, Wallace posted Thomas and backed Thomas almost to right under the basket and put the ball in for a 95-89 lead. With the Bulls down eight and 7:40 left, Thomas was done for the game.

Actually, in the plus/minus in the box score Thomas was a plus 2 compared with Hinrich a minus 19. Though that stat depends on whom you are on the floor with. And if you break down anyone’s game as detailed as I did with Thomas and follow one player only all game you are going to see plenty of examples of things you’d want to change or have done differently.

But you wouldn’t do this stuff so much with Hinrich or Gibson or even Deng because they don’t seem capable of much more than they do. Thomas seems capable of so much, and perhaps that’s his curse.

People expect so much of him because of his talent. He can jump like few players. He has good form on a shot, can block shots and rebound. He even handles the ball some and has expressed interest in playing small forward more.

And then you watch carefully. Even if you didn’t, can you recall many moments of Thomas Tuesday compared to Noah or Gibson in traffic grabbing a tough rebound or putting the ball back between defenders?

The problem the Bulls have now is they truly are dependent on Thomas. It’s clear given the roster depth and lack of big playmakers that if Thomas has a big game on defense, blocking and contesting shots and running the court and scoring the Bulls are a pretty good team. If he’s passive and that leaves Gibson to do more and get in foul trouble, the Bulls aren’t very good.

It’s why at this point I’d probably accept being held hostage and play him more. If the Bulls are to have more success in the regular season they’re going to need Thomas. You’d also hope Thomas understands and, as he often says, comes determined to show his critics what he can do and how good a player he can be. And then there’s the trading deadline.

What do you think? Leave a comment below: