Can Tom Thibodeau Elevate The Bulls From Contenders to Champions?

Thibs yelling at Luol Deng

 

“The Big Bang Theory” is one of my favorite shows.  The most appealing aspect of that show is the contrast between Dr. Sheldon Cooper and every other character on the show.  It’s hilarious.  Sheldon’s quirky personality makes him the “star” of the show. He’s stubborn, unwilling to change, obstinate, sarcastic, frustrating, lives for his work, and believes himself to be superior to everyone hence his way is the best/only way.  It provides laughs and makes him endearing to the show’s legions of fans.  Dr. Sheldon Cooper in a lot of ways is like Tom Thibodeau.  Thibs has a lot of the same personality quirks, even down to the laugh that is so out of character it makes it awkward and hilarious all at the same time.  Bulls Nation loves him for these quirks and what he brings to this team: Toughness, grit, and most importantly, wins.  This stuff is all great, but this team is constructed to win a championship right now and to take advantage of this seemingly two year window.  I love Thibs as much as the next guy, but it’s fair to ask if he’s going to be the guy that brings the city of Chicago championship number seven.

We all know that Tom Thibodeau is possibly the greatest defensive coach in the NBA today.  His schemes are brilliant, as seen in both Boston and Chicago, and you know this team is going to execute those schemes.  Where Thibs has routinely struggled is offense.  Here are the Bulls’ points per game rankings during Thibs’ tenure per basketball-reference.com:

  • 2010-2011: 20th
  • 2011-2012: 18th
  • 2012-2013: 29th
  • 2013-2014: 30th

This is concerning.  This preseason the Bulls are 22nd in points per game so far.  The first two years, Thibs was blessed with a healthy Derrick Rose, the now legendary “Bench Mob” (at least legendary and cherished by See Red Nation), and the luxury of taking everyone by surprise.  The past two years have been somewhat understandable.  Nobody knew what the Bulls would be in 2012-2013 without Rose and then 2013-2014 we expected D-Rose to be back, but he was injured again and the Bulls traded Deng to try and tank.  Much to Thibs’ and Noah’s credit, the Bulls finished fourth in the East. Also, to me, points per game don’t determine how effective a team is scoring the basketball.  There’s an advanced statistic that is called “Offensive Rating” and that is points scored per 100 possessions.  In my Eastern Conference Preview on The Bulls Charge, I stated that in the past 41 years, there have been only six teams that won the NBA championship with an Offensive Rating outside of the top ten and I even argued in a previous column that the 2011-2012 Bulls were a lost championship because of this statistic.  Here’s the Bulls’ Offensive Rating ranking in the Tom Thibodeau era:

  • 2010-2011: 11th
  • 2011-2012: 5th
  • 2012-2013: 23rd
  • 2013-2014: 28th

Looking at it in a way that compensates some for the pace of the Chicago Bulls offense, the first two seasons with a healthy Rose and the “Bench Mob” weren’t so bad.  In fact, after they added Rip, they were a tough offense and a superb defense.  This gives me confidence that the Bulls’ offense should be similar to those two years with improved talent in the likes of Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic, and even Aaron Brooks.  They should have a solid or even good offense, even if the points per game don’t show it.  Even with the offensive upgrades, the Bulls are a mere 18th in Offensive Rating through seven games this preseason.  Not good.

However, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. Another complaint many fans have about Thibs is his decision making.  It’s a completely justified complaint.  Some of his decisions baffle me.  Gar/Pax, for all the criticism they take, have given him what should be a solid offensive unit and personnel to maintain the defensive excellence he expects.  Now it’s time for Thibs to prove he’s an elite coach and not just throw five defenders out there in crunch time.  There needs to be a balance and Thibs needs to show that he understands that.  I get that Taj Gibson is a gritty defender and he wears his hard hat to work every day, but down the stretch, you need guys who can defend and get buckets, which is something Pau Gasol has shown.

Thibs has a reputation for stubbornly refusing to make changes to his starting lineup or his crunch-time rotation until it’s too late, if ever.  He lives by the mantra of “it’s not who starts, but who finishes” and “we’ve got more than enough to win” and has brain washed Bulls Nation into believing all that jazz.  Did it ever occur to Thibs to start Taj Gibson in the playoffs last year over Boozer when Boozer had clearly checked out and the Bulls were going down twenty points early on in nearly every game?  When you get down so much so fast it’s hard for any team to recover, but he didn’t blink.  He stubbornly tried to push his grit and grind style down the Wizards’ throats and ultimately, the Bulls’ were embarrassed in a series they were favored to win.  At some point, the excuses have to stop rolling in and we have to realize this guy has some serious flaws.

We all know that any point guard on the planet except Marquis Teague would succeed in Thibs’ offense, but what about everyone else?  Yes, it’s conducive to Derrick Rose, but I think Rose could adapt and thrive in any system.  What about the guys playing that “Korver/Ray Allen” role?  The guys touched on it on the podcast this week, but there was a dramatic dip/huge rise in Kyle Korver’s numbers before and after he was with Thibs.  Was that an anomaly?  I don’t think so. Here’s the four guys that played that Ray Allen role including Ray Allen in the years before they joined Thibs and the year after he left:

  • Ray Allen:
    • 2006-2007: 43% FG, 37% 3pt with Seattle
    • 2009-2010: 44% FG, 39% 3pt with Boston in Thibs’ last year
    • 2010-2011: 49% FG, 44% 3pt with Boston after Thibs left
  • Kyle Korver:
    • 2009-2010: 49% FG, 53% 3pt with Utah (single season record for three-point percentage)
    • 2010-2011: 43% FG, 41% 3pt in his first year with Thibs
    • 2012-2013: 46%, 45% 3pt with Atlanta
  • Marco Belinelli:
    • 2011-2012: 41% FG, 37% 3pt with New Orleans
    • 2012-2013: 39% FG, 35% 3pt with Thibs
    • 2013-2014: 48% FG, 43% 3pt with the Spurs
  • Mike Dunleavy:
    • 2011-2012: 44% FG, 42% 3pt with the Bucks
    • 2012-2013: 43% FG, 38% 3pt with Thibs

That’s four guys who’s production struggled in Thibs’ system and doing the same things.  These aren’t just random guys either.  These are some of the best shooters in the NBA and you can see their three-point percentage dipping with Thibs and then excelling again on new teams or under new leadership. Maybe the system doesn’t work, Thibs!   See Red Nation makes excuses like we need another shot creator or we need to add more shooting, but Thibs historically hasn’t gotten the most out of the shooting he has and it looks like it will plague Doug McDermott already who’s shooting a mere 37% from the field and a modest 33% from three. This guy lit up the college ranks for his entire career shooting 53% from the field and 45% from three. We know he can make baskets, but Thibs is utilizing him in that same Allen/Korver mold and maybe he’s not made for that.  His game has always reminded me more of Paul Pierce than Kyle Korver and maybe Thibs should be looking into that playbook instead of forcing him into that perceived role.  But that would require change and adjustment.  Is Thibs willing to even entertain it?  History says he won’t.

We’ve gone this entire column without even mentioning minutes. In his four seasons here, Luol Deng has led the league in minutes per game twice and was fourth in 2010-2011 and Jimmy Butler was second in the NBA in minutes per game last year.  Thibs thinks it’s in the team’s best interests to run their small forwards into the ground for reasons that remain unclear to me. Last year, he continued to play Joakim Noah 37 minutes per game after the All-Star break even though he was starting to have knee problems that ultimately required surgery.  I understand that Noah was the only thing dragging this team to the playoffs, but what about thinking long term?  The Bulls were never going to win a title.  Maybe a playoff series, but think about this year and the effect running him into the ground had on him.  Butler was averaging 41 minutes per game after the All-Star break.  Under the circumstances, this is an egregious mismanagement of minutes.  If you listen to Sam Smith, he justifies it by saying, “The Bulls don’t scrimmage as much as other teams.”  Thibs justifies it by saying, “MJ and Scottie did it.” I’ll never forget Kirk Hinrich playing 59 minutes against the Brooklyn Nets in the 3OT game in 2013 and how that was the last time we saw him that year. How is playing a guy like Kirk Hinrich, who is renowned for his injury issues, 59 minutes a rational coaching decision?  How is it defensible? I get that it’s the playoffs, but even so, he just can’t do that at his age anymore.  Bulls Nation was up in arms (and rightly so) that Jimmy Butler played 60 minutes in a regular season game against Orlando last year, setting a Bulls record.  For a regular season game against Orlando?  That’s inexcusable.  And it’s not just about the minutes.  It’s about the allocation of minutes in the rotation.  There are times when guys play anywhere from eleven to sixteen minute stretches in the middle of a game.  I understand there are TV time-outs and coaches’ time-outs, but you can see that these guys are visibly spent.  So, on paper it looks fine, but in reality the Bulls’ are playing on fumes.  Again, this is an easy fix for any normal coach, but Thibs won’t break his mold.

My point is championship caliber coaches make adjustments.  They make changes. Take Erik Spoelstra for example. I don’t know if he’s a great coach, but he modified his system to fit his personnel and ultimately, the Heat made four straight Finals and won two titles.  Rick Carlisle realized his team couldn’t defend well individually, but crafted a nice little zone that flummoxed the Miami Heat in the 2011 Finals and he allows his guys to play openly on offense.  It works for them.  Gregg Popovich, whom I think is the best coach in the game today, has abandoned his stubbornness and encouraged his team to play faster, embrace the three-point shot, and move the ball around.  Also, he carefully manages his older guys’ minutes in the regular season to ensure they are ready for what really matters: Playoff basketball.  He still coaches every game to win every game, but he realizes they don’t hand out trophies for regular season records like it’s the YMCA.  There’s one trophy that matters and it’s the Larry O’Brien trophy.  The elephant in the room for this season is if Tom Thibodeau is in that same mold.  If he isn’t, the Bulls may be stuck in the same quandary that Oklahoma City is: Contenders, but not champions.  And for me, that’s not close enough.  I want to see a seventh banner in the rafters of the United Center, I want to see a celebration by the city of Chicago, and I want to own a “2014-2015 NBA Champions: Chicago Bulls” t-shirt. Can Thibs get us there?

The jury is still out on that one.

 

Brandon is the author of “The Bulls Charge” and an occasional contributor for “The Bulls Zone.” Follow him on Twitter @thebullscharge and like him on Facebook or visit “The Bulls Charge.”

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Posted on October 24, 2014, in Articles, NBA Basketball and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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