Expectations for this Chicago Bulls team were sky high. Some fans/bloggers/podcasters/etc. were proclaiming they had a chance to win 70 games (which was hilarious by the way). Most fans believed this was a title team – as did/do I. It’s still early, but the Bulls are currently 12-8 on the season and are 2-3 against the NBA’s elite with wins against Toronto and the Clippers with losses to Cleveland, Dallas, and Golden State. This isn’t exactly how we thought this season would shake out. And with such expectations, could Tom Thibodeau find himself on the hot seat this season?
This sounds ridiculous on its face. Thibs’ current record all-time is 217-115 (.654) and has dealt with both Derrick Rose injuries and Carlos Boozer’s defense for years. He’s always made the playoffs even when the Bulls traded Deng and were basically trying to “tank” without destroying its core. He’s a top notch coach in most respects and you know what he’s going to drive home: Defense, rebounding, taking care of the ball, and the “next man up” philosophy. Basically, he’s brain-washed every Chicago Bulls fan to accept that, embrace it, and has become the Chicago mantra. When you survey the NBA landscape, you won’t find many coaches that are as good or better than him. In fact, I can only think of three that I’m certain of: Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, and Erik Spoelstra. Doc Rivers is in the conversation, but I can’t help but penalize him for his failures in Orlando and Boston before he got the big three. You can give Thibs me and four other schmucks off the street and we’d probably make the playoffs. That’s a great coach, a great system, and a great philosophy.
But here’s the reality of the 2014-2015 Chicago Bulls: The defense is underperforming, guys are still playing heavy minutes, and their window is closing. There’s no more excuses for Tom Thibodeau to not produce an Eastern Conference Champion. I detailed most of it here. The Bulls have a deep team, a good offense, and actual NBA players playing big minutes. The time for him to step up is now and if the Bulls continue to struggle into January or near the All-Star break (without a major injury to a key player) then maybe a change is needed. We’ve seen this before in Chicago with Scott Skiles who coaches games with a similar intensity to Tom Thibodeau’s and had some meager success with the “Baby Bulls.” Guys got burnt out on that intense, “every game is a game seven” philosophy and eventually, Skiles was let go. I think this Chicago Bulls roster genuinely likes Tom Thibodeau, but does his philosophy wear down guys? Here’s a quote from Joakim Noah after receiving the Defensive Player of the Year Award (per ESPNChicago.com):
“Defense helps win and winning is definitely the most important thing,” Joakim said. “I remember one day we were working out at the Berto Center and Thibs was putting me through a real grueling workout and I told him, ‘You know, Thibs? If we weren’t winning games I would really, really hate you.’ And he said, ‘Trust me, Jo. I feel the same way about you.'”
If the Bulls are hovering near .500 near the All-Star break, could we see some tension sprinkling out? I think it’s entirely possible. Here’s a tweet from Nick Friedell during Saturday night’s Golden State/Chicago game:
Thibs didn’t like that latest 3-point attempt from Rose. Just shook his head in front of bench. Rose is 1-for-5 from beyond the arc.
— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) December 7, 2014
KC Johnson just wrote a story for the Chicago Tribune that stemmed from Taj Gibson stating the Bulls aren’t trusting one another on defense so far. This stuff all seems minor and normal run-of-the-mill basketball issues, but when losses start piling up and frustrations start to mount, eventually tensions reach a breaking point and these things become magnified. Wins smooth these things over and it seems absurd to think this would happen to this team and this core that has been so steady and so consistent, but this happens to good teams. We saw it last year with the Indiana Pacers.
And let’s face it: Thibs and Bulls’ management haven’t exactly been on good terms. There are rumors every offseason that Thibs is entertaining offers from other teams or that Bulls management wants Tom Thibodeau to manage minutes better or that the front office is driving Thibs away. Again, winning smooths this stuff over. But if the Bulls aren’t winning and Thibs is still playing Jimmy Butler 42 minutes a night, 34 year-old and injury prone Pau Gasol is still playing 36 minutes per game, he’s still refusing to close out games with one of the best five-man units in the NBA (his starting five instead using Kirk over Dunleavy), and he continues to bury Nikola Mirotic on the bench after he showed so much promise then maybe management takes a deeper look into this. I said this on Twitter yesterday, but I don’t remember any championship coach that distributes minutes like Tom Thibodeau and has guys playing like eleven minute to seventeen minute stretches. It makes absolutely no sense. It’s not about how many minutes guys play, but when they play them. Jimmy Butler could probably play 40 minutes per game, but why not give him rest at the end of the first and third quarter instead of the start of the second (or at the ten minute mark in the second/fourth) and letting him rest during the game and TV timeouts? Why is Kirk Hinrich coming in at the five minute mark in the first quarter and playing almost the entire second quarter as well? Guys are spent by the end of the game and it makes no sense. Why is Thibs so adverse to trying new things like utilizing Nikola Mirotic, who has been better than expected this year, at small forward to give Jimmy Butler a 10-12 minute break every night? You might think Mirotic can’t hold up defending small forwards, but is he really slower than Dunleavy or McDermott? Why not try it? If losses start piling up, maybe this stuff gets magnified.
I’m not advocating for Tom Thibodeau to lose his job. I love Thibs and I’m glad he’s the head coach of this team, but some of his habits are bizarre and I seriously question if he’s the guy to take the Bulls to a championship. The Bulls’ window is closing fast and everything should be evaluated. Not just the roster, but management and Thibs himself. Everyone should be held accountable.
The Thibodeau way.