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Chicago Bulls: What Makes Tom Thibodeau's Defense the Best in the NBA?

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Chicago Bulls: What Makes Tom Thibodeau's Defense the Best in the NBA?
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It's no coincidence that the Chicago Bulls have been the best defensive team in the NBA since they hired Tom Thibodeau to replace Vinny Del Negro as the head coach in 2010. Thibodeau has long been one of the foremost masterminds among the league's sideline ranks, having fashioned top-10 defenses on 13 occasions in 18 seasons as an assistant or head coach.

But what is it that makes Thibs' defenses tick?

In short, it's part scheme and part scream.

Strategically speaking, Thibs' teams tend to go to great lengths (extreme ones, in some cases) to keep the opposition out of the middle of the floor, where the highest-percentage shots can be found. The surest way to secure victory, then, is to limit these shots, particularly in the paint, and force teams to take difficult ones instead. Also, it's much easier to defend a player if one leaves him only one direction in which to move.

This applies to nearly everything the Bulls do defensively. Here, for instance, we see Kyle Korver (now of the Atlanta Hawks) stepping up to his man:

 

Korver quickly exaggerates his stance to the left so as to take away the middle and force his man toward the baseline, where Joakim Noah (in the box) is ready to provide help:

 

Footwork is key to the success of this strategy. It's incumbent upon Korver to stand in such a way as to cut off one side completely and give the opposition one clear, seemingly unimpeded direction in which to move.

These principles come into play again later in the same sequence. Stopped on the wing, Korver's man now tries to get the ball to Deron Williams, who has to come out beyond the three-point arc to meet the pass while Derrick Rose shields off the middle of the floor:

 

Williams receives the rock with his eyes on the prize (i.e. the basket) but finds the path to it impeded.

 

Rose has Williams funneled toward the left side of the floor, where Korver and Noah (once again) are positioned to help. Even Luol Deng, who's guarding his man on the opposite wing, is paying close attention to what's going on across the court, just in case D-Will should sneak around Chicago's traps.

Williams gets close to the lane but is turned away by Noah and Kurt Thomas, the latter of whom is ready to chip in as the last line of defense if need be. Rose, meanwhile, forces D-Will back outside, positioning himself to make it difficult for Williams to get back into the middle.

 

D-Will decides to probe once again, though he has to do so from just outside the paint. Noah and Thomas are still there to stonewall Williams if need be:

 

Williams is able to get closer to the cup, with even a foot in the lane:

 

But Rose and Noah are both there to contest, forcing D-Will to make a tough behind-the-back pass out to Kris Humphries for a lower-percentage shot near the top of the key.

The Bulls put similar concepts into practice when guarding the pick-and-roll. Not to pick on the Nets or anything, but here, we see them setting up for the two-man game, with Brook Lopez passing the ball off to become a screener. Deng and Omer Asik (now of the Houston Rockets) are both prepared to make life difficult for their opponents:

 

Deng immediately swarms his man, forcing the action toward the baseline. At the same time, Asik slides to his left to cut off the ball-handler on the other side:

 

Lopez rolls toward the middle while Deng and Asik converge on the man with the ball:

 

But because the ball is trapped, Lopez comes back to make himself available as an outlet:

 

That essentially thwarts the pick-and-roll, as Lopez has not only to abandon his roll, but also to do so in a way that ultimately makes it easier for Asik to get back to him defensively.

Deng is still situated so as to keep the ball from winding up back in the middle. His long arms serve to disrupt the pass out, and the way in which Asik has forced Lopez to set up with his back to the basket doesn't make the connection any easier:

 

All of which leads to a bad pass and an easy steal for Rose.

Beyond X's and O's, Thibs' defense is fueled by intelligence, toughness and a willingness to hustle. To keep the ball out of the post (and thus out of the middle again), the Bulls either push their men off the block from behind or prevent entry altogether by fronting passes. Quickness and physical strength are certainly helpful in this endeavor, but they are of little use unless the player in question puts some effort behind it. 

Also, the Bulls don't just clog the middle and allow the opposition to jack up wide-open shots; rather, they fly out to the perimeter to contest. Again, getting players to hustle is key to the success of such a strategy.

Thibodeau implores all of his guys to recover to shooters on the perimeter and even use their voices as distractions if need be, as seen in this drill from his days as an assistant with the Boston Celtics:

 

Screaming isn't quite so important for cleaning up all the misses forced by Thibs' defense, though smarts and hustle remain crucial to the operation. Just as Thibodeau coaches his players to track down their men when contesting shots, so too does he beseech them to put boxing out ahead of pursuing the ball when the shots go up.

To be sure, none of what Thibodeau preaches is new or revolutionary. Forcing the ball baseline, trapping the pick-and-roll, contesting shots, denying the post and putting oneself between ball and man when rebounding are all basic principles of defensive basketball, even (or, perhaps, especially) in this day and age of schemes that almost rival those of the NFL in their complexity.

What holds it all together, what drives the whole operation, is Thibodeau's relentless passion and intensity along with his ability to evoke those intangible qualities from his players within the team concept. He's been known to blow a gasket from time to time, be it in practice or during actual games, to get points across to his players. Thibs has also been known to dip into his defensive stance on occasion, even if doing so on the court in a game isn't exactly within the rules:

 

Nonetheless, the strength of Tom Thibodeau's teams ultimately derives from his knack for getting his guys to leave it all out on the floor every single night. That's how the Bulls managed to snag the top seed in the East last season, despite missing Derrick Rose, the reigning MVP, for 27 games.

And that's how they'll keep their heads above water while Rose continues his recovery from a torn ACL, even if Thibs has to strain his voice until kingdom come to encourage them to do so. 

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