Chicago Bulls: How Tom Thibodeau Proves That Coaching Really Does Matter in NBA
Good coaching isn't sufficient for team success in the NBA, but it is necessary, at least at the highest levels. In the negative, there's Vinny Del Negro, whose squads with the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Clippers have won in spite of his sideline ineptitude.
In the positive, there's Tom Thibodeau, VDN's successor in Chicago who's made a strong case for the importance of coaching in pushing a team from the middle of the pack to the top of the heap.
Consider the two-year tenures of Del Negro and Thibodeau in the Windy City side by side.
The Bulls went 41-41 in both seasons under VDN. The first (2008-09, Derrick Rose's rookie year) yielded the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture and a thrilling seven-game series against the Boston Celtics in the first round. That year, the Bulls fell firmly in the middle of the pack in terms of offensive and defensive rating.
Which is to say, they were perfectly average.
The second (2009-10) resulted in Chicago snagging the eighth seed and losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in five games. The team maintained a similar pace and improved (from 18th to 11th) defensively, but fell off a cliff on offense—from 15th to 27th.
Del Negro was fired shortly thereafter, clearing the way for Thibodeau to stalk the sidelines at the United Center, following a slow-but-steady ascent through the coaching ranks. Thibs spent more than two decades bouncing around the NBA as an assistant before rising to prominence as a defensive specialist with the Boston Celtics.
The Bulls were also among the more active teams in free agency during the summer of 2010.
They tried desperately to lure at least one of the big-three targets (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh) to Chicago, but instead wound up overpaying Carlos Boozer. That summer also saw the team sever ties with Kirk Hinrich and Brad Miller, on top of trading away John Salmons, Aaron Gray and Tyrus Thomas the February prior.
Those players were essentially replaced by a smattering of defensive specialists (Ronnie Brewer, Kurt Thomas, Keith Bogans and Omer Asik), a pair of gunners (Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson), and of course, Brian Scalabrine.
The result? A 21-win improvement (to 62-20), the top seed in the East and the team's first trip to the conference finals since some dude named Michael Jordan last suited up in Bulls red. This occurred despite losing Noah for 34 games, Boozer for 23 and bringing in a new coach with a new system.
Or, was it because of that last change that Chicago took off? The Bulls' pace slowed considerably while their offensive (No. 11) and defensive (No. 1) ratings improved dramatically.
Certainly, it helps that Rose made the leap from burgeoning All-Star to league MVP that year. It also helps that Luol Deng finally managed to avoid injury for an entire season and thereby established himself as a legitimate second option on offense and stopper on defense.
Maybe one season of Thibodeau in Chicago is too small a sample size with which to convince skeptical minds, though, even if that one season saw Thibs earn Coach of the Year honors.
In which case, have a look at season two of "Thibs and the Bulls." Chicago finished the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign with a slightly higher win percentage (75.8) than it did in 2010-11 (75.6) and jumped to fifth in offensive rating while falling (however slightly) to second in defensive rating.
All told, they went 50-16, tying the San Antonio Spurs for the best record in the NBA and once again earning the No. 1 seed in the East heading into the playoffs.
Noah and Boozer both enjoyed healthy seasons, though they passed their injury bugs off to the team's two best and most important players—Deng and Rose. Deng missed "only" 12 games with recurring wrist problems, during which the Bulls went 8-4.
Rose, though—the reigning MVP and the presumed engine behind the Bulls' machinery—sat out 27 games (i.e. more than 40 percent of the season). All Thibs did was guide Chicago to an 18-9 record in Rose's absence, with C.J. Watson and John Lucas III taking turns at point guard.
Let's not forget, either, that Richard Hamilton, whom the Bulls brought in to replace Keith Bogans and provide some scoring at shooting guard, played in only 28 of a possible 66 games due to injury woes of his own.
Of course, there's no ignoring the fact that the Bulls were bounced in the first round by the eighth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. To be sure, that had everything to do with losing Rose to a torn ACL in Game 1 and the impact that had on the team, on both a basketball and an emotional level.
Even then, the Bulls pushed the series to six games and probably should've extended it to seven.
All of which only highlights what Thibs brings to the table. He's a defensive mastermind whose philosophical prowess is equaled only by his relentless passion and intensity. Schematically, his teams emphasize clogging and/or sealing off the middle of the floor and organizing the help around that central principle.
But, to get players to execute this (or any) scheme as expertly as the Bulls have takes more than just genius. It also requires a certain quotient of leadership acumen, an ability to not only communicate concepts, but also to have others buy into them wholesale.
Simply put, Thibs gets more out of his players than the vast majority of his coaching peers do out of theirs, even when it seems as though his guys have nothing more to give.
It's that galvanizing effect that Thibodeau has had on the Bulls—and that other coaches have, at times, on their respective teams—that's so often drowned out by the music playing behind the annual coaching carousel.
Elite talent will inevitably get a team into the championship conversation, but it often takes good coaching to put even the finest collections of players over the top. Just ask Phil Jackson, who won titles with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago and later with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, where once there had only been the disappointment of expectations unmet.
And where superstars aren't present, good coaching is even more important. George Karl in Denver and Frank Vogel in Indiana can both attest to that.
Thibs, meanwhile, has been somewhere in between those two camps since he first took over as the Bulls' head man. He's had a budding superstar in Rose for a season and a half with a strong supporting cast that's taken turns on the training table throughout.
Does coaching matter in the NBA?
If you're still unmoved as to the efficacy of Thibs as a coach and/or the importance of good coaching in general, pay close attention to the Bulls this season.
They're slated to spend much (if not most) of the campaign without Derrick Rose and aren't likely to have him at anything close to full strength even once his knee is deemed healthy. In addition, Chicago bade farewell to a slew of valuable reserves (i.e. Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, John Lucas III) to keep costs down.
And, conversely, if the Clippers fall off a cliff this season, you'll know why, too.
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