Tom Thibodeau’s defenses are the stuff of legends. Since he started coaching in the NBA, he has consistently led the best defenses in the Association, no matter who he’s coached for or who has played under him.
Subsequent history suggests that was more related to the team’s willingness to be coached than it had to do with Thibodeau’s defense.
Then he was offered a head coaching job. Since that point, the Bulls are tied with Boston for the best defensive rating in the league.
In other words he's been coaching one of the three best defenses in the NBA for the last 15 years.
That kind of sustained success is impressive enough, but when you consider the various teams he’s done so with, it’s even more impressive. The sheer volume of players that he has had to teach his system to is phenomenal. He had 35 players with the Spurs, 35 with the Sixers, 45 with the Knicks, 42 with the Rockets, 38 with the Celtics and 18 with the Chicago Bulls. All together, that accounts for a grand total of 213 players from six different teams.
The only consistency has been success. So what is the secret to Thibodeau’s success? Why are his defenses consistently at the top of the rankings? There are five keys to his defensive success: stop the dribble penetration, cut off the passing lanes, force a bad and/or contested shot, secure the rebound and do all of this without fouling.
Here is a play broken down into screen-caps that illustrates how the Bulls typically accomplish each of these five tasks.
1. Stop the Dribble Penetration
First, even though this defensive play is coming off of a long rebound, they get back and into position before the Miami Heat have a chance to run a transition play. With LeBron James and Dwyane Wade both on the floor, that’s no mean feat. James tries to penetrate, but all of the driving lanes are cut off, so he is forced to pass the ball off to Dexter Pittman along the baseline, who in turn is stopped from driving by Joakim Noah.
2. Seal off the Passing Lanes
Failing to get the ball inside by dribble penetration, Miami tries to get the ball inside by passing. Pittman passes the ball out to James who, after failing to get it to Udonis Haslem, swings it out to Wade. Wade tries to dribble it in but gets stopped by Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and C.J. Watson. As time winds down (note the 5.0 seconds left on the clock), he dumps it off to Haslem, but Deng keeps Haslem from going anywhere, so Haslem kicks it out to Mario Chalmers.
This is because the Bulls are doing an excellent job of guarding the passing lanes. Note how their feet and shoulders are set at the same angle (with the exception of Deng who was just picked). It’s because they are working as a single unit to “seal” the lane. They are working in concert, not as individuals.
They maintain this “seal” by rotating to help one another. Wherever the ball goes, they essentially “flow” as a unit, each covering for the other and always doubling up on the ball. It’s why the Heat can’t get any penetration here, neither by dribbling nor passing.
This, in many ways, is just fundamental basketball, not smoke and mirrors or gimmick defense. It does take a consistent concentration and effort for each player to be in the right position at the right time. It requires tremendous team discipline and mutual trust. Every player has to believe that if he steps to help one teammate, the next teammate will step in to help him.
3. Force a Bad and/or Contested Shot
What makes Thibodeau’s defenses special is that by working his team so hard on the defensive end of the court, they learn that trust by instinct. It pays off here as the Heat are unable to find the shot they want, so they pass it off to Chalmers with 1.4 seconds on the clock who has to rush a three-point shot, which does not go in. .
4. Secure the Rebound
Another reason why the Bulls are so successful is because they don’t stop playing defense until they have the ball. Note how they are positioned for the rebound—which they do, in fact, secure.
Essentially, Thibodeau’s strategy can be distilled down to the three words—“one bad shot”—because that’s what he wants to give you, one bad shot. If you can beat the Bulls with off-balance threes with defenders in your face and time running out, you’ve earned it. His bet is that more often than not, that’s not going to happen.
This bears out with the statistics. According to Hoopdata, the Bulls forced their opponents into taking a league-high 24.8 long-twos (16-23 feet, basketball’s most inefficient shot.) They also gave up the third-lowest field goal percentage from that range. In other words, they forced their opponents to take a lot of bad shots, and not surprisingly, they missed them.
By sealing off the driving and passing lanes, the Bulls force a lot of bad shots. By challenging those shots, they ensure that opponents miss a large chunk of them. Then by securing the rebounds, they eliminate second-chance points. That’s not gimmicky, that’s defense, and that’s why it’s survived for so long.
5. Don't Foul
Finally, there is one other thing that the play doesn’t show because it didn’t happen: There is no foul. The Bulls gave up only .175 free throws per field goal attempt, which according to basketball-reference, is the third-lowest rate in the league. That’s a pretty remarkable figure for a team that plays as physical as the Bulls do.
It’s also why, even though the Bulls are adding a number of new players this year, there is reason to expect that Thibodeau will have no problem teaching his 214th through 218th players the same system that the previous 213 have already learned. That system is enough to keep the Bulls in playoff contention.