Has Tom Thibodeau Learned Any Lessons from Chicago Bulls' Up-and-Down Season?

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistApril 1, 2013

Tom Thibodeau is in his third season as an NBA head coach, and there are signs that, as successful as he's been, he’s learning and improving on the job.

He won Coach of the Year in his rookie season. He finished second behind the San Antonio Spurs' Gregg Popovich in his second campaign. He was the fastest coach to 100 wins in NBA history. Some argue that this year is even better than his first two.

He is a fantastic coach, and while no one doubts his grasp of the game, his work ethic, or his knack for defensive schemes, he’s still faced some criticism.

It would be too much to say he has “critics;” almost everyone respects the job he’s done, but there are some flaws that are hard to ignore.

Thibodeau primarily faces three criticisms: He plays his players too much, he drives them too hard and he is too narrow in his offensive sets. Players end up settling for too many long two-pointers and don’t score as a result.

The good news is that on all counts, there’s starting to be some indication that Thibodeau is learning.



Recently there was a turning point in regards to Thibodeau overplaying his players after Joakim Noah finally said something about it.

After a game in which Noah had an impressive 21 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and four blocks against the Brooklyn Nets, he spoke about the 41:13 he’d played that game, and generally the heavy minutes he’d been playing all season.

Asked if it was a bigger challenge mentally or physically, Noah said

I'm tired, Pretty tired… It's definitely physical...definitely both. It's not really right after the game, but the next morning is the roughest. We have a great coach, but he doesn't understand the whole resting [thing] yet, I don't think. So...it's all good. We all want to win. So, it's good.



It’s also a good sign that he’s not as bad with the “driving” thing as it appears in the games.

Thibodeau yells. He yells a lot. One of my favorite quotes from Nate Robinson is in this tweet from K.C. Johnson.

It’s understandable that some people worry that Thibodeau could go all “Scott Skiles” on the team. Skiles coached the Bulls in a similar fashion, and while he initially had success, he eventually lost the team with his unwillingness to compromise.

Thibodeau is a different kind of players’ coach. He is unquestionably the captain of the ship, and he does squeeze every drop of winning and effort out of the Bulls. At the same time, he does listen to them, and more importantly he does seem to have an honest concern for them. The adjustment in Noah’s minutes and even Deng’s after the complaint demonstrates that.

It should alleviate the fears of the burnout factor.

It wasn’t a close game. The Bulls won by double-digits, but Thibodeau still played the starters most of the fourth quarter.

It reminded Bulls of of the very fact that Derrick Rose had even been in the game when he was injured. To many Bulls fans, there is In an alternate universe, in which a healthy Rose is leading the Bulls to a first-seed in an effort to repeat as champs.

Until that quote from Noah, all the complaints about Thibodeau playing his players too much had come from media and fans—not a peep had been uttered form the players. And this was hardly a scathing comment from Noah. It was a far cry from a mutiny, but it was a real complaint from a hard-working player.

“Thibs doesn’t get the whole rest thing” was a statement that resonated everywhere, and it became the catch phrase of the day. The good news is that Thibodeau heard it.

Through that game on March 3, Noah had been averaging 38.6 minutes per game. Since that game, Noah has averaged just 32.7 minutes per game in the games in which he’s played.  

And that “in the games that he’s played” is another positive indication that Thibdeau is catching on. Noah has missed the last five games as he rests with plantar fasciitis, and there is no indication that he’s being pushed to come back.

Even Luol Deng’s minutes were reduced for a while, as he averaged just 37.6 minutes (down from 39.1) over the games following Noah’s famous quote. When Marco Belinelli went down and the Bulls had a shortage of wings, his minutes started to climb back up again, but that seemed more of a necessity than a choice.

There are definite positive signs that Thibodeau finally got the “rest thing.” 


Offensive Improvement

Finally, there’s an indication that the Bulls offense is getting some flexibility. It is ironic, because it’s as a result of the injury situation that they may have stumbled onto some offensive success. So the minutes issue might have fixed the offense issue.

Since Marco Belinelli went out with a gut-wrenching abdominal strain (pun intended), Jimmy Butler has stepped in as the starting shooting guard, and he and Deng have clicked together remarkably well. Here are their respective numbers in the last five games when they’ve started together.








Luol Deng







Jimmy Butler








That’s pretty good production from the duo, which suggests that there’s been more of an emphasis on production from the wings than the Bulls had been showing all season. It’s also encouraging to see the massive production from deep that both players have had.

Part of the reason for this may be that with Butler’s superb defense, it frees up Deng’s energy on offense, as he doesn’t have to essentially defend both wing positions by himself all the time on top of helping out with Carlos Boozer.

It remains to be seen who will start at shooting guard once Richard Hamilton and/or Marco Belinelli is back, but Thibodeau giving liberal minutes to Butler and Deng playing side-by-side is encouraging. The Bulls' offensive rating over that span has been 106.2, which isn’t fantastic, but it’s all the way up to average, ranking 15th in the NBA over that span. That’s a lot better than last or next to last.

Considering that Joakim Noah has also been absent and Derrick Rose has yet to play (if he does at all this season), that bodes well for the future.

Thibodeau may be tough and resolute in his system, but the recent indications are also that he’s flexible and willing to listen to his players.

He’s similar to Gregg Popovich in the sense that while he’s a bit of a task-master and expects his players to fit into his system, he genuinely cares about his players too, develops them and brings out the best in them. They recognize that.

Because of it, his players are willing to work harder for him and the whole team has a better sense of camaraderie.  Thibodeau is learning some of these aspects as a head coach, which bodes well for the Bulls' future. 


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