How Tom Thibodeau Made the Chicago Bulls More Than Sum of Their Parts

Jesse DorseyFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2013

Derrick Rose has missed the entire year, injuries have hit nearly every other important player on the team and Joakim Noah has been fighting plantar fasciitis for well over a month, yet Tom Thibodeau is still coaching a Chicago Bulls team that could make its way into the Eastern Conference Finals.

This year's Bulls team has been the ultimate derivation from their "on paper" assessment. On paper, this Bulls team is an average squad that should have been right near the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture with the Boston Celtics.

The Bulls sat on the precipice of the season with no clue when their MVP point guard was going to return, a completely new bench and only a centralized philosophy to lean on.

That philosophy, put in place the first day that the Bulls wrestled Thibodeau away from Doc Rivers and the Boston Celtics back in 2010, is why they sit with a 1-0 lead over the Miami Heat in the early stages of the second round of the playoffs.

It's simple, really. Tom Thibodeau has consistently preached effort, awareness and confidence in order to turn every player he's coached into a sound defender.

Zach Lowe of Grantland wrote about Chicago's pick-and-roll defense being the heart of their team, and how it reflects the way they approach basketball in general.

That philosophy is based on a rather bold belief: The Bulls think their two defenders, with just a little bit of help, can beat your two offensive players and coax the exact kind of low-efficiency shot you don't want to take. "You're trying to get perfection out of it," Thibodeau tells Grantland, "trying to get as close to perfect as a team could possibly be."


Even Carlos Boozer, justifiably maligned for his flat-flooted defense, at least understands Chicago's scheme and places those flat feet in the right place at the right time. He doesn't misread plays, botch rotations, stand up lazy and straight, or gamble irresponsibly, and is thus not actively harmful in the way someone like Monta Ellis or DeMarcus Cousins can be to a team's defense.

That second part really hammers home everything you ever needed to know about Thibodeau's ability as a coach.

Even Carlos Boozer, a defensive louse for eight solid years before coming to Chicago, has learned the basic points to being a good defender, at least in the ranks of a team (he's still woeful in one-on-one situations).

However, if you want to get down to seeing every aspect of Thibodeau's ability to transform a player into a Chicago Bull, you've only got to look at Nate Robinson. His relationship with Thibs this season epitomizes what can happen when both parties are ready and willing.

When the Bulls signed Robinson at the veteran minimum last summer, the thought was that he would do a fine job of hanging onto the backup point guard role as long as Rose remained sidelined.

Offensively he would provide a bit of pop, but any defense or (gasp!) leadership qualities from him would be a huge surprise.

That's the way it went for most of the first few months with the Bulls. Robinson scored a bit, took some bad shots, made Thibodeau glare at him and then Robinson would sit back down.

However, sometime around January things started to click for little Nate. He started taking better shots (but still with some deep heaves mixed in), and he began to find himself in the starting lineup with Kirk Hinrich in and out of the trainer's room.

Robinson's defense steadily improved, and he shot 42 percent from the three-point line in the 2013 portion of the season. He was slowly being turned into a Tom Thibodeau player, with some of the old quirks still hanging around.

In early April the two were asked about each other, Robinson coming through with the realization that he appreciates a coach like Thibodeau and maybe even needed him a bit (Via RealGM):

Coach Thibodeau is awesome. He’s on me all the time, which I love because that means he cares and he wants me to get better and help these guys bring energy.

He just molded my game to be more of a floor general and be more of a leader.

For the second season in a row, Robinson is averaging well over four assists per game—only he did it this time around throughout a full season while starting a quarter of the Bulls' games en route to a playoff spot, rather than the lottery spot that Golden State landed last season.

Thibs talked about Robinson as a defender, complimenting his improvement, which is really one of the biggest compliments that he gives (Via RealGM):

He’s improved on his on-ball defense and his off-ball defense because he’s playing a lot with Kirk (Hinrich) now. That’s an area that he’s concentrating on right now. As long as he tries to play the best defense he can, that’s all we can ask him to do.

Over the course of the season, Robinson has gone from playing the passing lanes to playing the man. He's gone from being defeated every time he runs into a screen to powering through, or seeing screens beforehand and playing above them.

In short, Robinson has transformed into a player who is able to defend well enough, oftentimes in one of Thibodeau's most important positions (the guy guarding the ball-handler on the pick-and-roll), so that he has time to get into a rhythm and have a chance for a scoring explosion.

Thibodeau is constantly yelling at his players, poking and prodding them for more, to do better, to fix what's going wrong—and his players respond.

There isn't a single dissenting mind in their locker room. Otherwise, there would have been some kind of brouhaha by now. Every player, from the grizzled veterans with a pinky toe still in the league to the rookies and cast-offs, has bought into Thibodeau's style of play.

Chicago doesn't have a single guy who would be considered one of the league's best two-way players, yet you can still talk about them upsetting the Miami Heat in the playoffs.

Under an average coach, these Bulls are just another team. They likely would have made the playoffs, but they wouldn't have made it out of the first round.

Thibodeau takes the sum of their parts and sews them together into a blanket used for smothering offenses, giving them a chance in any given game.


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