Tom Thibodeau’s defensive schemes, and the Chicago Bulls’ success running them, have been the key to their success. In the process though, have they created a Frankenstein the team now must contend with?
Thibodeau didn’t so much invent, as perfect the system which the Bulls are currently using. Grantland’s Zach Lowe explains (in an article every responsible basketball fan should read),
Thibodeau didn't invent this system, and he's loath to take any public credit for it, but coaches, scouts, and executives all over the league agree he was the first coach to stretch the limits of the NBA's newish defensive three-second rule and flood the strong side with hybrid man/zone defenses.
Other coaches have copied that style, and smart offenses over the last two seasons — and especially this season — have had to adapt. The evolution will have long-lasting consequences on multiple fronts — on the league's entertainment value, the importance of smart coaching, and the sorts of players that GMs seek out in the draft and via free agency.
In short, Thibodeau’s defense is changing the league, and now he has to contend with the beast he's summoned.
It may help to provide a little detail to explain how "Dr. Thibodeau" got to work on his monster. After Michael Jordan retired, the NBA made a series of rule changes that made it easier for perimeter players to score. These included things like legalizing zone defenses, making hand checks illegal and instituting defensive three seconds.
These rules were put in place over time, with the last of the changes being implemented in 2004.
While those rule changes have brought down scoring overall, the importance of the perimeter player has grown considerably—that's what the rules were designed to do.
Since the new rules have gone into effect, eight of the nine players to win the MVP have been perimeter players, with the lone post player being Dirk Nowitzki, a stretch 4, (and the greatest stretch 4 in NBA history at that), so you can argue it's been nine of nine.
Enter Tom Thibodeau.
With perimeter players dominating the league, Thibodeau perfected a scheme that centers on overloading the strong side.
(For those that don’t know what “strong side” and “weak side” mean, the strong side is the side of the court the ball is on. Overloading the strong side means you shift one or more defenders from the weak side to the strong side. It's zone-ish, but not a zone.)
When the extra help comes from the strong side, teams can cut off the driving lanes, and if they do it properly, they also restrict the passing lanes. This curbs the ability of an elite player to dominate the game, as it compels them to settle for bad jump shots.
Teams like the Bulls then use long, athletic wings to close and challenge jump shots. This is why Thibodeau’s defenses are annually among the best in effective field-goal percentage against. They don't strive for turnovers or blocks, they strive to force contested, low percentage shots.
Thibodeau’s schemes were nothing short of magnificent in their impact. Even if star players got their points, they got them inefficiently. For example, when LeBron James was in Cleveland and Thibodeau was in Boston, James averaged 26.7 points, but shot just 39.4 percent from the field and 24.6 percent from deep in 13 postseason games.
The NBA is a copycat league (like every league I suppose), and when something works, everyone starts doing it. Thibodeau’s scheme is rapidly becoming the norm—much to the chagrin of the Bulls’ elite perimeter player and former MVP, Derrick Rose.
As different teams have differing personnel, they execute the strategy in slightly different ways, but the basic premise doesn’t change. Maximize your three seconds, overload the strong side, keep opponents out of the paint, cut off passing lanes and close out on threes. If you do all that, you force teams into settling for bad jumpers, and you win games.
One team (other than than the Bulls) which has shown tremendous success employing this strategy is the Indiana Pacers.
In the Bulls' first game against the Pacers, Indiana used this strategy well to keep the Bulls shooting an unwinnable 35.6 percent from the field. Rose was a mere 6-of-15 from the field, but he was hardly the lone offender (and I mean that in a bad way).
Luol Deng was 6-of-18. Jimmy Butler was 2-of-6. Carlos Boozer was 3-of-10. The whole team was bad.
Sometimes we look at a single stat line in isolation of everything else, failing to recognize the symbiotic nature of the entire team. When the whole offense becomes disjointed, it leads to stupid shots, which makes things even more disjointed.
Here’s a perfect example of how the Pacers were able to use Thibodeau’s scheme to force Derrick Rose into a contested three.
Boozer is just standing there, waving his hands in the air like he just didn't care. Kirk Hinrich is trotting to the opposite corner, where Rose can’t possibly see him (instead of curling back to the strong side corner where he can bail Rose out). Butler might have a shot, but he had looked off so many previous shots, what’s the point?
At least Noah is doing something by setting the screen, but where is Rose going to go? He’s not going to penetrate through all those Pacers.
So what does he do? He just pulls up and takes an ill-advised three with 17 seconds on the clock.
Bulls’ fans recognize this kind of “decision-making” from what they do to other teams all the time. After clogging the lane and forcing turnovers inside the paint over and over again, opponents get frustrated and settle for bad shots early in the shot clock.
So how do you beat a Thibodeau defense? Maintain ball movement and diversify scoring. Synergy, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, is the answer. It's not in what what person does, it's in everyone helping everyone.
The Bulls certainly showed this in their second game against the Pacers, when they had 25 assists on 40 made field goals. Compare that to just 26 field goals period in the first game.
One of those assists came right here, where Rose is on a similar position on the court, and the Pacers are in a similar set. Rose drives the ball to the right, and the defense adjusts to him.
The difference is that this time he has a bail-out on the (now) weak side. When he drives the lane, Roy Hibbert challenges his shot, so he dumps it to Boozer for the easy lay-in. Boozer being there makes it possible for Rose to make the right play. Rose seeing Boozer allows Boozer to get the easy deuce. Synergy.
Another thing the Bulls can do is speed up the game, not letting the opponents have time to set up in their half-court defense. Chicago was very effective doing this yesterday, as attested by plays like the one below, where Rose hits Butler for the long outlet pass, who spots up, hits the shot and draws the foul.
Because Butler is sprinting out, Rose has someone to feed. But Butler's energy is wasted if Rose doesn't spot him and/or hit him with the long pass. Synergy.
Finally, Rose can help himself by hitting his three-point shots. But doing that is easier when doing it off a catch-and-shoot than by dribbling excessively before pulling up and firing. It means the defense has less opportunity to close and challenge the shot.
At the same time, it means that his teammates recognize he has an open shot, and get it to him in time. Too often in the past we've seen Rose get the ball back with a second left on the clock and nothing to do but hurl it up. Synergy.
Four of Rose’s six made threes against Indiana came off catch-and-shoot attempts. If he's hitting those, it stretches the court and opens driving lanes.
It doesn't hurt when his teammates are doing the same either.
While there is understandable concern over Rose’s rust, the upside is that his usage is down, particularly during the Bulls' present win streak, during which Rose is utilizing just 25.7 percent of the Bulls’ possessions while he’s on the court. His assist percentage is only 31.2 percent.
While Bulls fans might be disconcerted over this, Rose’s numbers will come up. In the meantime, there are encouraging things happening.
The upside of this is that the Bulls offense is starting to run efficiently without Rose having to dominate the ball. Over the course of their present win streak, they are the seventh-most efficient offense in the league per NBA.com/STATS (account required).
Just as failure can have a discombobulating effect, so can success have a synergistic one.
Seven different players scored in double figures for the Bulls in their second game against the Pacers. Nine of them recorded an assist. Those are positive signs if you’re a Bulls fan. They are indicative of a team offense, rather than a one-player offense.
As the players get used to their roles and more comfortable playing together, there should be fewer breakdowns in the offense, and that should keep things open for Rose.
However, the question arises: Once the pressure of the postseason is on the team, will both Rose and his teammates revert to bad habits? The legitimate concern over the Bulls offense is that while it's undeniably effective when it's working, it always seems so tenuous. Can it really bear up to postseason defenses?
Ideally, Rose will be able to get back to the point where he can carry the offense, but the rest of the team can sustain a level where he doesn't have to carry the offense. If he just needs to give a boost every now and then it's fine, but if he has to lug the team around on his back all season and all postseason, the team is going to have some problems.
If it fails, look no further for someone to blame than Thibodeau and his genius defensive schemes.