Tom Thibodeau Is the Chicago Bulls' Best Asset During Rebuilding Process

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 8, 2014

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 14: Head coach of the Chicago Bulls, Tom Thibodeau, looks on during the game against the Toronto Raptors on December 14, 2013 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
Gary Dineen/Getty Images

Even with Derrick Rose on the roster throughout the foreseeable future, it's Tom Thibodeau who remains the Chicago Bulls' best asset during their inevitable rebuilding process.

And yes, rebuilding will be done to some extent, even if the 2013-14 squad is hanging tough in the competition for an Eastern Conference playoff spot. 

Rose, while still a fantastic point guard, has quite a few question marks surrounding him. 

Not only was he rather ineffective during his long-awaited return from a torn ACL, but he went down with yet another major knee injury. For a player whose game is predicated on athleticism and explosiveness, that's problematic. Even if he recovers physically, the mental aspects are a different ball game. 

Thibodeau still has a few question marks—minute management being the primary one—but he's emerged as a bigger asset to the team. So long as he's on the sidelines, Chicago is going to remain competitive. 

It's time NBA fans as a whole started to recognize this. 

Creator of an Incredible Defense

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 11: Head Coach Tom Thibodeau of the Chicago Bulls draws up a play against the New York Knicks during the game on December 11, 2013 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and a
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

When the Bulls are looming on the schedule, you know a team is going to be in for a hard-fought defensive struggle. Points come at a premium, and each and every possession forces the opponent to maintain a grind-it-out mentality that wears everyone down. 

Chicago might not have an abundance of talent on the roster, but it has a clear identity. 

For a rebuilding team, that's the first step. It's harder to successfully restock and regain competitiveness when there's an amorphous product on the court, one that isn't sure what type of basketball it wants to play and what type of players it wants to recruit to the roster. 

And that's not a problem for Chicago, so long as Thibodeau is pacing the sideline. 

Even during a year without Derrick Rose in the lineup. Even after trading away Luol Deng for absolutely nothing except cap space. Even after withstanding plenty of injuries throughout the early portion of the season. 

The Bulls have every excuse in the book available to them, but Thibodeau refuses to use any of them. He has this defense ramping up the intensity each and every night, and the result has been one of the most impressive units in the league. 

Going into their 50th game of the season, the Bulls have allowed only 101 points per 100 possessions, a mark that leaves them sitting pretty at No. 2 on the defensive rating leaderboard, according to Basketball-Reference. Only the Indiana Pacers, owners of a wealth of defensive talent and a historically excellent set of stats, beat them out. 

Despite the opportunity for excuses, Chicago is actually allowing 2.2 fewer points per 100 possessions than it did last year. Granted, the Eastern Conference is weaker, but it's an impressive mark nonetheless.

Just as always seems to be the case, the Bulls' defense is elite because it refuses to allow points in the paint. That's the identity that goes beyond just trying on the defensive end, and it's where Thibodeau comes into the equation in a big way.

Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

According to, the Bulls are allowing only 37.1 points per game in the paint. It's a mark that, just as was the case with defensive rating, leaves them trailing the Indiana Pacers and beating every other team in the Association.  


Because of the Thibs system, one that advocates packing the paint as much as possible and almost daring referees to whistle three-second violations. If more men are in the paint, it cuts off driving lanes and makes the interior of the defense more crowded, thus forcing opponents into less-efficient shots. 

Last January, ESPN's Beckley Mason broke down the outline of the scheme thusly: 

He is often credited with being the first coach to fully leverage the abolition of illegal defense by loading up the strong side box while having the weakside defenders zone the back side of the defense. In effect, Thibodeau's defenses force ball handlers -- whether in isolation or in side pick-and-rolls -- to the baseline and then send a second defender from the weakside over to the strong side block to cut off dribble penetration. 

That strategy, combined with having big men fall back against screens to keep more big bodies in the paint (as you can see below), allows Chicago both to depress opponents' field-goal percentages and prevent second-chance points. The Bulls are always a premier rebounding team and not just because they have talented rebounders. 

Thibodeau's defensive genius—more so with Xs and Os than in-game adjustments—has spawned imitators, but no one has been able to mimic the nuances that he brings to the Windy City. No one is better at overcoming the many obstacles and remaining right near the top of the league's best defensive teams. 

Grantland's Zach Lowe is another to give Thibodeau credit for his innovation, even if the Chicago coach won't do so himself: 

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 NBA is a copycat league. 

As Thibdeau's defense proved its merits, others copied him. Then offenses—like the Miami Heat's pick-and-roll heavy system that moves the ball with ridiculous frequency—adjusted. It's a cyclical process, but there's a distinct advantage to the position in which Thibs sits. 

He's ahead of the curve. Defenses will eventually adjust to the new-wave offenses, and the gravelly voiced head coach gets to be one of those doing the reacting. 

Refuse to Lose

Tanking? TANKING!?!?!

So long as Thibodeau is pacing the sidelines of the United Center, that word will never be allowed to enter into the Chicago game plan. 

The Bulls probably should've tried to do everything possible to earn a better pick in the draft once Derrick Rose went down with his second major knee injury. Without the former MVP in the lineup, there was no hope for this team's ability to compete with the Heat and Pacers in the race to advance out of the East. 

This was a team that was banking on Rose.

The rest of the roster was worse than the 2012-13 squad—one that experienced an early playoff exit—namely because Nate Robinson was gone. The diminutive point guard was one of the few players capable of creating his own shots, but he left for the Denver Nuggets during the offseason.

So when Rose went down, all hope was essentially lost. Just not in the mind of Thibodeau.

"My job is to coach the team," he told ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell shortly after D-Rose suffered yet another knee injury. "Whoever I have on the roster, that's who I'm coaching. Whether Derrick's here or not, that's what they have to do. [The front office has] to always look at the players that are available. They have to study, which they do. And you go from there."  

And so he coached the team. 

Two weeks later, he expanded on his anti-tanking views to Friedell

There's all kinds of talk about that (tanking). And, to me, as a coach, you put everything you have into each and every day. And that's what I love about our team. There's no quit in our team. We're going to play to win. I think once you start doing those other things, you're headed down a slippery slope. 

I think you put forth your best effort each and every day. I think every game is winnable, and then you're trying to build the right habits along the way. As we get guys back, I think we're going to be fine. I have great belief in our team, and that's the way you approach it. Some teams may not believe in it, but I also think [tanking] is risky. Everyone talks about the great player, but what happens to all the franchises that don't get the great player? If you look at history, it's not good.

Eventually, he was just doing too good a job, and the front office stepped in. General manager Gar Forman shipped off Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Thibs' job became even tougher.

This time it was Joakim Noah who voiced his opinion on the dishonor of tanking. But hmm...I wonder where he got that mentality from? The Florida product has always been a supremely passionate player, but it's hard to imagine Thibodeau didn't have some influence there.

You can view this stubborn attachment to winning basketball in one of two ways. 

Some might see it as an unwillingness to maximize the prospects of the future. Tanking is supposed to be a beneficial endeavor, as it helps bring more talent to the team once the losing stops. 

However, I prefer to view it as an attractive quality when recruiting free agents, which also happens to help with the whole rebuilding process. 

Would you rather play for a coach that doesn't stick to his principles or one who steadfastly refuses to give up, even when he's faced with overwhelming odds and a significant talent deficit?

That's what I thought. 

Jan 22, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau calls a play in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

"Between the offseason firing of assistant Ron Adams against Thibodeau’s wishes to the recent trade of Thibs’ favorite player, Luol Deng, you have to wonder when the head coach is going to say he has had enough," writes Rick Morrissey for the Chicago Sun-Times

There have also been rumblings about the end of Thibodeau's tenure in the Windy City, with reasons ranging from his horrid management of players' minutes—Jimmy Butler literally spent an hour on the court during a single game—to his insistence on winning games rather than tanking. 

But the problems must be patched up.

This system that Thibodeau has created and nearly perfected is too important. So too is his reputation among players and ability to inspire greatness from everyone he coaches. 

Rose might be the one with the most jerseys sold and the MVP to his name, but it's the head coach who is Chicago's No. 1 asset during the rebuilding process. 


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