Tom Thibodeau is holding the Chicago Bulls together more than you might think. Certainly, he’s done a ton to keep the team competitive in spite of the injury woes. But, his presence also keeps the Bulls together, both literally and figuratively.
Thibodeau’s genius on the defensive end is so peerless that even with the offense lagging behind, he's considered one of the best overall coaches in the league.
ESPN's Henry Abbot wrote last year about how "ESPN Forecast—a panel of experts who watch the NBA closely," voted Thibodeau as the league’s second-best coach, trailing only Gregg Popovich.
It’s because of his genius, and the help of an incredibly weak Eastern Conference, that the Bulls are looking at a realistic chance of landing the No. 3 seed and a second-round exit in this year’s playoffs. That’s not bad for a team that has lost two of its three best players, Derrick Rose to injury and Luol Deng to a cap-saving trade.
As it turns out, Thibodeau is the rarest commodity in the NBA: an indisputable difference-maker on the bench. This is a players' league, but Thibodeau is easily the most underpaid commodity in the NBA. At $4 million per year, the big-market Bulls never need to go deep into luxury tax, because Thibodeau will find a way to win with almost whatever they give him. That's a blessing and a curse for him, because someday Thibodeau and Derrick Rose will demand more out of owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
And this is the crux of Thibodeau’s holding the team together in more ways than you think. That day when he’s demanding more out of Reinsdorf may have arrived. He’s using his coaching ability to keep the Bulls on track and winning. He's using his influence to keep the team from being dealt willy-nilly out from under him.
Whatever pull he has, he’s using to retain the cadre of players he deems essential to winning, namely Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and perhaps Jimmy Butler.
The tensions between Thibodeau and the front office have been extensively reported, but the blame probably falls more on the front office and less on Reinsdorf than it should. Gar Forman and John Paxson ultimately have a boss too, and they are restricted by the dollars he’s willing to spend.
Forman and Paxson need to meet Reinsdorf’s demands on one side and Thibodeau’s on the other. When those are in conflict, their job becomes pretty much impossible.
Ultimately, the buck stops at the owner.
Reinsdorf can repay his debt to Thibodeau by supporting him publicly, privately or both. Letting the coach have a little more say in the players he coaches would go a long way toward easing tensions.
Wojnarowski quotes Thibodeau on his philosophy.
Most guys, from Patrick Ewing to Yao [Ming] to [Kevin] Garnett, they want to be coached, they want to be pushed. In all my years in this, one thing has never changed: You win with serious, tough-minded players. That never changes.
That's the challenge now. Things are changing in the game. ... Things are different. When you're putting a team together, I think of what [Bill] Belichick said: "You're not collecting talent, you're building a team."
Thibodeau is the NBA’s version of Belichick. Both will win regardless of the talent level of the players that you surround them with, because they coach mindset as much as they coach X's and O's. But as Belichick needs his Tom Brady’s to captain his team, and be that "serious, tough-minded" player on the field, so does Thibodeau need the same sort of examples on the court.
Guys like Noah, Gibson and Butler exemplify that mindset. They make it so that when other players like D.J. Augustin come in, they adapt to the same mentality. The theme of the Bulls in the Thibodeau era is that effort is rewarded and laziness is not—regardless of talent level.
That’s why the response was so critical when Carlos Boozer recently took to the press to complain about his lack of fourth-quarter minutes, saying,
I think I should be out there, but it's (Thibodeau's) choice. I play. I don't coach. But honestly, he's been doing that a lot since I've been here, not putting me in in the fourth quarter. Sometimes we win, more times than not we don't.
The general reaction from the press was summed up best by Steve Rosenbloom of the Chicago Tribune: "Shut up and guard someone!" In Chicago, it’s not how well you play, it’s how hard you play.
The Bulls win, in part, because of the tremendous defenses that Thibodeau designs. This year, in spite of the issues they’ve faced, which includes an array of injuries that have forced them to put 17 unique starting lineups on the court, they still own the second-best defense in the league.
The other part of their winning is the Thibodeau culture, though. The players who buy into it embrace Thibodeau because, as he says, those are the kinds of players who want to be coached. In turn, he fights fiercely for them.
That’s why, when I hear rumors of him secretly bucking for the coaching job with the New York Knicks, I have trouble accepting there could be any validity to them. He’s as loyal to the players as they are to him. He has no more desire to leave them in the lurch than to see them traded away.
He may not have liked the Deng trade, but he understood it, saying,
I had a chance to voice my opinion. Their job is to make financial decisions, to make player personnel decisions, and things of that nature. Their job is to do that. My job is to coach the guys that are here. That's the way it works.
But, when Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun Times reported on trade rumors that included Taj Gibson’s name, you better believe that the leverage Thibodeau had garnered from the ridiculous Knicks rumors was used to protect his favorite power forward.
I'm just speculating now, but it's hard to believe he wouldn't pipe in. He’s not the type to air grievances publicly; he’s far too professional for that. So, don't expect him to erupt to the media.
However, that doesn't mean he's not expressing his views privately.
Gibson being floated around for cap space is an entirely different matter than Deng being traded. Gibson’s not a free agent next summer. He’s under contract, and a high-value one at that.
A Gibson trade would only be done for one reason: to bring over Carmelo Anthony next summer. And there’s a question that may not have been given enough consideration. Everyone worries about how much Anthony can tolerate Thibodeau’s coaching style, but how long will Thibodeau suffer Anthony?
In many ways, Anthony is the antithesis of Deng, who was seemingly the most beloved of all the Bulls to Thibodeau. Anthony has a history of putting self over team, offense over defense and talent over work. That's the story of his career. He is more "Boozer" than "Gibson" when it comes to how he would fit into the Bulls' system and chemistry Thibodeau works to create.
Landing Anthony would have a huge cost to the Bulls, according to Sam Smith of Bulls.com:
But to get Anthony in free agency the Bulls would have to amnesty Boozer, give Taj Gibson away for nothing and likely their No. 1 pick as well, as they did with Hinrich, to get someone to take the long term salary. Then you have no money not only for Mirotic but other reserves beyond minimum contracts. You have no big man other than Noah. And now you have to hope Anthony follows through on his word, which he cannot give or be held to, that he’d sign with you.
I disagree with Smith that Gibson’s deal would have to include the Bulls dealing a draft pick, but on the rest of it, he’s right. The Bulls would have to gut the team to land Anthony, and that could include so much of the heart and perseverance that have defined the team the last four years.
And, perhaps, it could cost them the league’s second-best coach.
One wonders when Thibodeau might start seriously entertaining the idea of trying to find a way out of his contract if the team he works so hard to build continues to get broken up with salary dumps, especially if it’s to acquire players who don’t fit his system.
Fans have weighed in a lot on whether it’s time to break up the current core, and to what degree the Bulls should do so. Is it worth their coach and everything else to land an ill-fitting superstar, just to take a shot at finally fulfilling "second star" requirement?
Thibodeau's job and his team are the same thing to him. That’s why he’s fighting so hard to keep his players together, and why the Bulls have to be very careful before blowing up the roster.