CHICAGO—Tom Thibodeau has wanted to win every basketball game he’s ever coached in his life. This has been true at the college and pro levels, as a head coach and an assistant, and with every team that has ever employed him. It’s what makes him beloved by his players in the Chicago Bulls locker room and by fans all over the city of Chicago. He wants to win every game, at times to a fault. Game 7 of the Finals, a regular-season game in February, or—as was the case Thursday night—a completely meaningless preseason game. To him, every game is exactly the same.
Halfway through the fourth quarter, with the Bulls trailing by 12, Thibodeau re-inserted three of his starters into the lineup—Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler. In the game for the Hawks were Dennis Schroder, Mike Scott, Jarell Eddie, Adreian Payne and John Jenkins, exactly none of whom are expected to be in Atlanta’s opening-night lineup.
And as the Bulls’ starters began to close the gap against a group of reserves, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer showed no interest in putting his starters back in. What would be the point? It’s a preseason game. Budenholzer admitted to reporters before the game that he hadn’t even scouted the Bulls yet. There’s no way he’d ever entertain the idea of putting Al Horford and Kyle Korver back in to protect a lead in a preseason game.
But Thibodeau went for it. He put most of his starters back in, subbing in sixth-man and defensive anchor Taj Gibson a few minutes later. Nobody was surprised. If anything, the surprise was that he didn’t also put Derrick Rose back in. There’s a good chance he would have, had the game gone to overtime.
Fortunately for everybody involved, Butler made sure we didn’t have to find out. He scored the Bulls’ last six points, first knocking down three free throws to tie it at 82, then hitting a contested fadeaway three-pointer as time expired to give Chicago an 85-84 win. The win will not count in the standings and will be completely forgotten in two weeks once the real games start, but anytime a preseason overtime is avoided, it’s worth celebrating.
The minutes Thibodeau gives his players has been a polarizing topic since he took over as the Bulls’ head coach in 2010. His teams have been hamstrung by injuries over the past few years, but the heavy workloads endured by players like Luol Deng and Butler have been impossible to ignore, especially after the San Antonio Spurs won the 2014 NBA title without a single player on their roster averaging 30 minutes per game.
Other teams have tried to replicate the “Spurs model.” The Miami Heat were conservative with Dwyane Wade’s minutes last season, and Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt has made it clear that LeBron James and Kyrie Irving will be getting plenty of nights off.
If you ask Thibodeau whether he’s emulating Gregg Popovich’s approach to minutes for his veteran stars, though, he’ll take it in the other direction. He sees Tim Duncan and Tony Parker playing regular-season minutes in the preseason as a message that the rest of the league needs to take preseason seriously, too. In the Spurs' first two preseason games in Germany, Duncan averaged 34 minutes and Parker averaged 35.
"I’m watching San Antonio and they’re going after it," Thibodeau said on Monday before the Bulls’ come-from-behind preseason win over the Denver Nuggets. "Parker and Duncan are playing huge minutes right off the start. I think that’s a sign of their readiness to start the season."
Thibodeau has been ramping up minutes for his starters as the preseason has gone along. For the first few games, Rose and Noah were done at halftime. Gradually, they’ve been playing longer shifts and getting time in the second half.
Thursday night was Noah’s first time playing in the fourth quarter, and the only thing that kept Rose from joining him was the Bulls trainers’ insistence that the former league MVP take things slow as he attempts to return from two consecutive season-ending knee injuries. If Thibodeau had his druthers, Rose would have been out there with the rest of the first unit attempting to secure this all-important preseason victory.
For other teams, the preseason and training camp are a time to experiment with lineups and player combinations. For Thibodeau and the Bulls, it’s about making sure they’re ready to hit the ground running on opening night. The core of this team is returning, but they’re adding Gasol and two rookies expected to be rotation players (Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic) while trying to reintegrate a superstar point guard who has played 10 games in the last two seasons. The teams they hope to face in the Finals in June are more cohesive, and Thibodeau is using the preseason to close that gap.
“The more years you’re together, the more you can build that continuity,” he said at shootaround on Thursday morning. “The term ‘corporate knowledge,’ you’re used to being in battles with people. That’s where I think Jo [Noah] and Taj are comfortable. Of course Derrick has been in a lot of battles with those guys as well. The challenge for us is to move quickly, and we can’t use that as (an excuse) … we’re new, we’re young, we have a lot of moving parts. But when you look at the teams that have sustained success, the core of the team is usually the same over a period of years. Hopefully we can build that here.”
It’s easier to build that when you have stars who buy in. Thibodeau’s relentless coaching style can be aggravating to those who think it’s OK to chill out once in a while during preseason games, but his players love it, and it seems to work. In each of his first three seasons with the Bulls, the team had a winning record in the first month of the season. Even last year, when Rose went down after 10 games, the team finished just one game below .500 at 7-8 in the month of November.
As frustrating as it can be day-to-day, at least some of that comes from Thibodeau treating every game the same and genuinely believing he can win a game with whatever personnel he has. To him, there’s no other way. Of course you should try to win a preseason game as you would a playoff game. It’s a game, isn’t it?
But that’s life with Thibodeau, and as the Bulls enter their final three preseason games with a 3-2 record, it’s hard to argue with results.