Believe it or not, Tom Thibodeau can coach offense. Even in a rocky, 114-109 November 25 loss to the Denver Nuggets—and through their 2-3 road trip in general—his team's struggles haven't been in the buckets department, as we're used to seeing from them.
The Chicago Bulls’ scoring, last year, might have had you thinking Thibs was a neophyte with offensive leadership, as they ranked dead last in the league in points per game. But the Bulls still competed at a high level, fighting to a 48-34 victory and a playoff berth behind their terrific defense, which was just as good as their scoring was bad. They were No. 1 in the league in points allowed.
|Chicago Bulls Offensive Rankings under Tom Thibodeau|
|Season||Points per game||Three-point percentage||Point differential|
|Data courtesy of ESPN.com|
Through four years of Thibodeau’s NBA coaching career, this had become the reputation of his Bulls squads. Set to be anemic offensively, they could make up for it more than half of the time with their defensive schemes and discipline. Thibodeau’s singular vision for that side of the ball had been something like a blueprint for how teams across the league defend in this century.
But what if the lack of offense was merely a matter of circumstance? Thibodeau, through anyone’s lens, hasn’t had the firepower needed for his teams to score at a high rate. Repeat injuries to Derrick Rose have left a huge hole in his team’s offensive. Behind Rose on the depth chart, ample scoring personnel simply hasn’t been there.
Now that Rose is back (at least some of the time) and Pau Gasol, Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic are in town, we’re seeing something quite different. Despite still suffering from injuries to Rose, Gasol, Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, the Bulls rank 11th in team field-goal percentage. And a lot of it has to do with Thibodeau’s schemes. From Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated:
Last season, Joakim Noah was pulled into a prominent playmaking role that inverted Chicago's offense. Jimmy Butler was handed the ball and asked to make hay. Taj Gibson gradually became a bigger part of things as he transitioned from pick-and-pop specialist to post-up powerhouse. None of this was quite enough to transform the Bulls into a top offensive team. It did, however, democratize Chicago's system in a way that would optimize talent added down the line.
Now we’re seeing the results of the team’s Roseless growth, with Thibodeau managing an effective balance of post play, elbow action, isolation calls and even allowing his team to freewheel in the open court more often.
Mostly, though, we’re seeing a lot of the same playbook Thibodeau’s been toting around all along. Similar Bulls sights are found in the team’s brilliant kaleidoscope of off-ball running and screens, a ball that swings around the perimeter freely and a majority of shots being wisely chosen. It’s just that everything works better with good shooters when the bodies are faster, longer, smarter, healthier and more confident.
Thibodeau explained his new offensive tools this way to reporters on November 3:
[Shooting is something] we definitely wanted to add and I think it's one of the strengths of the team. As long as (3-pointers) are coming inside-out, those are the ones we want to take. For the most part, those are the ones we've taken. It helps open up the floor for Derrick. We haven't seen it yet really, but it will. I think it's going to be a big plus for him — and Pau for that matter. It's going to give him more room to operate in there. I think that's big.
Thibodeau could coach offense all along. When Rose had his best season in 2010-11 (the year he took home the MVP trophy) the team was 13th in the league in team field goal percentage with a punchless Keith Bogans starting next to Rose in the backcourt.
The team’s struggles to score have simply been the result of a startling lack of men fit for the job. Over the past two seasons, you could easily argue that the Bulls roster had zero players who’d be a No. 1 option on any other team in the league.
That’s all different now. Not only does Chicago have a new top weapon in an old one (Rose), but its big summer acquisitions—save for the exception of a struggling Doug McDermott—are all panning out. And Butler has developed his game to boot. Gibson too. The Bulls now have several scorers capable not only of thriving in Thibodeau’s system but also in the margins for creativity it allows.
Butler, Mirotic, Rose, Gasol, Gibson and Brooks are all good candidates to find baskets for themselves when defenses sniff plays out and actions break down. They’re all exactly what Thibodeau’s been missing: scorers. Now that he’s got a handful of them, we’re learning just how good of an offensive coach he can be.