“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…”
No, Charles Dickens wasn’t talking about Tom Thibodeau’s era as the coach of the Chicago Bulls, but he might as well have been.
The bipolar nature of the Bulls over the last five years is reflective of the two sides of their coach. His defensive brilliance is equaled only by the lack of offensive creativity. During Thibodeau’s tenure, it seems that the two best defenses in the league were the Bulls and whoever was playing the Bulls.
Since he assumed command in the 2010-11 season, the Bulls have the best defensive rating in the NBA at 101.5, per Basketball-Reference.com. His “five men on a string” defense has been duplicated in some measure by virtually every team in the league. By overloading the strong side of the ball and cutting off passing lanes, Thibodeau’s defenses prevent superstar players from dominating the game. Teams copy it because it works.
Because of this, everyone is also working on how to beat it by creatively using screens, using three-point shots to stretch the court and make it harder for help to arrive, and devising ways for multi-faceted players to beat defenses in multiple ways. The ultimate irony of it all is that Thibs seems to be the only one who doesn’t know how to attack his own system.
The author of a defense predicated on the notion of forcing teams to settle for contested long twos runs an offense which easily falls into the same habit. The Bulls constantly struggled to get the ball inside, slowly passing the rock around the perimeter, catching it and holding it for several seconds at a time. The ball hopped like Jabba the Hutt after a 10-course meal.
As a result, they had an effective field-goal percentage when shooting in the 18-22 seconds-remaining range of the shot clock of just 53.8%, the lowest in the league, per NBA.com/Stats. The only teams who made fewer than the Bulls’ 4.3 field goals in that range were the Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets — each anemic in their own right.
Eventually, when the slow and painstaking passing didn’t work, the point guard — whether it was Derrick Rose, Nate Robinson, D.J. Augustin or Aaron Brooks — would dribble around generating points out of their own pure creativity.
Sure, that kind of basketball accounted for some of the most exciting moments in the Thibodeau era, such as Robinson’s monumental performance in game four of their 2013 first-round series in which he led the Bulls to a triple-overtime comeback. But more often than not it led to postseason failure.
Since 2011, the Bulls have an effective field-goal percentage of just 46.5% in the playoffs, and are averaging only 104.3 points per 100 possessions. Compare that with the San Antonio Spurs at 52.4% and 110.8 respectively. Forcing has its limits.
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The image of Nate the Skate being great will be embedded in every Bulls fan’s head for years to come. But, in what will likely to be Thibodeau’s last game as the Bulls’ head coach, there was a corresponding anti-image to that. The Bulls were down 3-2 in their second round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and down 14 in game six, when the third quarter tipped off. They kept Cleveland scoreless for half the frame. It was the perfect setting for a Bulls-style comeback. And yet, shot after shot failed to find its mark. In the same six minutes, they scored only two points themselves.
In the previous times they’d fallen to LeBron James’s teams, injuries were often an excuse — even a justifiable one. But this time, James’s team was playing without co-superstars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. This time, the Bulls had literally everyone on their roster at their disposal. And yet they couldn’t score against the 20th-ranked defense in the NBA.
And still, Thibodeau doubled down, sticking with his veterans. Things went from bad to worse and from worse to worst. In all, the Bulls would manage just 29 points in the entire second half. It was emblematic of everything Thibs.
All season, his obtuse insistence on giving Kirk Hinrich heavy minutes over the superior Tony Snell undercut the younger man’s confidence. Thiobdeau’s random decisions of when to play and not play the obviously gifted Nikola Mirotic at the power forward spot was inexplicable and prevented chemistry from developing. Virtually giving up on Doug McDermott after returning from knee surgery went unexplained.
That’s not say the coach is a failure. In fact, Thibodeau’s done an amazing job over the last five years. His winning percentage among those with more than two years on the job in that span is bested by only Gregg Popovich.
Thibodeau has coaxed and preached and yelled and motivated his team to win after win, through injury after injury. They’ve overachieved in four of the five years he’s been the man.
However, the last year seemed like all that majestic energy was lost. It was as though the motivation from the first four years had mortgaged the heart of the team for this year. Physically, they just no longer had the ability to respond.
Joakim Noah’s knees were no longer able to support the weight of his boundless drive. Rose was in and out. Jimmy Butler started showing fatigue at the end of the year. Taj Gibson’s chronic ankle problems flared up again. You can’t give so much every night for five years and not pay the price.
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Throughout the season, Thibodeau played Butler heavy minutes, marking the fifth-straight year a Chicago wing led the NBA in minutes per game. Pau Gasol, at 34-years old, logged 2,681 minutes. The last big man of such an age to play as minutes in a season was Clifford Robinson in 2003-04 — a whole different era of basketball.
And as the injuries piled up for a fifth consecutive season, it started to become impossible to avoid the conclusion that maybe there really was a link between the constant wounds and the burdensome style of Thibodeau.
Until this year, the stubbornness of their coach was manifest in the resilience of the team. They didn’t quit because he didn’t quit. They worked because he worked. They pressed because he pressed. And there was nary a peep or complaint from a player. They were as stoic as he was.
It was almost as if Thibodeau, having already broken down the Bulls of the last four years, was insisting he could win with what was left of them, albeit with Pau Gasol fulfilling the role of Carlos Boozer. And yet while they wanted to appease him, they just had nothing left.
The rock, as it were, had been bled dry. In the last 24 minutes of the Thibodeau era, they wanted to fight, but there was nothing there. They were a drained team.
And all of this leads us to the wrong question and the right question.
The wrong question is: Can the Bulls find a better head coach? It’s going to be tough, but who would have pegged Steve Kerr to have made such a dramatic improvement to the Warriors in one year? Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But that seems secondary to the right question.
The right question is: Can they win a title under Thibodeau? And at this point, I don’t think they can. They’ve just run out of the chutzpah that made them special for so long. And that being the case, it’s time to make a switch.
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