January 20, 2018
If the Pelicans really are in hot pursuit of Tom Thibodeau, what exactly might they get?

It’s all but a foregone conclusion that Tom Thibodeau’s time with the Chicago Bulls is coming to an end this offseason.

A source close to the head coach told Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck that he couldn’t “even come close to imagining” Thibodeau remaining with the team, putting the chances of a breakup at 95%. Likewise, a source close to the situation told ESPN.com’s Marc Stein that “Thibs is gone. They know it and he knows it.”

Beck’s source reportedly “expects a quick resolution to the Bulls/Thibs situation, likely with Thibs landing in New Orleans.” Citing NBA coaching sources, Stein reported “there is mutual interest between Thibodeau and the Pelicans, with Thibs naturally said to be very intrigued by the possibility of coaching [Anthony] Davis full-time after working with him last summer as a Team USA assistant.”

A number of dominoes still have to fall before Thibodeau becomes the Pelicans’ next coach, however. For one, he still has two years and $9 million remaining on his contract, and the notoriously stingy Bulls aren’t inclined to fire him outright to let him collect on that money. They’ll be seeking some form of compensation — much like what the Boston Celtics received for Doc Rivers two summers ago — before letting Thibodeau walk away.

According to CBS Sports’ Ken Berger, the Bulls front office “isn’t even compelled to engage in any compensation talks with any teams that are interested in their coach until they have a commitment from a replacement who excites them.” Berger, Beck and Stein all mentioned Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg as one such target — and according to Bear Heiser of Fox Sports West, Hoiberg would be willing to make the jump — but some front office machinations in New Orleans could further complicate matters.

Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski confirmed the Pelicans’ interest in Thibodeau, but wrote “that intrigue belongs more with [Pelicans president Mickey] Loomis than [general manager Dell] Demps,” citing league sources. “Loomis is an executive with the New Orleans Saints, and Thibodeau’s tough-minded approach has an especially strong appeal to that part of the organization,” Woj reported. “Nevertheless, it is believed Demps is less inclined to want a strong-willed coach in the job, especially after so many internal battles” with Williams.

The Pelicans interviewed Golden State Warriors offensive coordinator Alvin Gentry for their head coaching vacancy Monday night, according to Woj, so Thibodeau is clearly no lock to wind up in New Orleans. Hypothetically, though, let’s say that the dominoes fall in place and Thibs does become the Pelicans’ next coach. What should they expect from him?

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Defense as the Backbone

Any discussion with Thibodeau’s coaching acumen must begin with defense. Before taking over as the Bulls’ head coach prior to the 2010-11 season, Thibs worked as an assistant head coach with the Boston Celtics for three years. During that time, the C’s emerged as one of the league’s best point-preventing squads under Thibodeau’s watch, ranking second, second and fifth in defensive rating, respectively.

Thibs brought that defensive focus with him to the Windy City. The Bulls ranked 10th in defensive rating during the season prior to his arrival, but immediately became the league’s stingiest D in his first year with the team. They would remain among the top 10 defenses over each of the next three seasons, ranking first, fifth and second, respectively, before falling to 11th this past year. (An oft-gimpy Joakim Noah and the free-agent addition of Pau Gasol shoulder much of the blame for Chicago’s defensive slippage in 2014-15.)

What’s the secret behind Thibodeau’s defense? In large part, it comes down to limiting three-pointers. Over the past five seasons, Bulls opponents have averaged league lows in both three-point attempts (17.0) and made treys (5.7) per game. Foes shot 33.8% from three-point range over that span, second only to the Celtics (33.6%).

In particular, the Bulls have been incredibly stingy both in terms of three-pointers allowed from the corners and field-goal percentage on those shots:

Left Corner FGA (Rank)Left 3FG% (Rank)Right Corner FGA (Rank)Right 3FG% (Rank)
2010-11174 (4th)35.1% (4th)131 (1st)35.1% (3rd)
2011-12101 (1st)30.7% (1st)90 (1st)30.0% (4th)
2012-13132 (1st)31.8% (1st)165 (1st)43.6% (25th)
2013-14180 (3rd)40.0% (18th)142 (1st)35.2% (5th)
2014-15162 (1st)33.3% (2nd)175 (5th)41.1% (21st)
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This past season, Chicago opponents took just 22.6% of their shots from three-point range, the third-lowest mark in the league. They shot 1.2 percentage points worse than average on their long-range attempts, giving the Bulls the fifth-best differential. This wasn’t a one-year anomaly, either; only 23.0% of foes’ attempts in 2013-14 were three-pointers, and they shot 0.2 percentage points worse than their average.

The Bulls’ defensive strengths didn’t just stop at limiting long-range attempts, however. Back in 2013, Grantland’s Zach Lowe described the team’s overarching philosophy on D:

Chicago has built its defense around an interesting principle: It wants one of the two guys directly involved in the pick-and-roll shooting at the end of it. …  That philosophy is based on a rather bold belief: The Bulls think their two defenders, with just a little bit of help, can beat your two offensive players and coax the exact kind of low-efficiency shot you don’t want to take.

That approach was on full display early in the Bulls’ game one win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals:

As Kyrie Irving attempts to sneak behind a Timofey Mozgov screen, Derrick Rose battles his way through the seven-footer to ensure Irving doesn’t get a clean look from three. At the same time, Gasol — who’s not exactly fleet of foot — and Mike Dunleavy each take a step toward Irving’s driving lane to wall off any chance he has of getting into the paint. The Cavaliers point guard attempts to take advantage of Rose leaving his feet, bursting right for a mid-range jumper, but it clangs harmlessly off the rim and gets tipped out of bounds heading the opposite direction.

Also, note the location of all five Cavaliers when Irving begins to dart toward Mozgov:

KyriePNRstill

Cleveland fell right into the Bulls’ trap here, not spacing the floor and allowing Chicago to overload the strong side. Had Shawn Marion been positioned on the other side of the three-point arc, Dunleavy wouldn’t have been able to cheat out to thwart Irving from driving to the basket.

At the end of the first quarter, Cleveland attempted to take advantage of Chicago’s aggressiveness on pick-and-rolls, to no avail:

LeBron James drives to draw the defense to the left before dishing it to Shawn Marion behind the arc. Marion hands the ball off to Irving while attempting to impede Rose’s path, but the Bulls point guard flies right by Marion and keeps Irving from getting an open three-point look. Once again, Irving decides his best option is to drive to the basket, where three Bulls converge on him as he attempts a layup. Even if you didn’t watch the clip, you can likely guess how that ends.

During the regular season, the Bulls actually struggled against ball-handlers in pick-and-rolls. Opponents scored a league-high 0.87 points per possession in such situations, which constituted 18.2% of their overall possessions (fourth-most in the league). Chicago fared much better against roll men, however, conceding just 0.85 points per possession to them. Only the Memphis Grizzlies had a better mark against roll men this year.

The Bulls also enticed opponents into a hefty amount of isolation ball, which rarely worked well against them. Chicago was tied with Cleveland for the third-fewest points per possession allowed in isolations (0.78), yet 8.3% of their foes’ possessions were such situations, tied for the league’s seventh-highest mark. Meanwhile, opponents had the third-fewest spot-up attempts against the Bulls—15.9% of their overall possessions—and scored just 0.95 points per possession in such situations, once again tied for seventh-worst.

With a former Defensive Player of the Year in Noah manning the middle, Chicago was additionally stout when foes attempted forays into the paint. Chicago allowed opponents to shoot 50.1% at the rim in 2013-14 (the league’s fifth-best mark) and 50.4% this past year (seventh). They’re also tied for the third-most blocks per game (5.5) since Thibodeau took over five years ago.

The TL;DR version: Thibs is one of the league’s best defensive coaches, and any team would happily have him on in that capacity.

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Offense, On the Other Hand…

According to John Reid of The Times-Picayune, “the Pelicans are seeking a coach that would employ an exciting, up-tempo offense, league sources said, and further develop Davis’S tremendous skill set.”

That sound you hear is the screeching breaks on Thibodeau’s candidacy in New Orleans.

While the Bulls have been an elite defensive unit since Thibs’S arrival, the same can’t be said for their offense. In fact, for much of his tenure, the opposite has applied. The Bulls finished with the league’s 10th-best offensive rating during Thibodeau’s first season, jumped to fourth the following year, and have been tumbling downhill ever since.

In 2012-13 — the year which Rose sat out to recover from his torn ACL — the Bulls were 24th in offensive rating, scoring just 100.7 points per 100 possessions. (That’s four full points per 100 possessions fewer than they averaged the year prior.) They sunk to 27th in 2013-14 with Rose out for all but 10 games before rebounding to 10th this past season.

The two seasons with Rose mostly sidelined were easily the Bulls’ worst, which shouldn’t be a surprise. Few teams could lose their franchise point guard without skipping a beat offensively. During the three years in which he played at least half of the team’s games, Chicago ranked among the top 10 offensively, perhaps suggesting Thibodeau’s reputation as an offense-challenged coach isn’t fully accurate.

Then again, one only needs to think back to game six against the Cavaliers—where the Bulls scored 42 points over the final three quarters of a win-or-go-home game—to understand the doubts about Thibs’ offensive acumen. BBALLBREAKDOWN’s own Kelly Scaletta recently described his struggles on that end with the Bulls:

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.

One doesn’t have to look far to find statistics backing up Kelly’s description of Chicago’s offense. Since Thibodeau’s arrival, the Bulls have the second-slowest pace in the league, averaging just 90.4 points per 100 possessions. While that’s not necessarily a death knell on its own — the two teams in the Eastern Conference Finals finished 13th (Atlanta) and 24th (Cleveland), respectively, in pace this year — that also doesn’t mesh with the Pelicans’ desire for an “up-tempo offense.” Thibs’s Bulls teams also tied for the sixth-fewest three-point field-goal attempts since 2010-11, which runs counter to the league’s evolution over the past few years.

This season, the Bulls were right around the league average in terms of passes per game, assist opportunities per game and points created by assist per game. To put that into perspective, two of the three best offenses in the league — the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers — ranked among the top five in assist opportunities per game. The Warriors and Hawks, both of whom remain alive in the playoffs, were first and second, respectively, in points created by assist per game.

You can’t blame personnel for the Bulls’ deficiencies in that regard. Both Noah and Gasol are elite passing big men, while both Rose and Jimmy Butler are capable of having the offense run through them, too. Chicago’s offensive struggles are mostly Thibodeau’s cross to bear, which pours some cold water on the idea of him being the ideal candidate to take over the Pelicans.

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Is Thibs a Fit With New Orleans?

Given the success Thibodeau had with this defensive scheme in Chicago, one could only assume he’d attempt to carry as much as possible over to New Orleans. While he wouldn’t have Noah at his disposal to anchor his defense both physically and verbally, the thought of Anthony Davis executing a Thibodeau defense is more horrifying than the words “Honey? Let’s go see Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.” The Brow has led the league in blocked shots in each of the past two seasons, and only figures to improve his defensive well-roundedness as he progresses toward his athletic prime. (Remember, Davis is only 22 — he should be graduating college this spring.)

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Thibodeau’s arrival in New Orleans could also perhaps entice Omer Asik to re-sign in free agency this summer. Asik began his NBA career with Thibs in Chicago, and despite averaging just 3.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in 14.7 minutes during the 2011-12 season, he wound up signing a three-year, $25.1 million contract the following summer. Given Thibs’s proclivity for starting two true bigs, Asik would be a near-lock for a starting job if he does return.

Lowe believes Thibodeau’s arrival in New Orleans would coincide with a sharp defensive rise:

The Pelicans’ defense was still a disaster, but slot Thibodeau there next season, and I’d bet good money on New Orleans making the biggest leap up the defensive efficiency rankings. The Pellies’ perimeter defense was leaky all season, but Thibodeau imposes a rigid order that smooths away a lot of mistakes that happen when players veer outside their lanes.

New Orleans finished 24th in defensive rating this past season, which is nowhere near the level of a championship-caliber team. Given how quickly Thibodeau transformed the Bulls’ D from solid to elite, it’s not difficult to imagine him doing the same with the Pelicans, particularly if point guard Jrue Holiday avoids any additional stress reactions in his legs. The UCLA product will only be 25 in June, and he’s already one of the league’s top defensive floor generals when healthy.

Even if Asik decided to depart in free agency, the Thibodeau-led Pelicans wouldn’t necessarily be doomed. His Bulls, after all, did maintain their defensive effectiveness despite having Carlos Boozer in the starting lineup for four of Thibs’ five years with the team. Moving Ryan Anderson into the starting lineup at the 4 and sliding Davis to the 5 would result in some growing pains for all parties, but that stretchy lineup would also be a nightmare for opponents to guard.

Offense would unquestionably be Thibodeau’s biggest challenge upon taking the Pelicans job. Given Davis’ wide array of skills — from mid-range jumpers and deft passes to rim-rattling alley-oops — it would be criminal for New Orleans’s next coach to not exploit those advantages. With the Bulls having experienced offensive struggles whenever Rose suffered an injury — and Holiday fresh off two extended health-related absences of his own — there’s reason to wonder whether Thibodeau is flexible enough to adjust on the fly. He did so in Chicago, effectively turning Noah into a point center whenever Rose went down, but Davis isn’t yet the same caliber passer as the former Florida Gator.

Unlike in Chicago, where he had a complement of four bigs who all deserved hefty playing time, Thibodeau would inherit a much less crowded frontcourt in New Orleans. He wouldn’t be forced to attempt playing Anderson at the small forward spot like he did with sensational rookie Nikola Mirotic this past season, which could help save him from himself on offense. A lineup of Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Anderson and Davis would be a nightmare to guard, as it presents a lethal combination of drive-and-kick threats, perimeter shooters, and the vast all-around talents of the Brow.

If the Pelicans are serious about hiring a coach with designs of implementing a high-octane offense, Thibodeau likely wouldn’t be the best fit. However, given their defensive struggles — and his reputation as a defense whisperer — he’s at least worth a serious look, especially if he’s willing to bring an offensive-minded assistant coach on board, similar to what Steve Kerr did with Alvin Gentry in Golden State this year.

All statistics via NBA.com or Basketball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted. All videos and screenshots courtesy of NBA.com.

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Bryan Toporek

Bryan Toporek is just talkin' about practice. He writes about the NBA at BBALLBREAKDOWN, FanRag Sports and The Step Back. He also helps curate NBAAsesets.com.

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