Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Thibodeau Pushes Bulls to High Level

In any rational basketball universe, the Chicago Bulls shouldn't be anywhere near first place. They've been without their superstar, Derrick Rose, the entire year. While that alone would be enough to sink a team that's normally heavily reliant on him for scoring, they've also sustained injuries to their two All-Stars, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, as well as two other impact players, Carlos Boozer and Kirk Hinrich. When you consider that Rip Hamilton missed significant time earlier this season, each of the Bulls 2012-2013 starters, in addition to Rose, have missed stretches of games due to injury. And yet, there the Bulls are at 29-19, tied for first in the Central Division and tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference. They've done it by adhering to a mantra of toughness, resilience, and effort. They've done it because of Tom Thibodeau.

Thibs keeps the Bulls on edge
Recently, Thibs was asked what he thought of the slew of injuries suffered by the Bulls and the subsequent impact it has had on his team. His quote was telling, with Thibs mustering in his deep voice something along the lines of "this is the NBA, there aren't any excuses. Man up." What Thibs has done with this team is nothing short of miraculous. Sure, teams get by without their best player for certain stretches. But the Bulls have been without Rose nearly the entire year, and without their full starting lineup even without him for much of the year as well. Deng, Noah, Hinrich, Hamilton, and Boozer have all missed extended periods of time. Yet, under Thibs' philosophy of toughness, defense, rebounding, and teamwork, the team has still managed to stay at or near the top of its division and in perfect position moving forward once all the pieces return.

Just look at what he's done for a guy like Nate Robinson. Nate, a player who has bounced around the league a bit throughout his career, came to the Bulls on a non-guaranteed contract, with nothing really expected from him but depth. And yet, under Thibs' tutelage, he's blossomed into a superb energy guy with the confidence to put a struggling Bulls offense on his back and ignite the rest of his teammates to dig down when they need to most. When he catches fire, look out. Lately, as he's filled in for Hinrich in the starting lineup, he's taken his energy role to another level as he ignites his tired teammates to grit through yet another game with almost as many injured players as those in uniform. It's hard to picture the Bulls having the success they've had without Nate, but it's even more difficult to conceive of Nate playing like this without a coach like Thibodeau.

His coaching style is direct, and tough. He pushes buttons and demands excellence. Thibs is the kind of coach who finds flaws in a thirty point victory. He's also not afraid to call out anyone on the team for lackadaisical play, even a high-energy hustle guy like Noah. Noah found himself at the wrong end of an exchange like that recently with Thibs and quickly found himself at the end of the bench. Above all, Thibodeau preaches hustle, effort, defense and rebounding. He knows that when all else fails - when the scoring drops out, when players get hurt, etc. - those team attributes can remain constant. He stays on his team because it pays off in the long run. It's telling that the Bulls are only 25th in the league in scoring, but sit with 29 wins because they're 5th in rebounding and 3rd in points allowed. No matter what the game, those two constants can keep it competitive. When that's the case, all you need is a run, some veteran leadership, or just purely outlasting the opponent to gut out the victory. In this way, Thibodeau prepares his team to always have the best chance to win the war of attrition that he initiates in each Bulls game. 

What this does for the Bulls is not only always ensure that they'll be competitive, but that they're going to be in a position to take the next step when they have all the pieces together. Thibs' mantra is so ingrained in his team, so interwoven into the fabric of how they compete, that interchangeable parts can get on the floor and take that competitiveness to another level. We saw it with the Bulls in Thibs' first year, where he led them to the number 1 seed and the Eastern Conference finals. With Thibodeau as the coach, the sky is the limit with any players he is coaching.

Deng, Gibson, and Butler thrive under Thibodeau
I think he's been particularly instrumental in the development of Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler, both of whom have shined. Being that both are talented players, their growth shows that Thibs isn't just a coach that brings the best out of average players. His coaching style brings the best out of all players. Taj is an effort/hustle guy at heart, and he thrives in Thibs' system, going after rebounds and loose balls and contributing offensively as well. He seems like the archtype Thibodeau player, where his impact is felt by anyone who watches this team consistently, but then again doesn't always show in the box score. But that's not to say that he can't put up the numbers. Look at what happens when he gets starters' minutes: in the past three games, playing nearly 48 minutes each game, Taj has averaged a 15 and 13. He guts out big minutes when he's called upon to do so, and he works hard no matter when he gets on the court. He's the perfect player for Thibodeau to work with. Let's just say there's a reason that Gibson was given the big contract before the season and the Bulls purportedly still plan to amnesty Boozer after next season.

As for Butler, credit goes to the Bulls scouting department for grabbing him late in the first round last year, to Jimmy himself for working so hard, and for Thibs for finally gaining the confidence in Butler to play him big minutes. The result has been fruitful, as Jimmy seems to improve in every game and is growing up as a player before our eyes. He's quick, gets to the basket, does all the little hustle and energy plays that Thibodeau loves, and plays outstanding defense. I feel like he'll be given room to develop now that we've seen how far he's come in one year, and once he works on his jumper, could turn into a fine complement to Derrick Rose in the back court when the Bulls feel like trotting out a big lineup, as I imagine he'll replace Rip Hamilton next year as he slides into a combo SG/SF role.

I feel like we should judge coaches, like society, by looking at how they perform in the worst situations. Look at the Lakers for instance - they've been given an embarrassment of riches (even if Dwight Howard is an overrated, soft, underachiever) and yet might miss the playoffs. Both Mike Brown and Mike D'Antoni have failed miserably in a supposedly can't-lose situation. On the contrary, the Bulls and Tom Thibodeau have been dealt blow after blow in the injury department and keep plugging along. It's a testament to the mentality that Thibodeau imprints onto his players in every minute of every practice, game, meeting, or film session: this is the NBA, play your hardest, grab rebounds, and play defense.

Maybe the Bulls don't have the firepower, even when fully healthy, to take down a team like Miami in the East in a 7 game series. But that won't ever stop Thibodeau for getting his guys to genuinely believe that they can, and sometimes that's all you need. With heart, desire, effort, and talent, a fully healthy Bulls team can make some noise in a disappointing Eastern Conference. We've seen what Thibodeau has done with an injury-riddled roster missing its best player for the entire year. Just imagine what will happen once he gets everyone back, healthy and on the same page. His neverending desire to win, his attentive, methodical approach to each game, and his philosophy of defense and rebounding above all else could, and in my opinion, eventually will, take the Bulls to the top. At this point, it's just a matter of when.