First-year coach Thibodeau takes reins in Chicago with little timidity
A longtime assistant, Tom Thibodeau signed on as the Bulls' head coach
The defensive guru will have to begin the season without injured Carlos Boozer
Thibodeau hasn't been shy about experimenting with looks and rotations so far
Ask new Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau the keys to strong team defense, and he sets forth the principles with the metronomic efficiency of a teller in a toll booth.
"The big challenge is to tie the whole team together and get them on the same page," he said. "You've got to have floor balance, get back [in transition] and get set. Keep the ball out of the paint, take care of [defending] the ball from the paint out to the three-point line. Ideally, the goal is to make your opponent shoot a contested two-point shot. Then, when all that has been done, you need to finish the play by blocking out and rebounding the contested shot."
Turning those words into deeds enabled Thibodeau and the 2007-08 Celtics to shave their opponents' scoring by a remarkable 8.9 points per game from the previous year, a major factor in Boston's NBA-record 42-game improvement and its first championship in 22 years. As the assistant coach widely credited as the architect of that defense, Thibodeau became a hot commodity for a head-coaching job.
Yet, he bided his time, and according to multiple reports, even turned down at least a half-dozen offers over the past couple of years. But this summer, after the Celtics were eliminated by the Lakers in Game 7 of the Finals, he finally pounced on a three-year deal with the Bulls. At his introductory news conference, he cited all the reasons why the Windy City is an ideal situation: a major city with a rich sports tradition, a young team on the rise with (at the time) salary-cap flexibility and strong cornerstones at point guard (Derrick Rose) and center (Joakim Noah), a team able to run and defend.
Thibodeau's cachet was great enough for the Bulls to use the hiring of thi 52-year-old career assistant as a bargaining chip to help lure free agents. It didn't dissuade LeBron James and Chris Bosh from joining Dwyane Wade in Miami, but the Bulls did land star low-post scorer and rebounder Carlos Boozer, an ideal fit for their existing personnel. Now, two weeks before the season opener, Boozer is on the shelf until late November with a broken hand, and Thibodeau has to begin justifying the hype.
But if Thibodeau is feeling the pressure, he camouflages it well. For example, asked if his notorious intensity -- he came close to picking up a technical foul for arguing with officials in his first preseason game -- might risk burning himself and his players out over the course of a long season, he replied, "I think you are always going to be categorized as something -- too intense, too laid-back, an offensive guy, a defensive guy -- and you just need to go out and coach the way you believe you should coach and stay true to yourself."
That answer also allowed Thibodeau to dismiss the pigeonholing of him as simply a "defensive guy," a notion even more prevalent than concerns about his intensity or lack of head-coaching experience. He quickly makes it apparent that his meticulous preparation extends to both ends of the court.
"When you look at successful teams, they're well-balanced with their offense and their defense," he said. "If you break down what we're trying to do philosophically on offense, we want to try to get out and run, get scoring off our defense and get Derrick into the open floor, then flow into the secondary action if necessary.
"We'll take advantage of our strengths. When we get Carlos back, we have a guy who can really post up and run the pick-and-roll. Then we've got guys who are good without the ball and at slashing and cutting, like [Ronnie] Brewer and [Luol] Deng, and [Kyle] Korver is a terrific catch-and-shoot scorer off the bench."
Thibodeau also serves notice that the practice of simply handing the ball to Rose and asking him to create something (which seemed to be Plan A, B and C in predecessor Vinny Del Negro's schemes) will be de-emphasized. He says he'll carry a third point guard so that he can play Rose and combo guard C.J. Watson together occasionally in the same backcourt.
"That way we can bring Derrick off screens and run some other things that put more pressure on the point guards defending him, which I think is to our advantage," Thibodeau said.
As to the indifferent defense Rose has played his first two years in the league, the coach is diplomatic.
"I think Derrick has been terrific so far," he said. "He had a great summer with Team USA, where he was a great leader and he is a leader for us. He'll continue to get better because he has the drive to be a winner, and I think he is committed to being a complete player."
Perhaps it is just the enthusiasm of a rookie head coach, or the necessary adjustments to compensate for Boozer's injury, but Thibodeau endorses a lot of different looks out of his rotations, especially in the frontcourt, where Turkish rookie Omer Asik and veteran Kurt Thomas have joined the roster as backups to Noah at center.
"We have some flexibility on this team," Thibodeau said. "The fact that Taj [Gibson] started 70 games last year [at power forward] is helpful [in replacing Boozer] and we can do some other things -- go small with Luol at the 4, or go big with Joakim at the 4 and Omer or Thomas at the 5. I really like Joakim at the 4. Omer actually is pretty physical and reacts pretty well to the ball. He's a work in progress, but he has a defensive mind-set as a shot-blocker and rebounder and we're giving him a good look in the preseason. I'm really excited about the veteran leadership Kurt brings, plus he's a terrific pick-and-pop [shooter] who complements Derrick and he can guard the low post and is a great communicator who I think will really help our big guys."
As one who excels at assessing the strengths and weaknesses of various personnel, where does Thibodeau think his own vulnerabilities lie heading into the season? Refusing to cite his head-coaching inexperience, he instead replies, "I have been through a lot of different situations, from expansion teams [the Minnesota Timberwolves in the late '80s] to rebuilding teams to championship teams, and that will help me as I go through things for the first time. The big challenge for me will be dealing with the other stuff, the media stuff, the non-basketball stuff."
Expectations are sky-high for a rookie coach stepping into a franchise that has had just two winning seasons in the past 12 years, the last one in 2006-07, and whose marquee free-agent signing is sidelined for several weeks. If Thibodeau is right that his biggest personal challenge will be "the media stuff," then good times await the Bulls and their fans.