The Bulls have re-started contract extension talks with Tom Thibodeau, whose current deal expires after next season, per ESPN Chicago’s Nick Friedell. The easy response to this is: Duh. Thibodeau is a defensive innovator who has helped create well-coordinated stop machines across the league, most recently in Boston and now Chicago. The Bulls have completely bought into the system without even a hint of internal discord or the classic “tuning out” that often comes under other shouting nit-pickers like Thibodeau. They love him and they play league-best defense under him. You lock a head coach like that up for the long haul and smile, having filled one of the three or four most important positions within an organization.
Of course, these are the penny-pinching Bulls — the Jerry Reinsdorf hobby that has never paid the luxury tax and may not even next season if they manage to unload Richard Hamilton along the way. They dismantled their bench in order to avoid larger tax bills both now and in the future, trading away a wing sharpshooter (Kyle Korver, who consistently lifted the team’s offense) for nothing (but a trade exception) and letting three other core players, including bench stopper Omer Asik, walk away as free agents. And Thibodeau is smack in the middle of what can be the most contentious period of negotiations for even wildly successful head coaches — the talks surrounding that second contract, earned after success in a guy’s first gig as the head man. We just saw this play out with Scott Brooks, who agreed to a four-year extension worth about $4 million annually after some surprisingly prolonged talks. Earn success on that second deal, and then you’re looking at real security — the mammoth Doc Rivers/Gregg Popovich type deals that blast past $5 million annually.
Brooks could at least enter his negotiations all but certain the Thunder, barring some catastrophic injuries, were going to win around 60 games in 2012-13 and compete for the title. Thibodeau has no such assurances now, with Derrick Rose out until at least mid-season, a downgraded second unit and the departure of half of Chicago’s two-man (Asik/Taj Gibson) off-the-bench brick wall. Pundits, including Thibodeau-backer and mentor Jeff Van Gundy, are already speculating Chicago could miss the playoffs next season, and that kind of anxiety is justified within an Eastern Conference that added one certain playoff team (Brooklyn) and got stronger in that No. 8-No. 10 range.
The Bulls were 19-13 without Rose last season, a happy number. They outscored opponents by about eight points per 100 possessions when Rose was on the bench, a margin that would have led the league. That was primarily the result of Chicago’s stingy defense, which got even stingier without Rose, a fact that has less to do with Rose and more to do with Carlos Boozer, Thibodeau and the Asik/Gibson duo. And even with Asik gone, the Bulls figure to be one of the half-dozen best defensive teams in the league, provided a bit of good health luck. Asik was an important cog in that defense, a seven-footer capable of protecting the rim, cleaning the glass and sliding smartly alongside guards and wings on the perimeter. But he only played 14.7 minutes per game, and any team featuring three legitimately great big-man defenders (Asik, Gibson and Noah) is working from a pretty ridiculous position of strength. Cutting that number to two will hurt, especially since neither of the front-line players brought in to soak up Asik’s minutes — Nazr Mohammed and Vladimir Radmanovic — is even an average big-man defender at this point. And the annual Noah/Boozer injury, if it happens and it’s serious, will be much more significant as a result.
But as long as the Bulls bring Noah, Gibson, Luol Deng and a full commitment to playing Thibodeau’s aggressive system at hyperactive effort levels, they are going to be a very good defensive team. And top-five defensive teams have a way of creeping above .500 over 82 games, even with middling offenses. The Bulls might consider sliding Deng to power forward for stretches, especially when Rose returns to add some back-court depth, a move that could goose the offense a bit while hopefully maintaining Chicago’s defensive identity. Deng played the four early in the 2010-11 season, when Noah and Boozer were both dealing with injuries, and the Bulls had some two-way success playing that way.
It’s the offense, of course, that will be Thibodeau’s challenge without the franchise centerpiece. Thibodeau is no offensive neophyte. He’s not a guru way ahead of the curve on that end, but he and his staff make very smart use of the resources available to them. Chicago’s offense, once a liability, jumped to fifth in points per possession last season, even with Rose missing nearly half of it. They scored at a league-average rate when Rose was on the bench, a big improvement from 2010-11, when the offense sunk to bottom-five levels when Rose sat.
But Rose being on the bench in uniform and Rose sitting in street clothes are two very different things when you start considering the trickle-down effect his injury-related absence has on Chicago’s rotation. Chicago’s offense collapsed without Rose in the playoffs last season, a collapse that began even before Noah also went down with an ankle injury. The Bulls generate many more corner threes and shots in the restricted area when Rose plays, per NBA.com’s stats tool, and all those little changes will add up to more significant damage when Rose misses entire games (and months) instead of just the first few minutes of two quarters.
Kirk Hinrich will start at point guard in Rose’s absence, and while he’s a steady player, he shouldn’t be anyone’s starting point guard. Chicago built its offense around Rose’s dynamic dribble penetration and his ability to draw loads of attention on the pick-and-roll. Use a hard or soft trap on Rose at the three-point arc or way out along the sideline, and you’re inviting him to slip a bounce pass to Boozer or Noah at the foul line, a place from which the Chicago bigs can use their elite passing skills and 4-on-3 advantage to create a good look. Hinrich isn’t going to command that kind of attention and barely attacks the rim anymore, leaving Chicago’s other players with more of a burden than they are really equipped to carry.
Hamilton is still here, of course, and he can create offense and spacing by running off screens. But he’s never healthy for long, and teams can smother that play — as the Sixers did in the playoffs — if Chicago leans on it too heavily. Boozer is paid to be the workable first option when Rose sits. Boozer is still a very good offensive player, and he was a huge reason the Bulls maintained a league-average offense without Rose last season. But he’s not a consistent first option, and expecting him to carry that kind of load is unrealistic; he played less than 200 minutes without Rose on the floor in 2010-11, and though injuries limited Boozer’s time that season in general, it’s clear Chicago does not want to rely on Boozer as a linchpin if the team can help it.
Even more interesting: The Bulls are going to have to make some hay on offense with both Boozer and Rose on the bench. Eleven such lineups logged at least 20 minutes in 2011-12, and eight of them scored at a rate that would have ranked 29th or 30th in the league. (The results were similar the year before.) In happy news, one of the successful scoring units in this bunch played the most minutes (158) among them. In sad news, three of the five players who made up that unit are gone.
Still: The Bulls offense was a “greater-than-the sum-of-its-parts” thing last season, and team-first discipline can go a long way to at least propping up a team’s scoring rate. The Bulls will bring that, plus a few new-ish pieces that offer some potential — some long-range shooting from Radmanovic as a stretch power forward; the more under-control and sometimes pass-first version of Nate Robinson we saw last season in Golden State, where he posted a career-best assist rate; and extended run for Jimmy Butler.
The Bulls aren’t contenders, but they should make the playoffs. Shooting up to No. 5 or No. 6 will be a big challenge, but Thibodeau is up to it. He’ll get this team to play, because that’s what he does. A big decline in wins this season doesn’t change the fact that he deserves that extension now.