Tom Thibodeau is widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the NBA, and for good reason. He has 205-107 record in his four seasons as Chicago Bulls head coach, making the playoffs all four years, including two as the Central Division champion and No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. However, the Bulls have dealt with difficulties brought on by losing Derrick Rose for each of the last two seasons, culminating in this season’s disappointing first round defeat at the hands of the Washington Wizards.
Thibodeau’s trademark is his team’s toughness, as he has created a culture of hard working players who grind out games and play outstanding defense. His teams have never ranked lower than third in the NBA in points allowed, and that stellar defense is what has made the Bulls so successful. However, it has come at a major price on the offensive end, as the Bulls have never ranked higher than 18th in scoring, and they checked in at 28th and 30th over the last two Rose-less seasons. Being a low scoring team is not necessarily a bad thing, but point differential highlights a concern. The Bulls ranked just 13th this season, foreshadowing their early exit.
Another trademark of a Thibodeau coached team is how many minutes his stars play. Jimmy Butler led the league in minutes per game this season, something former Bull Luol Deng did each of the last two seasons. Joakim Noah has finished first and second among centers over the last two seasons as well. The negative side effect of this is obviously the wear and tear on the body over the course of an 82 game season. Both Butler and Noah dealt with injuries this season, and the Bulls seemed like they didn’t have anything left in the tank against the Wizards. Noah in particular made it clear he simply wasn’t healthy for this series.
These two areas have to give Thibodeau concern, and he must consider making some changes to his coaching style. Starting with the offensive issues, the return of Derrick Rose will obviously help, as will the likely addition of another scoring option (be it Carmelo Anthony, Nikola Mirotic or someone else). However, Thibodeau has to be willing to sacrifice something defensively to improve the offense. The Bulls’ only two legitimate offensive threats this season were Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy, who sat during large chunks of crunch time because they aren’t up to Thibodeau’s defensive standard. Strong defense is obviously important, but at some point you have to put the ball in basket, and Thibodeau has to be willing to sacrifice his defense a bit to achieve that.
As far as the minutes go, Thibodeau should take a cue from perhaps the only coach in the league who is better than him, Gregg Popovich. Popovich understands that not all games are created equal, and the simple fact is that not all 82 regular season games are important and have to be won. His decisions to repeatedly rest Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili during the regular season has proven vital to keeping them fresh for the postseason. Popovich’s understanding of the big picture is one of the biggest reasons the Spurs have had so much success in the playoffs.
The Bulls don’t know if Rose will return as the same player, and there is no guarantee that they will be able to add a star like Anthony this season. Either way, Thibodeau will have to be willing to leave players who are better on offense than defense on the floor late in the game, be it a star like Anthony or a role player. Additionally, reducing the minutes for players like Butler and Noah will keep them in better condition for the playoffs. Thibodeau is a grinder and a competitor, and the idea of backing off during the regular season will not be easy for him to swallow. However, putting a little more focus on offensive basketball and rest could be exactly what the Bulls need to take the next step.