Defending Tom Thibodeau

Sports fans are an odd bunch. When you’ve lived through an era, you tend to romanticize it as “the good ol’ days.” But Bulls fans are different. Bulls fans tend to lean towards the negative and to be fair, there haven’t been many positives since the Jordan era ended. But the one bright spot in recent Chicago Bulls history is from 2010-2015 when Tom Thibodeau was at the helm of the Chicago Bulls. Yet, one of my favorite Bulls media personalities, “See Red” Fred Pfeiffer, recently declared Tom Thibodeau second on his seven most overrated Chicago Bulls of all-time. Fred, who is sometimes delusional in his Chicago Bulls optimism, has been on the attack for several years in regards to Thibs’ time with the Bulls. Was Thibodeau really overrated? Did Thibs run his players into the ground? Was Thibs unwilling to shift into the modern era? Let’s answer each question individually.

Was Thibodeau Really Overrated?

To me, this is an easy question to answer. Tom Thibodeau won nearly 65% of his games as Chicago Bulls coach per His record was 255-139 and the Bulls were 23-28 in the Playoffs. This is notable because during Thibs’ tenure, then-Bulls star Derrick Rose played 181 out of a possible 394 games and 34 of the Bulls’ 51 playoff games. During Thibs’ tenure, several individual Bulls saw success: Derrick Rose famously won MVP in the 2010-2011 season, but under Thibodeau Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose, and Joakim Noah all made their first All-Star appearances while Pau Gasol also made the All-Star team at age 34. Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah made their only appearance on the All-NBA First Team under Thibodeau while Pau Gasol made All-NBA Second Team for the last time under Thibs. Jimmy Butler (2x), Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah (3x) all made All-Defense Team under Thibs. And let’s not forget, Joakim Noah finished 5th in MVP voting during the 2013-2014 season after refusing to let the Bulls tank.

Are all these accolades a product of pure talent or Thibodeau’s coaching? Obviously, a bit of both, but it’s hard to discredit Thibodeau for helping develop these players into All-Star talent and bringing this group together as a perennial contender. One of the frequent criticisms of Tom Thibodeau was his seemingly archaic offensive system. During Thibs’ tenure, the Bulls placed 11th, 5th, 23rd, 28th, and 11th in Offensive Rating. After Thibodeau’s dismissal, Bulls management hailed incoming head coach Fred Hoiberg as the missing piece to a Bulls championship. The Bulls went 42-40 the next season, missing the playoffs, and had a putrid offensive rating of 23rd with essentially the same roster as the year before minus an injured Joakim Noah. It was reported at the time that the Bulls tried utilizing some of Thibs’ offensive sets to help some of the veterans be more comfortable in the offense. In reality, the Bulls were a Tom Thibodeau away from appearing in the lottery, not a missing piece from a championship.

Did Thibodeau Really Run Players Into The Ground?

This is the most frequent criticism of Tom Thibodeau. If you weren’t there for this era, you have to understand something first: “Load management” was not a thing in 2010. In fact, I don’t really remember anyone wondering about how many minutes a guy played until Kobe Bryant infamously tore his achilles tendon after then coach Mike D’Antoni played him big stretches in the lock-out shortened 2011-2012 season. Even after that, the science on minutes and it’s correlation to injuries was murky at best. Now, in 2020, it’s considered standard practice to monitor stars’ minutes.

In the 2010-2011 season, the league leader in minutes per game was Monta Ellis at 40.3 mpg, then Rudy Gay at 39.9 mpg, LaMarcus Aldridge at 39.6, fourth was Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls at 39.1 mpg, and fifth was Kevin Durant at 38.9 mpg. In 2011-2012, Deng was the league leader in minutes per game at 39.4, followed by Kevin Love at 39 mpg, Durant at 38.6 mpg, Kobe Bryant at 38.5 mpg, and Dwight Howard at 38.3. In 2012-2013, Deng led the league at 38.7 mpg, Kobe Bryant and Damian Lillard were tied at 38.6 mpg, then Kevin Durant and Nicolas Batum were tied for fourth at 38.5 mpg. In the 2013-2014 season, Carmelo Anthony and Jimmy Butler of the Bulls tied for first place at 38.7 mpg, Durant was third at 38.5 mpg, DeMar DeRozan was fourth at 38.2 mpg, and James Harden was fifth at 38 mpg. In Thibodeau’s final season in 2014-2015, Butler led the league again at 38.7, Harden was second at 36.8, Kyrie Irving was third at 36.4, Andrew Wiggins was fourth at 36.2, and LeBron James was fifth at 36.1.

I tell you all of that to say this: The biggest gap between one of Thibs’ men (Butler in 2014-2015) and the next place is 1.9 mpg. Through an 82 game season, you’re talking about 155.8 minutes or roughly 3 1/4 games. Was it really that brutal to average that many minutes per game? There are some egregious examples like Joakim Noah playing 48 minutes in game 82 against Charlotte in the 2013-2014 season with a bad knee. It was egregious because the game was literally meaningless and wouldn’t improve or decrease their position in the playoffs so why burn out your star? Many people point to Jimmy Butler’s 60 minute night against Orlando in triple overtime. Is that unreasonable to play one of your best players in three overtimes trying to win a game, especially when that player is only 24 years-old? Also, the Bulls finished with 48 wins that season, but #7 Charlotte won 43 games that year. One game in January might be the difference in making or missing the playoffs. Others point to Derrick Rose being in at the end of a blow-out in Philadelphia in the 2012 Playoffs and Rose tearing his ACL. Since then, I’ve seen Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich, and Brad Stevens do similar things in playoff blowouts, but nobody questions them.

The minutes argument simply isn’t as ridiculous as you’re being led to believe. The league began changing on largely unproven science to that point and some decided to be cautious while most didn’t. Also, the Bulls generally played at a slower pace and Thibodeau frequently pointed out to the media that he had been around the league long enough to know how to pace a team. To me, the minutes per game are justified though some individual games should be pointed out as questionable.

Was Thibs Unwilling To Shift Into The Modern Era?

Many people point out that Tom Thibodeau was stuck in his ways and didn’t want to play with pace and space. I think the reasoning behind Thibodeau’s decision-making was proved in Hoiberg’s first year as Bulls coach with the same core: The Bulls were 15th in PACE, but only 23rd in Offensive Rating. The year before with Thibodeau, they were 23rd in PACE, but 11th in Offensive Rating. In Thibs’ final season, the Bulls actually averaged 22 threes per game and shot only 35%. In Hoiberg’s first year, they only averaged 21 threes per game and shot 37.1%. In 2013, it was reported that Taj Gibson would be shooting more threes at the request of the coaching staff and then after Thibodeau’s dismissal, Zach Lowe casually mentioned on a podcast that Thibs had told him that they wanted Taj Gibson to shoot corner threes, but he just never felt comfortable in games (we eventually saw Gibson shooting threes in Minnesota under Thibodeau). Thibodeau wasn’t ignorant of where the league was going, but with the personnel that he had, they had to play a certain way to win.

We saw evidence of this in Minnesota. In the 2016-2017 season, the Timberwolves were 25th in PACE, 10th in Offensive Rating, and shot 21 threes per game at 36.6%. In the 2017-2018 season, they were 24th in PACE, 4th in Offensive Rating, and shot 22.5 threes per game at 35.7%,. In his final season thru 40 games, they were 12th in PACE, 14th in Offensive Rating, and 28.5 threes per game at 35.6%. The Timberwolves and Thibodeau evolved, but what was always certain about Thibs is that he would play whatever way that would win them the most games.

Both Chicago and Minnesota saw evidence of this. The Bulls made their only Eastern Conference Finals appearance since the Jordan era while Minnesota snapped a 13 year drought by making the Playoffs under Thibs. Thibodeau has the second highest winning percentage in Chicago Bulls franchise history (under Phil Jackson obviously) and the second highest winning percentage in Timberwolves franchise history (under Flip Saunders).

Overrated isn’t the word I would use to describe Tom Thibodeau. The word I’d use is successful.

2 Timothy 1:7

Published by Brandon Pence

Brandon is a husband, a father of five, a former youth pastor, a Christian school principal, tech minister, and the founder/editor of "The Bulls Charge."

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