Questioning the Media’s Portrayal of Tom Thibodeau, an Extraordinary Assistant but Average Head Coach

Originally published at freethrows.net on May 16, 2015.


Speculation around the Chicago Bulls divorcing Tom Thibodeau is turning into reports. This split has seemed inevitable for a sizable chunk of this season, giving a wide window of opportunity for talking heads to broadcast their disapproval of the firing.

Despite LeBron James winning the conference every year that Thibodeau has been in Chi-Town, there has been unwavering support from the sports media ever since Thibs led the Bulls to a 62–20 record in his first season as an NBA head coach. By naming him 2010–11 Coach of the Year, insiders distinguished their position early on. Few have wavered since.

Derrick Rose captured the league MVP that season. LeBron James and Chris Bosh had well-documented struggles acclimating to the established parts of the Miami Heat franchise all year. If Chicago could have overcame the first-year Heatles, one would assume they could have defeated the eventual championship winning Dallas Mavericks. Instead, the Bulls averaged 87.2 points on their way to a 4–1 embarrassment in the conference finals.

The Heat ruled the Eastern conference for the next three years and, in large part to injuries, the Bulls were not much a threat.

The injuries placed Thibs at a stark disadvantage during those three post-seasons, but he is of some blame for the second round departure that occurred on Thursday evening. Unengaged personnel in game five, along with back-breaking periods of stand-still offense and predetermined substitutions throughout the series contributed to him being out-coached by LeDavid Lue.

Cleveland’s three most talented players (LeBron, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love) were either not 100 percent healthy or completely absent in this series. Even considering that Pau Gasol missed games four and five doesn’t balance out the injury situation.

Bottom line: On their first playoff run, this Cavaliers team was able to handily eliminate a Bulls team who was accustomed to battling together.

When broken down fairly, it’s downright obvious that changes must be made in order for the Bulls to win the Eastern Conference. Their backcourt could use some bounce. Acquiring another player who you can stick on LeBron, when Jimmy Butler is resting, would be optimal. But my most relevant suggestion is revamping their coaching staff, which could mean blowing it up completely.

Thibs the Assistant

Let’s peer back, to briefly examine the two times Thibs was on the sideline during an NBA Finals, both times coming as an assistant.

In 1999, he was a part of Jeff Van Gundy’s staff that fell short, on their unlikely run, against the San Antonio Spurs. JVG specializes in allowing his players’ freedom on the court then using those discovered strengths to piece together a team identity. That methodology takes a certain flexibility that Thibs sorely lacked in Chicago, insisting on rotating subs on a fixed schedule.

He and Van Gundy are both defensive minded. That was not the case with he was with the Boston Celtics in 2008, when he was credited for scheming the defense despite Doc Rivers being the head coach.

Rivers is known for his motivational abilities and is highly regarded by the players he coaches. To this point, listen to what retired star Tracy McGrady says about a Doc Rivers speech at 15:07 during this podcast. You would not have seen that 2008 Boston team lay down like the Bulls did the other night. Doc is also well above average at the Xs and Os of offense.

And do not overlook the obvious, Thibodeau did not determine rotations as an assistant coach.

Not only am I making a case that the Bulls should make coaching changes, I’m suggesting that Thibodeau is more successful when he is solely concerned with defense. What gives him the strongest chance to win championships going forward is either returning to being an assistant — he could join the Clippers staff to reunite with Doc Rivers — or teaming with a proven offensive assistant in his next job, like Mike D’Antonio (I’m in love with the idea of these two serving as co-head coaches in New Orleans or Orlando.).

My feelings on Thibs reminds me of those I have for current Kansas City Chiefs and longtime Philadelphia Eagles head man, Andy Reid.

Both are overrated. They’re above average, not elite. This is validated by their shared lack of post season success.

Both have a similar physical build (far less significant, atleast consciously).

I would not be ecstatic about Thibodeau or Andy Reid being my head coach. However, I would welcome the idea of having them as part of a larger staff of minds that offers contrasting specializations. Unlike top head coaches, I do not believe their strategies and personalities encompass enough aspects that come with coaching the game.

They both are qualified for whatever position they obtain, however I do not foresee either one leading a franchise to the ultimate goal: a trophy.

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