If Tom Thibodeau were at the helm of the recent blockbuster, Noah, the film would’ve jumped right through the screen onto your lap. Somehow it would’ve been subtle, though. Thibodeau is best exemplified by the timbre of his voice–throaty and hoarse–his approach is exertion, he relegates the limelight. In as surreptitious a fashion as possible, Thibodeau has turned Chicagoans into polytheists this season.
This year, like the ones that came before it, shown that Tom Thibodeau’s work isn’t concerned with aesthetics. Where others glass over precision, Thibodeau hones the minutia of his craft until it’s sharper than his will.
To clarify: Tom Thibodeau is Chicago’s next Phil Jackson-by-way-of-Danny-Devito-in-Batman. He’s catapulted the Chicago Bulls into the playoff picture every year since 2010. This year is fresh off one of the most successful three-season spans of any first-time NBA head coach. In a season overflowing with maladies, Thibodeau’s camp has not only turned the proverbial water to wine, they became sommeliers and haven’t stopped sipping since.
The slipper was molded for Chicago this offseason. Bill Simmons blessing had them atop his power ranks at the conclusion of preseason. With Derrick Rose’s return fit for Adidas campaigns and television narratives alike, the Bulls were contenders until November 23. Derrick Rose’s season ended, but you would’ve thought the United Center had charred to dust. It’s not that the slipper didn’t fit for Chicago this season, it was mangled from their foot and tossed into the river–the fairytale was supposed to end there. It didn’t.
Consider this my nomination for the NBA Coach of the Year award.
In November, Tom Thibodeau’s squad was as close to nothing as you can get without falling in. Stripped of their creator just a month into the season, the Chicago Bulls responded by jettisoning their second-best scoring option in the NBA equivalent of an “I owe you one” agreement with the Cleveland Cavaliers. With Luol Deng gone and no players returned outside of Andrew Bynum who would be waived hours later, Thibodeau gritted his teeth. Despite issues with General Manager John Paxson over the Deng trade, Thibodeau moved his efforts to complete the final stage of his Cruise-turned-Crash-turned-Salvation plan that the Bulls had envisioned all along. Thibodeau built the ark in a month and it’s been bobbing ever since. Okay, enough with that metaphor.
With four games remaining in the regular season, the Bulls are second in their division to the Indiana Pacers. Behind a sensational season from the anchor that is Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson’s push for Sixth Man of the Year, and a multitude of new faces, the Bulls split the season series with Indiana, Miami, and Toronto–the top teams in the East. They will most likely wrap up the no. 3 or no. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket. This coming from a team removed of 45% of its scoring output from last season, and that’s without Derrick Rose configured.
Through all of it, not once has Thibodeau complained of the hand he’s been dealt. As he told Chicago Tribune reporter K.C. Johnson in February, “I think I have a pretty good understanding after 24 years for how to pace a team, so I’ve never been too worried.” One could make the argument that Thibodeau wouldn’t count himself out if he were matched up with the dream team and his rostrum included a slew of eighth graders.
Perhaps more remarkable than his ability to stay mentally sound is how Thibodeau has propagated interchangeable defensive gears within his clamping system. Jimmy Butler became a fortress in just three years under the man, and somehow defensively inept D.J. Augustin isn’t routinely burned on the pick-n-roll every time down the court. Removed of one of the best wing defenders in the league in Luol Deng? No sweat. A rotational lineup teeming with universally considered defensive liabilities in Carlos Boozer, Tony Snell, and Kirk Hinrich? Make it work. Thibodeau’s system has proven itself time and time again, and he’s not working with fine china here. They give up 91.6 points per game while holding their opponents to a 42.9 field goal percentage, making them the best defense in the league.
This is nothing new, though.
Thibodeau has been cranking out defensive strongholds for decades. If announced, this wouldn’t even be the first time he’s won the most prestigious coaching award the league offers. Upon leading the Bulls to a 62-20 league leading record in 2011, Thibodeau won the accolade and was heralded as a force that would change basketball for years to come. He has, but his innovation and steadfast commitment to stopping the ball have never been more evident than this season.
The San Antonio Spurs, whom former Bull Marco Bellinelli now plays for, pose the most argumentative challenge for the award. For those clamoring for Gregg Popovich’s third win and second in the past three seasons, consider:
1) Whether the Spurs would’ve won 19 consecutive games with Kirk Hinrich at starting point guard or D.J. Augustin as their go-to scorer off the bench.
2) How the Spurs could’ve kept up with the torrential Western Conference while removed of their top two offensive and knowledgeable weapons (Parker and Duncan).
3) How the Spurs haven’t had a season with lower than 50 wins since the new millennium. The Bulls have 11 in that same frame.
4) Giving someone else a shot.
There are plenty of reasons why someone can receive the award. Resiliency is seldom tapped. Chicago might not win an NBA Championship this season; they most likely won’t last longer than the first round. That couldn’t be farther from the point.
As Tom Thibodeau told Grantland’s Zach Lowe, “…the biggest hurdle is to learn your teammates and to learn the system that you’re in.” The devout commitment to a systemized approach of basketball has kept the Chicago Bulls afloat and competitive. There’s a deity in Chicago, yelling till the final whistle each night.