Why We Watch: Tom Thibodeau, Unquiet Mind

The players are the fun part of the NBA, but some coaches can be just as expressive, impressive, and weird.
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Since Michael Jordan made his last retirement from the Bulls, the Bulls have: handed the keys to the multiply disgraced Tim Floyd, given a five-year, $32 million contract to Eddie Robinson, rebuilt the team around the teenage versions of Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler, and made other decisions that were somehow worse than any of the aforementioned. Some worked better than others, but none of them really worked.

And so the Bulls didn’t participate in the playoffs for six seasons after Jordan’s departure, before coach Scott Skiles and an improved roster pulled them back into the postseason. Another longish lull followed, but the lottery victory that was Derrick Rose in 2009, delivered unto the Bulls another franchise player. And yet the team remained stuck, losing a memorable first round match-up to the Celtics and a not so memorable series with Cleveland the year after.

The leading intellectual light and half-psychotic workaholic heart of that Celtics team was Tom Thibodeau, an assistant coach who became the 21st coach in Bulls history before the 2011 season. This is what happened, but it’s not the whole story, for Thibodeau or the Bulls or otherwise.

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It’s a cliche, and a silly one: the player who was born to play the game. Plenty of tryhards and enthusiasts and people with short arms and legs love to play basketball and find their fullest fulfillment in it; born-to-play only works as a guarantor of high-level hoops success if you’re born with a specific body and temperament. Tom Thibodeau was not born to play the game of basketball, but it’s hard to argue that he was not born to coach the game.

Before finally getting his first shot as a head coach, Thibodeau spent 21 years as an assistant, starting with the expansion Timberwolves in the late 1980s, and eventually bwith Jeff Van Gundy’s Knicks and Doc Rivers’ Celtics. He earned a reputation as a defensive guru because he understood team defense in a way few basketball thinkers do, and because it was the subject to which he devoted seemingly every moment of his life. Not necessarily in that order.

A quick scan around the league and the coaches currently employed reveals, for the most part, two things: a recognizable list of recycled names who have somehow managed to find another sideline to stalk despite a history of ineffectuality or ineffectiveness or both or worse; or, former players who are given a chance to transition from running a team on the court to running a team from the sideline. Thibodeau fits into neither group, but is the most important coach in the game at the moment. He is certainly the only coach whose impact is felt fully enough to warrant one of these essays. There is a thing we do with great coaches: the writing of intention and structure onto the inherent chaos of a NBA game, the ex post facto crediting of the suited guy on the sideline for what happens on the court. Thibodeau is the beneficiary of this, to an extent, but his Bulls are also a different thing. They really do seem to play, on both ends of the court, in the way that Thibodeau thinks.

A coach’s vision can only extend so much onto the court—ultimately, the players are the ones who execute these best laid plans. But how they play reveals the structure and trust that Thibodeau has built.

And so it is with the Bulls. Pay close attention to the Bulls on defense, and you soon notice that their opponents are being directed towards the baseline, essentially pinned towards that direction on ball screens and drives to the basket.  Start by watching how the Bulls defend penetration, and how their off-ball defenders react to help, and then contrast it with other teams seeking to execute the same concepts, and the superiority of the Bulls' execution becomes clear.

It’s that much more interesting to see Thibodeau do this with a roster that does not overwhelm on paper. Aside from Taj Gibson, there’s no one on the Bulls second unit that would make another team yearn, and many who wouldn't make many other teams' rotations. The starting unit has its individual strengths—Joakim Noah’s tenacity and surprisingly improved offensive game, the workmanlike effectiveness of Luol Deng, whatever it is that Kirk Hinrich is doing—but is not an awe-inspiring collection. But Thibodeau turns what seems to be a below average collection of players into what Brian Scalabrine once described as “five people all on the same page.”

This is where you really notice Thibodeau, and start to notice that to watch the Bulls is actually to watch him, at least to an extent. It doesn’t matter who the five guys on the court are; what matters, and what works, is that they're executing a particular system, knowing the particular spots to cover, a merger of Xs and Os and externalities that are out of sample to everything we try to quantify, all of that on display at once. And all of it choreographed.

And so watching the Bulls is to watch Thibodeau confront the notion—which is something like the truth—that individual players and overall talent trump all else most of the time. And to see the Bulls succeed, on any given play, any given game, is to appreciate how he’s working to change that belief.

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There are things that we universally admire and respect about athletes, things that accrue a sort of cliche however true they are: the tireless work ethic, the insatiable drive to succeed, that sort of thing. This is why Kobe Bryant can garner so much respect despite receiving repeated failing grades at being a personable teammate, or decent husband, or convincingly human human being.

We admire these things, from our couches or arena seats or barstools, because we want the players to be a reflection of ourselves. Because we care so much, we think that they should too. We’ll take the illusion of not caring—we can even write a sort of defiant heroism onto it in select cases—but we can’t accept a mindset that doesn’t equate to our own. We mostly want players to work as hard as we like to imagine ourselves to work.

But, in this particular fantasy, it is not player but the coach that most readily represents these things to and for us. The care, the dedication, the devotion to a particular craft; in most of our lives, this is not a physical task but an intellectual and behavioral one. The thrill of watching basketball is in large part the thrill of watching a game we know well played without the physical limitations that define most mortals’ experience of it. But if that on-court mastery is NBA basketball’s most attractive aspect, it’s easiest to relate to what’s left. The coach’s brain and mastery, the feats of motivation and maximization, the ability to lay a foundation and create a secular belief system for a franchise: this is strong currency to buy our admiration as well. It certainly is closer to most of our day-to-day experiences.

That is Thibodeau, who is the focal point in the narrative of the Bulls just as surely as Rose is. In the same way that Phil Jackson was tasked with winning championships every calendar year without ever spending a single sweaty minute on the floor, Thibodeau is building a team that expresses his own will. He sets those same expectations to a team full of role players and misfits, and the goes about convincing those players that his expectations are realistic, even when they are not.

Chicago’s franchise player appears lost for the majority of the season, but the Bulls should remain such an intriguing team to watch not for any individual revelation on the court, but for how much more purely their current skeleton crew will illuminate the mind and approach of their coach, who seems, unsurprisingly, determined to make it all work, and convinced that it could, if only he thinks and schemes and motivates and coaches hard enough. 

Talent wins in the NBA, but coaching can lose. Thibodeau is closing that gap and making the coaching position—an inscrutable figurehead in many places, slashing real-time workplace satire in some others—more important than it ordinarily is. Coaches will always matter, for better or worse, in the NBA. But none matter more clearly—none win or lose more transparently—than Thibodeau. We don’t watch to watch him sweat and thrash and scream himself hoarse; that's not the show. But we will watch what he makes, and know just how much he did to make it.


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Comments

Great piece, keep it up.

If we're talking about post-punk sportswriting, Thibodeau is Wire.

Lovely. As a Bulls fan, a lifelong one who was raised in success and stayed through some of the most maddening professional sport hell I've ever seen, because of the joy that comes from watching Thibs coach, seeing his team manifest his idealogy and personality on the court and of course the lovable genius that is Derrick Rose, I'm ok with living through some 90's Pacersesque NBA futility under the Miami-OKC hegemony because of what those things represent both physically and metaphorically on the basketball court.