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Thibodeau gets ready to face his past
by Sam Smith
Posted on Nov 3
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We were at Bulls practice last week before the opener and my old newspaper buddy Rick Morrissey of the Sun-Times was chastising me.
It seemed Rick, who is a heck of a columnist, was trying to get Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau to wax eloquently and sentimentally on this being his first game as an NBA head coach. Perhaps an anecdote about how at eight he was directing the kids at the playground into a zone defense or the day a teacher said he’d better stick to geometry as it’s not like he was going to become an NBA head coach, and little Tim explained it was like geometry and showed her a UCLA cut.
Instead, Tom gave one of those, “How many times am I going to be asked this?” answers and looked at Rick quizzically a few times, and offered again something about how nice it all was. So I decided to get Tom excited and asked about what weak side action he might use off Oklahoma City’s zone. Now Rick began to look quizzically at me, and annoyed, and said we should concentrate on this historic first Thibodeau game. But he doesn’t know Tom like we know Tom.
Thibodeau is a decent, thoughtful, intelligent man, but I’m pretty sure he never cried at the end of Home Alone.
Not that I did, mind you, but Tom is not about sentimentality when it comes to basketball, and especially himself.
It’s going to come up again Thursday and Friday, no doubt with a sigh from Thibodeau, when the Bulls host the Knicks Thursday in a TNT national game and travel to Boston Friday.
It was in New York under Jeff Van Gundy for seven years where Thibodeau burnished his credentials as an up and coming NBA coach, and in Boston where Massachusetts native Thibodeau established himself as a strong head coaching candidate while directing the Celtics eventual championship defense.
No doubt Thibodeau, who played and began his coaching career at Division III Salem State College, will express gratitude for the opportunities that New York and Boston gave him to be where he is now.
But what the Bulls have as their new coach is a pragmatic, secular, scientific thinker who is more conversational and down to earth than advertised, but bereft of the pompous dramatics.
No, not a sentimentalist, but a true professional coach.
It’s certainly early — though at 2-1 with a .667 winning percentage Thibodeau ranks second only to Phil Jackson in franchise history — but we’ve already began to get a look at who Thibodeau is, and it is promising.
Thibodeau was much advertised as this intense workaholic, but he hasn’t really driven the players that hard.
The Bulls had another day off Tuesday, and it hasn’t been anything like the Pat Riley practice death marches that are so notorious. There are demands in practice, but more like Jerry Sloan’s style in getting your work done than punishing you because the coach works so hard.
There’s no question Thibodeau personally works a lot, but so do a lot of construction workers and nurses. He demands a lot of his staff, and the assistants spent an awful lot of the summer preparing game plans and breaking down tape for the season. This staff, and Thibodeau, will not be taken by surprise.
There isn’t any need for Jackson’s cushioned seat for Thibodeau as he’s standing and pacing almost all game and calling out to the players. Though Thibodeau does have a sharp sense of humor, if not during press conferences and post games, as he said if he won as much as Phil he’d sit down. Thibodeau did not learn Jeff Van Gundy dour.
But while Thibodeau is up all game, he’s not shouting or screaming at the players. Instead, he is still instructing as he is more at the core a teacher. Perhaps the most embarrassing thing for NBA coaches is those live lookins on national TV where they are addressing the players and generally say something like, “Get a stop,” or “We need a turnover.”
I believe in the Bulls huddles the players are being told how to get a turnover or a stop. It’s actually one of the differences I often find between former players who become coaches without much coaching experience and journeyman coaches. There’s this notion because a guy has played he knows the game. Sure, plenty do. But they don’t necessarily know how to coach the game. They generally have played because of their athletic talent, which doesn’t mean they know how to break down an offense or defense or have a plan. Or to teach.
You know the old line about those that can do and those that can’t teach? Thibodeau couldn’t play, but he can teach.
Which also doesn’t mean he’ll be a better coach because some of the best and most successful ever like Jackson, Pat Riley, Don Nelson and Lenny Wilkens were highly contributing players. But it also doesn’t mean because he didn’t play he’s less qualified.
Though I don’t get to watch practices, I’ve heard that Thibodeau isn’t the screamer type. What’s most unusual about his methods is his hands on approach, more than any coach I’ve ever heard of, which may not be perfect.
Thibodeau basically runs the practices and works on the floor with the players and is a bit of a micromanager as a head coach. No Bear Bryant in the tower for him. Most coaches have their assistants do more of the on the floor instruction while they oversee and supervise. But Thibodeau is right there in practice and shootarounds, which he basically ran in Boston as well.
Thibodeau, from what I have heard, will stop a practice to explain something to a player, but then move on without making it a major issue or appearing to single out the player for an error. It’s a method that seems to have been accepted.
He seems demanding without being obnoxious.
Thibodeau worked one on one with Noah all summer, which also is rare for a head coach, and both Noah and Rose joked good naturedly about his workaholic nature.
Noah joked that sometimes he’d try to sneak out of the Berto Center if he was tired, but Thibodeau would catch him and always have something to work on. Rose laughed when he said he developed a plan to have friends call and say he had an appointment to get a break from some Thibodeau workouts.
But it seemed said mostly in fun, certainly for now, and the players seem to have bought in to what Thibodeau has been selling.
What is generally unrecognized about players is they want to get better. They may not quote many literary classics, but they know quickly if you are trying to fool them.
They also know fairly quickly if you can help them.
The Bulls players seem to have recognized that Thibodeau can help them get better. When a player realizes that, he tends to respond, and the Bulls players seem to have. Getting better generally means better pay and a better team and life, and no matter how cool one sometimes has to appear, I’ve found most do want that.
Few around the Bulls have ever seen Luol Deng quite so engaged and positive about a season. Rose is getting a dose of defensive principles he never in his life knew existed among Simeon, Memphis and the Bulls.
Overall, the Bulls defense, if not only in statistics (fourth overall in field goal defense, first in three point defense and sixth in rebounding) but in effort has been impressive.
Good defense requires hard work and the Bulls have done so. They have been particularly active, helping and then recovering, which requires a lot of effort. Thibodeau also requires different theories of coverage depending on the position you are playing, and the players seemed to have welcomed it.
Management also seems to be making a major effort to accommodate Thibodeau.
Thibodeau wanted strictly his own staff, though the Bulls had retained three assistants from last season, Pete Myers, Randy Brown and Mike Wilhelm, all of whom are well regarded around the NBA and whom management likes.
It’s not unprecedented for a coach to want his so called own guys, and the Bulls went along with that. So Thibodeau seems to be in a strong position with the team and the players.
It seems clear he’s a professional who has prepared well for this job after basically 20 years coaching in the NBA. Sometimes your chance never comes no matter how hard you work. Sorry to break it to you. But Thibodeau radiates that personal confidence and certainty, which appears to resonate with the players.
He had no doubt this day would come.
So what’s the big deal?