The summer of 2010 will forever be remembered as a monumental event in the history of the NBA. What started out simply as an unprecedented smorgasbord of free agent talent turned into an unprecedented consolidation of star power, as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh stunned the world to all sign with the Miami Heat. Once the shock and distaste of The Decision passed, what remained was a new paradigm for team creation, the Superteam. In creating his Superteam, Pat Riley staged the ultimate coup. He signed the top two players on the market (one could even make the case he signed the top two players in the league), and he added another max player like you might a side of french fries. Before his new chemistry project even played a single game, Riley was instantly deemed Executive of the Year, all because he made the best signings of the offseason. Or did he?
Who is the best signing of the offseason, the guy making the most impact with his new employer? It has to be LeBron James, right? The two-time reigning MVP, the consensus best player in the game, and the lynchpin to Operation Star Power’s success, The King has to be No. 1 on the list of top free agent signings, right? Nope. Don’t get me wrong, LeBron has been more or less as advertised, putting up numbers that are only slightly off the pace of his past two MVP seasons. The team’s overall success, and LeBron’s individual performance in crunch time, haven’t been quite what he was hoping or expecting, but the guy is still throwing together a monster season. But somebody else is throwing up a better one. Who, you ask? It’s not one of his less heralded teammates, that’s for sure. Is it Amar’e Stoudemire, who revitalized hoops in New York even before Carmelo Anthony forced his way into town? Wrong again. Carlos Boozer? Don’t make me laugh, though you are closer than you think.
Need a hint? The off-season’s best acquisition is roughly six feet tall. If you know what you are doing, you might be able to beat him in a game of one on one. And, if his appearance on the court is any indication, he is probably below the league’s average fitness level. In fact, the most influential acquisition of the now infamous Summer of 2010 won’t log a single minute this season, because he doesn’t patrol the paint or the perimeter. He roams the sidelines. The best free agent signing of the offseason, the one guy who has made the most significant impact for his new employer, is Tom Thibodeau.
Coach Thibs has the Chicago Bulls playing some of the best basketball in the league. The Bulls have the fourth best record in the Association, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks in the standings, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Since the team’s 9-8 start, caused by a caustic mixture of a new system, a brutal early season road trip and some limiting injuries, Chicago has gone 36-10 over their last 46 games, a pace that would see them eclipse everyone but the Spurs by season’s end if it keeps up. Even more impressive, since a Dec. 3 loss to the Boston Celtics, the Bulls are 10-0 against the top four teams in each conference. And they’ve done it all while having their starters miss more games due to injury than any other top team.
Thibodeau is well known as one the league’s top defensive minds. He is the architect of the Boston Celtics’ stifling defense, which has ranked 5th, 2nd and 1st in defensive rating (otherwise known as points allowed per 100 possessions) over the past few seasons under his tutelage. This year, Boston’s defense is once again one of the best in the league, currently ranked 2nd. I’m sure you already know which team is first. That’s right, Thibodeau’s Bulls. It hasn’t taken long for Thibs to install a strong defensive mindset with his new charges. The Bulls currently allow just a fraction more than 100 points per 100 possessions, and they keep getting better. After posting an average of 103.6 points allowed per 100 in October and November, the Bulls allowed just 97.9 per 100 in December, and 98.8 in January, before they slipped up a bit in February by allowed 105.3. However, since the All-Star break, the Bulls are right back in the swing of things, allowing just 99 points per 100 possessions in their last seven games. Right smack in the middle of that defensive improvement, the Bulls lost Joakim Noah, the anchor of their defense, for 30 games due to torn ligaments in his thumb. He was replaced by 38-year-old Kurt Thomas, and the defense didn’t miss a beat.
In order to see just how impressive this defensive performance is, one must take a look back at where the Bulls were defensively in recent years. Just two seasons ago, the Bulls had a defensive rating of 108.7. Last season, they were at 105.3. Their 5.3 point jump in defensive rating is bettered only by the New Orleans Hornets, and the Hornets had a heck of a lot more room for improvement. Comparisons to past Bulls teams are not entirely valid, because the team experienced a fair bit of roster overhaul this summer, but that just emphasizes how impressively Thibs has the team defending. After all, of the top eight players on the roster, in terms of minutes played, four are new to the team in 2011: Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, and Keith Bogans. Boozer and Korver are both known to be poor defenders, and while Bogans and Brewer are both defensive specialists, they replaced Kirk Hinrich and John Salmons, a couple of solid defensive players in their own rights. So Thibs didn’t just go from a great situation in Boston (where he had one of the finest defensive players of this generation in Kevin Garnett) to another good situation in Chicago. He has created this good situation. Sure, the Bulls have some fine individual defenders in Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, but both were part of the same team that was somewhere between mediocre and slightly above average over the past couple seasons. He’s taken all the gears that were lying around and built them into a well oiled machine, and he’s done it before the end of his first season as coach.
On the offensive end, the Bulls aren’t quite so successful. It’s an area in which Thibodeau still has much to prove as a head coach. Their 106.5 offensive rating is good for only 19th in the league, hardly the mark of an elite team. However, even that is a marked improvement over the previous season, in which the Bulls could only manage a moribund 103.5 points per 100 possessions. One way the Bulls have improved offensively which is directly attributable to Thibodeau’s coaching is that the Bulls are less reliant on the long two-point jump shot. The long two is the least efficient shot in basketball, nearly as hard to make as a three, and without any added bonus. Last season, the Bulls loved nothing better than a 20-foot jumper. As a team, they averaged 27.7 shot attempts from 16-23 feet, nearly two full shots more than any other team, and 3.5 shots more than 28 other teams. In preseason training camp, Thibodeau focused on getting players like Luol Deng and Derrick Rose to avoid long twos when possible, even going so far as to stop a practice when Deng hoisted a shot from a foot inside the three-point line. His attention to this particular detail has seen the Bulls decrease their long two point shot attempts by over five shots a game. They are still in the bottom third of the league in this regard, but hey, baby steps are still important, and bad habits are hard to break.
There are hundreds of different ways to look at a head coach and label him as a success or failure: ability to make in game adjustments, or draw up a game winning play, or even something as simple as making sure to ration timeouts and not get caught lacking at the end of a game. The minutiae by which a coach can be judged are limitless. However, a coach can be simplistically analyzed on three main criteria; offense, defense and the ability to "reach" the modern NBA player. The first two are important, but that last bit is a dealbreaker. It doesn’t matter if a coach has the defensive mind of Pat Riley and the offensive genius of Tex Winter, if he loses the ear of his team, his days are numbered. Just ask John Kuester. In any case, it is tough to judge a new coach like Thibodeau on his ability to reach his players, because new coaches usually have a grace period in which a team’s players will rally behind him by default. You just never know how long a coach can keep pushing before his message will get stale, before his team will begin to tune him out. All that said, the early indication is that Thibodeau is coming up aces on the player relations front. Just ask Derrick Rose.
Derrick Rose might be the single best example of Thibodeau’s influence as a head coach. Everyone always knew that Rose was a special player in possession of preternatural athletic gifts, but few could have seen this coming. When a young player goes from having potential to joining the ranks of the league’s elite, they call it making the jump. Rose's "jump" has been more like the Triple Jump, or maybe the pole vault. Last year, Derrick Rose wasn’t even considered one of the five best players at his position. Now, he seems to have pole position on the award recognizing the best player in the league. Thibodeau can’t take sole credit for Rose’s improvement, or even the lion’s share, but do not underestimate the effect Thibs has had on Rose’s career. Rose was known for being a terrible defensive player prior to Thibodeau’s arrival. Now, while he won’t be challenging for the 1st team All-Defense any time soon, he’s also no longer a liability. There’s no way Chicago could have the league’s best defense if they were carrying Rose's dead weight. Defensive improvement isn’t the whole deal, either. It was at Thibodeau’s urging that Derrick Rose began to play more physically, looking to absorb contact while using those lightening quick moves to attack the rim, instead of shying away at the last minute. As a result, Rose is shooting an extra two free throws per game. Again, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Listening to Rose talk about his coach, it’s clear Thibs has the Bulls’ talisman drinking the Kool-Aid.
"He's crazy, man. We talk all the time … He’s always on the edge. He makes you want to play hard. He’s a great teacher and he has helped my game a lot." -Derrick Rose on Tom Thibodeau.
So yeah, Tom Thibodeau is a great head coach. But is he really more valuable to his team than LeBron is? (Before you even ask, LeBron is the only one that can even be in the conversation. In terms of free agent players, he stands alone as the best value signed this off-season.) The truth is that the comparison doesn't quite work. Trying to equate a player's value to a coach's is comparing apples to the guy who grows the apples. But, just for the sake of the argument, let's look at a few criteria. First off, and most simplistically, which guy's team is better? At this point, you'd probably have to say the Bulls. Not only are they ahead of the Heat in the standings, they've also swept the head-to-head matchup 3-0, and the Bulls have shown a gradual improvement and progression all season long, while the Heat have floundered in recent weeks. You could also look at how much each team has improved over the prior season. Chicago barely snuck into the Eastern Conference playoff picture with a .500 record and the 8th seed last season. They are currently on pace for 58 wins, a net gain of 17 wins. Meanwhile, Miami was six games better than Chicago last season, and currently on pace for 55 wins, which would be a net increase of "only" 8. Obviously, this ignores a myriad of factors like the roster changes undergone by both teams, and is merely meant to provoke the thought process. So let's compare their teams on a more level playing field, that of performance vs. expectation.
There isn’t much doubt that the Bulls have surpassed expectations this season. In the preseason, they were probably penciled in to fight Atlanta for the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference. Now, they find themselves 2nd in the conference with a two game cushion, and pushing 60 wins. Meanwhile, expectations for the Heat in the preseason varied widely, but it’s not a stretch to label a 55 win season (for which they are currently on pace) as a mild disappointment. It sure as hell is a far cry from the idea floated by a significant number of experts that the Heat would threaten the record of the last great Chicago Bulls team and win 72 games. No matter how you slice it, the argument isn’t clear cut. It can’t be. One thing is for sure, Thibodeau won’t be outselling LeBron in jersey sales. There probably aren’t too many fans thinking, "I need to get to a Bulls game so I can watch Thibs coach." But, if sticking simply to wins and losses, to each man’s influence on the performance of his team, a case can certainly be made that Thibodeau has brought more value to the Bulls than LeBron, or any other free agent signing for that matter, has brought to his team. And for what it’s worth, Thibs doesn’t cost as much either.
The Summer of 2010 was a surreal experience for the NBA fan. It was the culmination of years of hype, build up, and planning. Roughly 20% of the league’s teams specifically made moves up to 18 months in advance to prepare for the opportunity to land LeBron James or one of his peers. The Decision only served to raise the profile of that free agency period beyond the game and into pop culture at large. How ironic would it be, after all that hype and hoopla, all the preparation and posturing, if the most valuable signing of the season came via a relatively quiet press conference, a full month before the "real" free agents were even allowed to sign. Tom Thibodeau’s hire didn’t rate an hour long special, or even a nationally televised press conference. The time on Sportscenter devoted to him could be measured in seconds, not minutes, and certainly not in hours. But, in convincing Tom Thibodeau to sign on as their head coach, the Chicago Bulls might just have ended up with the real coup of the off-season. He may not ever see any playing time, but Thibs might just be the signing of the summer.