Let me start this out by making it clear that I’m a Tom Thibodeau fan. If I ran the Bulls, Thibs wouldn’t be halfway out the door right now. However, given the loud and clear signals that only a Finals appearance would save (read: not sever) this relationship, it’s time for Bulls fans to wrap their heads around a divorce.
As great as Thibodeau has coached the Bulls, he undoubtedly has shown major flaws within his coaching philosophy. The area where Thibs is criticized the most loudly is ironically the one where I would argue he’s improved the most: minutes management.
Thibs is still woefully behind the times, routinely making Pau Gasol play entire quarters and running Jimmy Butler up for 40 minutes a night whenever he has the chance. Still, he’s shown a better willingness to manage the playing time of injured players. Much has been made about Joakim Noah’s minutes restriction, but I haven’t had a huge problem with Thibodeau’s handling of it. First of all, 32 minutes is a kind of arbitrary number. While it’s clear Noah can’t handle a 36+ minutes per night workload, establishing a baseline of around 32 seems perfectly reasonable for a stubborn coach like Thibodeau. Noah’s played 30.8 minutes per game on the season and about the same in March. The limit has again become a talking point because the front office is more likely than not just running a smear campaign on the embattled coach.
Thibs did an admirable job with Rose’s minutes as well. Derrick averaged under 33 minutes in every month of the season besides January, when he felt great and scored over 20 points per game in 16 matchups. For the season, he sits at 31 minutes per game. Given the Bulls other options at point guard, it’s understandable why Rose wouldn’t be averaging 25 minutes a night, especially because everyone thought he had successfully rehabbed his meniscus injury.
Again, Thibs is not good at managing his players’ minutes. Luol Deng’s body was wrecked by Thibodeau and he’s traveling down the same path with Jimmy Butler if he doesn’t reduce his minutes. But to argue that Thibs should be fired now because of this is playing into exactly what the Bulls’ immature front office desires. This is the same organization that routinely pushed its players to return too quickly from injury until it became a national embarrassment. Twice in Luol Deng’s career, he received medical treatment that was shockingly below standards.
Given the team’s injury issues, you would hope that Gar Forman and John Paxson are ready to turn over a new leaf with minutes management. Additionally, there are other areas where Thibodeau has failed to meet expectations. The most glaring this season has been his rotations.
Kirk Hinrich is probably the least productive rotation player in the entire NBA. He’s dropped to career lows of 36.9% overall and 34% from deep. He’s only averaging 3.4 assists per 36 minutes. Yet Thibodeau insists that the team plays better when Kirk is in and that Hinrich excels at “running the offense”. This is just not true. And while Hinrich can occasionally succeed defensively, considering him a plus player on that end is questionable. Yet Thibodeau has played Hinrich for more than 25 minutes per game this season. Aaron Brooks is at 21.8, Tony Snell 19.8, and E’Twaun Moore just 9.3 minutes a game. Hinrich has only played 39% of his minutes at point guard, destroying any semblance of floor-spacing. This is entirely indefensible.
As the greater NBA community is coming to realize, Nikola Mirotic is a future All-Star. In fact, he’s been the Bulls’ best player this season by net rating. Per NBA.com/stats, the Bulls are +2.6 points per 100 possessions overall. When Niko plays, they’re +5.4, highest on the team. When he sits, they’re +0.7, lowest on the team. Even though Joakim Noah is on the highly publicized minutes limit, Pau Gasol is playing his highest minutes in a half decade, and Taj Gibson has been injured all year, Thibodeau waited until Gibson’s fourth ankle sprain to unleash Mirotic.
Niko is a dynamic power forward and Joakim Noah is an equally unique center. Together they’ve been ridiculously good, yet Thibodeau doesn’t prioritize this combination. He remains staunchly committed to Pau Gasol playing center, even though it’s Thibodeau’s famous defense that Gasol’s inability to force turnovers is derailing. Pau’s net rating is +1.8 and when he’s off the floor the Bulls jump to +4.1. Niko is the only Bull with a defensive rating under 100, at 99.6 points per 100 possessions.
While I’ve never been high on Doug McDermott, most would agree Thibodeau just hasn’t given him a chance. What’s odder than that is Thibodeau’s general aversion to playing Mike Dunleavy in the fourth quarter. Thibs routinely prioritizes having two ball-handlers in the game, whether it’s Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich or Aaron Brooks and E’Twaun Moore. It just doesn’t make a sense for a team with one quality point guard that can’t even stay on the floor. Even last night against Detroit, Hinrich stayed in for most of the fourth quarter alongside Aaron Brooks (Dunleavy did get some minutes though).
Tom Thibodeau is an undoubtedly great NBA coach, but his relationship with a hard-to-work-with front office is beyond repair. Furthermore, Thibodeau’s shortcomings can’t be ignored much longer and the Bulls might be best served to part ways with his hard-driving attitude and bizarre rotations.
When this basketball marriage (lord knows Thibs doesn’t have a traditional one) does come to an end, you can expect the Bulls to go hard after Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State’s coach. Marc Stein reports:
It is widely — and I mean widely — believed throughout the league that Fred Hoiberg, whose Iowa State Cyclones were bounced in the first round of the tournament Thursday by UAB, is the top choice of the Chicago Bulls to replace Tom Thibodeau in the event that the Bulls and Thibs indeed part company at season’s end.
Hoiberg’s first interview didn’t go so well when his touted Iowa State team was shocked in the first round of the tournament, ruining many brackets. Let’s hope he finds more success when he inevitably winds up in the Windy City.