The great thing about sports debates as opposed to, say, political debates is that arguments are often validated and won with statistical evidence not blathering rhetoric.
For example …
Phil Jackson coached 20 seasons in the NBA and never missed making the playoffs. His teams won 11 NBA titles, more than any other coach, and he is the only coach in history—five-plus seasons—who has won more than 70 percent of his games. If he’s not considered the NBA’s greatest coach, the Zenmaster is in the discussion.
For all of Jackson’s greatness, though, he never coached a season without Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal on his roster. Each are easily NBA Top 50 all-time players. In 12 of his 20 years, he had the Jordan-Pippen or Kobe-Shaq tandem and won almost three-quarters (.741) of his games. In the eight seasons Jackson coached without either dynamic duo, his win percentage slipped to .647. Remember that number.
Gregg Popovich is also a name tossed around in the greatest-coach debate. (Let’s eliminate Red Auerbach and K.C. Jones from the discussion because even Fred Hoiberg could have won with those loaded Celtics teams.) Popovich has a .691 win percentage, trailing only Jackson and Billy Cunningham (.698) among coaches with five-plus years.
Like Phil, Pops has also been endowed with great players. All 20 of his Spurs rosters have included either David Robinson or Tim Duncan or both. But, Popovich’s rookie season, Robinson went down with an injury six games into the season. The Will Perdue-led Spurs finished 20-62. It was the only time Popovich missed the playoffs.
Which brings us to Tom Thibodeau, who took the Bulls to the playoffs in each of his five seasons.
With Derrick Rose in the lineup, Thibs’ Bulls were 132-49 (.729), 25 percentage points better than Jackson’s lifetime mark. Without the 2011 MVP, Thibs’ record dropped to 123-90 (.577). Rose will likely never be an NBA Top 50 all-time player, nor will Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler or any of Thibs’ other Bulls. Gasol might be close, but he arrived in Chicago at age 34.
Point is, through five seasons of on-again-off-again Rose, Thibs posted a combined .647 win percentage.
So, with or without his one “great” player, Thibs won as often as Phil Jackson did in his Pippen-minus-MJ and Kobe-minus-Shaq seasons.
Enter Fred Hoiberg.
Inheriting Thibs’ same players plus a solid rookie in Bobby Portis, Hoiberg’s Bulls are .519 coming out of the All-Star break. With games Thursday and Friday against the Cavs and Raptors, the Bulls could be .500 by the weekend.
We were led to believe this was a championship roster. Thibs was passing the baton to a coach whose offensive mind would take them from Point A to Point C. Problem is, opponents are getting 100-plus points every night of that journey.
Other than the injury to Mike Dunleavy, the Bulls started the season as healthy as they have been in years. There was no reason for this team to lapse, but they have.
Some might argue that Thibs would win the regular season and limp out of the playoffs. Before Rose went down with the first knee injury against the 76ers in 2012 playoffs, Thibodeau was 10-7 in the playoffs.
Interestingly, Thibs, who is constantly accused of wearing down his stars, played Rose a little more than 40 minutes per game in their first playoffs together. In the two previous seasons, Vinny Del Negro used Rose 44.7 and a league-high 42.4 in 2010.
Thibs had a “healthy” Rose for just a dozen more playoff games during his final three seasons, and the lame-duck coach still managed to finish 6-6 in last season’s playoffs despite all the dysfunction.
Jackson went 11-9 the two seasons after Jordan’s first retirement and was 4-8 with the Lakers after Shaq’s departure.
The way the Bulls are going right now, we might not ever know if Hoiberg’s laid-back approach leads to playoff success. In fact, if the Bulls continue down this path, they just might make the case for Thibs being the greatest coach in NBA history.