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Former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is hungry to start winning again

Few NBA coaches have been as successful as Thibodeau the last 15 years, and while he’s back in Chicago for All-Star Weekend, here’s a reminder that the numbers dispel a lot of false narratives.

“Trust me, I’ve kicked back and read a book on a beach somewhere, got some warm weather,’’ former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “This has been a great opportunity to recharge, to learn, visit with friends and family, things you normally can’t do in a season. But I love coaching. That’s my passion.”
“Trust me, I’ve kicked back and read a book on a beach somewhere, got some warm weather,’’ former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “This has been a great opportunity to recharge, to learn, visit with friends and family, things you normally can’t do in a season. But I love coaching. That’s my passion.”
Lynne Sladky/AP

Zach LaVine grinned as he put on his winter coat and reflected back.

“Mr. Thibs … he should damn well be coaching somewhere, that’s for sure.’’ the Bulls guard said, as he gathered his belongings from the visiting locker on Tuesday night in Washington, minutes from leaving for the team bus.

A sentiment not just isolated to LaVine, a player that worked under Tom Thibodeau for just one season in Minnesota before the then-Timberwolves coach/president of basketball operations traded him in a package for Jimmy Butler.

“Look, I understand the business of basketball,’’ LaVine continued. “Yeah, he traded me, but for that one season he did coach me, he gave me an opportunity. He put the ball in the hands of 20, 21-year-old kid and said, ‘Go hoop.’ That’s bigger than the business of basketball.’’

Ah yes, the current business of basketball.

A balance of politicking, staying in front of the narrative, all the while understanding that players and coaches are just pieces on the chessboard, there to help win or simply sacrificed along the way.

That’s where Thibodeau resides these days.

Just off the board, waiting for his chance to be brought back in.

Ironic that the All-Star Weekend is back in Chicago, the place where Thibodeau first made his mark as an NBA head coach a decade ago. A supposed three-day gathering of the best of the best in the world. From players, to coaches, to scouts and executives that make up the Association.

So how is it that one of the elite coaches the game has seen in the last 15 years is currently without a job?

Like Thibodeau himself, it’s complicated.

“I figured out that Thibs loved me unconditionally. He’s the first coach up here that I felt like loved me unconditionally and it wasn’t about what I did for him.’’ – Former Bulls guard Derrick Rose on Thibodeau to the Detroit News earlier this season.

Those close to Thibodeau have asked the coach to defend himself against the false narrative for years.

The same old tired storylines, whether they were created by an organization that wanted to justify splitting up with him, media members that found his approach too gruff for their liking, or players that would rather be catered to by the man in charge over being coached.

“Thibodeau grinds his players, Thibodeau doesn’t play young guys, Thibodeau’s offense is outdated, Thibodeau’s volume on the sidelines is always on 10.’’

That’s the lazy perception of him. The easy out.

The problem is that in a day and age where every franchise has an analytics department that they lean on, all the numbers surrounding Thibodeau scream just how wrong the perception of him actually is.

Even if he won’t.

“For me it’s always been about being true to yourself,’’ Thibodeau told the Sun-Times in a phone interview. “If you do the research, look at the numbers and talk to the players that have played for me, you would find the truth.

“It’s not frustrating because it’s all part of it, part of the league. We’re all going to get criticized for something. I’ve always been comfortable with that.’’

Easy to be when the track record is as stellar as Thibodeau’s. Over the last 15 seasons, whether he was head coach or associate head coach, Thibodeau coached teams have a .643 winning percentage.

In his five years as the head coach of the Bulls, the franchise was 255-139 (.647 winning percentage), posted a franchise-best 86 consecutive-game streak without losing more than two games in a row, and led the league in close-game winning percentage at .626 (66-40).

All of that even with a horrific torn anterior cruciate ligament derailing Rose’s career, as well as the dynasty the franchise thought it was building.

Thibodeau only had Rose for 47 percent of the games he coached with the Bulls, and when Rose was on the floor, the coach won 73 percent of those games.

Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau had great success together with the Bulls.
Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau had great success together with the Bulls.
Nick Wass/AP

When he took over in Minnesota after being fired by the Bulls, he inherited a franchise that was an NBA punchline. The Timberwolves only knew of the postseason on television, missing out on it for 13 straight seasons of ineptitude.

By Year 2, Thibodeau had acquired All-Star Jimmy Butler, watched his team go 36-25 with Butler — including an eye-opening 27-10 against the gantlet that was the Western Conference that season. Even when Butler went down, Thibodeau kept the boat afloat to get the young Wolves into the playoffs, finishing the regular season with a second-best 34-18 conference record.

His reward?

He was fired in Year 3, coincidentally after two 20-point wins.

The Thibodeau effect felt by both organizations since? The Bulls are 151-232 (.394), while Minnesota is 33-61 (.351).

“Coach Thibs is one of the best coaches I’ve ever played for, and when you get a coach like that, his basketball IQ is very high. I think it’s smart to listen to him and have a relationship where you always understand where he’s coming from.’’ – Former Bulls forward Luol Deng.

The idea that the Thibodeau offense is old school in today’s modern NBA is laughable.

Thibodeau’s offensive rating with the Bulls was 11th his first season, improved to fifth overall his second season, and even in the final season in which the front office deemed that his offense needed improvement, it was 10th in the NBA.

Since Thibodeau left the Bulls, the team has never had an offense rating higher than 21st and have finished 28th or worse three times.

In Minnesota, Thibodeau’s offensive rating was 10th best in the league his first season, a franchise-record fourth-best (110.8) in the 2017-18 season, and even in the chaos of 2018-19 was still ranked 13th. This season Minnesota’s offensive rating is 23rd.

“Look, again it’s probably how the league goes,’’ Thibodeau said, when presented with the idea that he’s only an elite defensive mind. “You’re put into a box where you’re either an offensive, defensive coach or a player development guy. Fair or unfair.

“You have to be whatever your team needs you to be.’’

That’s why Thibodeau has always adapted his offense to the personnel, rather than being so stuck on his players running a certain offense.

Tom Thibodeau adapts his offense to the personnel he has, like turning Joakim Noah into a point-center in the 2013-14 season.
Tom Thibodeau adapts his offense to the personnel he has, like turning Joakim Noah into a point-center in the 2013-14 season.
Nam Y. Huh/AP

It’s that mind that turned Joakim Noah into a point-center during the 2013-14 season, earning Noah a fourth-place finish in the MVP voting, as well as resurrecting the careers of point guards like Nate Robinson, D.J. Augustine, and Aaron Brooks.

He made the Bulls “Bench Mob’’ a feared reserve group from 2010-12, and turned Luol Deng from an enigma into an All-Star.

Just to make sure he’s keeping up with offenses, like he did when the last time when he was between jobs, Thibodeau has been visiting other NBA teams this season, making stops in Miami, Los Angeles, and last week San Francisco. He’s also been attending analytics summits, attending college games, and talking ball with whoever wants to talk ball.

“You’re getting all kinds of good ideas, and you don’t know where a good idea may come from,’’ Thibodeau said. “You’re picking everyone’s brain.’’

“Like I tell everybody, Thibs is a big part — and you can tell I’m smiling because it’s the truth — of who I am today as a player.’’ – Heat guard Jimmy Butler last season.

The minutes police loved to follow Thibodeau around in his Chicago days. That’s where the narrative on long practice days and heavy game minutes started.

Meanwhile, forget the fact that numerous players that worked under Thibodeau have debunked the long-practice storyline, admitting that many in-season practices were more mental than physical, and praising the way Thibodeau paced players throughout the season.

Then there’s the notion that he somehow didn’t have the best welfare of his star players in mind, putting them out there for heavy minutes. That just wasn’t the case. Thibodeau is from the school of thought that generally speaking the best players on every team have historically played the most minutes, and most often they are positionally matched up with each other.

It’s that simple.

Then there’s the idea that he stayed away from playing rookies and young players.

Forget the fact that Rose was the league’s youngest ever MVP at 22, rookies like Omer Asik and Taj Gibson flourished under Thibodeau, and when he moved to Minnesota, he played the likes of a young LaVine, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, as they all had major bumps in their games.

“He trusted me, he played me 37 minutes a game as a young kid, put that ball in my hand,’’ LaVine said. “Thibs’ style works. He’s not a beat-around-the-bush type of guy. This is just a guy that once you buy into his coaching, I mean look at the track record. It’s pretty damn good.’’

“[Thibodeau] was great for me. Me and him, we were really good. I respect him as a coach, as a person. He’s the most consistent person I‘ve been around, whether we’re just talking or it’s the game-day routine leading up to the game. It was always the same no matter what.” – Wing Andrew Wiggins to the Mercury News this week.

It’s not like Thibodeau is hurting by any means.

He’s still being paid by Minnesota, appeared on ESPN, and of course is making the NBA camp rounds.

But it’s not coaching.

Sharks hunt. That’s what they were put on the planet to do. Thibodeau coaches. That’s what he was put on the planet to do.

“Trust me, I’ve kicked back and read a book on a beach somewhere, got some warm weather,’’ Thibodeau said. “This has been a great opportunity to recharge, to learn, visit with friends and family, things you normally can’t do in a season.

“But I love coaching. That’s my passion. When you’re not in it you miss the camaraderie, and I know for me I really miss the competition. That’s what I miss the most.’’

So how has he been replacing that competition vacancy?

“Well, I’m killing my walking … I mean my walking is off the charts,’’ Thibodeau joked. “Nah, it’s good.’’

Not that Thibodeau isn’t a rumor.

With every vacancy, his name comes up.

“As you look at our league there’s 30 chances and 30 jobs, so I’m sure every time a coach’s opening comes up his name is brought up by ownership and executives,’’ Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said on Tuesday.

As for the organization he started with, while Thibodeau’s departure from Chicago was less than harmonious, especially since board chairman Jerry Reinsdorf released a less than flattering statement upon the dismissal, amends have been made.

“I truly believe that 90 percent of my time there was very positive,’’ Thibodeau said of the Bulls. “I wasn’t perfect, they weren’t perfect. Part of it was circumstances where we had a great first two years and Derrick is 22, the team is getting better, and we’re going to have a great chance to win a championship, and I think we would have if he wouldn’t have gotten hurt. Everything changed. And look, after doing the president’s job [in Minnesota] I saw why they made some of the decisions they did. It’s not as easy at looks.

“[Jerry] hiring me changed a lot for me. He took a chance on me, and I will always appreciate that.’’

The fact that Thibodeau and Paxson have mended bridges says a lot about where both men are in their lives and careers.

“We’ve talked,’’ Paxson said. “You know when you’re in the midst of things as we were, and I’m sure both of us, I would say it, he would say it, it didn’t end like either of us wanted it to. That’s part of this business sometimes.

“But you have to be really narrow-minded not to appreciate being in an NBA organizational environment together, trying to do great things. There’s no questioning that Tom is a really, really smart basketball guy and his passion for the game is something that’s always served him well.’’

The business of basketball all but demands that Thibodeau’s name should be brought up.

Thibodeau should be back on that chessboard.

Right where he belongs.