Fan sentiment can change quickly; just ask Chicago Bulls’ head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Chicago’s 105-103 loss to the lottery-bound Orlando Magic was not just arguably the worst Bulls defeat of the season, it was also the surest sign yet that Thibodeau’s days in charge are numbered.
There’s a veritable cornucopia of issues plaguing this Bulls team, and many of them can be traced back to the head coach. All of them were on display Wednesday night: there’s the debatable rotations, poor offense, lack of in-game adjustments, lazy rebounding and, most worryingly for Thibs, the serious defensive malaise that has hung over the team all season.
There have been rumors of ructions between the front office and Thibodeau and that the two could part ways this summer. These were mostly dismissed as rumors by both parties and most fans, though the argument to make those rumors reality is growing stronger by the day.
Thibodeau, for his worth, is one of the greatest defensive minds in basketball. While with the Boston Celtics, the team regularly led the league across several defensive statistics and his first few years with the Bulls continued that trend. He won Coach of the Year in his first season as a head coach and tied the record for most wins for a rookie coach when Chicago finished 62-20 in 2010-11.
One of Thibs’s selling points has been his talent for extracting every last ounce of performance from his players, most notably on the defensive end of the court. Chicago’s effort would extend beyond that of its opponents, and his innate ability to mask the defensive deficiencies of guys like Carlos Boozer and Nate Robinson was impressive. This year the effort level seems diminished. There’s oftentimes no multiple efforts on that end, and that speaks to a serious disconnect between the coach and his players.
Thibs’s teams finished in the top two in both opponent points per game and defensive rating in the 2011, 2012 and 2014 seasons. In 2013 with the defensively challenged Robinson running point, they still finished third and sixth in the two categories, respectively.
That makes this year’s slide to 11th in points allowed and 13th in defensive rating, per Basketball-Reference.com, troubling.
This year’s team is light on the defensive rocks previous Thibodeau-era rosters have relied on. Pau Gasol has essentially zero lateral quickness, Taj Gibson‘s ankles have severely hampered his impact and Jimmy Butler can only do so much.
Then there’s the alarming decline of Joakim Noah. The glaring regression Noah has suffered has played a large role in the Bulls’ overall issues. His knee injury took a long time time to heal, and he has dealt with several other nagging lower-body injuries throughout the year. He’s now paying the price for the staggering amount of minutes Thibodeau levied against him in the last four seasons, especially once Derrick Rose went down in 2012.
Noah is posting lows across the boards: his field goal percentage is the worst of his career. His free throw percentage is by far his worst since entering the league. His scoring is down and his block rate is slipping, too.
There’s also the defensive loss. Last year, Noah was worth 6.6 Defensive Win Shares, per Basketball-Reference.com. This season, that number has dropped to a very average 2.9 wins added. Part of that can be attributed to games missed due to injury, but also how he’s deployed defensively, which takes us to the next problem: player rotations.
Wrong guys, wrong time
This has been the criticism du jour for Bulls fans this season. From insisting on giving Kirk Hinrich 25 minutes every night despite him posting the worst offensive rating of anyone in the regular rotation to constantly chaining his rookies to the bench, Thibodeau’s player management has been a growing problem.
Many figured Nikola Mirotic would be a great asset when he arrived from Europe this season. Yet despite his obvious skill, he was stuck on the bench for much of the first half of the season and only began to shine when injury dictated he play heavier minutes. Still, Thibodeau is quick to yank the Serb for the first mistake while older players are allowed to continue.
Thibs can’t even figure out how to utilize Mirotic properly. The power-forward experiment was yielding significant results, especially alongside Joakim Noah, yet Mirotic is now playing almost exclusively at the small-forward spot where his speed advantage against bigger, slower players is negated.
The less said about the minutes load for Butler, the better.
This is the first Thibodeau team to be in the top half of the league in points per game. It’s also the first time (in a non-lockout season) his team has been in the top 10 in offensive rating, although they sit exactly at No. 10 this season, per Basketball-Reference.com.
There have been games where the Bulls’ offense clicks and they run up a huge tally, but there are other nights where the offense looks anemic.
With Rose healthy, those on the court were plenty happy to stand still and wait for him to do something. Without him, the lack of shot creators over the years has been an issue. Even with Rose, the team has struggled when he has been shut down, as he was against the Miami Heat in the 2011 playoffs. The hope is that guys like Gasol, Butler and Mirotic can help alleviate those problems in the postseason, but that remains to be seen.
The common refrain when talking about the Bulls’ issues has been that they just need time. We heard it in November when the season started, and we heard it throughout winter while Rose shook the rust off – give them time. It’s now April and there are four regular-season games left.
Time has run out.