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Recalibrating Analysis of the Post-Thibs Bulls

Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire

In a pre-analytics world, legendary football coach Bill Parcells once supplied an axiom that still lives on today: “You are what your record says you are.” A couple decades later, we have the technology to know that that’s not always true, with the most recent example being the Toronto Blue Jays. Rather than go by their middling record, they trusted the underlying metrics that deemed them significantly better than that, so they pushed their chips to the center of the table and ended up a bounce or two shy of winning the pennant.

For years, the opposite was true of the Chicago Bulls under Tom Thibodeau. They took the league by storm in the 2011 campaign, the first of back-to-back seasons claiming the top seed in the East. Since Miami dismissed them in 2011, though, they’ve mostly been considered an afterthought. Some of that is due to Derrick Rose’s knee injuries, but the majority of that doubt sprung from the feeling that the Thibodeau Bulls lacked an extra gear.

That was never entirely true (see last year’s Game 6 obliteration of Milwaukee), with the more accurate statement being that they put their extra gear on display too much during the regular season, leaving them somewhat spent 100 games into the season (when you have a coach that once played Jimmy Butler 48 minutes in a preseason game, those are worth adding to the total).

That’s how you get players admitting to fatigue as Butler did during their 2014 playoff series against Washington, when he said, “I do. I’m not going to lie about that. But that’s only a mental state. Once you hit a certain point, it’s just like you can’t get more tired than this.”

Just as Chicago’s win total was deceptively high under Thibodeau, observers need to keep in mind the potential for the opposite under Fred Hoiberg. Set to snap a streak of four seasons with their Iron Man wing leading the league in minutes (not entirely true, as Butler was edged by a minuscule margin in 2013 by Carmelo Anthony, but the point still stands), Hoiberg is playing the long game:

Although this could lead to more wins due to the development of the young players (the lack of which was secretly as much of a crime on Thibodeau’s ledger as the minutes for his stars) or higher quality contributions from the rested starters, the smart money would go on such an approach costing the Bulls a win here and there on the schedule.

The perplexing part of all this is that the same people who crushed Thibodeau for caring too much about the regular season are already gearing up to judge the Bulls based on…the regular season. In his annual NBA over/under prediction podcast, Bill Simmons took the under on Chicago (set at 50 wins, identical to their 2015 total), opining, “I just don’t like the team, and I think Thibodeau got them to overachieve year after year after year.”

His partner Joe House tentatively took the over, saying, “They’re in a fragile place right now, and we don’t have any sense whatsoever what the difference between Thibs and Hoiberg is gonna look like, but you know, on the run-up to this season, it just feels like a transition kind of deal for them.”  Both questioned Hoiberg’s aptitude due to being a rookie NBA coach, with Simmons expressing doubt that Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah can play together (despite Hoiberg already splitting the pair up and looking poised to avoid it after Thibodeau refused to see the light last season).

While their points—only a couple of which are noted here—can mostly be deconstructed, they serve as a helpful warning to anyone evaluating this year’s Bulls: For once, the team they look like in November is unlikely to be the team they are in April. Maybe Tony Snell and/or Doug McDermott can’t be legitimate rotation guys, but under Hoiberg, we’re going to get much closer to a definitive answer. Maybe Noah is sadly done as a core part of a contender’s nucleus, but that verdict won’t come with the doubt that he’s playing out of position or through a nagging injury that needs to heal.

This version of the Bulls should be significantly less frustrating than previous iterations for a handful of reasons, except it comes with the caveat that they will require a different kind of examination. The questions will need to change from “Is that going to be good enough?” to “What can they learn from this?” That’s not to say this is a young roster overall, just that Hoiberg’s fresh voice and offense will surely bring growing pains, and the unique joy of watching a shorthanded crew stun a rival on a meaningless January night will be replaced by the comforting feeling of this could be headed somewhere.

For years, the Bulls weren’t taken seriously because they themselves took every game too seriously. Now it’s up to fans and analysts to not fall victim to the same mistake.

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