Back in the summer of 2013, the Bulls really only made a couple of moves that affected their roster. They let Nate Robinson, the man who became their entire offense at points of the season, walk away from the team. He would eventually sign a two-year, four million dollar deal with the Denver Nuggets. They also let go of Marco Bellinelli, who just finished fourth in the league in three point percentage (among players with 200+ attempts) for the San Antonio Spurs.
To replace the offense of those two, the Bulls drafted New Mexico shooting guard Tony Snell and signed small forward Mike Dunleavy Jr. While the Bulls likely would've been better this year with the former duo, the Dunleavy signing finally allowed them the opportunity to trade Luol Deng, and Snell still has a lot of developing to do.
Those were nice signings for the future, but the Bulls will have to significantly improve their roster if they want to become a title contender in the next couple years. Unlike last year, and fortunately for the Bulls, there are a multitude of paths they could take to accomplish this in the 2014 offseason.
If I stay motivated, I plan on detailing several potential moves the Bulls could make this summer. If Chicago decides to go through with any of the following plans, the direction of the franchise could radically change for the better (or worse). First, we'll cover head coach Tom Thibodeau and the rumors of his potential trade.
Note: I previously posted this piece on my personal blog here. That said, it's extremely relevant for this audience and I'm hoping to get a little more attention for it. Enjoy!
The Lakers plan to reach out to the Chicago Bulls for permission to interview Tom Thibodeau, a league source tells http://t.co/8DsJGhr2Pi — Dave McMenamin (@mcten) May 1, 2014
@WojYahooNBA reports Warriors, among other strong candidates, possibly will consider asking Bulls for permission to interview Thibodeau. — K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) May 6, 2014
As the old adage goes, April Playoff Disappointments bring May Coaching Change Rumors. I made that up, and it's not funny.
Several notable reporters have now tweeted about this so it would seem Thibodeau is at least garnering some interest from L.A and Golden State. During the regular season, it seemed as though Thibs would be pursued by the Knicks, but it now appears Steve Kerr has that head coaching job locked down. Bill Simmons had an interesting idea for what the Bulls might do with Thibs this summer:
I feel good about this prediction: Thibs becomes this summer's Doc (traded for a future 1st round pick), then Chicago hires Fred Hoiberg.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) May 1, 2014
Simmons mentions Hoiberg as his pick to replace Thibs because of the relationship he and Bulls GM Gar Forman have. Forman was a coach for Iowa State in the early 1990s, coincidentally the same time Fred Hoiberg played for the Cyclones. The ensuing hire aside, one still has to consider if the Bulls should still value Thibodeau more than a first round pick (or whatever a trade of Thibs would acquire). This will be controversial, but I think there's plenty of evidence to suggest Thibodeau is an overrated coach.
Make no mistake-- most people (including myself) agree that Thibodeau is one of the best regular season coaches in the game. There is really no arguing that, given how well his teams perform relative to their talent level. On a team with barely one player that can create his own efficient shot on offense, Thibodeau somehow manages to make the playoffs year after year. His defensive schemes revolutionized the way the NBA guards the pick and roll, and he continues to cobble together top units every season. It helps to have a roster with several top-level defenders (Butler/Gibson/Noah), but there's no questioning Thibodeau's prowess as a defensive coach.
Thibodeau's issues, in my opinion at least, lie in three main areas-- his offense, his minute management, and his willingness to adjust and take risks.
Back in 2011, Thibodeau's offense was perfectly serviceable. Led in the regular season by a healthy Derrick Rose, who would go on to win the MVP, the Bulls were an above-average league offense. They ranked 11th in Offensive Rating and 14th in offensive eFG percent. They may not have been the most efficient offense, but their offense was successful enough to win given their defensive prowess.
Unfortunately, it is pretty tough to attribute the strong offense to Thibs. Put simply, Derrick Rose was the offense in 2011. Only one player in the entire league used a higher percentage of his team's possessions than D Rose; Kobe Bryant. To help illustrate just how much the Bulls offense relied on Derrick, I made a scatterplot. The plot shows several top players, with their usage rates on the X-axis and the percentage of their team's minutes they played on the Y-axis. Essentially, this gives us the total percentage of their team's possessions each player used over the course of a game:
Rose and LeBron stick out here, and for good reason. Those two were the only players in the entire league to use over one quarter of their team's possessions per game. Not just when they were on the floor-- one fourth of the entire game's possessions. Basically, only one offense relied more on their best player than Chicago's did, and that Heat offense had a great excuse-- they were pushing their chips in with the best player in the league. It seems logical that an offense built that much around one player's creativity and shot-making should garner less praise for the coach and more for the superstar. And, in the playoffs when Miami cracked down on Rose, Thibodeau's squad had no other answers on the offensive end.
So yes, perhaps Derrick Rose carried Chicago's above-average offense in 2011. But what on Earth happened in 2012? During a year in which Derrick Rose played just 39 of 66 available games (due to the lockout-shortened season), the Bulls offense skyrocketed to their highest efficiency ranking under Thibodeau. The Bulls finished fifth in the league (!) in Offensive Rating, mostly on the backs of their offensive rebounding rate, which was two full percentage points better than any other team (!!!).
It's actually pretty hard to suss out just what was going on with this team. The numbers say that Derrick Rose still had a big impact on the team; they went from an average offensive team without him to top three in offensive rating when he played. Still though, this is far and a way Thibodeau's best offense as head coach of the Bulls and it feels like there must be another reason behind it.
Well, look no further than the average offensive rating in that lockout season. The Bulls' fifth-ranked offense scored just over 107 points per 100 possessions in 2012. That's good, but in other years it would probably be no better than tenth in the league. In 2011, the Bulls' offense scored over 108 points per 100 possessions, better than their 2012 performance, and finished the season ranked 11th. The offenses were notably bad during the lockout season because of little rest and preseason preparation; this allowed Thibodeau's consistent offense to rise above the others who fell off with the tough schedule. The Bulls' style probably helped them too: nobody wants to go toe-to-toe on the boards with bruising big men in a season with so many games packed into such little time.
In the two Rose-less seasons since, Thibodeau's offenses have ranked 23rd and 28th in points per 100 possessions. That's bad. Yes, he hasn't had the personnel to execute a great offense, but it's hard to believe a stronger offensive mind couldn't put together an average offense with the pieces in place. I hope it's important to remember that I'm not trying to say Thibodeau is a bad coach at all. You can be a top-five regular season coach and not have a great offense. But when it comes to the playoffs, it's often said that championship contenders typically need a top ten offense and defense. Can Thibodeau put together an offense that capable for an entire regular season? Maybe, maybe not. But if he can't, I suspect that his minute distribution will have played a role in preventing it.
This is probably the thing that irritates me the most about Thibodeau, but it's also part of what makes him such a fantastic regular season coach. Plain and simple, one of the main reasons the Bulls have had outsized regular season success recently has been because Thibodeau plays his most important starters so much.
Obviously if you throw Taj Gibson out there for 28 minutes a game, which he averaged this year, he's going to be okay. That's a regular amount for a starter. But in the playoffs, Taj was playing the entire fourth quarter without a breather. Yes, Gibson was still very effective in those games, but I find it hard to believe he wasn't at least somewhat hampered by the heavy minute totals in the second and fourth quarters. Isn't it possible that Thibodeau fails to maximize his players' skills because they get worn down halfway through their duration of play?
For a regular season example, there is nobody better to turn to than Chicago's beloved Jimmy Butler. Jimmy revealed himself to be a stud in the playoffs last year, so many expected a breakout season from the phenomenal wing defender. Unfortunately, Butler's shooting did not improve nor maintain his previous season's performance-- it regressed.
Why? Well, I'd wager it's because of injury and the huge load of playing time Thibodeau forced Butler to undertake. Jimmy's shooting percentages can be split up based on the number of minutes he played in the game to paint this picture quite nicely (via Basketball-Reference):
Okay, so it's pretty clear that Butler is shooting significantly better when he plays the minutes of a typical starter. The sample size of the 20-29 minute grouping is admittedly small, but the disparity is so significant that there must be something going on here. So one might wonder, how is all this playing time affecting Jimmy's development? Is there potential not being realized because Thibs refuses to give Tony Snell or even Jimmer Fredette a bit of run in the fourth quarter? And would fans trade 45 minutes of half-dead Jimmy Butler for 30 minutes of efficient, rested Jimmy Butler? From a semi-objective position, I would. Just to hammer the point home, check out Jimmy's Per-36 numbers for each of these playing times (I think the drop in steals is notable; perhaps his defensive intensity is hampered as well):
|Minutes Played||PTS Per 36||REB Per 36||AST Per 36||STL Per 36|
Those aren't huge drop-offs, but I still think Fresh Jimmy Butler, who plays 30 minutes or so, is pretty clearly better than Barely-breathing Jimmy Butler. And this isn't just a qualm about Butler. I frequently wonder how good an offensive player Luol Deng could have been if Thibodeau didn't ride him so hard in his time in Chicago.
If you're looking for a good regular season, it's hard to argue there are even three coaches more valuable than Thibodeau. He's going to put together an elite defense and ride his horses long enough to pull several wins a year out of his rear end. But at what cost for the future does Thibodeau operate? D Rose has had multiple knee problems now (not saying that's due to heavy minutes as there's no research yet to support that, but I believe it's worth mentioning), Butler didn't pan out on offense as we thought he might this year, Joakim Noah probably has plantar fascitis on his earlobe by now, and Luol Deng is dead. None of these injuries or issues could be the fault of Thibodeau, but it's something to consider moving forward. Should he really be mentioned in a similar breath as Popovich or Carlisle when those coaches do such an incredible job of adequately resting their players?
Adjustments and Risk-Taking
There's something to be said for sticking to your guns. But when your fingers are superglued to your guns, clinging to the hammer and trigger as someone with a bulletproof vest repeatedly hits you over the head with a blunt object, it might be time for an adjustment in methodology.
In the Bulls' first round series against the Wizards this year, there were some pretty clear issues that even casual watchers could observe. The Wizards beat the Bulls by double digit points per 100 possessions in the first quarters of the series. This was certainly due to the Bulls' abysmal starting five. The Wizards repeatedly got out to huge leads to start the game, and it was incredibly difficult for the struggling Bulls offense to comeback from such large deficits. Why didn't Thibodeau ever insert Taj Gibson into the starting five? The Chicago offense also struggled a great deal late in the game. Trevor Ariza switched onto and locked down D.J. Augustin, preventing the Bulls from getting to their late game 1-5 pick and roll offense. That left Kirk Hinrich to toss up bricks and Taj Gibson to rebound those bricks. That was literally the entire offense. Boozer would've opened up more opportunities on the offensive end in those spots, and could've been subbed out for defense.
When you lose a series in five games, why aren't you at least trying to experiment with something different? On a team with no spacing and no shooting, where was Dunleavy in the final minutes? What about Jimmer, just for an offense/defense substitution with Kirk perhaps? I can't question Thibodeau's knowledge of the game, but I think his knowledge could've been applied more effectively in the series. It's always dangerous when one's reason for not doing something or making a change is simply "We've always done it that way."
I really want to stress that I neither think Thibodeau is a bad coach nor should he be let go (that'd be ridiculous). Thibodeau is one of the top regular season coaches in the game, though he still has plenty of flaws.
But let's say your next coach is a little bit friendlier with the players and has a better relationship with Gar Forman. Let's say he extracts a more efficient offense for the Bulls while keeping Thibodeau's defensive ideology in place. Let's say he rests his starters more during the regular season, at the cost of a couple wins, and helps them better prepare for long careers and higher returns on investment. And let's say, through trade with the Lakers or Warriors perhaps, the Bulls acquire a high first round pick in exchange for Thibodeau's services. Would you consider making that trade and taking a chance on a young, up-and-coming college coach like Fred Hoiberg or Kevin Ollie. What about making a play for the newly-fired Mark Jackson or coveted Hawks assistant Quin Snyder? This is one of the many questions awaiting the Bulls this offseason, and it could be one worth strong consideration.