Following a relatively dispiriting loss at home to the Warriors on Saturday, two of the Bulls frontcourt mainstays, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, both cited a lack of "trust" on the floor as the reason for the Bulls' poor (for them) performance on the defensive side of the floor through the first quarter of the season.
"I think our trust has to be better," Joakim Noah said after Saturday's loss to the Golden State Warriors. "We're not where we need to be and that's on every area of the defensive end. We all have to do a better job and that goes for everybody. I take the blame for some of it, but we all have to be on the same page, and right now we're not where we need to be."
Coach Tom Thibodeau, however, pushed back strongly and emphatically on the idea that the defensive problems the Bulls have struggled with so far this season had anything to do with trust.
"That’s garbage," Thibodeau said before Wednesday night’s game against the Nets. "That’s garbage. Trust is work. It’s work. That’s how you build trust. You got to know what you’re doing, you got to be tied together. You got to work at it. It’s a copout."
Taj didn't back down from his comments, however, despite the very public rebuke from Thibodeau. He made reference to the incorporation of new guys in the rotation as a reason for the trust that has been missing, and made clear his belief that he and Joakim's perspectives from the floor were more valuable than what Thibodeau had to offer.
"That’s (Thibodeau’s) opinion," Gibson said. "That’s just me and Jo’s opinion. We’re on the court.
"It’s just new guys, that’s all it is. Most of the guys are coming from teams that aren’t really defensive-minded teams first. So of course it’s going to happen. That’s just my opinion. That’s what I see on the court. I’ve been here for awhile. I know what I’m talking about. Joakim knows what he’s talking about. He’s the Defensive Player of the Year. Of course he’s going to know what he’s talking about."
There's are a couple of ways to read Taj's comments. The first, and least anxiety inducing is that Taj is just being stubborn and proud. He knows what he knows and Thibs' comments aren't going to change what he thinks. The second way to read them, which would prove more problematic, is that Taj is subtly singling out Pau Gasol, who is currently starting in what Taj could easily believe is a spot he's earned. It was reported to start the season that Taj was unhappy that Pau had supplanted him in the starting lineup and Gasol certainly came from a team that wasn't defensively minded in the Lakers. On the other hand, Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic are both heavy minutes guys who haven't been defensively very sound, from a team concept. I like Mirotic's activity and prefer his occasional mistakes to Pau's plodding physical limitations on defense, but Nikola hasn't been a perfect defensive player by any means. So maybe it's just Taj's assessment that the guys need more time to learn to trust one another.
It's also not terribly surprising for Thibodeau to attempt to bat down a lack of trust as an excuse for poor performance. Thibodeau is and has always been a process guy. He believes that if you do the work, you'll see results. It's a pretty sound way to approach the game, and frankly, life in general. The only thing that one can control is preparation and work and then allow the results that flow from that work and prep to play out.
It's also possible that Thibodeau, Taj, and Noah are really saying the same things, but framing the issue in slightly different ways. Taj and Joakim framed the issue as one of "trust," which generally gets worked out through playing together and developing that trust. Thibodeau, wary of allowing for anything that could be perceived as an excuse, pounced and emphasized the "work" part of that ironing-out process.
For me, the Bulls defensive issues have been largely the result of Joakim Noah being hobbled and their defensive rebounding, that is their ability to end opponents' possessions, falling off a bit. Part of the defensive rebounding issue is Carlos Boozer being gone and part of it is opposing offenses not needing to account for Noah as much on the glass, as he's slowed. Noah's also been pulled from the basket area because when paired with Pau, he's being asked to guard PFs. (This is one of many reasons I am pretty anti- Pau & Jo as a unit.)
For one night at least, though, it appeared that the Bulls' defense was either doing the work or had its trust in place or perhaps most likely, didn't have to rely on a step-slow Joakim Noah, as the Bulls destroyed the Nets. It also could just be that the Nets stink. But the Bulls held them to just .87 points per possession, a mark much more in line with the sort of defensive performance we've come to expect from the Tom Thibodeau era Bulls. It was probably fitting, then, that Taj had himself a block party, swatting the Nets all over the place, as he lead the Bulls defensive charge.
Here's hoping the subtle public disagreement between Gibson and Thibodeau isn't the first sign of some larger rift in the locker room. It's probably not, but it's something we should monitor going forward.