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The Bulls are into analytics now, just believe them this time

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Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

As a part of their "don't talk inside-Bulls business to outsiders, only WE can do that" campaign by Bulls management in the wake of their coaching change, the topic of 'analytics' has come up as something the parties didn't seem eye-to-eye on.

New coach Fred Hoiberg was asked about it in his opening press conference, giving the typical answer that it's important but 'not the be-all'. But as Cody Westerlund of CBSChicago pointed out, what matters more is Hoiberg's history in implementing relatively innovative strategies like reducing shots from mid-range. It was a topic broached a bit in Thibs's firing, with analytics being mentioned by Howard Beck at Bleacher Report as something that coaching and a front-office needs to be in alignment.

As deftly pointed out in the BaB comments though, it was pretty comical that the Bulls, of all teams, would be championing more use of statistical information and analysis, especially when envisioned as some sort of contrast to Thibs. We're talking about information, something Thibodeau famously sacrificed hours, days (and some would argue, any idea of a normal existence) to study. Thibodeau was never lauded as such, but had definite leanings towards the use of analytics, pointed out well in both this piece in 2012 as well as another in 2013. In those articles you'll find someone who essentially said the same thing Hoiberg did last week, with a history of implementing his own linear weights system in his analysis. There's also praise from Daryl Morey, as Thibs had previously worked for Morey's Rockets as well as the Boston Celtics.

Those were two teams as 'all-in' when ESPN.com put out their 'great analytics rankings' earlier this year. The Bulls were instead listed as a 'skeptic'. If anything it was only Thibs's contributions (preventing threes on defense) that were mentioned while Gar Forman and John Paxson are painted as decidedly scouts over stats. Former director of college scouting Matt Lloyd was mentioned in the ESPN piece as 'standing out by embracing statistical analysis', but he had left for the Orlando Magic in 2012. There was also mention of Steve Weinman, but from what I can tell he is the only even semi-prominent front-office member with an analytics leaning. There are, naturally 2 other 'directors of analytics'...for ticket sales. The Bulls have pretty much always been painted as an 'old-school'  organization. They were not one of the teams who wanted SportsVU technology in their arena before the NBA embraced it at a league-wide level (and who knows if they use it now). They have next to zero interest or involvement in the NBA D-League.

The super-secret (apparently only when they want to be) Bulls may have a lot more going on behind the scenes. Maybe they have added more people, and recently. Maybe it was actually Lloyd who, before leaving, recommended to draft Marquis Teague while Thibs wanted Draymond Green. But at a superficial level, evidence paints them as being behind the curve. Any reporting on them and their involvement in this expanding space puts them behind most of the rest of the league. And as such, the narrative that they were somehow being held back by Thibs the luddite seems pretty ridiculous.

That said, we are becoming more aware (strange how this info gets out!) that Thibodeau was indeed not a fan of the sports science behind injury and recovery. Ken Berger delved into one of the many successes of the Golden State Warriors, the use of wearable technology, and had this anecdote:

At a presentation on wearable technology organized by coaching agent Warren Legarie last year in Chicago, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau raised his hand. Everyone in the audience knew where this was going.

Thibodeau had resisted overtures from Bulls management to employ wearable technology to monitor players' recovery, league sources said.

"He was basically challenging it, like, ‘Michael Jordan didn't need that,'"

We've surely all heard that name invoked by Thibs before when defending his minutes allocation to players. Heck, it was used among the local media as well. It's, of course, nonsense.

But even there, it shows failings by the Bulls front office too. The Toronto Raptors are mentioned as having a 'director of sports science', someone who looks far more accomplished (and established, he'd been there since 2011) than the Bulls equivalent.

Hiring Jen Swanson as someone to better look at the science of injuries was seen as a forward step, and perhaps illustrates the real problem Thibodeau had with these 'overtures'. It may not have been so much that Thibodeau, someone who craves information, was decidedly anti-analytics and against what the front office were hoping to adopt in this instance. He was just, at that point, against GarPaxDorf. They had spent their time undermining the coach and creating, in Swanson, yet another channel of communication leading to further distrust over improvement. Why let them (did the org. need his permission, by the way?) create another way to subvert his methods?

If that was the case, the whole thing was broken. So if indeed the Bulls are finally starting to come around on learning more about what they don't know, the hiring of Fred Hoiberg will at least help facilitate that more than Thibs would've. That's ultimately a positive thing. Hopefully Hoiberg can bring in some of his own people from ISU, or that the Bulls can simply put more effort in expanding that department than they did in their coaching search. It'll be interesting to see if they're serious, or if 'analytics' isn't a new order for the Bulls, but merely just another salvo to fire at the outgoing coach.