In the NBA, assistant coaches do everything they can to win the next possession.
Offensive lieutenants keep the head coach aware of every substitution and matchup, advising the situational playcalling. Those responsible for defense shout over the piped-in noise, trying to remind tired, distracted players of what was planned at the morning shootaround and scrawled on the pregame whiteboard about when to trap screen-roll and which reserve guard is lefthanded.
Assistants are all about the here and now, not paid to be concerned with how each decision could affect a playoff series in May.
Tom Thibodeau has been an NBA assistant for two decades. He starts as a head coach tonight, though, and his biggest test will be of his ability to widen his focus.
“Tibbs” is famous around the league for his nose-to-the-grindstone approach to work, logging insanely long hours studying tape to find opponents’ exploitable tendencies. He is credited with devising defensive schemes that helped win a title, and is known to favor creative use of offensive sets. But now his responsibilities involve far more than merely drawing up plans. It’s on him to implement them.
And he must remain aware of the real purpose of the regular season — to prepare a good team for winning in the playoffs.
He says that the early games will help determine the rotation, with the full second unit still taking shape. There are eight new players on the roster, and he is evaluating even the holdovers for the first time, so preconceived notions (or “predeceived,” as his Bulls predecessor used to malaprop) will not effect deployment.
The ensuing distribution of minutes matters, and not only in how it keeps players happy. Both Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson have had debilitating bouts of plantar fasciitis — an insidious and unpredictable ailment caused by merely playing basketball. He must take care not to push them, even after Carlos Boozer returns.
The old lions of NBA coaching are wise enough to treat certain games like exhibitions, when they sense that fatigue or nagging injuries may interfere with bigger plans. The Spurs’ Gregg Popovich and the Lakers’ Phil Jackson are two who understand that trying to maximize each opportunity on every possession can be self-defeating.
This was the wedge issue that led to the erosion of any relationship that existed between Vinny Del Negro and John Paxson, a process that culminated in the fight in the coach’s office. Del Negro, insecure as an unlikely hire and a first-time coach of anything, was so concerned about his own won/loss record and so seemingly uninvested in the franchise’s interests that he cared only about each next game.
So enter Thibodeau. It would be smart of him to maintain an open, honest dialogue with Paxson and GM Gar Forman, availing himself of the perspective that Del Negro eschewed. It’s not just about keeping a team healthy — it’s knowing how to manage the season with a purpose, building toward the playoffs instead of moving desultorily from outcome to outcome, tallying results on the schedule.
I remain concerned about how good a career gameplanner can be at viewing a season in its entirety when he needs to, yet one would hope that an NBA apprenticeship of two decades would instill the kind of self-security needed to make such tough calls. Paxson and Forman would be wise to allow him that latitude.
Thibodeau got this chance because of his comfort and success spending time watching images flicker in a small, dark room.
Tonight some very bright lights go on.