Bernstein: Thibodeau Must Think Big

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.

More from Dan Bernstein
  • bronzo

    My interest level in the NBA right now is less than zero. College footbal ( why don’t we ever discuss that here?) is in full swing the Hawks,Bears, and the World Series starts tonight.

    • Pulseczar

      My interest in college football, baseball, and hockey is always less than zero. If baseball disappeared forever without warning right now, I wouldn’t care less.

      I did watch the end of the final Stanley Cup game but that was only by coincidence flipping through the channels. I only care about NCAA football when the NFL starts heating up.

      You can’t cater the show to everyones’ specific interests.

  • merklesboner

    Drop off the long-winded intro, Dan, and you’ve got a nice article there. And the Bulls seem to have a nice team that fans will grow to appreciate. I expect there to be a certain learning-curve for this new bunch and by early ’11, we should see how good they are, potentially conference finals good. But a championship – probably not yet.

  • Chet's Inflated Ego

    OK bronzo, good point.
    I’d like to see Oregon-Alabama in the BCS title game.
    I know that Alabama is way down in the polls after that one loss to SC, but I hope they will come back to be able to be in the title game…so I can see Saban lose it. I can’t stand Saban.
    I also hope that ND can turn things around in a year or two.

  • Denver Smeghead

    Listening to yesterday’s Mully & Hanley, and they were questioning a caller on why said caller thinks the Bears are going to finish 6-10. Mostly, it was “well, the NFL is bad this year”.

    Well, guess what? The NFL is bad, but the Bears are worse. Proof? They did just enough to guarantee two losses at home against other bad football teams.

    Any team with a pulse – and that includes the Patriots, Jets, Dolphins, Packers, etc – will beat this team, where ever the game is played.

  • bronzo

    I think that would make a good BCS game also but I don’t think it will happen. their end of season game against Auburn is HUGE for both teams. Also there are a number of Big Ten games coming up that are worth a look. This is my favorite time of year for sports….

    • Chet's Inflated Ego

      You are right…World Series, College football, NFL, the start of NBA and NHL etc.
      This is the most fun time of year, with May-June second (unless I can personally get to AZ for Spring Training on vacation, then that trumps!!!).

  • Prometheus

    Bulls are about to start their season and you don’t see a reason for them to be discussed? The Bears? Yes let’s discuss some more about that horribly run organization. Or instead we can talk some more about the glorified beauty contest that is college football.

  • bigtime sucker

    I am hoping posting this article from Profootball talk .com is going to be a lightning rod for conversation, i especially want to hear from Bronzo, you want College football talk, here it is

  • Chet's Inflated Ego

    I understand the NFLPA position.
    I also see the jurisdictional issue.
    I don’t see how the NFL can police college jocks after-the-fact.
    And if I’m the NFL, I’d be nervous about making decisions based on NCAA investigations (absent clear admissions of liability by the player).
    Thanks bts.

  • mad as hell fan.....

    Well Terry was right about Miami last night, they looked like the Cleveland Heat out there. There is coaching that is going to have to be done in Mia, they can’t just show up and beat experienced NBA teams on a regular basis without a better run offense. I know Mia played bad, but so did Bos. LBJ is a “facilitator” however, not in the Deron Williams, Magic Johnson, Steve Nash sense. He is a great passer and when he gets constantly doubled, trapped,, he always seems to find the open spot up shooter. Well, DWade doesn’t fit that “spot up shooter” off a LBJ pass because of a double team type of guy. And who else is going to consistently get into a rhythm on that team? 72 won’t happen this year, might in the future but not in 2011.

    I am excited about the Bulls starting tonight, and excited to see how they guard Durant. However, I am still bummed that Boozer isn’t playing the first few weeks. A Rose/Bogans/Deng/Gibson/Noah lineup doesn’t get me too excited, can’t open up the new toy quite yet. But I am excited about something other than Bears football and boring reg. season hockey.

  • bigtime sucker

    i got the first step right here. It’s about consistency, it’s about ending hypocrosy and dishonesty between the NCAA the NFL the television networks and the American Public. Abolish the BCS, set up a playoff system that is run by the NCAA first and then the NCAA and the NFL and the NFLPA can talk about other issues. I just Wiki’d the BCS and it makes a great point. IT features schools within the NCAA but isn’t run by the NCAA. It is a money making scheme and only a money making scheme and if the NCAA isn’t going to actually run the BCS division, they have no business sticking their noses into somebody elses. If their top championship was an actual NCAA championship, then they have the right to seek justice on it’s behalf, but what they are doing with the bcs is so crooked and greedy, they should just sit back in their chairs and keep their big mouths shut!!!

  • bigtime sucker

    mad as hell, i am more curious to see how they guard durant than excited, i woudl be excited if they had a player that could actually guard him, although one probably does not exist on any roster let alone the bulls roster. I think this is a game where if you stop green and westbrook and make durant try to make every play you can win, because his numbers will be there one way or the other, but he can be guilty of pressing and if you stop green and westbrook, he will press

    • mad as hell fan.....

      Yes, I guess curious is the better word to use. I am intrigued how the Bulls guard this year under Thibs.

    • AT3374

      Luol can guard him ….with TONS of help

  • Chet's Inflated Ego

    I’m excited to see if The Bulls look as if they are actually being coached.
    They have not had a real Coach in 3 years since Scott Skiles was canned.
    I think that this guy could be the real-deal, especially on D.

  • bigtime sucker

    I think what will be a view into whether or not Thibs can be as effective a head coach as he was an assistant is how he handles timeouts. Does he panic, does he let them play through, does he treat his rookie-less team as a “young team” and micro manage them early on in games or does he treat his rookie-less team as a group of “young veterns” and allow them early on to play through some growing pains. I think he has to manage somewhere in between and learn to develop an understanding of the fine line between some what sloppy play and downright awful play. There are enough new variables here to expect some growing pains, and it’s a balancing act for sure. Here’s what I think will be better. Late game management, out of bounds plays, offensive sets and defensive rotations. Here’s where I expect flaws,turnovers, turnovers and yes turnovers. I expect a lot of them early on, let’s all be patient.

  • bronzo

    Hey Prometheus I said MY interest level is less than zero. have you not watched college football the last 3 weeks where the #1 team lost on the road in 3 VERY exciting games? or all the excellent conference games that are played every saturday.

    When does the MBA become relavant in May or june ?? so we can all wait for the Heat Lakers final ??

    • mad as hell fan.....

      Is it not allowed to like all sports anymore? Why do we have to pick and choose? I like Football (college and pro), basketball (college and pro), MLB, and then I get interested in the NHL once the season starts to get going. I like some better than others. That is how it used to be before it was……football football football football football football football football all the damn time. I like football, but it isn’t that great or better then the others.

  • Chet's Inflated Ego

    I hope that The Giants get into several save situations (I’m not yet sure for whom I am rooting, I think The Giants).
    I want to see Brian Wilson.
    He has got to be the most strange dude since Turk Wendell.

  • bronzo

    BTS great article! But i think your on s slppery slope if you want to impose a penalty to a player who already in the NFL “AFTER THE FACT” I agree that the whole system is hypcritical and the BCS formula a joke.


    The remote will be getting quite a workout tonight, fans. First, Ozzie Guillen tries to get a word in edgewise on the FOX Sports’ pre & postgame show before Game 1 of the World Series in San Francisco as Cliff Lee opposes Tim Lincecum. Second, Derrick Rose and the Bulls tip off their NBA regular season schedule in Oklahoma City vs. Kevin Durant and the Thunder. Third, the Stanley Cup Champ Blackhawks host the Kings at United Center. All of it in HD. Needless to say, it’ll be a nice problem to have. One last thing today, I predict D.Rose starts in the NBA All-Star Game and the Bulls win 54 games & the Central Division title in Coach Tom Thibodeau’s first season on the job.


    I don’t know what interests me more…Ozzie Guillen trying to get a word in edgewise with Chris Rose & Eric Karros on the FOX Sports’ pre & postgame for Game 1 of the Rangers/Giants World Series tonight in San Francisco, Derrick Rose and the much improved Bulls tipping off their regular season in Oklahoma City vs. Kevin Durant and the Thunder, or if the Blackhawks can bounce back from a heartbreaking home loss to the BlueJackets over the weekend vs. the Kings tonight at United Center. My HD remote will be working overtime tonight!

  • bigtime sucker

    i actually agree with you 100% and my point is, the NCAA is seeking every which way to punish players for these “agregious acts” and trying to involve the NFL in partnership is just downright insulting, when you consider the fact that probably the main reason for the BCS is due to NCAA rules governing things like corporate sponsorships and whatnot. You notice the NCAA basketball tournaments are nither titled by or “presented” by any corporate sponsorships and the floors, banners and billboards are all void of this, it’s all a joke and they need to clean up their act before seeking justice for anything else involving bcs division football

  • meesohawnee

    same here. ZERO interest in the NBA Lebron sealed that fate. i see enough of the “me me me im gonna git mine” generation everyday . i dont need to see or hear about it dribbling basketballs.

    • mad as hell fan.....

      Yet you are a football fan? The entire thing is me me me me me in football. LBJ sealed it for you yet Favre hasn’t in the NFL?

  • bigtime sucker

    i have no ability to rant like i want to thanks for auto refresh feature on this insane website

  • bigtime sucker

    i have lost dozens of comments due to the refresh feature, i now will have to type mythoughts on word and copy and paste onto here,


    of course i could have shorter more concise thoughts as well


    • Lovie's Shiny Chin Scar

      I agree. They need to lose this auto-refresh feature.

  • bigtime sucker

    anybody here good at reading laws and by laws and things of that nature? i wonder if the laws and by laws for sponsorships and things of that nature and the fact that the BCS is not an official NCAA championship and whatnot, makes BCS Dvision football a “club sport” as opposed to an actual NCAA governed sport. I wonder if the NCAA has any jurisdiction to even inact such penalties and punishments. Shouldn’t those penalties and whatnot come from the BCS and not the NCAA? I wonder how far this goes down the rabbit hole? maybe i am completly wrong as well, but it sure seems curious to me

  • KazooBoy


  • bronzo

    The auto refresh is maddening

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