By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) Basketball is water. Tom Thibodeau has gills.
But he’s like one of the young fish in the opening to David Foster Wallace’s fantastic commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005 who doesn’t know “this is water,” isn’t cognizant of just how much the game is his life. This causes him to be the butt of some deserved mockery from time to time.
‘‘I’m at the movie theater — that’s where you can find me,’’ Thibodeau said about how he spent this year’s All-Star Break, well aware of the reputation he has for getting his mail at the Berto Center. ‘‘’The Wolf of Wall Street,’ very good. ‘Lone Survivor,’ very good. So, I don’t know what to do with all my time. Got a chance to look at some things we did in the first half, get ready for the second, did some relaxation, good break.’’
I don’t buy it. I mean, Thibodeau may have physically been present in a movie theater once or twice over that break and maybe a handful of other times in his life, but the entire time his brain was consumed with analyzing how ‘Lone Survivor’ is a metaphor for Jimmy Butler in a fifth overtime.
Thibodeau’s favorite Nicholson film is the one the team watched prior to the Orlando Magic coming to the United Center on April 14. And that is why he’s not going to Los Angeles to coach the Lakers, despite reports that Los Angeles wants to interview him for its vacant position.
Well, it’s also because, despite the Lakers desire to talk to him, the Bulls likely will not grant them permission. Chicago probably stands to lose more from a Thibodeau departure than gain what the L.A. can send back this way, even if that would be a lottery pick this season. No real comparable coach is out there to replace him on the bench, the current Bulls that will suit up for 2014-15 like him and there seems to be some come hither glances across the room going both ways between him and Carmelo Anthony. While the Knicks superstar’s chances of being a Bull next season are uncertain, they are nil without Thibodeau.
But Gar Forman and John Paxson, despite the abrasive relationship they supposedly have with their head coach, also know he is right for this team. He’s right for the now-grown workhorse Butler, who will never say boo about how bald his tires have to be right now after being on Thibodeau’s pay-no-mind list as a rookie. Butler played more minutes in 67 regular-season games this year than the all 82 he appeared in in 2012-13 and averaged more minutes played per game in these playoffs than last.
Thibodeau is right for Taj Gibson. “(He) was a champion,” Gibson has said regarding his relationship with the head coach. “Coach has been around guys like Kevin Garnett, he’s been around Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, and I didn’t know how to get to him. I didn’t feel like I could have easygoing talks with him because he’s so hard-nosed.
“As time went on, he’s been on me each year since the Team USA trials (three years ago), just been on me. But it was good. When I have a bad game, he’s (ticked) at me, and he lets me know. He’ll come and tell me, he’ll tell coach Mike, and the message is the same: He wants the best for me, and that speaks volumes.”
Thibodeau is right for Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, whose knee issues as the season ended drew speculation of the coach’s perceived sadism with playing time and valuing the present versus the future. Noah is a guy we know will never quit or let up if asked to push forward.
Thibodeau’s obsession with playing some guys as many minutes as possible gets overly magnified with the raw deal he’s had to deal with regarding team injuries. When a team is healthy, Thibodeau can work wonders with something beyond the chicken-bleep-to-chicken-salad he’s been forced to manufacture that past few seasons.
Thibodeau is right for what should be a rebuilt Bench Mob coming. And he’s right for the heir to the “That Guy?” trophy awarded to John Lucas III, Nate Robinson and D.J. Augustin in consecutive years.
Thibodeau is right for Euro star Nikola Mirotic, who may be a Bull next season. Mirotic’s tearing up of opponents of Real Madrid doesn’t matter to the Bulls coach as much as his hard work, basketball intelligence and position flexibility — all of which the Montenegro native possesses and would help him slide right into the Bulls’ formula.
Most importantly, Thibodeau is right for Derrick Rose. How Rose will be in his second return from a season-ending knee injury is the biggest question of the offseason. That question can only be compounded by the Bulls bringing in a different coach to work with a star player who, while never being difficult with teammates or coaches, is known for his guarded personality and loyalty to those he is comfortable with. He’s comfortable with his current coach.
Nothing is right with the Lakers right now, that’s for sure. And nobody knows how right Thibodeau would be over there with a Hall of Famer dictating business already. Those questions don’t exist here in Chicago, and Thibodeau knows that.
His obliviousness to his own pathological basketball nature is fine. It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t know what water is or what movies he sees.
What matters is Tom Thibodeau’s sure fit with the Bulls, and while he might not know that “this is water,” he knows he wants to succeed in Chicago.
You can follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe.