TrueHoop: Tom Thibodeau
The Heat cruised to a 21-point halftime and held on for a 107-95 victory.
Dating back to last season, the Heat have won 38 of their last 40 regular-season games. The Heat and the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks are the only teams in NBA history to win at least 38 games in a 40-game stretch (across seasons), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The return of Derrick Rose
Rose scored 12 points on 4-of-15 shooting (1-of-7 on 3-pointers) in his first regular-season game in more than 18 months.
Rose struggled against guards who defended him:
• Against Mario Chalmers, Rose shot 2-of-5 with four turnovers.
• Against Norris Cole, he missed each of his three field-goal attempts.
• With Dwyane Wade defending him, Rose was 0-for-1.
What did the Heat do well?
The Heat shot 6-of-8 on corner 3-pointers, their most makes in a game against the Bulls over the last four seasons (since LeBron James joined the Heat and Tom Thibodeau took over as Bulls head coach).
The Heat shooting well on corner 3-pointers isn’t a surprise: Last season, they led the NBA in corner 3-pointers made and attempted.
But it is a surprise against the Bulls: Since Thibodeau took over, the Bulls have allowed the fewest makes and attempts on corner 3-pointers in the NBA.
Role players come up big for Heat
The numbers show that the Heat's role players should be the ones credited with the win over the Bulls -- not the "Big 3."
James, Wade and Chris Bosh were outscored by four points in 25 minutes on the court together. But when at least one of them was on the bench, the Heat outscored the Bulls by 16.
With the “Big 3” on the court together, the Heat shot 2-of-7 on 3-pointers and were outrebounded by seven. But with at least one of them on the bench, the Heat shot 9-of-13 on 3-point attempts and had six more boards than the Bulls.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTom Thibodeau: The defense-first drill sergeant.
Name: Tom Thibodeau
Birthdate: Jan. 17, 1958
Is he an emotional leader or a tactician?
Thibodeau’s obsessive, workaholic personality has an unmistakable presence on the sideline of every game and throughout the Bulls’ organization, but his greatest value is as a defensive tactician. No coach in the NBA understands how a team works as one to close down driving angles and to deny the offense’s preferred move better than Thibodeau. Playing the kind of defense that Thibodeau teaches demands an extreme work ethic from his players, so differentiating between strategy and emotional commitment is tough. However, his most significant contribution to any team will be the X’s and O’s.
Is he intense or a "go along, get along" type?
Thibodeau is one of the most intense men in the NBA. His defensive system is built on hard and fast rules, and there’s no negotiating. Thibodeau won’t coddle anyone, not even a star like Derrick Rose, and needs players who have the mental toughness to get on board with both the style of play and style of communication that Thibodeau brings.
Practices are run with military precision, and Thibodeau is known to work through Saturday nights in the offseason. He's a no-nonsense coach, but his personal authenticity and the success of his strategies endear him to his players.
Does he rely on systems, or does he coach ad hoc to his personnel?
He relies on systems, especially on defense.
Though similar, Thibodeau’s defensive system in Chicago is a bit different than the one he installed as a defensive assistant in Boston. Instead of using a hard show on pick-and-rolls -- something no big man did better than Kevin Garnett when Thibodeau coached him from 2007 to 2010 -- the Bulls almost uniformly “down” pick-and-rolls. This means the big man hangs back a bit more while the guard directs the ball handler to him and toward the baseline. One effect of this modification, which allows the Bulls bigs to remain closer to the paint, is that Chicago has been a top-10 defensive rebounding team since Thibodeau took over in 2010.
More generally, Thibodeau is not an especially creative in-game coach. Though he is inventive in his meticulous pregame preparation, his adjustments during games are just OK, especially on the offensive end. With all his success, it’s sometimes hard to remember 2012-13 is Thibodeau’s third season as an NBA head coach. This is one skill that could really evolve as he gains experience.
Does he share decision-making with star players, or is he The Decider?
The Decider. Thibodeau communicates well with his players but, especially during games, expects his players to follow his directives, not discuss them.
Does he prefer the explosive scorer or the lockdown defender?
Explosive scorer. This is a controversial distinction for Thibodeau, who, despite being a defensive ace, has a tendency to give big minutes to players like Carlos Boozer and Rip Hamilton, two guys who contribute real value only on the offensive end. For example, facing Miami in the 2011 playoffs, Thibodeau struggled to decide whether to lean on Boozer or defensive stopper Taj Gibson. When he left Boozer in for crunch time, the Heat successfully and repeatedly attacked him in pick-and-rolls.
Does he prefer a set rotation, or is he more likely to use his personnel situationally?
Thibodeau prefers a set rotation, but he will make quick substitutions, especially when it comes to playing Luol Deng and Joakim Noah abnormally long minutes.
Will he trust young players in big spots, or is he more inclined to use grizzled veterans?
Thibodeau has a clear affinity for veterans, even when it may benefit the team in the long term to give younger players more minutes early in the regular season.
Are there any unique strategies that he particularly likes?
Thibodeau’s defensive system is the pinnacle of team defensive strategy in the NBA. He is often credited with being the first coach to fully leverage the abolition of illegal defense by loading up the strong side box while having the weakside defenders zone the back side of the defense. In effect, Thibodeau's defenses force ball handlers -- whether in isolation or in side pick-and-rolls -- to the baseline and then send a second defender from the weakside over to the strong side block to cut off dribble penetration.
He is especially detail-oriented when it comes to pick-and-roll defense, getting down to the specific angles that each defender’s feet should be pointing. Thibodeau wants to send everything away from the middle of the court and force lob passes or bounce passes out to the perimeter, allowing defenders more time to get back to their men.
Off the ball, every defender in the Thibodeau system will have his hands up and active, with arms stretched as wide as possible. The goal isn’t actually to get deflections, though that happens. The real objective is to take away the first passing option of the offense -- to make the ball handler hesitate and throw a slow pass rather than whipping a chest pass to an open shooter. This gives the defense more time to recover from screens and cuts and often forces the ball away from the offense’s primary option on a given play.
Thibodeau knows he can't ask his defenders to do everything, rather he teaches them to take away certain high-percentage options for the offense. When everyone does their jobs, the odds tilt heavily in the defense's favor.
Most of Thibodeau’s offensive sets are not rudimentary, but he tends to keep things basic in big moments. It’s not uncommon to see some brilliant flex-based sets early in the game devolve into a steady diet of standard pick-and-rolls and pin-downs by the fourth quarter. He makes solid adjustments from game to game. For instance, he used Noah in the middle of the court to unlock Miami’s pick-and-roll defense in their 2011 playoff series, but Thibodeau is not known for drawing up brilliant offensive game plans on the fly.
What were his characteristics as a player?
Thibodeau’s playing career ended with his last game for the Division III Salem State University Vikings. His team won its league in his junior and senior seasons, and Thibodeau captained the team in his final year. An odd note: According to Salem State’s records, Thibodeau shot just 48.9 percent from the free throw line as a senior.
Which coaches did he play for?
Art Fiste (Salem State).
What is his coaching pedigree?
In the NBA alone, Thibodeau has worked with Bill Musselman, Jerry Tarkanian, Rex Hughes, John Lucas, Jeff Van Gundy and Doc Rivers. He was a longtime assistant to Van Gundy in New York and Houston before joining Rivers in Boston.
If basketball didn't exist, what might he be doing?
Running an ultra-high-end personal security company.
The spirit of the 1984 Bill James Baseball Abstract was summoned for this project.
Getty ImagesMoving the needle in 2012-13: Andre Iguodala, LeBron James and Blake Griffin.
1. Will the Nuggets finally reward their army of boosters?
Beckley Mason: Oh man, I don’t wager money on the NBA, but let’s just say I emptied my vanity coffers investing preseason plaudits on this team. I’m worried that I’m so excited about how fun this team will be, I have overestimated how much it will actually win. The Nuggets represent the open style of team play I wish was more common in the league, getting the best possible shots -- layups and 3-pointers -- all game.
But I have also been encouraged by the preseason.
The early offense is clicking. Andre Iguodala, Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried have been as advertised in the open court, and Kosta Koufos and Corey Brewer look ready to make unexpected contributions. For guys like John Hollinger and Kevin Pelton, both of whom have Denver finishing second in the Western Conference, there’s clearly something here. As usual, the Nuggets project as a juggernaut top-three offense, but this season they’ll have the personnel to play defense in the half court.
Kevin Arnovitz: Aside from the stylistic appeal, where does this collective love for Denver come from? Is it a sincere belief the Nuggets have the necessary tools to mount a guerrilla war in the West and take down the likes of the Thunder or the Lakers or just a desire to see a verdict rendered once and for all that Carmelo Anthony is a bad guy?
I also wonder if the post-Melo Nuggets haven’t become a symbol for those who were repelled by the Anthony saga two years ago. In the era of the superteam, romantics want the Nuggets to prove that a team of non-superstars can compete for an NBA title through sheer effort, athleticism and creativity. A lot of basketball junkies want to live in a world where the 2004 Pistons aren’t a historical outlier and Anthony is the fool. The Nuggets represent their best hope.
Mason: Unlike those Pistons, the Nuggets are a rare case of a superstar-less team that wins without a superstar. Two different models. The question is …
2. What do you do in the NBA if you can’t recruit a superstar?
Arnovitz: The Moneyball principle was never about putting data ahead of scouting. It was about identifying an undervalued commodity in a sport and finding bargains in players who bring that commodity to a roster.
Individual defense -- loosely defined -- is probably that undervalued commodity at the moment, largely because we have a hard time defining it statistically. Players have traditionally been paid based on their offensive stats. You can jump up and down about this guy being a top-five defender (think Tony Allen) and that defense is 50 percent of the game, but we rarely see defensive specialists score the kind of contracts one-way offensive players like Monta Ellis do.
That’s what made Houston’s three-year, $25.2 million deal for Omer Asik so interesting. That’s a significant investment in a guy who most people around the league would regard as a one-way defensive player. Some thought it was an outlandish offer, but would anyone raise an eyebrow if a top-20 offensive player landed the same contract?
Mason: Let's just say Asik has a better chance of being worth $8 million a year than Charlie Villanueva.
Arnovitz: Sure, and if you’re a team that can’t get meetings with the LeBrons of the world and can’t realistically find your way onto the wish list of the truly elite offensive free agents, your best course of action might be to stock your roster with the best value defenders in the league, aspire to be a top-three defense and play it out from there.
Drew Hallowell/NBAE/Getty ImagesTom Thibodeau: Defense first.
I’d argue it’s easier to teach a player to be a great defender than it is to teach a player to be a dominant offensive force, which means coaching is key. Is there anything a young athletic team -- and aren’t all young teams athletic? -- can benefit from more than a great defensive mind?
Tom Thibodeau’s success in Chicago is an example of the impact a great defensive system can have, but what about Scott Skiles’ work with the 2009-10 Bucks? That team worked incredibly hard and, anchored by guys like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Andrew Bogut, had the league’s second-best defense. Even with a rookie point guard and Bogut out with an injury for the playoffs, Milwaukee came within a game of reaching the second round -- all on a serious budget (if you don’t count an injured Michael Redd’s $17 million contract).
Arnovitz: Here’s a question for the defensive savants ...
3. How can anyone match up with LeBron James and three or four shooters?
Mason: Thibodeau has been a master of aggravating big scorers in big series, but this might be the NBA’s unsolvable riddle between the lines. James’ new comfort as a scorer with his back to the basket has made him even better at commanding space near the paint. His most underrated skill is his ability to, with the flick of a wrist, throw a basketball 40 feet on a frozen rope to an open shooter. He throws passes so hard, and with such little warning to the defense, that he forces defenses to stay closer to shooters than any other player while simultaneously overwhelming any individual defender in front of him. Barring a player who can tangle with James in pick-and-rolls and one-on-ones on the block, I’m not sure there is a reliable way to defend the Heat with actual defense.
You have to defend them with your offense. Keep the turnovers low, take good shots and either pound the offensive glass or send at least four men back on every shot. James really kills in transition when defensive help is hard to organize, and he loves to receive a drag screen in the middle of the court and blast past the defense to the rim.
In terms of actual defense, no one bothers James as much as Chicago. Having two bigs -- Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah -- who can handle James in a switch at the end of the shot clock is vital to that success.
Arnovitz: Erik Spoelstra is cracking that code. Getting LeBron to buy into this role was probably the biggest coaching achievement in the NBA last season.
So much of the innovation in coaching today is assignment-based rather than the sculpting of a coherent system for your team. It’s about getting LeBron to buy in as a multitasking power forward, figuring out how to horse-whisper Carmelo into a similar role with the Knicks or crafting an offense for a team that has virtually no reliable outside shooting.
The great system coaches are an endangered species. Phil Jackson is back on his ranch, like Lyndon Johnson after vacating the White House. Although Ty Corbin has preserved much of what flourished over the past quarter-decade in Utah, Jerry Sloan is gone too. Mike D’Antoni is in exodus. Stan Van Gundy tailored a provisional system around Dwight Howard. Even a guy like Eddie Jordan was not successful but certainly ambitious.
Rick Adelman might be the lone graybeard, systems coach left. The rest of the league has moved to a predictable half-court game. The high pick-and-roll is the new iso, and why not? It stretches the defense across the floor for quick point guards who can devour most coverages and dance into the paint.
4. Is most of the cool innovation happening on defense, while NBA offenses are simplifying?
Mason: Thibodeau, Spoelstra and Dwane Casey are young coaches developing creative, principle-based systems for their defenses, which supports that.
The offensive piece we can trace back 20 years, when the NBA began to change the rules in ways that opened up the court and encouraged perimeter-based play. Coaches have come along with systems that can better account for the dangers presented by a quick point guard and three shooters, but we may be stuck with the spread pick-and-roll’s ubiquity until the next round of rule changes.
Still, I sense there is a crop of coaches toiling with terrible teams that will one day number among the NBA’s most visionary. Monty Williams has a record as a strong defensive coach and might have the most creative pick-and-roll schemes in the league. Rick Carlisle is one of the most flexible minds in the game. No one coaches to personnel as well, and his strange roster in Dallas augurs well for those who like to see a hoops genius pushed to his creative limits. I’m also intrigued by Terry Stotts, a Carlisle disciple. Who knows what he has in Portland? If his development chops are legit, that’s another interesting team that will fall well short of contending.
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
DeMarcus Cousins: Beast or burden?
5. If DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t evolve into a beast, whose fault is that?
Mason: I’ve seen Cousins play in person only once, and it wasn’t even in an NBA game. It was at the Goodman League versus Drew League exhibition in Baltimore during the 2011 lockout, a game that pitted NBA players from the Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles areas against each other.
The game was a microcosm of Cousins’ NBA career. He made jumpers and sharp passes, he bullied JaVale McGee and dunked all over him, and there was a moment when he picked James Harden’s pocket and gathered up the loose ball on the run, keeping his dribble at knee height. His skill and dexterity, at that incredible size, was jarring.
He also failed to finish the game. He argued with his exhibition coach (whoever that was) about playing time and touches, was constantly annoyed with the ref and let the event’s emcee, who dubbed Cousins “Bad Attitude,” get under his skin.
Cousins makes you shake your head for reasons both good and bad, and we have to attribute some of that weirdness to Cousins himself. But doesn’t it feel like the Sacramento franchise hasn’t been doing him any favors?
Arnovitz: This is one of my favorite counterfactuals: What if Cousins were drafted by the San Antonio Spurs? You can try it with any young player who has come through the league. Are we absolutely certain Adam Morrison or Michael Olowokandi couldn’t have put together decent NBA careers had they landed with more resourceful or nurturing organizations? An apprentice can thrive if the workshop is conducive to good training and his mentor rocks (see Lawson, Ty).
Fundamentally, these teams are workplaces, and more professional offices tend to get the best of their team. Individual strengths are fostered; shortcomings are neutralized.
If you’re lucky, you get to work at a place like this. Cousins hasn’t been lucky. So he can either succumb to the worst instincts of his environment or take it a personal imperative to defy them.
Mason: Player development is such a tricky issue because so much happens behind the scenes. But maybe the Internet’s leading Clipperologist can help answer this one ...
6. What does Blake Griffin have in store for the world, and what does the world have in store for Blake?
Arnovitz: I’ve been trying to figure out what to take away from Griffin’s drop this year in #NBARank. Last season, Griffin beat his rookie shooting and efficiency numbers, yet there was constant sniping about his shortcomings. Much of that criticism was legitimate but disproportionate, driven in some part by a certain strain of antipathy.
Yes, his defense needs to be faster and smarter, but it’s not as if Kevin Love and Zach Randolph are winning games as defenders. When Dirk Nowitzki and Lamar Odom came into the league, they had few instincts defensively. But the Mavs have been significantly better defensively with Dirk on the floor the past few seasons, and Odom established himself as a strong, versatile -- even aggressive -- defender before he started taking on weight like a loading dock.
I sense most of the Blake-lashers know that, which means the charges are a little excessive.
Still, a lot of rational people's hoop sensibilities are offended by Griffin’s on-court persona. Many of them love playing the game, but Griffin wouldn’t be a guy they’d enjoy sharing the court with. At least that’s my interpretation.
Beck, it’s fair to say you’re one of those people, isn’t it? You asked Blake last season to cool it with the “WWE heel routine.” Over the summer, did you harvest any affection for Blake? If not, what’s wrong with playing the heel for a few hours a week?
Mason: One of the primary criticisms of Griffin’s play is that he is just a dunking machine. But if you were to design a power forward, you could do much worse than a machine that did a lot of dunking. Griffin led the NBA in dunks last season by a wide margin, which means he did a better job of getting the highest percentage shot in the league than anyone else. That’s a really good thing no matter how you slice it.
As you wrote, I still have a hard time squaring the guy who is pitch perfect as a book club sensei and the one who gets a preseason technical foul for going after an ostensibly innocent Paul Millsap. Blake stays mean-mugging at opponents and refs, but except for in the instances where it keeps him from getting back on defense, I can live with it -- and even smile at it.
I’m actually bullish on Blake going into this season. He has looked just as freaky explosive and deft around the rim as ever in the preseason, and his passing is world class at the power forward position.
Look, Griffin is going to learn to shoot and play better defense, but it will be a careerlong project. Because Griffin’s flaws are so glaring -- he doesn’t just miss free throws, he air-balls them -- they can seem to counterbalance all the good stuff he does. But that’s ludicrous. He is only 23, and every part of his game is on the upswing. His lower ranking this season was probably a reaction to being overrated after his first season and not an accurate representation of where his game is headed.
76ers guard Jrue Holiday took advantage of the Derrick Rose-less Bulls to even the series 1-1.
Out for the season after tearing his ACL in Game 1, Rose could only watch from a skybox as the Bulls were trounced by the Philadelphia 76ers after halftime in a 109-92 defeat. The 17-point loss is tied for the largest in the 34 games Chicago has played without Rose since drafting him in 2008.
The Bulls, who were 18-9 in the regular season without Rose, fared well in the opening two quarters, dominating the offensive glass to take an eight-point lead into the half. However, the team must not have been too inspired by coach Tom Thibodeau’s halftime speech.
The Sixers ran the Bulls off the court in the third quarter, outscoring them 36-14, including 11-0 on fast-break points. Philly also shot 68.2 percent from the field (to the Bulls’ 25 percent) and outrebounded them 14-5. The 22-point margin is the most the 76ers have outscored an opponent by in any playoff quarter in the last 15 seasons.
Nobody took advantage of Rose’s absence more than Sixers guard Jrue Holiday. Holiday poured in a postseason career-high 26 points and shot 11-15 on field goals. During the series, Holiday has shot the ball nearly twice as well with Rose on the bench than when he was on the court (70.6 to 37.5).
In fact, the entire 76ers team was accurate from the floor Tuesday night. Their 59 percent shooting from the field was Philly’s highest mark in a playoff game since 2001. This number was bolstered by their dominance inside of five feet (20-27, 74.1 percent). It was the third-highest field goal percentage allowed by Chicago from that distance this season.
In their two seasons under Thibodeau, the Bulls have never allowed a team to shoot 59 percent. And Michael Jordan was still on the team the last time they let an opponent shoot that well in a playoff game (1998).
The Bulls now must head to Philadelphia with the series tied 1-1. In order to regain home-court advantage, they will need to find a way to replace Rose’s production. C.J. Watson, who started for Rose, and John Lucas were unable to do that in Game 2. Although the two combined for 27 points, they handed out just seven assists. Center Joakim Noah, who led the team with 21 points, had five assists himself.
They’re still in the series, but the Bulls will have to cool the 76ers’ red-hot shooting soon. Or else, the bloom will be off their outstanding 50-16 season.
The Magic had a terrible shooting night in their loss to the Bulls.
The Bulls set a regular-season team record for the fewest points allowed in a game, yielding only 59 to the Orlando Magic.
The Elias Sports Bureau noted that Thibodeau got to 100 wins in 130 games, one game faster than Avery Johnson did. Thibodeau was also the quickest Bulls coach to 100 wins with the team, a dozen games quicker than Phil Jackson.
On a night in which the Bulls were without Derrick Rose, they were paced by Carlos Boozer’s 24 points. Boozer averaged 11.3 points and 8.0 rebounds on 40 percent shooting in his first four games against the Magic as a member of the Bulls, but in his last three, he’s averaged 23.3 points and 11.0 rebounds on 58 percent shooting.
Orlando had significant issues in catch-and-shoot situations on Monday night. The Magic were 4-for-19 on such shots against Chicago.
They are not the first opponents to struggle against the Bulls on those sorts of shots. Bulls opponents are shooting 36 percent on catch-and-shoot shots. The resulting 0.88 points allowed per shot ranks second-best in the NBA (the Celtics are a hair better—0.87 points allowed per shot).
Holding Orlando to that sort of shooting performance is not easy. The Magic rank fourth in the NBA in points per catch-and-shoot shot.
The Magic made their own dubious mark, as Elias noted that they joined the 2002-03 Denver Nuggets as the only team in the shot-clock era (since the 1954-55 season) to score fewer than 60 points twice in a game in a single season. The Magic were held to 56 points by the Celtics on January 23.
The Magic did help the Bulls out by going 7-for-18 from the free throw line. The Magic’s 39 percent effort was the worst for any team that took at least that many attempts in a game in the NBA this season.
It was also the second-worst free throw shooting performance in Magic team history.
The Bulls did arguably have one defensive game more memorable than this one. They allowed 54 points to the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals. That season ended with the team celebrating a championship.
Tom Berg/Getty Images
John Starks posterized Horace Grant, but that isn't even half the story
After winning 60 games and the top seed in the East, the 1992-93 Knicks were still underdogs when they met the two-time defending champion Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. New York guard John Starks had been an underdog his entire improbable career, but found himself with the ball and a chance to take a commanding 2-0 series lead over the champs.
With 50 seconds left in Game 2, Starks dribbled on the right wing as Patrick Ewing rushed over to set a screen intended to spring Starks into the middle of the court. But instead of using the screen, Starks hesitated, feinted middle then exploded into the wide open space along the baseline. Bulls forward Horace Grant rotated to meet him outside the paint but arrived a step late. Starks gathered off of two feet and rocketed into the rafters of Madison Square Garden to deliver a violent left-handed flush that dislodged Grant’s goggles and the sanity of Knicks fans everywhere. For good measure, Michael Jordan appeared in the poster to futilely swipe at the ball as Starks flew by.
Nothing and everything made sense; Starks was up, Jordan was down. The rim-rattling dunk shook the basketball world to its core.
Over on the New York bench, a young assistant was startled -- not by the outrageous dunk, but by a strange mutation in Chicago’s pick-and-roll defense. What Jeff Van Gundy saw on that play would change the series, and inform the evolution of NBA defense over the next 20 years.
“That was the first time, late in the fourth quarter, that I had ever seen in the NBA any team force the ball to the baseline in the side pick-and-roll,” says Van Gundy.
“I know they weren’t well-coordinated and that’s what led to that dunk, but I think it turned the series around for them.”
The Bulls' defense had adapted right in front of the world and almost no one noticed. Though the adjustment led to an iconic moment for their opponents, the Bulls continued to use this new coverage on side pick-and-rolls to dismantle the Knicks, and particularly Starks, who averaged more than six turnovers in four straight losses while his scoring and assist averages plummeted.
NBA defenses built off of this moment over the next 20 years, and today’s Chicago Bulls, coached by defensive genius Tom Thibodeau, are the finest example how this simple idea has evolved into a devastating strategy for defending pick-and-rolls.
On every pick-and-roll, the Bulls send the ball handler away from the middle of the court. On side pick-and-rolls, that means forcing the ball down to the baseline, where the offense’s options quickly diminish.
A detailed examination of the Bulls' pick-and-roll philosophy gets pretty granular pretty quickly, but the guiding principle is dictating where the ball handler can go -- or more fundamentally, can’t go -- and loading up the help defense accordingly.
Against Starks and the 1993 Knicks, Horace Grant was a step or two late. But today’s Bulls, aided by altered illegal defense rules that allow for Thibodeau’s signature strong side zone defense, are virtually always on time.
The history of NBA strategy is a conversation, or argument, between styles. Chuck Daly’s Bad Boy Pistons were a response to Pat Riley’s Showtime Lakers. While Thibodeau, then an assistant with Van Gundy in Houston, was designing defenses to chew up pick-and-rolls, current Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni’s spread pick-and-roll offense provided the counterargument.
The goal of Thibodeau’s pick-and-roll coverages is to “keep the ball on the strong side to limit how much the weak side has to help and protect, so you’re not getting caught up in long rotations,” according to Van Gundy.
Not coincidentally, those long rotations and closeouts are precisely what D’Antoni’s offense is designed to create. In fact, Van Gundy credits the system D’Antoni developed in Phoenix with helping to advance defensive schemes around the league: “The high pick-and-roll with Phoenix with four shooters and Stoudemire rolling to the rim made it so you couldn’t show,” meaning the help-and-recover schemes teams had been using for years simply weren’t tight enough to prevent Phoenix, with their extra shooter (the now endemic Stretch Big Man) from getting wide open looks.
At its maddening best, D’Antoni’s offense generates wide swaths of space around the paint by stationing three shooters around a pick-and-roll involving a dynamic ball handler and an aggressively rolling big man.
During New York's magical seven-game winning streak in February, Jeremy Lin, Tyson Chandler and sweet-shooting Steve Novak perfectly embodied these roles. Not pictured: Carmelo Anthony and (for the most part) Amare Stoudemire.
But since returning their full complement of players, the Knicks have struggled, winning just three of their last 11 games. It comes as no surprise that the Knicks are also running far fewer pick-and-rolls.
The outlook is gloomy in Gotham, but remember that Euro-influenced drive-and-kick offenses that spread the floor with multiple attacking wings has historically been as successful as any against Thibodeau defenses. The Orlando Magic bounced the Celtics from the 2009 playoffs (while Thibodeau was the defensive assistant) with that strategy, and the Knicks have enough versatile scorers to exploit the Bulls' defensive rotations.
But to do that, to overcome Chicago’s strong-side pressure, the Knicks must adhere to the space and movement principals of D’Antoni’s system. They must keep the ball whipping around the perimeter, with either the dribble or the pass. Holding the ball, even to fake, and even when the fake is effective, only allows Chicago’s help defenders time to get in position.
This is one of the few NBA games in which the name on the front of the jersey matters nearly as much as those on the back. There's a historical backdrop of bad blood, but tonight also puts a fine point on a broader philosophical conversation between D’Antoni's spread offense, at its best the most productive system yet developed, and Thibodeau’s league-leading defense.
The echo from that roaring Starks dunk along the baseline can be heard throughout this game, in the howls of its passionate fans, and the tactical grappling of its coaches and players.
Kent Smith/NBAE/Getty Images
Did an upstart Trail Blazers team fall short in the 2009 Playoffs because of lack of experience -- or was it something else?
Before Brandon Roy's knees degenerated and Greg Oden underwent his third microfracture surgery, the Portland Trail Blazers were the darlings of the NBA. With Roy, Oden, and LaMarcus Aldridge as its young core, Portland was a team built for a long and prosperous future. Portland ranked No. 1 in ESPN Insider's Future Power Rankings around the start of the 2009-2010 season.
How quickly could the Trail Blazers start winning big series deep into the postseason? Some argued in 2009 that they were too young and too inexperienced to win in the playoffs. And with Roy, Oden, and Aldridge in their early to mid-20s at that point in time, that claim seemed to conform to conventional wisdom. As the saying goes, you must fail before you can succeed.
But is that really true? Do teams with inexperience have to take their lumps before winning in the postseason?
According to James Tarlow of the University of Oregon, author of a study titled "Experience and Winning in the National Basketball Association," which he presented at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the answer is no.
Using a data set which consisted of 804 NBA seasons played by 30 teams between the 1979-1980 and 2008-2009 seasons, Tarlow concluded that two elements affect a team's ability to win playoff games: head coach postseason experience and team chemistry.
Coach postseason experience is defined as the number of postseason games coached as a head coach ... Chemistry then is defined as the number of years the five players playing the most minutes during the regular season have been on their current team with one another.
Tarlow also discovered that postseason player experience increase a team's ability to reach the playoffs but doesn't increase its ability to win playoff games.
First, the most common criticism is of the experience of younger teams and this study does not support this conclusion, regardless of whether their NBA experience or playoff experience is the top of discussion. Second, the number of years of experience a coach has in the NBA is an irrelevant figure. It is a coach's playoff experience, not the length of their NBA coaching career, which is relevant to winning in the postseason. Finally, it suggests that what should be assigned more attention is the value associated with keeping teammates together.
In the case of the Trail Blazers, with Aldridge, Roy, Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake, and Rudy Fernandez logging the most minutes during the regular season and playing in their first year together, while being led by a coach in Nate McMillan with some postseason experience, they lost in the first round of the 2009 NBA Playoffs against the Houston Rockets, a team coached by Rick Adelman -- someone who had an expansive playoff resume with the Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings -- with Yao Ming, Luis Scola, Ron Artest, Shane Battier, and Aaron Brooks leading the way in minutes played and also playing in their first year together. In a series that was relatively close, could Adelman have been the difference based on the conclusions reached in Tarlow's paper?
Over the next two seasons, Portland lost to the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks respectively in the first round of the playoffs. Based on Tarlow’s criteria, team chemistry probably worked in the Suns’ favor in 2010 while team chemistry and head coach postseason experience likely aided the Mavericks in 2011 as they began their quest for an NBA title they eventually won.
Certainly there were other reasons why the Trail Blazers lost three consecutive first-round series, like injuries and matchups. But, as Tarlow has suggested, inexperience likely wasn't one of them.
Dallas proved during their championship run last season that head coach postseason experience and team chemistry does matter.
Just ask the Miami Heat.
Putting it into practice
How do the contenders this season stack up using Tarlow’s criteria?
In this case, the Heat, Chicago Bulls, and Oklahoma City Thunder will be examined. Based on minutes played this season, five players are outlined for each team in that order. Listed in parentheses is the number of seasons those players have played with one another. The number of games stated in parentheses for each head coach is the amount they’ve coached in the postseason for their careers.
Chicago Bulls: Deng-Noah-Boozer-Rose-Brewer (2nd season), Thibodeau (16 games)
This is the Bulls’ second go-round with this group. Richard Hamilton, brought in during the offseason to replace Keith Bogans in the starting lineup at shooting guard, has been hobbled with injuries this season. For the sake of continuity, Chicago may be better off relying on Ronnie Brewer more.
Miami Heat: James-Bosh-Chalmers-Haslem-Wade (2nd season), Spoelstra (33 games)
Like the Bulls, this five-man unit is enjoying their second season together. The difference is that Udonis Haslem has been healthy during the regular season this year. Will improved synergy and Erik Spoelstra’s growing playoff coaching resume be enough for Miami to win a title?
Oklahoma City Thunder: Durant-Westbrook-Harden-Ibaka-Perkins (2nd season), Brooks (23 games)
After acquiring Kendrick Perkins at the trade deadline last season, the Thunder’s first full season with this quintuplet together has been a resounding success so far. With coaches like Gregg Popovich, George Karl, and Rick Carlisle in the Western Conference casting a shadow on Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City can only hope chemistry will trump all.
Assuming both teams stay healthy heading into the playoffs (which is asking a lot given the truncated season), it appears that the Heat have a slight leg up against Chicago with Spoelstra at the helm since there’s no discernible difference in the chemistry makeup of both teams.
As for the Thunder, what may derail their hopes is the fact that teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks are led by coaches oozing with postseason experience.
Taking Tarlow’s findings into account, consider the next few months an exercise in examination.
In a live ball situation off an offensive rebound, LeBron James had the ball against Kobe Bryant about 35 feet from the basket, with eight other stars on the floor. There were about six seconds to go, and the East All-Stars were down by two points to the West All-Stars, thanks to a fantastic fourth-quarter rally led by LeBron.
What we wanted LeBron to do was either drive for a tying two or shoot a 3-pointer for the do-or-die basket against Kobe – or, if necessary, make a great dish to set up a teammate. What we didn’t want, as our pulses were racing, was a coach who felt like he needed to stop the action and put his footprint on the game.
Fortunately East coach Tom Thibodeau knew that.
Here’s what Thibodeau said after the game when asked why he refrained from calling a timeout with the game in the balance:
You have a scramble situation and an open floor, and you have a very dynamic scorer and a guy with great vision and good decision-making. You know, you can call a time-out and it allows the defense to get set, or you can trust his ability to make a play. Throughout his career, he's shown that he's capable of making big plays.
Of course, LeBron turned the ball over, the East lost, and today his miscue is the talk of the league.
Luckily for LeBron it was just the All-Star Game, a high-profile exhibition. Still, Thibodeau’s words reveal meaningful basketball philosophy: when the best player has the ball, and the game, in his hands, it’s often best for the coach to leave well enough alone.
There's a certain allure to death pools and elimination reality shows, but there are far more interesting sideshows this season than the guillotine. Some of the coaching ranks’ highest achievers have fascinating challenges in front of them:
Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls
Challenge: Use the Bulls' ball-moving big men
Among the unintended consequences of winning 62 games and coach of the year in your inaugural season as a head coach are the expectations that bubble to the surface in Season 2. That's Thibodeau's burden as the Bulls try to topple the Heat for the East's crown.
The Bulls' defense can't get much better than it was in 2010-11, but their offense finished the season as the league's 12th-most efficient. Derrick Rose is a domineering point guard who thrives in isolation and in high pick-and-rolls, so it's tempting to leave well enough alone and allow the MVP to do his thing. But there's something missing from the Bulls' half-court offense, deficiencies that became glaring against Miami (and at times, against Atlanta and Indiana) last spring.
The Bulls' personnel is simply too skilled, too versatile and too big not to finish as a top-10 offense. In Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, the Bulls feature two of the best and smartest passing big men in the game. Their ability to create opportunities out of the high post should give the Bulls a ton of options. Then there's Rip Hamilton, Ronnie Brewer and Luol Deng -- three wings who have the capacity to run a combined 25 miles of cuts, curls and flares over the course of a game.
With a team populated with this combination of talent, there's really no excuse for stagnation. Can the Bulls find their groove this season?
Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
Challenge: Life in a world in which Tim Duncan doesn't warrant a double-team
There's still no better technician in basketball than Popovich, and last season's 62-win regular season was a testimonial to that.
So much of what the Spurs have been running over the past decade or so revolves around the Spurs' guards looking for Duncan on the block early and late in sets. Traditionally, defenses have been so attuned to Duncan's presence that either A) they end up leaving seams through which Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili can glide to the rim or B) they front Duncan, which leaves the back door open or C) they're forced to double-team Duncan on the block, which opens up clean looks on the perimeter for the Spurs' snipers.
The Spurs have been adjusting to a world in which Duncan's rim rum, deep seal and quick spin no longer compose the league's most deadly attack, and haven't missed a beat. They finished second in offensive efficiency last season by putting more of a premium on spacing and creating double gaps for dribble penetration. Watching that process continue this season will make for compelling basketball.
Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat
Challenge: Keeping the faith
There isn't a coach in the NBA who took a more sober look at his playbook during the offseason than Spoelstra.
As narrated by Tom Haberstroh last week, the Heat's cerebral head coach went on a coaching tour that included a couple of visits with the architect of the Oregon Ducks' spread offense -- which is played on the gridiron. Take that spread offense, add a few parts Rick Adelman and a dash of John Calipari, and you have the Heat's new high-octane offense that has racked up a scintillating 207 possessions in two games against slow-pokes Dallas and Boston.
The Heat's early success must be liberating for Spoelstra, as his team has taken to the change in philosophy like pigs in slop. Spoelstra is one of the league's most resourceful coaches -- a coach whose strength has always been preparation, precision and tactical strategy. But what happens if the Heat struggle?
Spoelstra thrives on order, and might be tempted to impose a little of it on his team. The trick for him will be finding that equilibrium between structure and freedom, a place where the Heat can still exploit teams with speed and athleticism but have a sense of purpose when the game situation demands it. That will mean remaining faithful to the principles of pace and space and keeping his foot off the break -- but also figuring out how to slip wrinkles into the offense so that it doesn't fly off the rails.
As a member of the Sophomores on Friday night, Bulls forward Taj Gibson looked overdressed for the occasion. There were no defensive rotations to account for, and few screens to set in a game where the correct play on a 3-on-0 break is to fire up a 25-footer. Gibson played reasonably well, hitting four of his seven shots from the field, but few will remember he even showed up for the game -- not when John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins are choreographing stuff like this.
But if you ask the question, "Which of these 18 guys will be making the biggest impact on Memorial Day weekend?" Gibson -- along with the Spurs' DeJuan Blair and Gary Neal -- is the correct answer. When you're a key member of the NBA's top-ranked defense, that's a near certainty.
The Bulls continue to rack up wins and refuse to allow Boston and Miami to turn the Eastern Conference into us-and-everyone-else affair. When Tom Thibodeau took over the coaching reins for Vinny Del Negro, he installed the Celtics' stifling strong-side pressure defensive scheme to Chicago. The prevailing question going into the season was whether such a system is transferable. After all, the Celtics had Rajon Rondo at the point with Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins anchoring the back line and pick-and-roll coverages. Chicago had Derrick Rose, a very strong defensive player in Joakim Noah, then a bunch of question marks, including a second-year player like Gibson.
I asked Gibson whether he ever watched film of Garnett directing the Celtics' defense. Affirmative.
"When I watch [Garnett], I think about Thibs,” Gibson said. “He wants us vocal. When you look at KG, he always make the play calls from the back: ‘We're in "soft" or we're in high pick-and-roll show defense,’ It's always about the bigs making the play calls."
So much of what Thibodeau runs is predicated on big men directing the defense, because they're the ones who have to make tough decisions. A guard has to run through a screen -- and that's no picnic when the guy setting that screen is 6-foot-10, 285 pounds. But big men have infinitely more choices to consider.
"[Thibodeau] says, 'The big man is never wrong,'" Gibson said. "We negotiate with the guards to go over screens, go under, sag back. And he lets us play free ball with it. We just go out there and make play calls."
Garnett is vocal on the court, sometimes pathologically so. But a lot of that verbiage translates into defensive results. When you hear analysts or coaches say a team needs to communicate better, that's essentially what they're talking about. Professional basketball players move far too quickly offensively for there to be any discernible hesitation about what this guy or that guy is going to do in response. If, as Gibson says, the big man defending the screener is going to "show," that means the other big man needs to pick up the roller.
"That's the whole thing with Coach Thibs' defense -- he wants everyone to get better with talking and get real vocal," Gibson said.
When you watch the Celtics -- and now the Bulls -- play defense in the half court, you see the sort of fluidity that communication facilitates. Players understand what the defense wants to accomplish on a given night and what their respective roles are in that scheme. We've seen that if Thibodeau has one overriding strength, it's his ability to communicate those mandates to his player.
Gibson didn't provide any highlights on Friday night alongside his more dynamic teammates on the Sophomore squad. You get the feeling he's primed for the next nationally televised event, the one that truly matters -- next Thursday night against Miami.
Forget about the hoopla in Miami, and let's talk about the basketball.
The basketball in Miami
The concentration of talent in Miami has created a dramatic storyline the NBA hasn't seen in years. In late October, the narrative will finally give way to live basketball, as the offseason machinations fade into the background. Fans and observers can debate whether a team of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami is healthy for the NBA, and the Heat's first final-possession scenario will likely launch silly arguments about who rightfully deserves to be called "the man" in Miami. Lost in the cacophony of hysteria is the single most fascinating question headed into the 2010-11 season: What will the Miami Heat's 94 or so possessions look like on a nightly basis? How will James play off Wade and vice versa? How do you defend a Wade-James pick-and-roll? Will we see a lineup of Eddie House, Wade, Miller, James and Bosh (talk about the end of positional orthodoxy!)? Will Bosh benefit from the disproportionate attention opposing defenses will have to devote to the perimeter? And how will Bosh handle the more workaday duties of being the big man down low? However you feel about what's transpired since the beginning of July, the experiment being assembled in Miami is a basketball lover's dream. If you find Miami's personnel unlikable, then root like hell for the opposing defense. Either way, you won't be disappointed.
The blueprint in Oklahoma City
The Thunder emerged last season as the most promising young outfit in the NBA. They finished with 50 wins and gave the Lakers their toughest Western Conference playoff series. Then, this offseason, they extended a max contract to Kevin Durant and fortified their bright young core by adding Morris Peterson, Daequan Cook and first-round draft pick Cole Aldrich. In some sense, general manager Sam Presti's decision to essentially stand pat might have been one of the the boldest move of the offseason. Many executives with a talented core and some money to spend would've committed to a high-dollar addition, but Presti stayed the course. He's banking that the maturation of Durant, Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green, James Harden and Serge Ibaka will continue and vault the Thunder over of the scrum in the Western Conference. Is he being realistic? Can the Thunder ride a frontcourt of Green, Nenad Krstic, Ibaka, Nick Collison and Aldrich into the ranks of the NBA elite? Can a team that sustained no major injuries last season decline to add a single major pieces and still pick up 5-10 wins? The answer to these questions will give us an idea of how much "upward trajectory" is worth in the NBA.
Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire: Beautiful while it lasted
The power of Nash
Amare Stoudemire provides us with one of the best controlled experiments in recent years.
Watching him run the pick-and-roll with Steve Nash in Phoenix for eight years, we grew to regard Stoudemire as one of the most prolific power forwards of his generation. In New York, Stoudemire will benefit from the presence of coach Mike D'Antoni, who conceived many of the schemes that enabled him to flourish, but will be without Nash for the first time since 2004. How will swapping out Raymond Felton for Nash affect Stoudemire's game? Back in Phoenix, a 36-year-old Nash will have to replicate what he did during his 2005-06 MVP season when Stoudemire missed virtually 79 games -- cobble together an offense with imperfect parts. How Stoudemire performs without Nash as his dance partner and how Phoenix fares with an offense that will be more reminiscent of their 2005-06 season -- when Nash maximized the versatility of Shawn Marion, Boris Diaw and Raja Bell -- will tell us a lot about Nash's enormous impact on the game he plays as beautifully as anyone.
The defense in Chicago
The Boston Celtics' return to the NBA's upper echelon was predicated first and foremost on their defense. They unleashed a pressurized force field designed and implemented by Tom Thibodeau, and ultimately adopted by other teams around the league, including the Los Angeles Lakers. This June, the Bulls tapped Thibodeau to fill their head coaching vacancy. He joins a Bulls team that put together a strong defensive season last season, finishing 10th in efficiency. Skeptics might look at Derrick Rose -- whose defensive instincts are a far cry from Rajon Rondo -- and Carlos Boozer and conclude that Thibodeau doesn't have the personnel to succeed the way he did in Boston. Yet in 2007, Thibodeau took a quintet that featured Ray Allen (who had a horrendous defensive reputation coming from Seattle), an undisciplined big man in Kendrick Perkins, a second-year point guard in Rajon Rondo who'd started only 25 games and made them one of the best defensive units in basketball. With Joakim Noah anchoring the interior, the lanky tandem of Luol Deng and Ronnie Brewer on the wings, Boozer's sharp basketball IQ and Rose's gifts, Thibodeau should have the tools to sculpt a top-5 defense. If the Bulls buy in, we'll have a better understanding whether Thibodeau's kind of tactical expertise is transferable -- and an inkling of just how dangerous the Bulls could be.
The reign in Los Angeles
A calm has set in over Los Angeles, where the Lakers went about their offseason business with all the fanfare of a routine annual checkup. While the rest of the basketball universe was focused in on LeBron James and south Florida, the Lakers quietly added veterans Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff and re-upped head coach Phil Jackson. Even when the Lakers were stringing together three consecutive titles at the beginning of the millennium, there was always a swirl of intrigue surrounding the club. That's no longer true, as the Lakers have assumed a posture of professional incumbency the league hasn't seen in quite some time. Will the Lakers ride the precision of their system, the collective experience and poise of their core and the natural attributes of their defense to a fourth straight Finals appearance? Barring serious injury, is there anything that can disrupt the Lakers' rhythm? Is a successful formula ever in danger of becoming predictable?
The patience in Portland
Before the Oklahoma City Thunder became next year's model, the Portland Trail Blazers were on the brink of creating something special. The sketch of a winner was stenciled on the Rose Garden floor -- an all-powerful wing primed to take big shots, a talented power forward oozing with finesse, a defensive and rebounding force in the middle and smart supporting players who embraced their roles. Injuries and disruption turned the 2009-10 campaign into a holding pattern, but the pieces are still in place for the Trail Blazers to achieve. Health remains a concern, as Greg Oden will try to return from a fractured left patella. But if the big man can log 2,000 minutes, Portland should be able to complement their Top-1o offense with the kind of dogged rebounding and efficient defense that made them a popular No. 2 pick headed into last season. The question those with an affection for Portland don't want to ask is, how bright is the team's future if he can't?
The possibility of youth
The appeal of the league's top-rated rookies runs much deeper than individual performance. Their presence can ripple beyond whatever spot on the floor they happen to occupy. Blake Griffin not only has the power to explode to the rim every time he touches the ball, but he also has the potential to transform Baron Davis into the joyful point guard the world fell in love with in the spring of 2007. John Wall's well-honed instincts won't just fill up the box score, but also could revive a fan base in Washington that was teased with meaningful basketball a few years ago, only to watch their franchise return to the wilderness. DeMarcus Cousins could become the Kings' more formidable presence in the frontcourt since Chris Webber left, but more important, he and Tyreke Evans have a chance to redefine what big-small combos can do in the rapidly changing pro game. "Upside" is a word thrown around a lot in June, but watching that potential unfold produces unique findings. And that's why we watch.
- Rob Mahoney of Hardwood Paroxysm writes that the Miami Heat's abundance of talent will allow them to rewrite the book on last-possession strategy, if they so choose: "All it takes is an actual play. Not screening for LeBron so he can catch the ball 25 feet from the basket and go to work. Not just running a counter to get Wade open. I’m talking a real NBA set, complete with off-ball action, staggered screens, three-point shooters who don’t have their feet nailed to the ground in the corner, and maybe even a slash to the basket. Miami is set for incredible success this season not just because James, Wade, and Bosh are all immensely talented, but because of the way that talent will allow them to play off one another. Giving the ball to LeBron or Wade alone to isolate betrays the team’s most obvious strength, whereas operating in a more structured endgame offense would allow the Heat to be brutally effective down the stretch in close games."
- John Wall v. DeMarcus Cousins in one-on-one.
- The 2010 NBA Rookie photo shoot.
- Derrick Favors tells Sebastian Pruiti of Nets Are Scorching about the top item on his to-do list after struggling defensively during summer league: "I got called for defensive three seconds a lot so I just need to adjust to the NBA-style of defense."
- Tracy McGrady to WDFN in Detroit: "It’s tough to play 82 games balls out. It’s tough to do that. When I say that, yeah I get criticized. Basketball players know there’s a lot of truth to that. I know it’s not the right thing to say. I don’t care what people think of it. It’s the truth if you play basketball."
- Matt McHale of By the Horns looks at five big questions facing the Bulls headed into the 2010-11 season. Barring serious injuries, it's difficult to envision the Bulls finishing outside the Top 8 of the league in defensive efficiency under Tom Thibodeau. If the addition of the three Jazzmen enables Chicago to become a versatile offensive outfit that can create shots for itself all over the floor, the Bulls have a chance to run and hide in the Central Division.
- Steve Nash might be the most advanced pick-and-roll practitioner in NBA history, but he can't do it alone. With Amare Stoudemire in New York, expect to see Robin Lopez rolling to the hoop a lot more in 2010-11.
- Zachariah Blott of Hoops Karma offers up a rousing tribute to Tom Chambers. In this post, you can watch Chambers dunk on a nationally televised game at Boston Garden, at the 1987 All-Star Game and in Sega Genesis.
- Red94 gets a new feature, '94 Toons, from illustrator Troy Palmer-Hughes.
- Matt Hubert of D-League Digest charts the growth of the D-League over the past eight years: "When the league began in 2001-02, there were just eight teams. The league’s teams were exclusively located in the southeastern U.S. Today, none of those franchises exist in the same location and only three current D-League teams have lineage back to the original eight."
- Bluff City Bears makes the case for the Grizzlies in the team's contract dispute against rookie Xavier Henry.
- Rudy Gay is soliciting suggestions for his Twitter avatar.
- Was the 1988-89 St. Anthony's team featuring Bobby Hurley and Terry Dehere the best prep squad of all time?
- The Cheesecake Factory finished third in Zagat Survey's list of best full-service chains, behind P.F. Chang's and Bonefish Grill, but ahead of CPK.
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images
The Bulls would be smart to use these former Jazzmen to install the flex offense in Chicago.
The Utah Jazz feature one of the longest-tenured, most consistently successful offensive systems in the NBA. Jerry Sloan has been running the flex for a quarter of a century and despite the predictability of the scheme's early actions, the Jazz's tactical plan causes opponents fits. You know what's coming, but most nights you're powerless to stop it.
The effectiveness of the flex in Salt Lake City prompts the question: If it's so productive, why haven't more teams adopted it as their offensive blueprint?
The most common answer you get from coaches and scouts around the league goes something like this:
On paper, the system is artful and ingenious. But if you don't have the personnel to run the flex effectively, you're setting up your team for failure. You might be able to incorporate a few flex sets into your playbook, but installing the system as the foundation of the offense is trouble.
What kind of personnel are we talking about? What skills does a player need to have as part of his game to be an effective player in that system? The simplest way to define the qualities of a good flex player is the ability to multitask. In the flex, each player on the floor is a screener and a screenee, a passer and a cutter, a guy who can make plays in a variety of ways by instantaneously reading the defense. Ballstoppers and early-shot-clock freelancers need not apply.
This brings us to the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls.
Last season, the Bulls finished 28th in offensive efficiency. Over the past month, the Bulls have bolstered their roster with a collection of nice pieces, including Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer -- each of whom started the 2009-10 season as a veteran member of the Jazz. Whether it was their primary intention or a serendipitous unintended consequence of the frenetic free agent market, the Bulls have assembled a group that, with the exception of the point guard spot, is more Jazzy than anything Jerry Sloan will put on the court this fall.
In short, the Bulls have a tailor-made roster for a full-fledged flex attack:
- In Boozer and Joakim Noah, the Bulls' starting frontcourt tandem will feature two of the best passing big men in the game. Boozer is fluent in the flex, while Noah's game couldn't be more suited to achieving the same kind of expertise. The two big men in this system are tasked with passing the ball from the high post to cutters, but they're also required to set back picks, cross screens and baseline actions for shooters. Even more important, they should have the ability to come off pin-downs and drain those mid-range elbow jumpers Boozer has made a living off of in Utah. What about Noah, though? He's a better mid-range shooter than you think. His 43 percent clip from 16-23 feet puts him in the company of Chris Bosh, Tim Duncan and Brandon Roy.
- The Jazz incensed Deron Williams when they dealt Ronnie Brewer to Memphis in a cost-cutting deal at the trade deadline last February. Wesley Matthews and C.J. Miles assumed Brewer's role in Utah's offense on the wing. When the playoffs rolled around, Matthews and Miles each made huge plays down the stretch of crucial games in the Denver series -- mostly by reading the defense, making back door cuts and sealing the baseline. When Williams was asked about his young wings' smart plays, Williams responded on more than one occasion, "Those were Ronnie Brewer reads." Although Brewer isn't much of an outside shooter, he's a master at executing the counters that allow the flex to succeed even after the defense has taken away the first two or three options.
- Korver knows how to play the 3 in the flex, a position that requires knocking down shots from the wing, and working off the ball in the power swing sets. While many sharpshooting small forwards merely set up shop in the corner, the 3 in the flex is constantly in motion, looking to fill open space when the defense reacts to ball side and moving quickly to flare out along the arc when the opportunity presents itself. His sweet stroke aside, Korver doesn't get all that many shot attempts, but he more than compensates for that as an intelligent player who always seems to know where he's most useful.
- If ever there was an existing Bull who could benefit from the installation of the flex offense in Chicago, Luol Deng is the guy. Deng has never been a dynamic one-on-one perimeter player, something that's plagued him in the Bulls' stagnant offenses. Isolations simply aren't Deng's strength, but he's a selfless player, a very underrated passer and, most of all, money on the pin-down and the cut-and-seal. For the lithe, agile Deng, a flex system that maximizes his mobility and capacity to make reads could reinvent his floor game.
- What about Derrick Rose? Does asking him to orchestrate the flex offense at the point compromise his strengths? Not at all. As we've seen in Utah, there are more than enough opportunities to create early offense, both in transition and with the high screen-and-roll. Brewer, Deng and Noah can run the floor and fill the lanes with the best of them. And anyone who watched Williams and Boozer work up top early in the shot clock knows there are plenty of chances for Rose to get space and/or dish off the ball to his big men for easy jumpers, particularly the pick-and-pop with Boozer. When Mehmet Okur was healthy, Utah ran a set called "Double-C" -- similar to what Boston runs with Garnett and Perkins. Both big men set a high pick on either side of the point guard, giving Williams multiple options up top. Rose would flourish in this kind of scheme, especially since Boozer and Noah are master screeners, rollers and readers. Early offense aside, Rose's strength and power are two of his most underrated assets and can be exploited in the half court. Rose should take cues from Williams, another big guard who often makes his best plays coming off screens and brutalizing smaller guards in the post with Utah's "Power 1" set (similar to what Baron Davis does from the elbow when he's locked in). Defenses tend to be most successful against the flex when they're effectively denying high post entires. Rose's athleticism should allow him to execute counters to that denial by creating for himself (when necessary). And with the help of Brewer and Deng, he should also be able to find his wings as they cross beneath the hoop and put themselves in a position to go to work. Was Rose born for the flex? Maybe not. But with enough reps, Rose should be able to use his size and quickness off the ball to perform as both initiator and as an off-ball menace in a system that rewards versatility -- something Rose has in spades.
The Bulls' personnel offers Tom Thibodeau a unique opportunity to install and execute a dependable offensive system, one that takes full advantage of his roster's attributes. Three of his top six players know the flex inside and out from their days in Utah. Two others -- Noah and Deng -- embody the right instincts to blossom in the system. At first blush, Rose might not seem like a natural fit, but with some work, his versatile talents will transform him into a capable quarterback, especially when you consider the amount of help he'll have.
If the Bulls ultimately decide to adopt the flex as their primary game plan, some would call it an experiment. Given the confluence of talent and experience on their roster, they'd be crazy not to bank on it.
Tom Thibodeau has an NBA coach for nearly twenty years. For many of those years, he worked under Jeff Van Gundy, who has called him a strong prospect to be a head coach one day soon. When Boston's Doc Rivers looked for a new assistant this summer, Thibodeau is said to have been at the top of the list of coaches who could help Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce succeed together. His move from Houston to Boston was something of a homecoming for Thibodeau, too, who is from nearby New Britain, Connecticut, and once was an assitant coach at Harvard, and at Massacusetts' Salem State, where he both graduated and coached.
Thibodeau has been praised for everything from his tutelage of Yao Ming to making the Celtics a much-improved defensive team. He agreed to talk a bit about the Celtics' season so far:
First of all, Boston was one of the worst teams in the league last year, now you're the only undefeated team left. It has to be kind of fun.
It is fun. It's just the start of the season. We know there is a long way to go, but obviously, we're pleased with the start of the season.
The story of this team, it has been written a million times, is that you have these three superstars, these three primary scorers which not a lot of teams have. But I know you're a defensive guy. I don't want to talk about these particular players, but, in general, superstars aren't known for their defense in most cases. They often try stay out of foul trouble and keep fresh to be scoring on the other end. Is that a particular challenge you face with this team?
The thing that they've done, and it's a credit to them, all three came in early, and they were in great shape. And I think the big thing for any team with your best players, along with carrying the load to score, I think that their leadership qualities have to help set the team apart in terms of the commitment to defense. And I think they committed to it right away. The fact that they were in great shape. They got here early. And I think they united and inspired their teammates.
What are some of the things that you actually see on the court that let you know these guys are committed?
Well, I think right from the start, the fact that they came in in great shape, and I think when you talk about their talent and their ability to score, and, of course, Garnett has been on the all defensive teams, first team several times. So that's the obvious. But I think what has probably gotten overlooked is the fact that Paul and Ray have done a very good job with their defense as well.
I think when you watch them in practice, the fact that they practice extremely hard every day. So it's not only the obvious is during games when you see their performance, but the way they prepare for each practice, the way they conduct themselves during practice, I think it allows for the team to have a real good, solid practices.
I noticed just watching the Nets game the other night, Kevin Garnett seems to have a real ability to poke the ball out of people's hands, too.
Yeah, I think he's as versatile a defender as you'll find in this league. His individual defense is terrific, obviously, his team defense is terrific. His ability to guard multiple positions is a great asset to the defense. He can play 94 feet. He gives you the ability to do some switching that normally you might not do. So I think it's a great asset to have.
Of course, he's high energy, and he's a multiple effort guy. And he seems to be everywhere, all over the court. He's done a great job of anchoring the defense and shutting the lane down.
Those three guys have played a lot of minutes. And I get emails from TrueHoop readers saying, "What's with this? Why aren't they sitting a little more?" Is that something you're worried about?
I don't know if we're worried about. I think all three are around 38 minutes. You'd like it to be a little less. We had one overtime game already. But we're pleased with our bench play. Eddie House is doing a terrific job, as has James Posey, and Scalabrine, and Tony Allen's starting to come around.
Some on the bench -- Scalabrine and Posey -- missed a game, so we were a little shorthanded there, but Glen Davis stepped up. So we're pleased with the bench. In terms of their minutes, you know, 36 to 38 minutes, that's what they're accustomed to playing.
With all the attention the stars are getting, is it hard to keep those bench guys prepared? What do you do when all the media is crowding around those three players?
I think that's the great thing about those bench guys. I think Eddie House, Pose and Scal, have been around, and they've played on good teams so they stay ready. And Tony Allen's done a terrific job rehabbing, coming off an injury. He keeps getting better and better each day. And of course, Glen Davis has been very productive for us as well. So we're very pleased with our bench play.
I think a big part of that comes from the fact that with the main three guys that the way they practiced, it prepares everybody because you have to compete hard in practice.
Looking at your roster, you kind of had to have somebody emerge. It turns out Glen Davis has been that guy in the frontcourt. But it seemed you didn't have enough real proven big men that everyone was saying, well, you know, how are they going to fill these holes? But he's been pretty remarkable, huh?
Yeah, Glen's done a solid job, and also along with that Kendrick Perkins gets overlooked. He's a solid individual defender, and he also shuts the paint down so he's protecting our basket. So he's done a terrific job.
And Rajon Rondo at the point has been very, very active. Of course, he plays passing lanes very, very well. So those two guys sometimes get overlooked. But I think, overall, the bench play has been terrific.
Now your point guard situation, if you talk about Rondo, a lot of teams will give significant minutes to two or even three point guards. You really only have one real point guard playing any significant minutes, and that's Rondo.
Well, Eddie's played a lot of the back up point guard minutes. But I think the fact that Kevin is such a terrific passer and you can run your offense through him at times, and when you look at how unselfish Kevin is and, along with Kevin, both Ray and Paul are terrific play makers as well. So the ball is moving very freely.
I think we're playing unselfishly. Maybe at times a little too unselfish. We'd like to get our turnovers down a little bit. But, overall, we're very pleased with the way the ball's been moving.
When Rajon is not in the game, what is your philosophy? It seems that you're kind of letting Ray and Paul and Kevin create a lot. Then sort of they end up finding guys like Eddie House wide open?
I think philosophically where we'd like to be, is we want to be an inside/out team. The obvious is with Kevin inside. But also, you know, we want to penetrate and get the ball into the paint and then kick out.
We feel the three-point shot could be a great asset for us.
Of course, Eddie's been terrific behind the arc, and Ray is one of the great shooters in the game. But Posey has hit
a number of big threes for us. And Scalabrine can stretch the defense also. That is also a big part of our offense.
Is there some obligation with these three players to make sure everybody gets enough touches? Is that something the coaching staff has to worry about, or do you sort of let the shots come where they may?
No, no one's worried about shots. The one thing we want to do is, we want to set a tone as to who we are and how we're going to play.
So, we started off in training camp. We knew we wanted to be a defensive team first, a rebounding team second. Low turnovers, get the ball inside and share the ball.
So, when you have players like Kevin, Paul, and Ray, oftentimes they're going to come upon more than one defender. When that second defender comes, we want that ball to move freely, and they've done a great job of kicking that ball out, finding the open man. And I think we're doing a good job of making that extra pass.
Maybe it's too early, maybe it's too late is there a moment you start thinking to yourself, wow, this is a special thing we have going here?
Yeah, like I think the big thing is you don't want to get ahead of yourself.
I think what we're trying to do, is each and every day we want to do the right things. We feel that if we can improve each day that that will prepare us to play the best at the end of the season. And that's what we're striving to do.
I know your winning margins have been fantastic. And you guys are the best team in the league by any statistical measure. But what's giving you trouble?
Well, I think the big thing is he we want to get the turnovers down. That's the big thing. I think the other thing is maybe a little less fouling, you know, keeping the ball in front of us. Those are the two big areas for us right now.
Anything I haven't asked you about that we should know about how your team runs?
Well, it's pretty simple. When you look at it, we have three primary scorers that command a lot of attention. Offensively, we try to play through them. But that being said, we also want the ball to move, we want our players moving.
Of course, defensively, we know there are going to be some nights in which we don't shoot the ball as well as others, and we want that defense to be a constant. Each and every night we want to commit to it and keep building on it.
It looks good so far.
Well, thank you.
(Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)