- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- In his quixotic quest for defensive perfection, Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is sure of one thing: "You never have it figured out, there's always a lot of room for improvement."
With little practice time thanks to a condensed schedule, the vaunted Bulls defense has shown some slippage the past two games, especially without Derrick Rose, who missed the past two games with a toe injury.
The Bulls beat the Suns handily Tuesday but gave up 97 points, a day after giving up 102 to Memphis in a loss.
Still, the Bulls are the stingiest team in the league, giving up only 85.8 points per game. They are first in rebounding differential at 6.6 (45.5/38.9), tied for second in points per shot (1.07), third in blocks (94) and eighth in field goal percentage allowed (42.8), but they've also been a little lucky. Opponents are hitting only 69.9 percent of their free throws, the second-lowest number in the league.
The Bulls are 5-1 this season when they score fewer than 90 points, 15-5 in the past two seasons, which augurs well for a season in which tired legs will make for plenty of low-scoring games.
"We're good at times," point guard C.J. Watson said. "We haven't been as good as we want to be this year."
I call that kind of thinking the Tao of Thibs. Watson laughs when I suggest the Bulls have been brainwashed by their coach.
It's a joke we have, because the players often sound like their coach, and there's some truth behind it. These Bulls are acolytes of their coach, and while Rose is obviously the heart and soul of this team -- which is why his big toe is a civic concern -- Thibodeau is perhaps the team's change agent.
You need a superstar, or two, to win a title, but the Bulls' defense has to be "airtight," as Thibodeau likes to say, to win it all.
"I've been here for two years, and he changes the culture of your organization, OK?" Brian Scalabrine said. "I've been other places where players -- Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett -- changed the culture of the organization. That's an unbelievable thing for a coach to do."
Watson wasn't lying. There are defensive aspects the Bulls do need to clean up. Opponents are shooting 36.1 percent on 3-pointers, the seventh-worst number in the league, and the Bulls are tied for 19th in steals per game. Sometimes the Bulls' rotations aren't crisp and bigs like Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah foul by swiping at the ball when they're late.
"When me and Ronnie [Brewer] do gamble, he yells at us," Watson said with a smile.
When I asked Brewer about that, he went into greater detail.
"He wants us to play solid and follow the principles of playing the right way," Brewer said. "It's tough for us, because it's all instinct. You want to go gambling and go get the ball. For the good of the team, you can't really pick your spots, and you've just got to play the defense."
That's the secret of the Bulls' defense in a single quote. The Bulls have to play their defense, not gamble with their athleticism. The basic tenet of Thibodeau's defense is that all five guys have a role in every possession, which is especially important in a league where the pick-and-roll is used so much.
Thibodeau is a classic defensive-minded coach with a renowned level of preparation, and his system works because he gets guys to buy in with his passion.
Earlier on Tuesday, the NBA general manager survey results came out and the Bulls were overwhelmingly picked as the best defensive team, garnering 66.7 percent of the vote. The previous year, Boston got 75 percent, coming off Thibodeau's last season with the team.
When asked which coach has the best defensive scheme, Thibodeau got 61.5 percent of the votes. In his last season after a two-decade career as an assistant, Thibodeau won the best assistant coach category with 38 percent. He also won the previous season when he got 41.7 percent of the vote. The year before, he was tied for third. Thibodeau was an instant success, 20 years in the making.
While the city is abuzz with Theo Epstein's new stats-intensive crew on the North Side, Thibodeau is something of a trendsetter himself.
Already a proponent of what is considered to be the earliest linear weights system, Tendex, Thibodeau tinkered with his own formula for player efficiency ratings about 20 years ago, when he started his NBA coaching career under Bill Musselman.
When he was in Philadelphia, legendary NBA stats guru Harvey Pollack used Thibodeau's formula for ranking players' efficiency, slapped the coach's name on it and put it in his statistical yearbook.
"I've always used it," Thibodeau said. "It's not an end-all. I use a lot of different things to rank different statistical categories. It's one thing I do look at because I've used it for 20 years. I know what those numbers mean."
Thibodeau's biggest strength is computing what he sees on tape (and he watches a lot of tape) and then translating it into workable information to his players.
"We chart a number of different things defensively," he said. "So I have a pretty good idea of where we are and how we're handling every pick and roll, high side, step-up angle, post-up plays, catch-and-shoot plays, transition, how well we're challenging shots, when we're blown by, when we're making multiple effort plays. We chart just about everything."
Scalabrine is something of an expert on Thibodeau, going back to their Boston days. He marvels at Thibodeau's work ethic, mostly how it translates into making the Bulls better defensively.
"He watches every game two or three times, and he knows every percentage of what a guy may do," he said. "Like does Kobe shoot a pull-up jumper inside a 3 at a high percentage? If he does, we guard him a certain way on the pick and roll. If he doesn't, then you can mix it up. Then bigs have to protect and other guys have to protect them. Really, it's just five guys all being on the same page."
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is known as a pioneer of advanced statistics, but he said you'd be surprised at how many coaches and general managers have their own "linear weights system." Morey worked with Thibodeau when he came to Houston in 2006 and was very impressed.
"Tom is very innovative," he said in a phone conversation. "Very hard working. He's one of the most prepared, if not the most prepared coach I've ever been around. And he has a great relationship with his players."
Scalabrine says, "He communicates well, and you'll have a reason for everything. It's not like he just says, 'I'm going to flip a coin and heads, let's go over the pick and roll today.' Everything has a reason, everything has a point and everything has been studied before a decision has been made. After a decision has been made, it's brought to us."
With little training camp this season and no summer workouts, the Bulls have been a little ahead of the pace because they returned virtually the entire team. So the learning curve was flattened. Richard Hamilton, Jimmy Butler and recently signed backup Mike James are the only new faces in the locker room.
"The thing that gets lost maybe is the fact we had a lot of guys around last summer and in the fall, where we could introduce different concepts to them," Thibodeau said. "When training camp came around they had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to get into.
"It starts with individual techniques and then you move to team concepts, but you start from a zero base," he added. "And you had more time to drill, so it became instinctive to them where they weren't thinking about it."
I don't pretend to know much about the intricacies of basketball strategy, and it's tough to get players to really go in-depth about what's so different about Thibodeau's defense. Scalabrine took time after the Suns game to go a little deeper with me, but he admitted "my walls are up because I don't want you to know too much."
Thibodeau has no problem explaining his style to reporters, but as Scalabrine said, he's telling us only what he wants. He's a great self-editor. So why the "Thibodeau, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" routine?
"What can I tell you?" Scalabrine said. "We're trying to win a championship here. We can't let you know what we're trying to do, because we're trying to do it all the way into June."
Players want the credit, but they all attribute their defensive success to Thibodeau's preparation and his demeanor, which is to say he yells at everyone but he teaches everyone too.
"He treats everybody the same way," Brewer said. "He doesn't show any favoritism."
But as the players like to joke, they're the ones running up and down the floor. And that probably gets overlooked at times. The Bulls are long, smart and physically gifted up and down the bench.
While Thibodeau's near ritualistic benching of Noah and Boozer in the fourth quarter has raised some hackles because of their net worth financially, the defensive prowess of Taj Gibson and Omer Asik makes it a pretty easy decision when your only goal is to prevent points.
"Defensively our second unit is very, very special," Noah said. "When you look at what Taj, Omer and Ronnie Brewer, they bring a lot of energy, and they're very, very hard to score on. If we can play at that level defensively as starters, I think we can take our team to a whole other level."
According to the ESPN Stats & Information team, with Gibson, Asik and Brewer on the floor, the Bulls are allowing 29.5 points in the paint per 48 minutes, compared to 38.6 for the team overall. Opponents' 3-point percentage is almost 8 percent lower (28.2/36.1), shooting percentage is slightly down (41.5/42.5) and points per 100 possessions is better as well (88.9 to 93.2).
The Bulls' bench has a combined plus/minus of plus-57, second in the NBA behind Philadelphia's plus-85.
"You got Taj and Omer locking up the inside," Brewer said. "So it allows C.J. and John [Lucas III], when he's in, to pressure [the point guards] and turn them a few times before they even get in their offense. And when they get in their sets, it allows myself and Kyle [Korver] to overplay, deny and get into the defender, because we know if we get beat, we've got guys who can make up for us and contest shots and play without fouling."
Yes, that seems to belie Brewer's earlier comment about gambling, but really it showcases how Thibodeau's all-for-one style works.
The only way to describe it, Scalabrine said, "is five people all on the same page."
"It's five guys playing defense, together," Brewer said. "That's how it's supposed to work."
And it's working.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
14hEthan Sherwood Strauss
13hArash Markazi and Ben Alamar
2dAlok Pattani, ESPN Stats & Information
2dDan Le Batard