The other side of Tom Thibodeau

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The other side of Tom Thibodeau

Once upon a time, Tom Thibodeau wasnt all about defense. In fact, it was the complete opposite.

When he was in high school, he would get a few feet over halfcourt and it was like he was already looking to see where he could get his shot off because he had tremendous range and he wasnt afraid, but part of that came from him feeling really confident because he had put all the work in. He was not afraid to shoot the ball, he was really clever not necessarily going to beat you with speed or overall athleticism but he was going to outwork you and he was unafraid, recalled Peter Roby about the man. When he got to college, it was kind of funny because he was such an undersized kind of guy, but he was so schooled in footwork and positioning, and getting guys pinned under the rim.

He did a lot of damage by getting fouled and getting guys off-balance, and he still had some range to shoot in college, but he did it in multiple ways. It was just kind of indicative of how much of a student of a game he was, even as a player, trying to squeeze every ounce of whatever talent he had out and he was that kind of player, but he wasnt make his living of getting out on the floor because of his defensive prowess, continued Roby. He was a clever offensive player and he was a team player, and the irony is, hes become such a defensive expert, but I think that just speaks to the fact that hes smart enough and observant enough that when he got into the NBA and he started to learn from some people.

Roby would know. Now the director of athletics at Bostons Northeastern University, he grew up with Thibodeau in New Britain, Conn., and the pair coached together at Harvard where he coached U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, among others with Roby serving as head coach and Thibodeau as his assistant following a college career at Salem State and a head-coaching stint at his alma mater.

We both we went off to college and got into coaching separately, when he was coaching at Salem State, head coach, and I got the job at Harvard, I reached out to him and asked if he wanted to come be my assistant and help me do this thing together, and he did, so thats kind of how it all evolved, Roby said of the man a college teammate referred to as Jesus to a Boston Herald reporter because of the coaching staffs habit of exclaiming, Jesus Christ, whenever the undersized power forward missed a defensive assignment. Tom worked with our big guys when we were at Harvard and really made a difference with them because he was so smart about using leverage and positioning, and footwork and that kind of thing, even for a guy that was barely six-feet tall.

The NBAs reigning Coach of the Year would go on to impart those same lessons to the likes of Yao Ming when he was coaching with the Rockets and Bulls center Joakim Noah, upon his arrival in Chicago. But while Roby believes Thibodeau was destined for a successful coaching career, he describes Thibodeau, from childhood to the present, as having another side to him than the taciturn individual the media sees or the sideline screamer fans are privy to watching.

Well, we grew up playing Little League against each other, so we grew up in the same hometown and weve been friends since Little League, competed against each other, played with each other on different teams in basketball, baseball and all-star games. Our families knew each other. As we got older, started playing ball together, he had a family car that he used to get access to, hed to swing by and off we went, looking for games. So, weve been friends since childhood, Roby remembers. Weve always had a lot of fun together when we were growing up a lot of laughs, a lot of goofiness, a lot of fun, typical kid stuff and as we got to working together, we always had a lot of fun.

"Toms a funny guy. He was always dedicated to what he was doing, serious about it when it came to the players, but he always had good, positive relationships with the players didnt have a problem having fun and joking with them so as serious as Tommy appears and takes his profession, hes got another side to him. If you get to know his family, you know that he comes from real blue-collar, real humble folks and thats the way I think of Tommy. Hard-working, for sure, comes from a humble background, never asks for anything, always wants to earn it and he certainly has done that with his NBA career.

I knew that Tom was going to end up being a coach, there was no doubt. Once he jumped into it, you could see how focused he was and how much of a sponge he was about trying to learn. Thats one of the things that I think is a constant about Tom is that whatever level he was on, he was always in search of knowledge, trying to learn from other people who have been successful, trying to figure out what the keys were and making himself better. He never sat back and just said, Well, now Im a head coach in Division III, Ive made it or now, Im an assistant coach in Division I, Ive made it or now, Im an assistant in the NBA, so I can just kind of cruise. He always wanted to the best that he could.

"So, once Tom got to the NBA and started associating with guys like the late Bill Musselman the first coach of the then-expansion Minnesota Timberwolves and others, I had a feeling that if he got the opportunity at some point, he was going to be really successful because I knew he was going to be prepared and I think a lot of people did, too. They knew that he wasnt going to take it for granted and he was going to make the most of every single opportunity, and hes had a lot exposure to a lot of different coaching styles and philosophies. Hes been in winning situations, hes been in not-so-winning situations, so he knows the difference and hes always had strong relationships with players because hes that kind of guy and they played their expletive off for him. Its pretty obvious.

While working alongside Roby at Harvard Thibodeau networked, as many college assistant coaches do, but instead of making the leap to a bigger college program, he got an opportunity of a lifetime.

What happened was that Tom and a number of us on the staff, but Tom had a strong relationship, a friendship with Frank Catapano, who was a local guy around here, real knowledgeable business guy and basketball guy, who lived in the North Shore, where Tommy was at Salem," recounted Roby. Frank was in the Marblehead area and Frank was a very knowledgeable basketball guy and had been representing basketball players, a lot of them that were BC guys, but some that were CBA guys, that had played for Musselman in Albany, so Frank was a guy that people in the industry really respected for his knowledge of players and the way with which he represented them, always with their best interests in mind, never about the money and Tom got to know Frank really well, and Frank was very good friends with Musselman because he represented so many guys that played for Musselman, like current Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scotty Brooks.

Tom was introduced to Bill through Frank and Bill was on a tour, going to see practices and kind of getting back into it when he got named the head coach of the Timberwolves, so that year or so before they really kind of ramped up, Bill was on kind of a fact-finding tour, going out and seeing players, watching practices. He came by Harvard and watched us work out, got to meet Tommy, saw him in action, stayed in touch with him and Tom stayed in touch with Bill, and Tom was invited out to the Timberwolves free-agent camps when our season ended, before the Timberwolves got started and Bill obviously liked Tommys work ethic and his enthusiasm, and he hired him and so, he got started that way. Needless to say with his schedule and Bill Musselman being a demanding guy, he didnt have a whole lot of social time, but I would stay in touch with him to hear how he was doing and wed stay connected as best we can when both of us are in that business.

After landing a spot with the Timberwolves under Musselman, who was regarded as a defensive guru, the story is already familiar to those who know what Thibodeau endured, a 20-year apprenticeship before the Bulls hired him as a head coach. During that frustrating period, he often discussed the situation with his childhood friend, who worked in different fields, such as being a marketing representative for Reebok and running the renowned Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern.

We talked about that and many times, it was a bunch of things. He didnt have the sexy resume. He was just what people would refer to as he was a grunt, he was doing all the work and he wasnt looking for a lot of credit," said Roby. "He was working with the players, would come in at any hour to work with guys, would shoot straight with them and they liked his honesty, and they kept getting better. So, he wasnt a former player, he didnt have the hype of being a big-time NCAA successful college coach. He really earned everything and thats what makes all of this so much more rewarding and sweet for those of us that know him.

He didnt get the job because he had a big reputation, he didnt get the job because he was a former player not that the guys that are former players dont deserve it; theres plenty of examples in the league where former players have done quite well but he had to really convince people that this wasnt a grand experiment and that it wasnt a risk, that he was prepared probably more so than just about anybody and all he needed was the opportunity, and the Bulls were smart enough to do that and I think it speaks for itself now.

Of course, his fellow Connecticut native wasnt at all surprised when Thibodeau was wildly successful right out of the gates, leading the Bulls to a 62-win regular-season campaign, the top overall seed in the playoffs and the Eastern Conference Finals.

Tom would be the first one to tell you he and I talked about this when he was trying to weigh some options before he ended up getting selected by the Bulls is that that was a perfect situation. He had really talented players and hed be the first to tell you, and he had an ownership group that was committed to winning and they had a history of knowing how to win in a great market for basketball, so youve got to get lucky and have good fortune on your side, with respect to the situation that youre coming into, and keep in mind that most guys, when they get this opportunity, theyre not always inheriting a really positive situation," Roby observed. "The reason they got hired is because somebody probably got fired because they were underachieving or things didnt work. That was a .500 team the year before with some superstar-type talent, as well as a bunch of guys that were so unselfish.

"Joakim Noah is, what a coachs dream, with respect to the guy just wanting to win and doing whatever, and being so talented, and then, Derrick Rose, what more could you want from a guy? Hes a warrior, hes talented as it comes. So, he inherited a great situation, so I wasnt surprised by any of it and it was just a matter of whether the system would take as quickly as it did, would the guys buy into it and would they get lucky, in terms of staying healthy and that sort of stuff. You knew that Bulls would spend some money, guys would want to play there and it was just about him getting the opportunity and he got the best one that was out there that year, in terms of coaching opportunities.

Toms really smart, so I think Toms always observed what other people are doingphilosophies, defensive schemes, offensive strategiesbut more importantly, how best to get players to play to their maximum every night and play unselfishly. Youve got to say that they play unselfish and they play extremely hard, and all they want to do is win and I think thats a tribute to Tom because theyve bought in, they trust him and like in any relationship or any organizational structure whether its a team, an athletic department, a corporate entity or a family if people dont trust each other, then dysfunction starts to raise its ugly head and you dont see that in that program, in that franchise and I think its because theres a trust factor, and they know that theres nobody thats out-working Tom, so when he asks them to work hard and sacrifice, hes got all the credibility in the world because hes got a 20-plus year track record of out-working everybody and sacrificing, he continued. He learned his lessons well and he applied them to the NBA, but bottom line is that no matter what kind of schemes you have, if the guys dont buy in and play their expletive off, schemes dont matter.

According to Roby, at the core of Thibodeaus success past, present and future is his incredible drive, something honed by growing up in a gritty New England factory town.

Its the work ethic. He just refused to give in to the temptation to take it easy or take things for granted, or to say that he made it. He was always motivated and its hard work. If you go back and look at how we grew up in New Britain, that was an industrial town. People worked in the factories, pounding out steel or working in the machine shops or working on the press, he said. Tommys family, they were hard-working folks and my family worked in the factories for 40-some odd years, to raise a family and put food on the table, so when you have that as a backdrop and you get a chance to fly first-class or on a charter, or youre working at Harvard or whatever, then you dont take that for granted. I dont care what level you get to and weve been instilled with a set of values about how to treat people and not to take things for granted, and keep a perspective about our lives, and I think thats all part of why weve been able to do what were doing.

That being said, Roby knows that as intense as his friend is, when he coaches the Eastern Conference All-Star team Feb. 26 in Orlando, hell likely dial it down a notch for the exhibition. But will Thibodeau compromise his defensive principles for the exhibition?

That would be the ultimate acknowledgement, huh? I think Tom is smart enough to understand hes gotten some experience from having been with Doc when they were the All-Star coaching staff, Roby chuckled. I think he knows what time it is for the All-Star games and hes not going to push people too much because they need to take it easy and not get hurt, put on a good show and he wont make it about him. Hell make it about the players, so I think hell have fun with it.

Fred Hoiberg wants a more aggressive Bulls defense

Fred Hoiberg wants a more aggressive Bulls defense

Being a better defensive team was a prime objective for Fred Hoiberg coming into camp, as the Bulls hope to reclaim some of their defensive identity that disappeared last season.

Reciting a not-so-true stat routinely to reporters in the first few days, that the Bulls were last in forcing turnovers in 2015-16, means he’s likely barking it to the team in practices (they were actually second-to-last behind the New York Knicks).

“Absolutely,” said Hoiberg when asked if being more aggressive defensively is a goal. “We are turning the ball over way too much. After watching film, our defense is responsible for some of that. We have a guy in (Rajon) Rondo that's a high steals guy, got great hands, great instincts, great wingspan. Jimmy (Butler) is always had great anticipation and one of the top steals guy.”

Butler is one of the best two-way players, along with San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Indiana’s Paul George, but even he admitted his defense slipped last year as the Bulls fell to a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of advanced defensive rankings (15th).

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Rondo was once one of the league’s best defensive point guards before tearing up his knee his last full season in Boston, and averaged two steals last year in Sacramento, but gave up a career-high 107 points per 100 possessions, according to basketball-reference.com.

Whether Rondo was a function of a bad defense overall for the Kings or a player who no longer fully commits himself to that end remains to be seen, but it’s clear Hoiberg wants a more hands-y defense. Too many times last year, the Bulls defense had leaks from the top down, resulting in compromised drives to the basket and breakdowns all around.

More than anything, the Bulls defense was one of indifference, especially after the first 30 games or so.

“Like all staffs we watched a ton of film and tried to figure out with this group how to create more turnovers, how to impact the ball better,” Hoiberg said. “Every day it's been a big emphasis in our defense and we get out and force turnovers and make sure the help is there behind the trap and being aggressive on the ball.”

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

Denzel Valentine a candidate for minutes at the point for Bulls

The common refrain among coaches in the first days of training camp is “this guy had an incredible summer”, a phrase Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has said so much that even he had to laugh when asked who didn’t have a banner summer period.

Of course, that’s before fans and media get to see anyone play, so we can only speculate who’ll win certain position battles, like the starting power forward spot or how deep Hoiberg’s rotation will go.

So in the spirit of speculation, Bulls rookie Denzel Valentine’s versatility makes him a candidate for the backup point guard position, a spot that is filled with different options for Hoiberg to choose from.

“He’s such an instinctive player. He does a great job,” Hoiberg said. “We talk about making simple plays. You’ve done your job when you beat your man, draw the second defender and make the easy, simple play. Denzel is great at that. That’s not a gift that everybody has. That’s not an instinct that all players have. But Denzel certainly has it.”

One wonders if Valentine could find himself on the outside looking in at the start of the season, like Bobby Portis did last year before all the injuries hit the Bulls and forced him into action.

It’s a different vision than when Valentine was drafted as a late lottery pick after a seasoned career at Michigan State. The Bulls hadn’t signed Dwyane Wade or Rajon Rondo in free agency, and had traded Derrick Rose 24 hours before the draft, so the thought was Valentine could be an instant contributor.

Even still, Valentine can likely play anything from point guard to small forward, but hasn’t gotten extensive reps at the point, yet.

“I’ve played on the wing so far. A little bit of point,” Valentine said. “I got a couple reps on the point, but like 70-30. Seventy on the wing, 30 on the point.”

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He got an early jump on the Hoiberg terminology at summer league, so the language isn’t a big adjustment, but having to learn multiple positions along with the tendencies of new teammates can mean a steeper learning curve.

“Yeah, I just got to continue learning sets and learning guys’ strengths so that I can use that to their best advantage,” Valentine said. “Play-make as best I can when I’m at the point guard spot. Just learning the system, learning guys’ strengths, and then I’ll be better at it.”

The presence of Wade and Jimmy Butler, one of whom will likely anchor the second unit as Hoiberg will probably stagger minutes so each can have the requisite time and space, means even if Valentine were on the floor, he wouldn’t have to be a natural point guard.

Hoiberg does, however, crave having multiple playmakers who can initiate offense or create shots off penetration or pick and roll action, meaning Valentine can work it to his advantage.

“I think he can. Jimmy played with the ball in his hands a lot last year,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy rebounds the ball and if Dwyane rebounds the ball, they’re bringing it. Rajon if he’s out there knows to fill one of the lanes. Denzel is an excellent passer. He’s got such good basketball instincts. So if you can get guys out there who can make plays, that’s what it’s all about. I think you’re very difficult to guard in this league when you have multiple ballmakers.”

Other notes:

Dwyane Wade won’t be taking walk-up triples for the Bulls, despite his call that Hoiberg wants him being more comfortable from behind the long line. Hoiberg does want him being willing and able to take corner threes, likely off guard penetration from Rondo or Jimmy Butler.

When Wade played with LeBron James in Miami, cutting from the corners became a staple, so putting him there could be an old wrinkle Hoiberg is adding to his scheme.

Wade took seven of his 44 3-pointers from the corner last season, hitting two from the right side, according to vorped.com.

“When he’s open, especially in the corners, that’s a shot we want him taking. It’s a thing we worked on yesterday, making sure he stays on balance,” Hoiberg said. “He’s got a natural lean on his shot, which has been very effective, being on the elite mid range shooters in our game. That’s allowed him to get shots over bigger defenders. When you get out further from the basket, especially by the line, you need to get momentum going in, work on your body position and work on finishing that shot. He’s got good mechanics, it’s a matter of finishing the shot.”