The reason Tom Thibodeau has annually been in NBA Coach of the Year discussions since he got the head job in Chicago back in 2010 isn’t because he’s simultaneously in the running for any congeniality awards.
Not that the Bulls head coach is a bad guy, but his sideline demeanor surely won’t win him any acclaim from referees and when the media is seated close enough to not only observe him, but to hear the constant invective he spews—whether directed toward game officials, instructing his players or muttering to himself—is to witness a colorfully strategic, brilliant dialogue. Even on television, viewers can hear Thibodeau cajoling Bulls defenders to, “Get up, get up,” and his haranguing of the men in stripes is likely very apparent, even if the precise nature of the content of the one-way conversations isn’t completely understood.
But Thibodeau, with his long tenure in the league has commanded respect from officials, often getting more leeway than his colleagues and prior to the opening tip, making enough small talk to ensure that what will subsequently take place isn’t personal. His players, on the other hand, see him on a daily basis and direct, profane style of coaching is something that one imagines could wear on them, especially since the man is always engaged in the aforementioned fashion and the times he sits down quietly in a game during the course of a season can be counted on one hand.
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That said, from veterans to young players, and from those familiar with Thibodeau to those just getting acquainted with him, the results he generates supersede any resentment that’s a product of getting chewed out multiple times in a given evening.
“If you’re not tough-minded and ready to play for a guy that’s hard-nosed, it’s going to be rough at first. I was always just playing for tough-minded coaches and I was ready—Tim Floyd [the former Bulls head coach was Gibson’s college coach at USC]. Vinny [Del Negro, Gibson’s coach during his rookie campaign with the Bulls] was good. He was like a good teacher, but the first day I met Thibs, I knew it was going to be crazy because kind of like the whole first year, I didn’t know how to talk to him. He was always yelling at me. It was bad, but as time went on—he yells at me a lot, but I know he’s got a lot of trust in me and it works. But you’ve got to be strong-minded to be coached by a guy like Thibs,” told CSNChicago.com. “It’s tough because the whole roster, these guys are tough-minded players and they respect him. You look at his career, look at players that he’s coached, you’ve got no choice to respect what he says and do the job or else you’re not going to play, and guys understand that going in and it’s been all right so far.”
Mike Dunleavy Jr., the son of a former NBA coach and player, but in his first season with the Bulls, explained it this way: “Every coach has a different style, different way of getting across to guys and you just adjust to it. Everybody’s different. I mean, it’s not really that big of a deal. You just try to filter out what he’s saying when he’s getting a point across, but that’s really all it comes down to. It’s a matter of communication, figuring out what’s trying to be communicated. There’s different ways to do it. He’s an intense guy during the games and stuff. On the sidelines, he’s fiery. But behind closed doors, he’s pretty cool, calm and collected, and explains stuff to us pretty thoroughly, so it’s not always what you see with him.”
For Kirk Hinrich, the son of an Iowa high-school coach, his experience in the league made it easy for him to adjust to Thibodeau upon his return to the Bulls.
“It isn’t tough for me. I’ve kind of adjusted to that, having X amount of years in the league, realizing that you can’t be too consumed with what’s going on over there,” the veteran said. “But as a point guard, you’ve always got to be looking over there anyway, so you kind of know the mood of the bench, for sure.”
Hinrich, however, admitted that earlier in his professional career, coaches being on his case constantly was something that stuck with him, though he doesn’t believe Thibodeau’s nature has negatively affected the team.
“I did as a young player, I really did,” he recalled. “I can’t really say that for sure. I think if you’re struggling to adjust, there’s probably multiple factors in it and I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s because of how Coach coaches or anything like that. I think we’re all in this together. We’re all trying to be on the same page. We all have open dialogue, so I can’t really necessarily say that that’s the case.”
One of the Bulls’ young players, third-year swingman Jimmy Butler, went from being an afterthought as a rookie, to surprisingly developing into an integral member of the team in the second half of last season and now being one of the squad’s core pieces. While Thibodeau has undoubtedly played a part in his progress, Butler hears what the coach is saying when he’s on the court, but focuses on execution.
“Sure, but I mean, I’m the player that’s out there, with all due respect, so I have to do what I seem, you know? I have to do what the other four guys on the floor see with me. So he may see something else or say something else, but we’re basketball players, so we’ve just got to go out there and play hard, do what we do,” he explained. “I just play basketball. I feel like that takes care of everything else. You just go out there and you just play hard, do what you’re supposed to do and play with the four other guys that you’ve got with you on the court, I feel like everything works out.”
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As Dunleavy alluded to, what isn’t seen behind closed doors is how Thibodeau talks to players individually behind the scenes, how he picks them up when they’re struggling—during Butler’s recent slump, the coach could be heard giving him pointed encouragement—and the fact that his preparation puts them in the position to have success, night after night.
Steve Clifford, the Bobcats’ head coach, is in his first year at the helm in Charlotte after following Thibodeau’s path as a career NBA assistant. The two have been close friends since their days on Jeff Van Gundy’s Knicks’ coaching staff—Clifford almost became a Bulls assistant two summers ago; the star player in New York in their coaching days, Patrick Ewing, is now on Clifford’s staff—and Clifford considers Thibodeau a mentor because of some of the basic tenets he taught him, one of which reveals how much thought the Bulls head coach puts into his dealing with players.
“The big thing he taught me was about being what he called an effective assistant. A lot of guys can play coach. But he spent a lot of time talking to me about learning the NBA animal and trying to learn how to deal with players in a way that they will actually listen to what you’re saying so you can actually coach them instead of passing them the ball and giving them tips on their shot,” Clifford said. “One of the biggest things he always told me was don’t get into a conversation with an NBA player about a performance of their individual game unless you’ve rehearsed what you want to get accomplished in the conversation. And it’s really true, particularly with older guys who are proven and have played for a lot of different coaches. You have to be careful, for instance, the first time you work out a player. Look at our guys, the guys they’ve played for. A guy like [Bobcats veteran forward] Anthony Tolliver has played for five or six really good NBA coaches, plus a really good college coach. So if you think you’re going to walk on the floor and start throwing out things to them if you haven’t studied their game and have a clear plan of what you want to get accomplished in your time with them, then you’re not going to be effective.”
The likes of San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, considered the current dean of NBA coaches, simplifies why Thibodeau continues to get the most out of his players, regardless of the circumstances.
“Three reasons,” said the Spurs head coach, no shrinking violet himself. “One, Thibs makes the same demands and keeps the same standards. He is relentless in trying to get them better and better in every aspect of the game. Second, they have a group that has character and they care. Third, they play outstanding defense and that keeps you in games on nights you can’t put it in the hole.”
No matter how it’s described, Thibodeau’s hard-nosed style, while lacking niceties at times, gets the job done and with so many others chiming in on his approach, perhaps it’s best to let the man explain himself, if unwittingly: “I don’t think it’s any one particular thing that you do. I think it’s how you do everything, how you approach things. It’s not how you trap the pick-and-roll or you force the pick-and-roll to the baseline, or you blitz the catch-and-shoot. It’s how you conduct your business, what you expect from your players, the professionalism, how to approach each and every day, to put everything you have into it, to play for the team, to put the team first.”
Translated: Do. Your. Job.