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The Case for Tom Thibodeau

Last week, we saw how the coaching candidates with prior HC experience ranked in terms of offense, defense, pace, and player development. Jeff Van Gundy, Mike Fratello, and Doug Collins fizzled in various categories while Avery Johnson emerged, head and shoulders above his competitors; his teams played fast, they played efficient offense, and at times, ruthless defense, and the Johnson-Terry-Thornton connection is a fascinating one.

It was heartening indeed that Monday's ESPN report pegged Johnson as a leading contender. We know exactly what he'll bring, no matter his tarnished reputation because we've discussed him at length and know him well. We haven't talked enough, though, about the other favorite for the job (and according to Yahoo, the favorite).

The case for Mr. Thibodeau after the jump.

Everyone knows Thibodeau today for his defense. His Boston Celtics brought Cleveland's season and possibly LeBron James' Cavs' career to a screeching halt. Through two games in Orlando, they've thoroughly dismantled the Magic for an impressive 2-0 lead to take home. And nobody is forgetting the Celtics' defense of Kobe Bryant in 2008 any time soon.

Unlike Fratello and Collins, Thibodeau's defensive reputation is entirely warranted, as we went over last week. A quick snippet from that post:

Thibodeau joined New York in 1995-1996, the same year as Van Gundy. This was the first season in which he was really credited with designing a defense from the ground up... and it was a good one. 

Thibodeau has obviously never been a head coach, but we can splice together data from the years he was a lead defensive assistant (New York in the 90's, Houston in the 00's, and Boston since 2007). In 14 such seasons (7 New York, 4 Houston, 3 Boston), Thibodeau's teams posted an adjusted 80.5 defensive efficiency, better than the teams of any other [candidate with HC experience].

Thibodeau's defenses have been, on average, more than a standard deviation better than the league mean. His worst defense ever was an adjusted 87.3 with Houston in 2006 (Yao Ming missed 25 games, and the team's top 5 in games played were Juwan Howard, Luther Head, David Wesley, Stromile Swift, and Ryan Bowen). Any way you slice it, that's impressive. Some quotes from players:

Ray Allen:

"Tom will come up with a defensive scheme that we’ve never heard before, and he’ll say it like we’ve been talking about it all year.  But he makes sure we’re all on the same page with it. So, he’s definitely kept us keyed in."

Kevin Garnett:

"Coach is real animated. He’s real emotional. He’s real energetic. That’s what type of defense we try to go out and have. It’s an energetic, consistent defense. It’s a talkative defense, and when you see him on the side, those are the things that he’s put in for us to try to go and carry over to the court."

Kendrick Perkins:

"Thib has been the best thing that happened to us."

Kobe Bryant:

"I’ve been facing his defenses here for some time and they’re tough – very, very tough.  Every single team he’s been on has had great strategies and physical defenses."

Marcus Camby:

"I think he's going to be a great [head] coach. Tibs is sort of like the glue that keeps everything together. I don't want to lose him."

His defensive prowess is certainly unquestioned. But it may also be a hindrance in his pursuit of a head coaching position. When was the last time you heard 'Tom Thibodeau' in a sentence that didn't also include the word 'defense'? Thibodeau has been cast by fans, the media, the world as a defensive coach, and nothing more. And that's unfair, given his large and varied body of coaching work.

Thibodeau has worked successfully in player development, and specifically offensive player development in New York and Houston. A quick glance at old newspaper archives indicates that he's worked with Marcus Camby, Larry Johnson, and Allan Houston in New York, on the offensive end with each.

Kobe Bryant credits Thibodeau with some of his development as a player. Bryant grew up in Philadelphia while Thibodeau worked as an assistant coach for the 76ers. Quoth Kobe:

He started drilling me, NBA basketball drills, when I was 14. So he kind of has inside information on what I like to do because he taught me most of the stuff."

Like Kobe or not, he's still the most offensively skilled player in the league today (even if not the most valuable or most productive). The fact that he cites Thibodeau's work as his game was still in its developmental stages is a pretty huge endorsement. Anyone that Kobe Bryant says "taught me most of my stuff" probably knows a thing or two about offense. 

Thibodeau's work with Yao Ming, which has gone equally unnoticed for whatever reason, is similarly impressive. Thibodeau traveled to China to work with Yao for two consecutive summers, forging a strong relationship with him. I can't find any translated quotes from Yao regarding Thibodeau (most of his interviews about Thibodeau seem to have been done in China), but the following passage from the Houston Chronicle in 2006 is quite telling:

After a few minutes talking about the new house Yao picked out far closer to downtown than his home outside Katy, McGrady tries to talk Yao into moving to his Sugar Land neighborhood, only to be told that it is "too far."

"Oh, I forgot," McGrady says, beginning his long bit on Rockets assistant head coach and Yao tutor/shadow Tom Thibodeau. "Tibs wants you there two hours early every day."

With that, McGrady launches into a description of Yao's day Sunday, when he battled a stomach virus with several trips to the Staples Center men's room.

"Every time you went in there, he had to follow you?" McGrady says. "Every time you're in there, and there's Tibs. 'Yao, we have to go over defensive tendencies. Yao, we have to talk about this.' He couldn't even let you do that by yourself?"

I'm not the type to be won over by a single anecdote... but can you imagine a head coach providing that kind of dedication to Chris Paul? Would any player truly dedicated to winning want to walk away from a coach like that?

Thibodeau has worked with superstars in Yao and Bryant, and he's worked with lesser names in New York. In every case, he's earned nothing but stellar reviews. As Dannie of ReclinerGM muses in this awesome Thibodeau profile (seriously, please go read it), "You can’t find anything but positive things about this guy.  It’s sickening actually as I would take some comfort in a little negative criticism (which I found only a drip)." And I agree. Having looked through literally every published news story on Thibodeau since the late 1980's, I can't find a scrap of negative information. 

That drip Dannie refers to be might be suggestions that Thibodeau is a little too intense. Dave D'Allesandro of the Newark Star-Ledger has speculated his intensity might be the primary reason behind multiple teams overlooking him for HC positions last summer. To which I say: bring it. When was the last time New Orleans had an intense, animated coach on the sidelines? Jeff Bower certainly wasn't. For all of the talk of Byron Scott being a hard-ass, he was among the NBA's most stone-faced coaches during games. The Hornets could certainly use a little more intensity, coming off a lottery season and a disastrous playoff campaign before that (side note: there's no way any Thibodeau team loses by 58 points. Ever. Not even if he was coaching the '73 Sixers and facing the '96 Bulls). 

I'll leave you with one more Thibodeau anecdote, again painting a picture of him as a person instead of a scheming, x's and o's machine. Translated from

New Orleans - It was the 2008 NBA All Stars Rookies versus Sophomores Challenge game, and Tom Thibodeau, the ex-Rockets Assistant Coach, was the head coach for the Sophomores team. During the half time intermission, Yao Ming finally caught time to chat with him. Yao Ming was already sitting in the commentator box of CCTV5 (China Central Television Station 5), but as soon as he saw Tom Thibodeau walking out of the players’ tunnel to the bench, Yao Ming hurriedly stood up, and told the CCTV5 working staff: "I have to go to greet my coach." That was only 5 minutes away from CCTV5 direct live telecasting. 

It was precisely this short guy with a loud voice that had helped Yao Ming to have progressed and grown so quickly in the past 3 years. Previously, right before the training of the All Stars started, when Yao Ming walked into the stadium, and saw Tom Thibodeau sitting at the corner, he immediately walked over and sat by Tom Thibodeau, and started to crack jokes with him: "What the hell are you doing here? This is NBA All Stars Game. It has nothing to do with defense." 

Tom Thibodeau laughed heartily together with Yao Ming and rebuked: "Then tell me, why are you here? To fly and throw down a few of those tomahawk dunks?" Both were happy to see each other, laughed heartily together, and started to chat. Tom Thibodeau ridiculed Yao Ming: "I heard that you arrived late for the NBA All Stars just because you have to spend the Valentine’s Day with your wife at home. Was it so?" Yao Ming nodded, but then counter-attacked: "Then how did you spend your Valentine’s Day?" Tom Thibodeau, who had been so concentrated and diligent in pursuing his coaching ambition, is still single and unmarried; he replied: "Hey… surely know that already." 

And while they were chatting (and making fun of each other), the NBA TV camera crew were aiming the camera at them; so Yao Ming tried to play some tricks onto Tom Thibodeau: "Well, never mind. Now let me do some match-making for you here over the national TV network." Turning his head to the camera, Yao Ming said: "Ladies and Gentlemen, here is this very outstanding young man…….." Both erupted into hearty laughter. 

To conclude, Tom Thibodeau

  • is amazing at defense
  • is credited with the development of Kobe Bryant and Yao Ming and their offensive games
  • has previously been a Head Coach in New Orleans (in a rookie-sophomore game, but still)
  • has a sense of humor
  • is ridiculously dedicated to his players 
And with that, I rest my case.