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Tom Thibodeau, a possible shortcut to success for the New Orleans Pelicans

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Would Thibs be interested in replacing Monty Williams, a friend and fellow Team USA assistant coach? More importantly, should the Pelicans strive to go after him if he hits the open market as expected or should they look the other way?

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Tom Thibodeau is currently employed as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, a team that still remains in the NBA playoffs. So, why is The Bird Writes going to analyze him as a potential candidate for the open position of the lead job on the sidelines in New Orleans? Because the major news outlets seem to have already written his obituary several times over this season in the Windy City.

Long-simmering tension between Thibodeau and the Bulls' front office is now common knowledge throughout the league, and rival teams expect the Bulls and their gravelly voiced, defensive genius to part ways once Chicago's playoff run is over.

We're not going to delve into a long-winded discussion about whether he is or isn't leaving Chicago, but it's safe to say he and the Bulls organization haven't seen eye-to-eye for a really long time. For instance, there were reports that Thib's top assistant coach, Ron Adams, wasn't re-signed to a new contract last summer as a show of power from the ownership group. Or, how the men in suits behind the scenes imposed a minute restrictions on certain players like Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich. During the season, when the Bulls were struggling in January, there were reports he had lost the locker room, forcing many of his players and other coaches like Gregg Popovich to come to his defense.

At every turn, Thibodeau has seemingly been undermined. Regardless of how far the Bulls advance in the 2015 playoffs, stories are already being written about his next coaching gig. On the heels of Monty's firing, many NBA insiders like Aldridge and Stein quickly surmised Thib's would move quickly atop of the Pelicans wish list. Lo and behold, John Reid stated as much this morning. However, there are other players like the Magic and Nuggets who are willing to pony up serious assets to bring him to their respected cities.

The Orlando Magic are said to be in a holding pattern, waiting on the outcome of Thibodeau’s situation. Sources close to the situation say not only would the Magic give the Bulls compensation (likely a second-round pick or two) for the chance to get at Thibodeau, sources also said the Magic would meet the expected $7-8 million per year coaching salary Thibodeau likely commands in his next deal.

If Tom Benson is targeting the Bulls present-day coach, he's not only going to have to pay him handsomely but there are rumors that Thibs will also be seeking significant control pertaining to personnel decisions. Is this perhaps the reason why Dell Demps still has a job? (Because he doesn't appear to have full authority and he is the one who was responsible for bringing Omer Asik to the team, a piece Thib's will undoubtedly want re-signed.)

Regardless of all this drama everywhere, the most important question still needs to be addressed: would it be a smart move to bring Thibodeau to New Orleans?

Well, he is widely associated with winning, defense, his players giving 110% effort, and most of all, lots and lots of minutes among core personnel.

Notions that Thibodeau overworks his players aren’t misguided. A player on his roster has led the league in minutes averaged per game each year since he became head coach of the Bulls. He is a coach who asks his players to martyr themselves under his watch, the NBA’s analog of Coach Herman Boone in Remember the Titans without all historical and racial context. Someone who put just under 11,000 minutes on the legs of Luol Deng in four seasons and may actually kill Jimmy Butler if the shooting guard chooses to re-sign with the team in the offseason.

Many feel the last ingredient above comes at a price, namely injuries. Everyone is fully aware of Rose's troubles since he initially tore his ACL in the 2012 playoffs, but the general sentiment is that other players have broken down at either key moments, or worse, have seen their careers prematurely decline.

Is overuse and the minutes theory responsible for derailing Chicago every post-season and elevating their number of injuries overall?

In a word, no, I don't think so.

Thibodeau came on board in the summer of 2010. Before this season, the Bulls finished below the league average number of injuries in 3 of Thib's 4 seasons. Here in 2014-15, the Bulls top 8 players (Rose, Dunleavy, Butler, Gasol, Noah, Gibson, Hinrich and Mirotic) missed a grand total of 122 games. Conversely, the Pelicans top 8 (Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Davis, Asik, Anderson, Pondexter, Cunningham) missed 110 games. When you factor in that Dante and Quincy didn't miss a game, didn't have an opportunity to play in all 82 games and that Q-Pon had surgery at the conclusion of the season, I don't see anything radically separating the two teams. This is especially true if you subscribe to the theory that Derrick Rose is a brittle player; that his genetically gifted explosiveness is too much on his body.

As to the theory that big minutes over the course of a season cause performances to drop down the stretch and in the playoffs, I don't see any glaring evidence here either. Have a look at some of the Bulls advanced statistics before and after the All-Star break in each of Thibodeau's five seasons.

BULLS Pre-ASB NetRtg Pre-ASB eFG% Pre-ASB OPP eFG% Post-ASB NetRtg Post-ASB eFG% Post-ASB OPP eFG%
2014-15 +3.7 49.1% 47.6% +2.5 48.6% 46.8%
2013-14 -0.1 46.2% 47.4% +5.3 48.7% 46.5%
2012-13 +1.5 46.8% 46.7% -2.2 47.5% 49.6%
2011-12 +10.5 49.7% 45.2% +7.9 48.3% 44.6%
2010-11 +6.6 49.9% 46.4% +11.2 50.5% 46.1%

On average Chicago has performed better on average after All-Star breaks: a +4.9 versus a +4.4 Net Rating. This disparity would be even much larger if one throws out the 2012-13 season. The Bulls didn't have Rose all season and Noah and Gibson missed most of the games following that season's All-Star break.

Currently, there are many who are alluding that Thibodeau's punishing minutes have cost the Bulls the services of Pau Gasol in the last two games of their series with the Cavaliers.

The big man played so much and so well during the regular season — at age 34 — that it seemed he had been reborn. He averaged more rebounds than at any time in his 14-year career and had more blocks than he did since his rookie season in 2001-02. His 34.4 minutes a game were his most in four years.

All of which is fine and dandy, except that Gasol has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury, and who knows when he will be back?

Why the hamstring injury right now? Overuse? Who knows? Did those times during the winter when he played 50 minutes in a game in December, 41 minutes and 44 minutes in consecutive road games in late January, 43½ minutes against the woeful Philadelphia 76ers in March and 41 minutes against the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs 2½ weeks ago all add up?

I have to laugh at this. Because of some game back in December, Gasol's hamstring is now going to react to the unusual number of minutes? Wear and tear can add up but it doesn't mean Pau crossed some imaginary line and his hamstring was then bound to fail in the middle of May.

Look at how many other players are dealing with injury or have missed games during these playoffs: John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Tony Allen, Chandler Parsons, Chris Paul, Mike Conley and Kevin Love. And that's not the whole list, nor does it mention that LaMarcus Aldridge has been playing with a torn ligament for months or that Al Horford has played through a finger dislocation.

There is no doubt Thibodeau demands a lot from this players. Perhaps the most telling bit of information came from Richard Hamilton.

"When I played there, practice was tough," said Hamilton, who spent two seasons with the Bulls from 2011-13. "I never experienced anything like that until I actually got to Chicago. It's well-documented that practices are a little too long, they're a little too hard and things like that.

...

I don't know if it's well-documented that Thibodeau's practices are "too long and too hard." Hamilton also made a comment that he'd never had to ice and tape for shootarounds until playing for the Bulls.

However, Thibs claims that he is fully aware of the team's pace and that he significantly dials it back when necessary. With over 25 years in the business, I think he deserves some benefit of the doubt that he's not some madman exhibiting sadomasochist tendencies.

There are so many different ways to pace your team. Like everyone, (outsiders) look at minutes but they don't know what's going on in practice. They don't know how much contact you have (in practice). They don't know what your philosophy is in terms of days off. Is (practice) after back to backs? Is first day of a road trip? Is (practice) a day off after never more than three consecutive days? Whatever it might be, there's a lot that goes into it.

Thus, the whole minutes restriction Bulls management placed on Thibodeau in 2014-15 appears to be more of a response to the overreaction by the media because of broken hopes season after season than any legitimate, objective analysis.

Has he played his players an extended amount of minutes when on occasion it might have appeared unnecessary? Yes.

In last season's regular-season finale, Noah logged 42 minutes in an overtime loss despite the Bulls already having secured home-court advantage for a first-round playoff series

But do you know who else famously got under Pelicans fans' skins last season for the same reasons? Monty Williams. I can recall at least a half a dozen times that had left me scratching my head, whether it was when New Orleans had a huge lead or an impossible looking deficit.

Why exactly do coach's seem to err on the side of over playing key players? Because the NBA competition is good, continuity among the core through a number of scenarios is worthwhile and the better than average players are capable of great things within the smallest of windows.

"You have to play tough with a lead," said Thibodeau. "Especially with the three point shot. A guy like Pargo, if you let him loose in a minute he can make three threes. I know you guys think all leads are safe. But in a minute, three threes can erase a 10-point lead. It’s funny. Every time I see him I think about it, particularly when I’m coaching against him. I’ve seen (Tracy) McGrady score 13 points in 35 seconds. That always sits in the back of your mind. You can never relax against a good NBA player."

I'm sorry, but the topic of overuse and minutes has been way overblown in my opinion. Worse, it has hidden the true deficiencies of Thibodeau's coaching style.

First, Thib's rotations are questionable at best. For instance, just this season, one only needs to examine the minutes distribution of two players on Chicago's roster: Kirk Hinrich and Nikola Mirotic. Hinrich had a PER of 6.8 and a 46.8 TS%. For comparison's sake (and in case you've forgotten), Austin Rivers had a 5.9 PER and a 43.1 TS% his rookie season. Despite this, Hinrich averaged 24.4 minutes in 2014-15. Many felt that his minutes should have gone to Aaron Brooks for offensive purposes or Tony Snell when defense was the concern. Heck, many believed E'Twaun Moore deserved to be ahead of Hinrich on the pecking order.

Conversely, Nikola Mirotic normally only received solid run when their was an injury or two ahead of him. However, he finished with the third highest PER and TS% on the team. During this post-season, he's averaged only 15 minutes of run. His shot hasn't been there, but one has to wonder if that's because of not spending enough time on the floor. However, even without his shot falling, Mirotic has been a net positive on the floor.

A second negative factor that needs to be mentioned is the pace with which Tom Thibodeau teams play. During his five seasons, the Bulls have ranked in descending seasons 21st, 28th, 26th, 25th and 22nd in pace. Prior to Rose's 2012 ACL blowout, the Bulls seemed to have the age to push the basketball: Deng, Rose, Noah and Gibson were all 25 or under. Deadly shooters in Bogans, Watson and Korver all roamed the perimeter.

If one needs to pause when considering Tom Thibodeau, it shouldn't be because of player minute distributions, rather in other areas like rotations and pace. This Pelicans team is young and agile and many feel they leave a lot of points on the floor by not pushing the ball in transition. In addition, the rotation does not seem like an ideal mix mainly because of the wings. Thib's likes long, active defenders out on the perimeter. The Pelicans best current unit may be with Eric Gordon at the 2 and Tyreke Evans at the 3. Something would have to give.

However, in the grand scheme of things, these two quibbles should not take precedence. In his five seasons, Tom Thibodeau has proven to be a winner, regardless of not having Rose for 213 of his 394 regular season games. Only the Spurs, Thunder and Heat have won more games during this time span.

Winning is a relatively new thing in New Orleans, but it is Thibodeau's specialty. He has been involved in the NBA in some capacity since 1989 and has mentored under a who's-who of the NBA.

And so, I was fortunate to break in with (the late Bill) Musselman. I worked with (UNLV legend Jerry) Tarkanian. When I was in New York, we had a fabulous staff with Jeff (Van Gundy). But more importantly, it wasn't just Jeff. Jeff had worked for (Pat) Riley and John MacLeod and Don Nelson and Rick Pitino, and his dad was a great coach. And then we had Brendan Malone, who had been with Chuck Daly. He's a great coach. Don Cheney, who was under Bill Fitch and the Celtics. You learn from everybody, and Doc (Rivers) is as good as it gets in this league.

If the Pelicans have a chance to land Tom Thibodeau, the facts dictate they go after him. With Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Omer Asik likely in place, he has the start of a great foundation for his blueprint. Any issues with roster personnel could be solved at a later date, whether through Dell Demps who has proven to be very resourceful or through another medium if need be.

Thib's is a better choice for the head coach of this New Orleans team than Monty Williams. He may not have the players push the issue like most recommend, but Monty never sped up the pace either. Undoubtedly though, the porous defense of the last three seasons would finally be history.

And that would be a huge step in the right direction. Going down a path with a very safe floor and still a decently high ceiling is likely to result in numerous deep playoff runs. That's all the San Antonio Spurs have tried to subscribe to under Popovich's watch and it's resulted in 5 NBA championships.