Commentary

Bulls adopting Tom Thibodeau's identity

Hard-working rookie coach proving to be perfect fit for team on the rise in the East

Updated: December 1, 2010, 5:05 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- Fresh off the organization's most successful "circus trip" in 13 years, the Chicago Bulls didn't rest when they got home this week.

[+] EnlargeTom Thibodeau
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesTom Thibodeau is making some wonder why it took so long for him to get a head coaching job.

Practices ran well over the two-hour mark the last two days at the Berto Center, and the sounds of a hard workout were evident. Grunts, squeaks, Joakim Noah yelling.

The Bulls went to work this week in anticipation of Wednesday's Eastern Conference showdown against the Orlando Magic at the United Center. There is no rest for the weary in Tom Thibodeau's gym.

So … maybe this wasn't the right place for Chris Bosh.

Bosh was one of the organization's top targets in this summer's free-agent bonanza. Since landing in Miami, the forward has seemingly been unable to go a week without sticking his foot in his mouth. Earlier in November, he playfully suggested after a game that he and his teammates believed in more chill time than their coach wanted. He later clarified his statement by calling "chill" a "happy word." This came not long after LeBron James told reporters he played too many minutes in a loss.

Chill is not a happy word in Thibodeau's gym. But has any Bull asked him for less-strenuous practices? Has anyone used the word "chill"?

"Nope," Noah said. "There's no chilling over here."

It's going to start soon, the comparisons between the feel-bad Heat and the feel-good Bulls, so I might as well lead it off.

On one hand, you have the presumptive Eastern Conference favorites stagnant at 10-8, bickering with their coach Erik Spoelstra, fraying under an unreasonable amount of pressure to chase Michael Jordan's Bulls, rather than keep pace with Derrick Rose's.

On the other, you have scrappy Chicago, which at 9-6 is starting to turn serious heads, ones as big as Charles Barkley's, around the league, especially after a grueling 4-3 Western Conference road swing sans Carlos Boozer.

While James looks more unlikable with every negative story, Rose is fast becoming one of the most popular, YouTube-able players in the league. Barkley is calling the Bulls his early favorite in the East.

And Thibodeau, after all those years on someone else's bench, is looking like the perfect choice to lead this team, a hard-charging coach who eschews yelling for teaching.

"I think that we're definitely starting to get an identity because of him," Noah said. "He's a tough coach, nothing's easy, you gotta work really hard every day.

"You have to come with the right mindset, no days off."

The circus trip has taken on a life of its own in Chicago, especially after the organization went 0-32 on it for the first five seasons of the post-Jordan era.

But Thibodeau almost refused to address the trip as a single journey -- even though the team never came home -- and instead used the tried and true "one game at a time" mantra favored by coaches from Little League to the NBA.

Does that actually work on adults?

Well, yeah.

Noah I think that we're definitely starting to get an identity because of him. He's a tough coach, nothing's easy, you gotta work really hard every day.

-- Joakim Noah

"It's a slogan you hear over and over," veteran forward Kurt Thomas said. "But it definitely works."

Thibodeau wasn't just playing to a cliché. There's a salient point to that strategy.

"In this league, if you look, there's something every game, whether it's four [games] in five [days], back-to-back, first game back, last game out, there's so many different things you focus on that don't help you," Thibodeau said. "The important thing is to just concentrate with what's in front of you."

The Bulls had their struggles on the trip, often falling behind in games, but they were in every game, and were a Carmelo Anthony buzzer-beater from going 5-2. The team's regular late-night heroics, led by Rose's incendiary performances, gave this team a buzz in Chicago that hasn't been felt in quite some time.

Thibodeau showed a human side when talking about the importance of the trip, now that it's over.

"I liked it early for our team because we have so many new guys and I thought it really gave them an opportunity to spend time together," he said. "Not only the practices and the games, but they're going out to dinner together and doing different things. So I thought it was great for our team."

While the Heat grumble about their coach, it's clear Thibodeau already has his players' respect, not always an easy task. The players have raved about his preparation and attention to detail since training camp, but you can see the organization and discipline paying off during games.

"He's definitely competitive, but that's what we want," Noah said. "That's what we want our identity to be, even though it's frustrating at times because you're tired. But I think he knows what it takes to win. That's the beauty of it. I feel like he's been in championship locker rooms before, and not everyone has the chance to play for somebody who's experienced it before. You know he knows because he's been there and that's a beautiful thing."

In some ways, it's startling to think it took this guy so long to get a head coaching job, considering some NBA veterans -- cough, cough -- get head coaching jobs with no coaching experience, and nothing more than a familiar name, a good head of hair and a basketball card.

While no one on the Bulls knew how to pronounce Thibodeau's name before he was hired, Thomas was familiar with his work from their days together with the Knicks, and he said Thibodeau's basketball monk lifestyle has endeared him to the players.

"Because of his work ethic you have to take your hat off to him," Thomas said.

"He'd stay here 22, 23 hours a day if he could. If he didn't have to go to sleep and get rest, he'd be up here in this gym. If he's not out here on the floor, he's breaking down film and trying to figure out the mistakes he's made and trying to correct them."

Boozer, like Thomas, has had a lot of time to watch Thibodeau actually coach. The former Jazz star, who could make his season debut against the Magic, played under the longest-tenured coach in the league in Jerry Sloan.

But he's already putting Thibodeau on a pedestal, calling him "as prepared of a coach as I've been around," and adding, "I think he probably watches more tape than any coach I've seen."

Thibodeau got roasted in Chicago, and probably around the league, when he inserted just-signed guard John Lucas III to shoot critical free throws late in the game in Denver last week. Lucas' two misses led to Anthony's last-second jumper that won the game 98-97.

It was a quizzical move considering Lucas got the call to join the team (which was without Rose's services) while he was eating at a fast food wing joint in Houston, but Thibodeau had his own reasons and he calmly explained them. He didn't snap or talk down to reporters.

And his players didn't flinch, either. The Bulls used a late charge to beat Sacramento the next night to cap off the trip.

"He has gotten better; his rotations, he's been able to manage games," Boozer said. "We had a game where D was out and he made adjustments during the game, let C.J. [Watson] get busy a little bit. We had games [power forward Taj Gibson] had to miss, he did a great job of getting other guys in there. He makes adjustments on the fly on what's working, who's hot, how our defense is being played. He's a very good coach."

Thibodeau defers most questions about himself, but I asked him point-blank if he's having fun right now. After all, this is what it's all about, right?

This job is the culmination of two decades of long practices, West Coast road trips and late-night film work. With Rose and Noah, two team-first guys with great attitudes, leading the way, and more promise than pressure, some would say this is a dream job.

"It's enjoyable because we have great guys," Thibodeau said. "They work extremely hard. That's what makes it enjoyable."

I can agree with Thibodeau there. Hard work is certainly paying off for the Bulls, and everyone in Chicago is enjoying it.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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