Commentary

Bulls coach comes with questions

Thibodeau is a defensive guru, but perceptions will be shaped by LeBron's decision

Updated: June 8, 2010, 7:00 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Whether LeBron James lands in Chicago or not, the success, failure and overall perception of new Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau will be intrinsically tied to the NBA's two-time MVP.

If James decides to sign with the Bulls on or after July 1, Thibodeau's job presumably becomes easier, though certainly more pressure-packed. If James elects to stay in Cleveland or go elsewhere, Bulls' fans will always wonder, despite what Bulls sources told ESPN Chicago, whether a different coach could have drawn James to Chicago. And of course,Thibodeau's task could be tougher with a lesser-caliber free agent.

Fittingly perhaps, the hiring of Thibodeau, the top choice of a ho-hum crop of coaching candidates, presents more questions than answers.

A career NBA assistant until now, Thibodeau is widely regarded as a defensive mastermind. At 50 and single, he is also a workaholic with almost no time for what the Boston Globe calls his other interests -- cars, music and women.

[+] EnlargeThibodeau
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Bulls plan to give Tom Thibodeau some media training as he prepares for his first NBA head coaching job.

While he has no NBA head coaching experience, the Bulls liked that he had never been fired as a head coach, either. In other words, as much as they wanted experience, they weren't crazy about getting a re-tread. And you can't say Thibodeau, who has coached under Pat Riley, Jeff Van Gundy and Larry Brown, is inexperienced after 18 years in the league.

While Thibodeau has been described as gruff, interpersonal skills are not required in the darkened film rooms where he has spent so much of his time. Friends and acquaintances talk about his great sense of humor, and his players all seem to love him.

Paul Pierce acknowledged the single-mindedness of the Celtics' assistant to reporters just before the team left for Los Angeles last week, but also the affection he has for Thibodeau.

"Tibs is so into the game -- you walk into an arena and the first thing he says to me [is], 'Paul, you need to...' Something like that. And I always have to stop him and tell him, 'Hello Tibs, how are you doing?'

"So I know he's going to be ready."

A Bulls source said Thibodeau will be given media training to prepare him for the rigors of coaching a big-league club in a major market as rabid as Chicago. But the Bulls feel good about the fact that he has been able to observe media-savvy coaches he has worked under like Doc Rivers, Riley, Van Gundy and Brown.

One concern, even from those who know him well, is how he will handle the losing streaks. Rivers was the calm presence on the sideline while Thibodeau was the guy turning purple. That may be something he'll have to work on, or then again, maybe it works for him and, in the short term anyway, something that motivates a young team.

But those who might wonder if his emphasis on defense will halt the progress offensively of Derrick Rose and others, probably need not worry. It wasn't until Thibodeau got to Boston that he concentrated solely on the defensive end.

In the Boston Globe piece on Thibodeau, Jackie McMullan wrote that: "Van Gundy was initially drawn to Thibodeau because of his innovative sets, among them kick-and-drive sequences and his positioning of the big man at the baseline instead of on the block, providing extra space for a driver to finish or drop the ball off."

Still, if James ends up in Chicago, the Bulls will have to play an open-floor game, a style Thibodeau's teams have not played.

Could the Bulls have done better?

Team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf would have snapped up Phil Jackson in a second if the former Bulls coach were interested, which he is not. Likewise, the Bulls would have loved a shot at Rivers but could not afford to wait until the playoffs were over only to be told that he was staying in Boston after all, or wasn't interested in Chicago.

Reinsdorf wanted the Bulls to interview Rivers two years ago before they hired Vinny Del Negro, but the Celtics wouldn't grant any team permission to interview him until after the playoffs, and with the No. 1 pick, the Bulls felt they needed to hire a coach before the draft and hired Vinny Del Negro.

What they appear to have in Thibodeau is a coach who is extremely eager to run his own team and who has the basketball acumen to do it. One thing that is sometimes overlooked with James because of his enormous talent is that he still needs to be coached and can still grow as a player, but he needs a strong coach to do it or he will go down as endorsement champion and little else.

While former Cavs' coach Mike Brown was viewed as an enabler, James' new coach will have to earn his respect and be the boss.

Any coach would have to love that chance.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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