Q&A: Tom Thibodeau on the Bulls’ Offseason, Derrick Rose’s Return, and Where in the World Joakim Noah Is

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It was not surprising to walk in the gym here in Las Vegas, nearly 90 minutes before tipoff of Thursday’s first Summer League game, and find Tom Thibodeau already sitting courtside, the first NBA higher-up in the building. Thibodeau is a legendary basketball junkie, fresh off one of the most successful three-season spans of any first-time NBA head coach. The principles of the defense he helped pioneer in Boston during the Celtics’ 2008 championship run have spread around the league, and Thibodeau’s ability to coax his players into almost maniacally consistent adherence to those rules is a major reason Chicago kept winning games last season amid an unending flood of injuries. With Derrick Rose set to return next season at full health, the Bulls look primed to resume their fierce pursuit of Miami’s perch atop the Eastern Conference.

Thibodeau sat down with Grantland for an extensive one-on-one about all things Bulls — but not all things Thibodeau.

As a coach, could you sit back during the playoffs and take some satisfaction in real time over what the team was accomplishing with all the injuries — with Joakim [Noah] limping around, Luol [Deng] in the hospital, and all that? Can you enjoy the big-picture perspective that way, or is it just not possible to step outside the games like that?

I don’t think we really look at it that way. You look at each situation as an opportunity to learn about your team — and to grow. Injuries are part of the game for everybody. You have to manage those circumstances as best you can. A byproduct of having a lot of guys out this year is that you saw the growth of Jimmy Butler, Joakim took a step forward, Luol had another terrific year for us, and Carlos [Boozer] was very good. And [Kirk] Hinrich was terrific. So that’s the way you look at it. Hopefully next year we can be a little more healthy.

What specifically did you see from Joakim that was new in his game?

Offensively, he played a lot better. He still has a ways to go, and I still think there’s a lot of room for growth. But his all-around game, his passing — when Hinrich went down, we had to run our offense through him, and I thought he did a terrific job with that. His team defense has always been outstanding, but now I think his individual defense is starting to come around as well.

How, specifically, did his individual defense get better? I think people would be surprised to hear you zero in on that.

He’s gotten stronger, so his low-post defense is much better now. That was the biggest step he made.

Does he have to do anything other than rest to get healthy for next season?

Yeah, rest, and just continue to grow. I don’t want him to be satisfied. He had a terrific season, but I think he can do a lot more. The big thing is to allow the plantar fasciitis to calm down. He’s done that. And from there, he’ll pick it up and add to his game. Each year, you try to learn from every situation. He looks at it that way. His approach is critical for us.

I assume Jimmy Butler enters the season as the starting 2-guard?

He does, he does. I thought he had tremendous growth last year, and I think it started at the conclusion of his rookie year. He came into the gym and worked every day, had a terrific Summer League, and came right back into the gym in August. And he just got better and better throughout the season.

You’ve cycled through a lot of shooting guards in your time here that brought some very good skills, but not an entire two-way package. Kyle Korver is a great shooter, and I think he’s actually underrated as a defender, but he’s not a stopper and doesn’t do much off the bounce. Ronnie Brewer was a stopper, but he can’t shoot. You tried Rip [Hamilton], you tried [Keith Bogans]. Is Jimmy finally the answer?

Hopefully. We want him to continue to grow. The one thing is — he plays both sides of the ball, he’s worked extremely hard on his shooting, and that has significantly improved. His defense has always been very, very good. He’s an all-around player, and he plays to win. If you need defense and rebounding, he’ll do that for you. If you need a little more scoring, he can give you that. He guards 1 through 4 [point guards through power forwards], and he guards them all well.

Do you know what country Joakim Noah is in at this moment?

No, no. [Laughs.] He’s on a world tour. But he stays in great shape, and you know he’s always working. He’ll hit through Chicago a few times, and we’ll grab him there. But he’s doing well.

Does he have an e-mail address, if you at least want to check in? Will he answer?

Yeah, yeah. You can get him. Sometimes it’s not as easy as we would like. He’s involved in a lot of things. He does prioritize staying in shape, but he’s also involved in a lot of charities and does a lot of great things.

Do you guys have a replacement ready for Ron Adams? [Editor’s note: Adams was Thibodeau’s lead assistant, and is well-regarded around the league. The Bulls did not renew his contract, leading to rumors of a rift between the coaching staff and the front office.]

No, we’ll see.

Can you elaborate on why, from what you’ve heard, the team allowed him to move on?

Nah. We’re not going to look backward. We’re going to look ahead. We’re just thinking about next season.

Did that decision create as much tension between you and Gar [Forman, the team’s GM] as was rumored?

We’re fine. We’re just thinking about next year.

Carlos Boozer is a constant punching bag, and he obviously isn’t near the level of Joakim or Taj Gibson as a defender. Here’s a chance to answer those critics: Why do you need Carlos?

Carlos is a very underrated passer, but he’s been a solid scorer for us. He had a very good season last year — averaged [16] points, nearly 10 rebounds. What gets overlooked is his passing ability. If you cut and you’re open, you’ll get the ball. We know how important he is to our team.

Does it annoy you that he’s always screaming on the court? I mean, you can hear it constantly on TV — “GIMME DAT!!” or “GET DAT, JOE!” You have to mute the game sometimes.

Whatever makes him play well, I’m all for it. Some guys are quiet, and that works for them. Some guys are loud, and like to talk, and that’s fine. Just get the job done.

Speaking of talking: I remember talking to Marco Belinelli when you guys passed through Brooklyn early last season, and he was saying that while he really enjoyed playing for the Bulls, he was surprised at how hard a time he was having picking up your defense. Is that a worry when you sign free agents? Are you confident Mike Dunleavy Jr., a very heady guy, can pick up the schemes right away?

In Marco’s case, the first 20 games there was a clear adjustment period, but I thought he was great by midseason. He really picked things up well. He had a great all-around season. Each guy is different, but I think the first year, you do go through an adjustment period. But I don’t think it’s any different from any other team — when you’re a first-year player, the biggest hurdle is to learn your teammates and to learn the system that you’re in.

In spitballing with GMs and other front-office people here in Vegas, a lot of them have mentioned how new contracts are shorter under the new collective bargaining agreement, and how there are more and more players signing one- and two-year deals and changing teams every summer. A connected thought some folks have mentioned is that maybe coaches have to recognize all the movement and make their systems easier to get right away. Is that a concern? Or does it not apply to your team, considering how many guys have been with you for all three seasons?

When you have a core of guys who have done it for a while with you, and you can use San Antonio as an example — the core of their team has been the same for a long time. And I think we’re starting to get close to that ourselves. Those players understand your system. It’s like having eight or 10 additional coaches. They help bring the new guys along, and that speeds things up. When you go into a situation, and it’s your first time through, or if everyone’s learning it for the first time, it takes longer in those cases. But if the core of your team is the same, you can get guys acclimated a lot quicker.

What do you think of Marquis Teague in summer league? Could he be ready to be something like a full-time backup point guard?

He’s done a good job. The thing I’m pleased with is that he’s much better prepared this year than he was a year ago. Right after the season, he came in and started putting the work in. He’s in much better shape, and he has a much better understanding of the NBA game. He’s done a very good job. This is the first step toward next year. He’s played well, and it’ll continue when we return to Chicago and start our fall practices.

I realize in asking that I forgot about Hinrich. Sorry, Kirk. But are there minutes for all three of those guys — Rose, Hinrich, and Teague?

You need everybody. You never know how a season will unfold. The thing about our roster is that we have great versatility. Jimmy, Luol, Mike Dunleavy, and Tony Snell — all four are capable of playing 2 [shooting guard], 3 [small forward], and even some 4 [power forward]. Hinrich and Derrick can both play the point and the 2. Taj and Joakim can play both the 4 and 5 [center]. We have great versatility.

That reminds me of something I wanted to ask: Small ball, with Luol or Jimmy at power forward, has mostly been an emergency injury response for you — both in your first season, when both Carlos and Joakim got hurt at times, and late last season, when everyone was hurting. Otherwise, you’ve wanted two bigs on the floor basically all the time. But are you comfortable enough with the small-ball stuff now that it might become a regular part of your rotation, even when everyone is healthy?

That’s the strength of Joakim and Taj — that when teams go small against us, we can remain big and maybe get an advantage on the boards. We like that. But Luol does give us the option to go small and get more shooting on the floor. Even Erik Murphy — he’s another guy that can stretch teams out, another 3-point shooter. As I said, the makeup of our team is very good, and you have different lineups you use for different things. Sometimes to make up ground, if you’re in a big hole, you might add more 3-point shooting. But I like the versatility of our roster.

You seem excited about having more 3-point shooting next season.

Yeah, you know, it’s something I thought we lacked. It’s going to help us with some of our issues. There were times when we just didn’t have enough shooting. Hopefully the guys we’ve added, that can open things up a little more for us.

Only Memphis took fewer 3s than you guys last season. I think you averaged 15 or so per game. Is there a number of attempts you want to hit next season — 21 or 22 per game, or something like that?

The thing is, I want to play inside-out, and to me, it’s how you surround your best players. How are we complementing Derrick, Luol, and Carlos? The more shooting we have — anytime an opponent puts two on the ball, we want to make them pay for that. I like the 3-point shot, but I want to make sure we’re taking the right ones.

Now that the season is done and Derrick has announced he’s going to be ready for opening night, maybe it’s time to ask again: At what point last season did you know for sure he wasn’t going to come back?

We never really knew, to be honest. The one thing we did know, and that our owner [Jerry Reinsdorf] made clear from the beginning, was that we were going to be patient, that we weren’t going to rush him back, and that we weren’t going to put him out there until he was completely comfortable being out there again. He tried as hard as he possibly could, he couldn’t quite get there, and I think he made a smart decision. His game is a lot different than most — very explosive, change-of-direction type of guy. What the summer has done is given him additional time to build strength and confidence in his knee.

You’re a classical music buff, or at least that’s what they say. Who’s your favorite classical musician, and what’s your favorite piece?

Yeah, no. We’re not going there. [Laughs.]

Filed Under: Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose, NBA, Zach Lowe

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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