New Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau all smiles in return to Chicago

New Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau all smiles in return to Chicago

Relaxed and smiling for the better part of two days, former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau took in the NBA Draft Combine from a different perspective—as president and coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Thibodeau’s one-year sabbatical ended when the Timberwolves came calling with a lucrative offer to lead the organization, and not just coach the team. Considering Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins will likely be back-to-back Rookie of the Year winners, he picked a perfect place to make his comeback.

“It’s been a whirlwind. All of a sudden you get hired and have a lot to do,” Thibodeau said at Quest Multiplex, the site of the NBA Draft Combine. “It’s exciting. I’m looking forward to the challenge. We have, I think, the best young core of talent in the league but we have a lot of work to be done. And we’re looking forward to it.”

Thibodeau picked former Knicks and Utah Jazz executive Scott Layden to be his top executive, although Thibodeau will have final say in all basketball matters. He holds a title similar to the man he was taking to the airport at the end of Friday’s combine, Pistons czar Stan Van Gundy.

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, Clippers coach Doc Rivers and Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer also hold dual titles as coaches with final say, putting Thibodeau in elite company.

“It more or less evolved into that. It wasn’t an absolute must, it just turned out that way,” Thibodeau said. “I was very fortunate to be able to get Scott Layden to join me in Minnesota so I think his experience will be invaluable to me. And it was more about alignment and what he’ll bring to our organization and we have a great owner in Glen Taylor. I’m looking forward to it, and it’s great to be back.”

Although he maintained a residence in Chicago since being fired last May, he was back in the public eye in the city for the first time in quite awhile—often feet away from the men he had a contentious relationship with (Gar Forman and John Paxson), along with the man who replaced him on the sidelines, current Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg.

He watched the Bulls from afar as he toured the league, and was still able to evaluate his former players.

“I think a number of guys, there were a lot of pluses,” Thibodeau said. “I think Derrick (Rose) after the first couple months, played very well and it was great to see him healthy. He went through four years that were difficult. I think Jimmy (Butler) continues to improve and get better. Pau (Gasol) was terrific.

“Doug McDermott had a terrific season and Niko (Mirotic) was inconsistent but he finished strong. There were a lot of pluses and one or two games go a different way and if Joakim (Noah) doesn’t get hurt, this is a terrific team. They need their health. For me, just looking from afar, that’s the biggest thing for this team. If they’re healthy, they’re terrific and unfortunately they didn’t have their health.”

Hoiberg and the Bulls struggled this season, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007—something Thibodeau didn’t have to deal with. Thibodeau admitted it was difficult for him to watch the players he forged such a bond with struggle with inconsistent effort and results.

“When you spend a lot of time with a group like I did here, I was fortunate to have a great group of guys to coach,” Thibodeau said. “It was hard to watch from the standpoint of watching Joakim (Noah) get hurt.”

Noah underwent shoulder surgery in January after dislocating it against Dallas, one year after being under a minute restriction in the 2014-15 season after knee surgery—a point of contention between Thibodeau and his bosses.

“You never want to see that. Having been here, I know how important he is to the team. That part was hard,” Thibodeau said. “I think if he didn’t get hurt, it would’ve been a great season for them.”

The former Bulls coach was diplomatic about the franchise in numerous interactions over the last two days—an easy thing to do possibly, when every loss this past season made Thibodeau look better and better to teams in search of quality coaching.

“The rest of the East, a lot of teams improved a lot,” Thibodeau said. “So you have to give a lot of teams in the East credit. I think Fred’s a terrific coach, I think they have a lot of talent and they’ll get it back on track next season.”

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Jabari Parker and Tyler Ulis shine at open run in Chicago


Jabari Parker and Tyler Ulis shine at open run in Chicago

Jabari Parker is looking forward to what will surely be an intriguing season for he and the Chicago Bulls.

Parker signed a two-year, $40 million contract, that essentially acts as a tryout for the Bulls. The second year of the contract is a team option, meaning should things not go well, the organization can cut ties with him. But after 183 career games with the Bucks over four seasons, it was clear that Parker was in need of a fresh start. In Chicago, he will slide in as the day one starting small forward, and is already paid like a player who is definitely appreciated by his organization.

But with all of the off the court stuff taken care of for now, Parker's main focus is getting in to the best shape of his life, as he prepares for a full season as a wing player. 

Part of Parker's preparation was a great pickup game in downtown Chicago organized by the Chicago Basketball Club.


For Bulls fans itching to get a look at Parker on the court, the video shows off some flashy passing ability, impressive handles and a flurry of pull-up jumpers from the 23-year old forward. He also finishes well in transition in the video, though that is to be taken with a grain of salt as Parker was easily the biggest player on the court. 

Other players in the pickup game included former Simeon teammate of Parker's, Kendrick Nunn; and NBA free agent and former Marion Catholic star Tyler Ulis (a possible Bulls target?). If Parker looks as dynamic against NBA competition as he did in the pickup game below, the Bulls are going to have one of the more valuable contracts in the league in 2020, and would be likely to lock up Parker to a long-term deal. 

Bulls need to develop a secondary playmaker


Bulls need to develop a secondary playmaker

These are the career points per 36 minutes numbers for the three players who figure to get majority of the field goal attempts on the 2018-19 Bulls:

Zach LaVine: 17.6 
Lauri Markkanen: 18.4 
Jabari Parker: 17.9

There is no debating that this current Bulls roster has multiple players who can flat-out put the ball in the basket. The the biggest questions come into play when you try to imagine how these players will keep each other involved, assuming they take the lion's share of the field goal attempts.

Kris Dunn finished just outside the top 10 in the league in assist percentage (33.3 percent), a higer mark than Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry or Stephen Curry. And though he is a talented passer, what this figure really shows is that the Bulls severely lack a secondary playmaker to take pressure off of Dunn to create shots for others.

Per Ben Falk's site Cleaning The Glass, Markkanen was not able to create for others with his offense, but shockingly, Parker and LaVine did an OK job in the play-making department, considering their reputation as shoot-first players.

Assist rate is a great way to see how much a player is distributing when they are on the floor. And usage rate is perhaps the best way to get an idea of how many possessions a player uses on offense. So naturally, assist to usage ratio is one of the best tools to use to assess a player's ability and willingness to create opportunities for others on offense. What the statistic boils down to is: how often did a player get an assist given how much they had the ball. 

Parker finished last season in the 67th percentile in assist to usage ratio, and LaVine finished in the 58th percentile. These numbers show that both players are capable passers and clearly have the potential to be great setup men.

This is crucial because Markkanen’s development will heavily depend on if he can expand his scoring repertoire, something that looks increasingly difficult with Parker and LaVine, who have averaged a combined 29.5 field goal attempts per 36 minutes for their careers. 

Many times throughout the offseason you likely heard about how the Bulls have many mouths to feed in the locker room. But this doesn’t pertain to just shots, ball-control will be a major concern as well. With incumbent point guard Kris Dunn still a relatively weak floor-spacer (32 percent from 3-point range last season), Fred Hoiberg will need to get creative with his rotations to keep the offense running efficiently. Backup point guard Cam Payne shot 38 percent from the 3-point line last season, and when inserting him into the game for Dunn, Parker would flourish as a point-forward (possibly) surrounded by four competent shooters. Parker could derail the Bulls offense because he is not an elite 3-point shooter, but that issue is mitigated when you put the ball in his hands to let him create.

Parker was fourth in the pecking order in Milwaukee last season, and so it comes as no surprise that his free throw attempts, points and field goal percentage dropped from his 2017 numbers. If you look at the 2017 season (Parker’s breakout season) you see that Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo pretty much split the No. 1 options duties on offense. They each took about 16 shots apiece and combined for 8.2 assists per game. This is a best case scenario for the Parker-LaVine wing duo. 

LaVine has the benefit of coming into the league as a point guard, and he has still retained the ability to make the right pass when it presents itself. And last season, he had an impressive turnover percentage that was just below 10 percent. However, the reason for this was that he averaged 4.34 seconds per touch, a very long time in an NBA possession, usually looking to score and nothing else. It’s easy to avoid turnovers when you aren’t looking to pass.

LaVine usually makes the obvious play if it is one pass away, but he does not move the ball around to prevent the offense from becoming stagnant.

Both LaVine and Parker will have their struggles on defense (understatement of the year), but much more important to their development is understanding that if you give the ball up on offense, it will find its way back to you. This is perhaps the only way a Bulls team that ranked 28th last season in offensive rating, can make a big enough leap in scoring efficiency to make their way back to the postseason.