Bulls

The other side of Tom Thibodeau

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The other side of Tom Thibodeau

Once upon a time, Tom Thibodeau wasnt all about defense. In fact, it was the complete opposite.

When he was in high school, he would get a few feet over halfcourt and it was like he was already looking to see where he could get his shot off because he had tremendous range and he wasnt afraid, but part of that came from him feeling really confident because he had put all the work in. He was not afraid to shoot the ball, he was really clever not necessarily going to beat you with speed or overall athleticism but he was going to outwork you and he was unafraid, recalled Peter Roby about the man. When he got to college, it was kind of funny because he was such an undersized kind of guy, but he was so schooled in footwork and positioning, and getting guys pinned under the rim.

He did a lot of damage by getting fouled and getting guys off-balance, and he still had some range to shoot in college, but he did it in multiple ways. It was just kind of indicative of how much of a student of a game he was, even as a player, trying to squeeze every ounce of whatever talent he had out and he was that kind of player, but he wasnt make his living of getting out on the floor because of his defensive prowess, continued Roby. He was a clever offensive player and he was a team player, and the irony is, hes become such a defensive expert, but I think that just speaks to the fact that hes smart enough and observant enough that when he got into the NBA and he started to learn from some people.

Roby would know. Now the director of athletics at Bostons Northeastern University, he grew up with Thibodeau in New Britain, Conn., and the pair coached together at Harvard where he coached U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, among others with Roby serving as head coach and Thibodeau as his assistant following a college career at Salem State and a head-coaching stint at his alma mater.

We both we went off to college and got into coaching separately, when he was coaching at Salem State, head coach, and I got the job at Harvard, I reached out to him and asked if he wanted to come be my assistant and help me do this thing together, and he did, so thats kind of how it all evolved, Roby said of the man a college teammate referred to as Jesus to a Boston Herald reporter because of the coaching staffs habit of exclaiming, Jesus Christ, whenever the undersized power forward missed a defensive assignment. Tom worked with our big guys when we were at Harvard and really made a difference with them because he was so smart about using leverage and positioning, and footwork and that kind of thing, even for a guy that was barely six-feet tall.

The NBAs reigning Coach of the Year would go on to impart those same lessons to the likes of Yao Ming when he was coaching with the Rockets and Bulls center Joakim Noah, upon his arrival in Chicago. But while Roby believes Thibodeau was destined for a successful coaching career, he describes Thibodeau, from childhood to the present, as having another side to him than the taciturn individual the media sees or the sideline screamer fans are privy to watching.

Well, we grew up playing Little League against each other, so we grew up in the same hometown and weve been friends since Little League, competed against each other, played with each other on different teams in basketball, baseball and all-star games. Our families knew each other. As we got older, started playing ball together, he had a family car that he used to get access to, hed to swing by and off we went, looking for games. So, weve been friends since childhood, Roby remembers. Weve always had a lot of fun together when we were growing up a lot of laughs, a lot of goofiness, a lot of fun, typical kid stuff and as we got to working together, we always had a lot of fun.

"Toms a funny guy. He was always dedicated to what he was doing, serious about it when it came to the players, but he always had good, positive relationships with the players didnt have a problem having fun and joking with them so as serious as Tommy appears and takes his profession, hes got another side to him. If you get to know his family, you know that he comes from real blue-collar, real humble folks and thats the way I think of Tommy. Hard-working, for sure, comes from a humble background, never asks for anything, always wants to earn it and he certainly has done that with his NBA career.

I knew that Tom was going to end up being a coach, there was no doubt. Once he jumped into it, you could see how focused he was and how much of a sponge he was about trying to learn. Thats one of the things that I think is a constant about Tom is that whatever level he was on, he was always in search of knowledge, trying to learn from other people who have been successful, trying to figure out what the keys were and making himself better. He never sat back and just said, Well, now Im a head coach in Division III, Ive made it or now, Im an assistant coach in Division I, Ive made it or now, Im an assistant in the NBA, so I can just kind of cruise. He always wanted to the best that he could.

"So, once Tom got to the NBA and started associating with guys like the late Bill Musselman the first coach of the then-expansion Minnesota Timberwolves and others, I had a feeling that if he got the opportunity at some point, he was going to be really successful because I knew he was going to be prepared and I think a lot of people did, too. They knew that he wasnt going to take it for granted and he was going to make the most of every single opportunity, and hes had a lot exposure to a lot of different coaching styles and philosophies. Hes been in winning situations, hes been in not-so-winning situations, so he knows the difference and hes always had strong relationships with players because hes that kind of guy and they played their expletive off for him. Its pretty obvious.

While working alongside Roby at Harvard Thibodeau networked, as many college assistant coaches do, but instead of making the leap to a bigger college program, he got an opportunity of a lifetime.

What happened was that Tom and a number of us on the staff, but Tom had a strong relationship, a friendship with Frank Catapano, who was a local guy around here, real knowledgeable business guy and basketball guy, who lived in the North Shore, where Tommy was at Salem," recounted Roby. Frank was in the Marblehead area and Frank was a very knowledgeable basketball guy and had been representing basketball players, a lot of them that were BC guys, but some that were CBA guys, that had played for Musselman in Albany, so Frank was a guy that people in the industry really respected for his knowledge of players and the way with which he represented them, always with their best interests in mind, never about the money and Tom got to know Frank really well, and Frank was very good friends with Musselman because he represented so many guys that played for Musselman, like current Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scotty Brooks.

Tom was introduced to Bill through Frank and Bill was on a tour, going to see practices and kind of getting back into it when he got named the head coach of the Timberwolves, so that year or so before they really kind of ramped up, Bill was on kind of a fact-finding tour, going out and seeing players, watching practices. He came by Harvard and watched us work out, got to meet Tommy, saw him in action, stayed in touch with him and Tom stayed in touch with Bill, and Tom was invited out to the Timberwolves free-agent camps when our season ended, before the Timberwolves got started and Bill obviously liked Tommys work ethic and his enthusiasm, and he hired him and so, he got started that way. Needless to say with his schedule and Bill Musselman being a demanding guy, he didnt have a whole lot of social time, but I would stay in touch with him to hear how he was doing and wed stay connected as best we can when both of us are in that business.

After landing a spot with the Timberwolves under Musselman, who was regarded as a defensive guru, the story is already familiar to those who know what Thibodeau endured, a 20-year apprenticeship before the Bulls hired him as a head coach. During that frustrating period, he often discussed the situation with his childhood friend, who worked in different fields, such as being a marketing representative for Reebok and running the renowned Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern.

We talked about that and many times, it was a bunch of things. He didnt have the sexy resume. He was just what people would refer to as he was a grunt, he was doing all the work and he wasnt looking for a lot of credit," said Roby. "He was working with the players, would come in at any hour to work with guys, would shoot straight with them and they liked his honesty, and they kept getting better. So, he wasnt a former player, he didnt have the hype of being a big-time NCAA successful college coach. He really earned everything and thats what makes all of this so much more rewarding and sweet for those of us that know him.

He didnt get the job because he had a big reputation, he didnt get the job because he was a former player not that the guys that are former players dont deserve it; theres plenty of examples in the league where former players have done quite well but he had to really convince people that this wasnt a grand experiment and that it wasnt a risk, that he was prepared probably more so than just about anybody and all he needed was the opportunity, and the Bulls were smart enough to do that and I think it speaks for itself now.

Of course, his fellow Connecticut native wasnt at all surprised when Thibodeau was wildly successful right out of the gates, leading the Bulls to a 62-win regular-season campaign, the top overall seed in the playoffs and the Eastern Conference Finals.

Tom would be the first one to tell you he and I talked about this when he was trying to weigh some options before he ended up getting selected by the Bulls is that that was a perfect situation. He had really talented players and hed be the first to tell you, and he had an ownership group that was committed to winning and they had a history of knowing how to win in a great market for basketball, so youve got to get lucky and have good fortune on your side, with respect to the situation that youre coming into, and keep in mind that most guys, when they get this opportunity, theyre not always inheriting a really positive situation," Roby observed. "The reason they got hired is because somebody probably got fired because they were underachieving or things didnt work. That was a .500 team the year before with some superstar-type talent, as well as a bunch of guys that were so unselfish.

"Joakim Noah is, what a coachs dream, with respect to the guy just wanting to win and doing whatever, and being so talented, and then, Derrick Rose, what more could you want from a guy? Hes a warrior, hes talented as it comes. So, he inherited a great situation, so I wasnt surprised by any of it and it was just a matter of whether the system would take as quickly as it did, would the guys buy into it and would they get lucky, in terms of staying healthy and that sort of stuff. You knew that Bulls would spend some money, guys would want to play there and it was just about him getting the opportunity and he got the best one that was out there that year, in terms of coaching opportunities.

Toms really smart, so I think Toms always observed what other people are doingphilosophies, defensive schemes, offensive strategiesbut more importantly, how best to get players to play to their maximum every night and play unselfishly. Youve got to say that they play unselfish and they play extremely hard, and all they want to do is win and I think thats a tribute to Tom because theyve bought in, they trust him and like in any relationship or any organizational structure whether its a team, an athletic department, a corporate entity or a family if people dont trust each other, then dysfunction starts to raise its ugly head and you dont see that in that program, in that franchise and I think its because theres a trust factor, and they know that theres nobody thats out-working Tom, so when he asks them to work hard and sacrifice, hes got all the credibility in the world because hes got a 20-plus year track record of out-working everybody and sacrificing, he continued. He learned his lessons well and he applied them to the NBA, but bottom line is that no matter what kind of schemes you have, if the guys dont buy in and play their expletive off, schemes dont matter.

According to Roby, at the core of Thibodeaus success past, present and future is his incredible drive, something honed by growing up in a gritty New England factory town.

Its the work ethic. He just refused to give in to the temptation to take it easy or take things for granted, or to say that he made it. He was always motivated and its hard work. If you go back and look at how we grew up in New Britain, that was an industrial town. People worked in the factories, pounding out steel or working in the machine shops or working on the press, he said. Tommys family, they were hard-working folks and my family worked in the factories for 40-some odd years, to raise a family and put food on the table, so when you have that as a backdrop and you get a chance to fly first-class or on a charter, or youre working at Harvard or whatever, then you dont take that for granted. I dont care what level you get to and weve been instilled with a set of values about how to treat people and not to take things for granted, and keep a perspective about our lives, and I think thats all part of why weve been able to do what were doing.

That being said, Roby knows that as intense as his friend is, when he coaches the Eastern Conference All-Star team Feb. 26 in Orlando, hell likely dial it down a notch for the exhibition. But will Thibodeau compromise his defensive principles for the exhibition?

That would be the ultimate acknowledgement, huh? I think Tom is smart enough to understand hes gotten some experience from having been with Doc when they were the All-Star coaching staff, Roby chuckled. I think he knows what time it is for the All-Star games and hes not going to push people too much because they need to take it easy and not get hurt, put on a good show and he wont make it about him. Hell make it about the players, so I think hell have fun with it.

NBA Buzz: Draft night is almost here

NBA Buzz: Draft night is almost here

With a number of national writers and broadcasters forecasting an active trade market in the hours leading up to Thursday's NBA Draft, the whole idea of a mock draft might just be an exercise in futility at this point. Still, we have learned quite a bit about which players are coveted by teams drafting in the top five after sorting through the smokescreens of the individual workouts.

So, with that in mind, here's my final stab at how Thursday's lottery  picks could play out.

1. Suns: Deandre Ayton, C, Arizona.  An absolute no-brainer here. Ayton combines the size and power of an old school center with the athleticism and shooting touch of a new-age "stretch five".

2. Kings: Marvin Bagley III, PF, Duke.  Vlade Divac shouldn't risk his good fortune at moving up to the No. 2 slot by taking a risk on Michael Porter Jr.'s health. Remember the Kings already have a rehabbing teenager in one of their first round picks from last season, Duke F Harry Giles. Bagley should be a 20-10 guy in the NBA for the next decade.

3. Hawks: Jaren Jackson Jr., PF-C, Michigan St.  This will be the first spot to look for a possible trade. The Hawks reportedly like Trae Young and might consider offers to move down and draft him later in the top 10. If they stay at No. 3, Jackson offers the rim protection and 3-point shooting ability Atlanta desperately needs.

4. Grizzlies: Luka Doncic, G-SF, Slovenia.  The Grizzlies should run to the podium if Doncic is still on the board at No. 4. The 19-year old wunderkind gives Memphis a secondary shot creator to go along with Mike Conley.

5. Mavericks: Michael Porter Jr., F, Missouri.  Mark Cuban is looking for his next big star with Dirk Nowitzki entering what is most likely his final season. The Mavs reportedly are also high on Mo Bamba, but Porter's potential as a 20 ppg scorer will probably win the discussion in the war room.

6. Magic: Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma.  Good chance of another trade at this spot involving a team that really likes Bamba. Orlando could move down a few spots and still get one of the three top-rated PG's, Young, Collin Sexton and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. If the Magic stay at No. 6, Young's quick-strike scoring and box office potential are likely to win the day.

7. BULLS: Mo Bamba, C, Texas.  Yes, John Paxson said the Bulls’ biggest need is a defensive-minded wing, but Bamba's ability to dominate at that end of the court is too great to pass up. Bamba is incredibly raw offensively, but he's been working on his low post skills and shooting form since the college season ended. The Bulls were not a good defensive team last season, and adding a shot-blocking threat like Bamba should improve them immediately.

8. Cavs: Kevin Knox, F, Kentucky.  Knox is one of the big risers after the individual workout season, impressing teams with his combination of athleticism and shooting ability. Knox can play both forward spots and could develop into a big-time scorer, replacing you-know-who as the Cavs start to build for an uncertain future.

9. Knicks: Wendell Carter Jr., PF-C, Duke.  The Knicks will be thrilled to add a versatile big like Carter, especially considering Kristaps Porzingis could miss most or all of next season rehabbing an ACL tear. Eventually, Porzingis and Carter could form a nice inside-outside tandem as the Knicks try to build toward playoff contention.

10. 76ers: Mikal Bridges, F, Villanova.  Another perfect fit for a team on the rise. Bridges' defense-first mentality and improving offensive game should blend in well on a Sixers team that's looking to take the next step after losing to Boston in the conference semi-finals. And, his mom already works for the franchise in the human relations department!

11. Hornets: Miles Bridges, F, Michigan St.  Charlotte whiffed on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the 2nd overall pick a few years ago, and Nic Batum has battled injuries since coming over from Portland. Miles Bridges is another combo forward who should thrive in the pro game with his ability to run the court and finish with authority at the rim.

12. Clippers: Collin Sexton, PG, Alabama.  The Clippers will be thrilled if Sexton falls this far, giving them a dynamic young option at point guard to go along with veterans Patrick Beverley and Milos Teodosic. Sexton could go as high as No. 6 to Orlando or No. 8 to the Cavs. He'll be one of the interesting names to watch on draft night.

13. Clippers: Robert Williams, PF-C, Texas A&M.  The Clippers are still waiting to see if DeAndre Jordan exercises his player option for next season, but if he decides to test the free agent market, Williams would be a perfect replacement. The athletic 6-foot 10-inch big man is a classic rim runner who should be able to finish off alley-oop passes just like Jordan.

14. Nuggets: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, G, Kentucky.  Don't be surprised if Gilgeous-Alexander goes even higher than this after a strong finish to his freshman season. Scouts love his 6-foot 6-inch frame and ability to get to the basket. In Denver, he could come off the bench initially behind young guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris.

22. BULLS: Chandler Hutchison, SF, Boise St.  So, the Bulls may or may not have made a "promise" to select Hutchison with the No. 22 pick they acquired in the Niko Mirotic trade with New Orleans. Either way, if the Bulls get Bamba at No. 7, Hutchison would be a great addition as the "3-and-D" small forward Paxson talked about in his end of the season news conference. The 6-foot 7-inch swingman improved his 3-point shooting during his senior season at Boise St., and is considered to be an excellent wing defender. Personally, I'd love to see to Bulls draft NCAA tournament hero Donte DiVincenzo of Villanova if he's still on the board at No. 22. 

Around the Association:

While we wait for the draft drama to unfold, NBA Twitter has already been taken over by speculation over where the next super team will be formed. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have been plotting for over a year on how to restore the Lakers' franchise to its past glory, and it looks like they'll be swinging for the fences this summer.

If the Lakers are able to find a taker for Luol Deng's contract or renounce the rights to restricted free agent Julius Randle, they should be able to create two max contract slots once the free agent market opens for business on July 1st. The obvious targets are LeBron James and Paul George, but Magic doesn't plan on stopping there. He's hoping to find a way to convince the Spurs to trade unhappy All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard to the Lakers as well, giving L.A. a super-team that will rival what James put together in Miami.

The Lakers have the assets to get a Leonard trade done with draft picks and young players on rookie contracts (Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart), but would Gregg Popovich actually make a deal with one of his long-time rivals? 

You can bet Pop will do everything he can to convince Leonard to accept a five-year, $219 million super max contract extension this summer and spend his prime years in San Antonio. But if that face-to-face meeting goes sour, Pop will make the deal that's best for the Spurs, preferably to an Eastern conference team he'll only have to face twice a season.

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Initial reports out of Houston indicate that free agent point guard Chris Paul plans to re-sign with the Rockets and will do everything in his power to recruit good friend LeBron James. Problem is, Houston has no cap space, so they would have to get the Cavaliers to agree to a trade. And in order to make the money work, the Rockets would want to include high-salaried players like Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, neither of which would hold much interest for Cleveland with the team in rebuild mode.

Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey is one of the league's most creative executives, but trying to find a way to fit James into his bloated payroll will be the biggest challenge he's ever faced. Morey also has to deal with the restricted free agency of breakout center Clint Capela, who could draw a big offer sheet from another team.

Chris Paul and LeBron might be good friends, but the logistics could make it next to impossible to join forces in Houston.

 

Bulls' interest in Michael Porter Jr. promises to make draft night an eventful one—again

Bulls' interest in Michael Porter Jr. promises to make draft night an eventful one—again

Draft night has been accompanied by much speculation with the Bulls the last two seasons and Thursday is shaping up to fall right in line with recent history, as many believe the franchise has its eyes set on Missouri swingman Michael Porter, Jr.

According to several league sources the Bulls have inquired about moving up from the seventh spot in the draft to either the third or fourth spot, positions currently occupied by the Atlanta Hawks and Memphis Grizzlies, respectively.

Team sources tell NBCSportsChicago.com there’s no truth to the speculation, nor would they entertain the notion of such efforts geared toward selecting Porter Jr., who only played three games this past season at Missouri, sandwiched between back surgery in mid-November.

Things haven’t quite settled with the teams above the Bulls, as most teams have been engaged in some form of trade talk as the draft is a little over 48 hours away. The Bulls were firmly engaged with teams the last two seasons as teams were interested in Jimmy Butler. The Bulls held back on trading him in 2016 before kickstarting their rebuild last June, sending him to Minnesota. 

Depending on who you believe, the Bulls are either engaging in similar conversation to move up for Porter--they were told weeks ago Porter wouldn't last to the seventh spot. But there appears to be a scenario where Porter Jr. could fall to them--a risky but not impossible proposition if Porter Jr. is truly their man. 

Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton appears to be a lock for the Phoenix Suns with the first pick, and Duke big man Marvin Bagley III looks headed for Sacramento, although Bagley isn’t a shoo-in. There’s a segment of the Sacramento front office that’s enamored with Porter Jr, sources tell NBCSportsChicago.com, and things could get tricky over the next couple days.

Dallas, selecting fifth, likes Porter Jr. as well but it seems unlikely it’ll pass on Real Madrid star Luka Doncic if he slips past Atlanta and Memphis. If that happens, there’s a path for the Bulls to stand pat and get a player with star potential without having to sacrifice an asset already on the roster or their second first-round pick, which they acquired in the Nikola Mirotic deal this past season.

Oklahoma point guard Trae Young has been in Chicago for a workout, along with the likes of big men Mohamed Bamba from Texas and Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr. Villanova’s Mikal Bridges also made a visit and each spoke to media following their workouts.

Porter Jr. has been in Chicago preparing for the draft for the last several weeks. His agent, Mark Bartlestein of Priority Sports, is based in Chicago and has a working relationship with the Bulls.

The Bulls medical staff was the lone NBA team to evaluate Porter Jr. before distributing the results to the other teams, ramping up speculation of a potential marriage between Porter Jr. and the Bulls.

Bulls executive-vice president John Paxson has said the team would look for the best player available as opposed to need, but Porter Jr.—if completely healthy—checks off multiple boxes for the franchise should the speculation have truth behind it.

The Bulls, with everything they obviously did with their lineups to finish the season to not-so-subtly position themselves to take a star, could be tempted to take Porter Jr. if he’s there, even with the question marks.

Before the college season began and his subsequent injury took him out of the conversation, Porter Jr. was mentioned as a top pick in a talent-laden draft. A swingman with a smooth stroke, it was believed he would dominate the college season before taking the next step.

The injury understandably splashed cold water on those prognostications and Porter Jr. has been careful in his rehab, even suffering a minor setback with hip spams right before a second “pro day” was to take place in Chicago last week.

“I saw him in the first workout,” a personnel man for a western conference team said. “He moved good but what he didn’t have was balance. He was dunking but didn’t explode off the floor. The second half, he shot the ball really well. Floaters, off the dribble, spot-ups, he was hitting everything. That’s when I saw what everybody was talking about. His athleticism has to come back and they say it will.”

The workout was important for Porter Jr. to establish fluidity of movement following his back injury as well as reminding those who had only seen him against prep competition or at the Adidas Nations showcase in Houston last August about his skill set.

“He’s a natural scorer,” a general manager in attendance for Porter Jr.’s showing in Houston and Chicago. “He’s not a super athlete, more long than anything. He knows how to score. He’s not KD (Kevin Durant), he’s more like (Boston Celtics forward) Jayson Tatum. Tatum got drafted into the right environment. It’s all about fit.”

Ideally, Porter Jr. could fit next to Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine as a primary scorer, giving the Bulls dynamic, versatile scorers at the toughest positions to gameplan for in the NBA.

Tatum was thrust into the spotlight for the Celtics due to Gordon Hayward’s season-ending injury on opening night, and had even more responsibility after Kyrie Irving’s late-season injury, performing admirably as the Celtics advanced to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Tatum is one of the finalists for the rookie of the year, which will be announced next Monday. Porter Jr. is three inches taller than Tatum, at 6-foot-11, but he’ll also have to adjust to the physicality of the league relative to his most recent consistent competition.

His back injury is still cause for pause for a few franchises, though, despite the clean bill of health.

“I don’t know if it would deter me from taking him but if anyone says it’s not a factor in your thinking is lying,” the general manager told NBCSportsChicago.com.

The personnel man agrees.

“It does (worry me), a bit,” he said. “But because he’s so big and so freaking talented, I’d consider taking him. If you can go in a situation where it isn’t career threatening, you gotta roll with him. You get a few months to get his strength back, you bring him along slowly to make sure everything’s in working order by the time the season starts.”

That’s a question the Bulls will have to answer if their affection for Porter Jr. is as real as it seems.

“At some point he becomes worth the risk, right? Chicago can’t pass him up, can they?”- the personnel man queried.

That’s the question Chicago has been trying to figure out for weeks now, and the answer will soon be revealed.