Friday, June 11, 2010
By Aggrey Sam
With the NBA Finals currently knotted up at two games apiece after Thursday night's Boston home victory, continued praise has been heaped upon the defensive strategies of the Celtics and their associate head coach Tom Thibodeau, who also happens to be the recently-hired head coach of the Chicago Bulls. Although the hiring has not yet been made official--the decision was made last weekend, but won't be announced until after the conclusion of the Finals--the longtime NBA assistant ascension to head coach has been eagerly anticipated amongst his peers seemingly forever.
While any speculation about how Thibodeau, who reportedly has a three-year contract for 6.5 million, will fare as a first-time head coach in the league is premature, there is some insight as to how he would perform in a return to a role he hasn't had since he was a 26-year-old head coach at his alma mater, Salem State College in Massachusetts.
"There's nobody I can think of in the NBA that deserves this opportunity more than Thibodeau does," Paul Biancardi, a college basketball recruiting analyst for ESPN and Scouts, Inc. and high school basketball television analyst for ESPN told CSNChicago.com. "I don't think you ever question how long the process takes."
"He got the opportunity," continued Biancardi. "Some guys get it too quick, some guys it takes a little longer and it was his time to get it."
"He'll probably tell you he's more prepared for this than he was 10 years ago."
Biancardi was a senior, team captain and the sixth man for Thibodeau's Salem State squad during the 1984-85 season.
"I just knew from day one how much he loved the game of basketball, how dedicated he was and he always tried to make himself a better coach," said Biancardi, a longtime college basketball assistant coach at schools like Boston College and Ohio State, as well as the former head coach at Wright State. "He's one of the main reasons I got into the coaching profession of basketball, because I saw such a passion and a persistence in him and it excited me more about the game."
"I was already excited about the game when I played for him and as a captain of his team in '85, but he got me more involved and more passionate about the game. It became a profession for both of us," said Biancardi, who, at 22, was only a bit younger than his head coach, who moved on to be an assistant at Harvard University the next season before being hired as an assistant for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1989, the first of his many jobs--he went on to be an advanced scout for Seattle, an assistant in San Antonio, a New York Knicks assistant for seven season under Jeff Van Gundy and a Van Gundy assistant in Houston before assuming his current role under Doc Rivers in Boston--around the league.
Biancardi has observed Thibodeau's career arc and believes his former coach will coach will be successful in Chicago.
"Obviously he's been noted and celebrated as an excellent defensive coach," said Biancardi. "He'll get them to play his defensive schemes and there's some talent there, so he'll get that talent to defend."
"He's coached under some great guys--Jeff Van Gundy, he's worked for Doc Rivers--so his offensive philosophy has grown over time," he continued. "I think he'll take the time to invest in and develop the young players. He knows how to invest his time into players, he's committed to making the young players better, he'll understand the veterans that he has and every player on that team will be prepared for their individual matchup and the in-game plan. There won't be a team that will be more prepared and I think that's the difference between him and some of the other coaches in the league."
"Also, his personality has grown over time. He's been an assistant for a long time, but he's been right next to that head coach so I think he'll deal with the players very, very effectively," Biancardi concluded.
Along with his former player's favorable opinion of him, Thibodeau is also well respected by his peers.
"I see Tom being a hands-on coach because he's been a lifelong assistant," Brian James, another longtime NBA assistant, told CSNChicago. "As an assistant coach at his various stops around the league, Thibodeau, always had a series of things his team needs to get done in training camp--different late-game situations, what to do if a team does this. If Tom follows the mold of everything he's been taught and his experience over the last five to 10 years, he's going to be fine."
"He's a protoge of Jeff Van Gundy," said James, who was an assistant under Doug Collins in Detroit and Washington and is expected to join Collins' new staff in Philadelphia, as well as stints in Toronto and Milwaukee, told CSNChicago.com. "He'll have a no-nonsense approach, he lives and dies basketball, that's his passion."
James praised Thibodeau's renowned work ethic ("he devotes 100 percent of his time to the game") and defensive philosophy, but believes Thibodeau's ability to develop players--something key on a young team like the Bulls--is often overlooked.
"I saw the work Tom did with Yao Ming down in Houston. He did a tremendous job with him. Yao had some of the best seasons of his career with Tom there," James, who worked as an advanced scout for Milwaukee this season. "I know tom will work endless hours on his development of players. That's one of Tom's strong suits anyway. He knows how to develop players and push them to their limits."
Still, James acknowledges Thibodeau will certainly have some growing pains in his new role.
"I think anybody under the glaring lights and intensity of Chicago will be analyzed and criticized," said James, who began his coaching career as a high school coach in Illinois, including Glenbrook North High School, where he coached former Duke player and current assistant coach Chris Collins. "It happened with Vinny Del Negro, Doug Collins, you name it, and I think the same goes for Tom."
With Thibodeau's fellow longtime NBA assistant Larry Drew appearing poised to move down one seat on Atlanta's bench as the Hawks' new head coach (in somewhat of a surprise, as most observers expected Dallas assistant Dwane Casey to get the job) and the Hornets' recently hiring of Monty Williams (after Thibodeau reportedly rejected their overtures), an assistant coach in Portland, Thibodeau's hire is not the one of upward mobility. However, New Jersey's hiring of Avery Johnson follows a more typical league trend of recycling previous head coaches, while Cleveland's courting of Michigan State's Tom Izzo (though they are also reportedly considering Johnson's ESPN colleague and former NBA head coach Byron Scott, to an extent) would be a less predictable move of elevating a college coach. That means the last remaining league head-coaching vacancy with no widely-reported front-runner is the Clippers job, and with reports that record executive David Geffen is exploring purchasing a controlling stake of the franchise
from longtime, notoriously tight-fisted owner Donald Sterling, there's at least one organization left where superstar LeBron James can truly pick his coach, as the Clippers have the cap room to sign a max free agent.
All jokes aside, while James' impending free agency has dominated headlines, reports out of Phoenix that Amar'e Stoudemire is leaning toward returning to the Suns means the destination of fellow free agent Chris Bosh could determine the balance of power in the NBA next season. Translation: if Stoudemire is back in Phoenix, he's no longer the first or second option at power forward for other teams, putting more of a premium on acquiring Bosh, who is widely regarded as the player Chicago and other teams with cap space will try to pair with James.
Getting back to Thibodeau, regardless of whether the Bulls end up with James, Bosh or any other top-tier free agent, fans who expect a championship overnight because of his pedigree may not get their wish immediately, but it appears that despite his lack of head coaching experience, the organization has a leader that fits the direction in which they want to be headed. And maybe--just maybe--with a little bit of patience, the Bulls will have the same type of parade the Blackhawks had today.