Tom Thibodeau, Creator of Elite Point Guards

Tom Thibodeau is currently in his fifth season as a head coach in the NBA for the Chicago Bulls. During this time the Bulls have ranked, first, sixth, and second (twice) in defensive efficiency.

He’s a favorite among people who watch a ton of basketball and there’s no doubt he’s one of the best coaches in the league. Known for his stifling defenses (concepts that much of the league is currently copying), demanding a ton from his players, and his brutally hoarse voice (not even funny, should be a serious health concern). But what is often forgotten what the Bulls do on offense, and how smart Thibs is on that end.

The Bulls haven’t been a prolific offensive team during Thibs’ tenure, but much of that has to do with the talent he has had available. And I tend to think that coaching shows up more on defense, which really is a function of a good system and rim protection, and on offense you’re always going to be more reliant on talent. Talent which the Bulls have not really had, especially with Derrick Rose out with injury.

The Bulls have never had players to replace what Rose does: someone who can beat you off the dribble, penetrate, and kick it to an open shooter. The kind of player you really need if you want to create good looks possession after possession. There’s a limit on what you can do and the efficiency you can manufacture with Joakim Noah in the high post, no matter how cool it is.

The Bulls have had to rely on some less than stellar talent to hold down the fort in Rose’s absence. Players such as Nate Robinson, Kirk Hinrich, John Lucas, D.J. Augustin and C.J. Watson have had to carry a big offensive load.

Now some of those names are bigger than others, but what they have in common is that they all had some type of career resurgence, bounce-back year, or otherwise outperformed expectations while they were with the Bulls. Some to a miraculous degree. You might forget that the Bulls were in a bad place after the first 25 games last season. Rose got injured again, Luol Deng was about to be traded to the Cavs, and the Bulls stood at only 9-16. It did not look good, until Augustin came along and literally saved their season! D.J. Augustin! That’s incredible.

Chicago Bulls Point Guards Career Visualized in Win Shares per 48 Minutes. Created by Mika Honkasalo.

Chicago Bulls Point Guards Career Visualized in Win Shares per 48 Minutes. Created by Mika Honkasalo.

Augustin, Robinson and Lucas all have had by far their best seasons under Thibs with the Bulls. Lucas is a particularly interesting case since he has played around 2000 career minutes on other teams at replacement level or below. With the Bulls, he hit .143 win shares per 48 minutes, which is actually a little better than the career production of Allen Iverson. Obviously I don’t want to over-credit Win Shares as a statistic (though I am a fan), but for Lucas — who can barely be described as an NBA journeyman — that is just incredible.

The same goes for every other point guard who has passed through Thibodeau’s system. Hinrich bounced back from a couple of bad seasons. Nate Robinson hit a career high right after a pedestretian season with the Celtics. Augustin was great. Watson improved significantly from his first three years in the NBA.

Literally every single point guard who plays for the Bulls is better than they have ever been before, and of course this raises the question, why?

The Bulls have done a wonderful job of clearly defining what their point guards should do on offense. Things like establishing when and where to cut, keeping actions clear and concise, and putting guards with limited skill sets in positions to succeed are massively important. The offense is always flowing into the next action, which is how you create a sense of healthy pace in your offense, even if you play at a slow tempo:

The complexity of what actions are run of course varies — but the basic idea has been to get guards to attack on the move toward the middle, as shown in the video above, mainly through dribble hand-offs from the high post. It seems simple, but a lot of factors go into executing it properly. Figuring out the right timing and angles is an art form. You have to be precise, and that is exactly what Joakim Noah has perfected.

Noah is a brilliant playmaker in the high post and reads the defense perfectly most times. Whether it be dropping the ball off to a guard while figuring out a perfect angle to screen his man, making a high-low pass, or finding a man cutting backdoor when the defense overplays the passing lane, Noah will make the right play.

Hinrich alone gets two to three open jump shots every game from Noah dribble hand-offs and you can expect him, Rose, Doug McDermott, and Jimmy Butler to be on the receiving end of a ton of these beauties this season:

In essence it’s the same offensive philosophy the Mavericks used to turn around Monta Ellis’ career: get Ellis on the move attacking towards the basket and good things will happen. And while the Bulls guards haven’t been as dynamic as Ellis (the exception being Rose of course), Thibs has gotten every possible inch of production out of them.

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