You have probably heard the cliché “defense wins championships” more times in your sports-watching and -enjoying life than you can recall. Even though there have been a number of teams that have relied more on their offense than their defense, it’s a phrase that will bring conversations about the games we love to a shuddering halt.
But the fact that we’re calling it a cliché speaks to the fact that both causal and utterly devoted fans are starting to realize that there’s a lot more to winning than simply blurting out those three three words like slamming a concrete block on the table in the midst of a dinner party, folding one’s arms, glaring at the shocked and/or pearl-clutching fellow guests and assuming that evening is over.
Which brings us to former Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni and current Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. For both these gents, the general assumption is that they’re fairly one-dimensional, wringing as much juice out of their innovations on one side of the floor while totally disregarding the other, while getting the most out of role players and playing guys way too many minutes. The thing is (again, we’re talking about the casual fan’s view here), Thibs is a genius and D’Antoni is a tired hack whose philosophy has been more or less incorporated by many of the teams in the league and probably should be sent out to the coach’s version of an old folks’ retirement community.
Prior to Phil Jackson’s arrival in New York, Thibodeau was the guy that many Knicks fans wanted. The ‘Bockers have been down this road before, though, with the offensive genius that is/was D’Antoni. We know how that turned out, but there are a lot of parallels between the two situations. D’Antoni was as hot of a commodity around the league as Thibodeau is now, and left Phoenix for what he thought would be greener pastures. Thibodeau may be feeling the same sense of wanderlust, what with Derrick Rose’s injury history and his reported rift with the front office. It wouldn’t shock me if Thibodeau stayed in Chicago, but it wouldn’t shock me if he left for what he thinks might be a nicer coaching neighborhood either.
D’Antoni had a great thing going in Phoenix, but ultimately decided to cash in on his demand. That’s a decision he reportedly still regrets to this day. Thibodeau hasn’t achieved the playoff success he probably would have liked by this point in his tenure, but he still boasts former league MVP on the roster and the current Defensive Player of the Year. Thibodeau would probably be wise to ride it out in Chicago like D’Antoni should have chosen to do in Phoenix.
If you have a below-average roster, but your guys play hard and are statistically above-average on defense the team becomes a great story. Sure, they may be basically reenacting Sharknado on the offensive end of the floor, but if they’re gritty and trying hard defensively they’ll typically still be viewed as a lovable underdog. The 2013-14 Chicago Bulls fit this description for the most part, and Thibodeau is praised for it. Does Thibodeau deserve a lot of credit for getting the most out of his players he possibly can? Of course, but the team was still 28th in the league in offensive efficiency. On the flipside, the Bulls were second in the league in defensive efficiency.
Would having Derrick Rose in the lineup change things significantly for the Bulls offensive efficiency? Of course, the 2010-11 Bulls team was top-5 in both categories. So, Thibodeau has shown he can craft an effective stratagem on both sides of the floor when Rose is around to run it.
Like Thibodeau, D’Antoni has had the misfortune of not having an elite point guard for a long time dating all the way back to his Phoenix Suns days with Steve Nash. He didn’t win a championship, but he came pretty close in a much more competitive conference. With Nash, the Suns had seasons where they were the most efficient team in the league offensively, and still fell in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency. Just because he didn’t win a title doesn’t mean D’Antoni’s time in Phoenix wasn’t a huge success. It was.
At the time, fans and analysts loved the Suns, and more importantly D’Antoni’s style, but time went on and he was never able to win a title. He never got the Suns to the NBA Finals, but neither has Thibodeau. The former has seen his reputation become increasingly diminished because of how his tenure in New York and Los Angeles turned out. The latter has seen his reputation continue to rise and could possibly replace the former in Los Angeles. Why? Because defense and grit is an easier sell to the fans.
Thibodeau is praised for winning almost 50 games with D.J. Augustine at point guard, while D’Antoni got just the same production out of lottery bust Kendall Marshall, if not more. But narratives you see. The reason being the Lakers were a dumpster fire this season with all of their injuries, while the Bulls played an Eastern Conference schedule and weren’t decimated to the extent of the Lakers. It’s just the nature of the beast.
D’Antoni isn’t an elite NBA head coach, but he’s a really good one who can win a lot of games when he has an above-average point guard and a roster that fits his style. Same can said for Thibodeau, and that’s perfectly fine.
Thibodeau hasn’t been a head coach in the league as long as D’Antoni, and his teams are easy to cheer for, much like D’Antoni’s Suns teams. That’s not something he can control, obviously, but if things go sour in Chicago and Rose never returns to his MVP form the Bulls fan base will get more seasons highlighted by one-dimensional play. The big question will be how long they’ll put up with it. If Thibodeau goes to Los Angeles or anywhere else and gets saddled with the roster and injury concerns D’Antoni’s last two coaching jobs have had he too may suffer the same unfair scrutiny D’Antoni has undergone in recent years. Again, that just seems to be the nature of the beast.
Granted, there is fact-based underpinning with regards to the defense/offense schism. As Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal wrote today:
Since the NBA’s first season in 1946-47, only 10 teams that led the league in scoring went on to win the title. Just two of those have been since the 1970s, none since 1998. And statistically speaking, there has been a slightly negative correlation between a fast-paced team’s number of possessions a game in the regular season and winning in the postseason, according to Stats LLC.
Or maybe the narrative will always be different for coaches like Thibodeau. Perhaps no matter how similar D’Antoni and Thibodeau are as head coaches, being known as the defensive-minded coach will always trump the offensive-minded coach in the national spotlight.