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June 8, 2010
Tom Thibodeau and Coaching Stereotypes

by Kevin Pelton


Back in 2001, when I was still a know-it-all fan a year into college (as opposed to a know-it-all analyst), the Seattle SuperSonics hired Dean Demopoulos as an assistant coach. Not long after, Demopoulos was in attendance at a meet-and-greet for Sonics season ticket holders and was introduced by one fan as, "the new defensive assistant coach." Such a designation seemed to make sense, since Demopoulos had apparently been hired in large part on the strength of his many years as an assistant under legendary Temple coach John Chaney, making him an expert on the zone defense that had just been legalized in the NBA.

Demopoulos' reaction, to borrow a line from Michael Lewis, was something approaching horror. That was the first time I realized just how much basketball coaches disdain being stereotyped.

For something similar, listen to Jeff Van Gundy talk on ABC broadcasts about his former assistant Tom Thibodeau, now widely reported to be the next head coach of the Chicago Bulls. Inevitably, the discussion between Van Gundy's broadcast partners Mike Breen and Mark Jackson will center on Thibodeau's role in leading the Celtics' stifling defense. Van Gundy will chime in to point out that Thibodeau is more than a defensive coach, noting his ability to lead individual workouts and his involvement at the offensive end.

There's an interesting contrast here between basketball and football, where coordinators specializing in each side of the ball date back more than five decades. In the NBA, the first reference to offensive and defensive coordinators I recall came when Larry Bird coached the Indiana Pacers and delegated heavy responsibility at each end of the floor to two of his assistants, Rick Carlisle (the offensive coordinator despite the fact that most of the teams he's since helmed have been defensive-minded) and Dick Harter.

Given Indiana's success--the Pacers won at least 66 percent of their games all three seasons Bird coached, reaching the NBA Finals in 2000--it seemed like coordinators might become an NBA trend. No dice. It wasn't until Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown made John Kuester his offensive coordinator last season that we really heard the term used again.

Now, there are obvious reasons why basketball should be different than football in terms of how coaching duties are delegated. Offensive and defensive personnel are divided in football, while everyone plays both ends of the floor in basketball. Coaching staffs also aren't nearly as large in the NBA (insert joke about last decade's Dallas Mavericks here), so there is naturally more sharing of responsibility.

Still, it seems obvious that most coaches are going to be stronger on one side of the basketball than the other, and it only would make sense to have them directing their energies where they can be most fruitful. Then the issue becomes one of perception. In part, we all want to consider ourselves well-rounded. Call me a purely statistical writer and I'm liable to dig up a feature story I've written that doesn't include any numbers.

Beyond that, a reputation as one-dimensional can be an issue for assistants when they go looking for a promotion, which could have slowed Thibodeau's ascent. It's easy to go from saying that someone like Thibodeau is an excellent defensive coach to wondering, "What about offense?" That's what Van Gundy seems particularly wary of when it comes to his protégé.

"Everybody's trying to get these jobs," Van Gundy told the USA Today in an article headlined 'New Bulls coach Thibodeau knows both sides of the ball.' "People might label you what they want the negative to be. It's the dirty part of the coaching business."

I'm not quite as convinced as Van Gundy that the labels are a bad thing. Carlisle and Kuester both got head-coaching jobs in short order (granting that it helped Kuester that he had previously worked in Detroit and was known more for his defensive tactics before becoming the Cavaliers' offensive coordinator). More telling, they don't seem to be problematic for established coaches ... like Van Gundy.

Just two of the teams Van Gundy has coached have ever rated as better than average at the offensive end of the floor, and only marginally so in those two cases. Teams he has coached for a full season have been average of 1.7 percent worse than the league Offensive Rating, but have posted a Defensive Rating 4.4 percent better than league average. The defensive-minded style has proven successful enough to win games at a .575 clip, the equivalent of 47 wins over an 82-game schedule.

As important as the results is Van Gundy's sterling reputation. Any time a coaching job comes open, he's mentioned as one of the leading candidates should he decide to leave ABC's booth and return to the bench (as he's already said he will not do this year). We associate Van Gundy with quality defense, not average offense.

Under Vinny Del Negro, Chicago posted the league's 10th-best Defensive Rating, and entering a summer where they will try to lure a marquee free agent to the Windy City, the Bulls already have more than enough defensive talent to improve on that ranking with Thibodeau on the sidelines. He could be joined in Chicago by Ron Adams, a former Bulls assistant under Scott Skiles (when the team was annually one of the league's best defenses) who played a key role in Oklahoma City's rapid progression at the defensive end this season.

Then again, maybe Thibodeau will prove our stereotypes wrong. After all, while the Portland Trail Blazers have been heavy users of zone defenses since Demopoulos followed Nate McMillan down I-5, Demopoulos is now better known for his focus on avoiding turnovers. Turns out there was more to him than met the eye.

Tom Thibodeau has given few interviews in the past three years because Boston assistants are generally not allowed to speak to the media. One of the rare exceptions was this 2008 Q&A with Basketball Prospectus about the Celtics' defense.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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